Altered States or Altered Realities

When I first became introduced into indigenous spiritual healing traditions, I began to experience things that were out of the ordinary and outside of the rules of modern western conventions that I grew up with. Many of these extraordinary experiences deeply resonated with me and somehow they felt familiar. There was a part in me that recognized the wisdom, knowledge and healing powers present in these ancient practices. However when trying to articulate and research my experiences, I often wondered whether or not what I was experiencing was real or imagined. Was I actually entering different realities, worlds and places or did I simply shift into an altered state of consciousness or awareness? After some research into these questions I realized that whether something is called altered ‘state’ or alternate ‘reality’ depends on the cosmology or ontology that one uses to understand, interpret or relate to an experience.

A cosmology is a set of beliefs about how the universe works and ontology seeks to define the nature of being, existence and reality. Both of these belief systems can vary dramatically from one culture to the next and profoundly shape how we see ourselves as human beings and our relationship to the world around us. Usually these basic beliefs are deeply buried in our psyche and remain implicit and unexamined until we start to question them. I have found that whenever I enter a cultural context that is very different from my own, I encounter the boundaries and structure of my own basic belief systems and I am limited to seeing through the lenses that this belief system provides me with.

I have found that the belief that we can enter alternate realities, worlds and places tends to be more present in earth-based indigenous cultures, while shifting into altered states is more part of mystical and Gnostic traditions; though those distinctions can not always be clearly drawn and both can be present within any one cultural belief system. Generalizations by their very nature oversimplify the complexities that reside within any one culture. For example, the Andean indigenous tradition in Peru, while indigenous has a very complex belief system that blends shamanic and mystical elements. Even their p’aqos, which is the Quechua word for their traditional spiritual healers, are understood to be shaman/priests. My experiences within the Andean shamanic/mystical tradition included stepping across thresholds into extraordinary and futuristic worlds, becoming a large bird and flying high above a canyon, and opening to the refined awareness of the total interconnectedness of life on this planet and beyond.

Entering an altered state is a significant or unusual shift in our internal experience. In this view the actual world of which we are a part has not changed. What has changed is what we experience inside. Entering an alternate reality, in contrast, is a shift into a totally different space or location to which we bring ourselves—the world around us changes. Depending on our belief system, conscious or unconscious, we tend to experience one over another. And if our belief system opens up, other new experiences can be included.

To illustrate, here are some examples of belief systems that reflect notions of altered states and alternate realities. In many shamanic traditions there is the believe that we can leave this reality and journey into other worlds, the cosmos above, or the world below for the purpose of healing, or to attain knowledge or power. All or a part of the shamanic practitioner such as the shaman’s soul can go onto this journey. This also includes the belief we can shift from one location on another. Kalahari Bushman healers when conducting their healing dances can travel up the ropes to God and enter the schoolhouse of the universe where they attain their spiritual knowledge. Within that tradition there is no other location, school or training ground for these healers. The Amazonian medicine man or woman when conducting an ayahuasca (psychoactive entheogen tea) ceremony enters an altered world in which nature spirits assist him or her in the healing of the patient.

Conversely, in Western culture we have the scientific belief system that purports the notion that there is an objective reality that can be observed and does not change and that the experience of alternate realities are but a shift in state of awareness or consciousness. Western scientific consciousness research using quantitative approaches measure shifts in internal states and brain functions and other physiological responses. Qualitative research methods in that field are used to collect individuals’ narratives to understand alternate states and the process of shifting in and out of these. Praying and meditation can induce altered or heightened stated of awareness and dreams are generally considered altered states as well.

Traditional Christianity reflects the belief in alternate realities by postulating that upon death we either enter heaven and hell, although while living one of the best ways to reach God is to pray. The Gnostics emphasize that we can have a direct experience of God. This direct experience of God usually takes place or is interpreted in two ways: we connect to the divine and spiritual nature within, which suggests a shift in internal states, or we experience of sense of oneness with all that is. This state of oneness is the dissolution of boundaries and connotes that the whole notion of the individual self can be transcended and is the gateway, however temporary, to a completely different way of being in the world.

The questions I raise about belief systems are important for many reasons. The three that stand out for me at the moment remind us not to forget that we understand experiences through the lenses of our belief systems, which also means our understanding is limited to the lenses we use. Another is that other lenses are available to expand our vision and points of references. And thirdly, there is so much we don’t know. It is always very wise to approach other cultures, especially cultures that have been around for a long time, and their great repertoire of knowledge and practices with humility.

Ultimately however, it does not really matter if we believe in altered states or alternate reality, when it comes to accessing the knowledge, wisdom and healing power that resides there. What does matter is that we often have to break through the limits of our primary belief systems to be able access these resources.

Ceremonial Space: Timeless Time and Spaceless Space

The altered state of consciousness/alternate reality I enter when participating in indigenous healing ceremonies I refer to as entering ‘timeless time and spaceless space’. I especially have experienced this in the Central Desert participating in the aboriginal women’s ceremonies. When I am in timeless time I sense the larger cosmic rhythms and feel like I am entering mythological time where that which we consider ancient and distant is alive and available to us. Spaceless space for me is where the boundaries between the world below, the middle world we live in, and the world above fade away and all is accessible and traversable and I have a tangible sense of the inherent connection between all that is.

This post was originally published in my blog Liminal Songlines. The intention of that blog was to help capture my initial understanding of the spiritual healing traditions of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia while I lived in Australia from 2009 to 2012. Much of what I learned is relevant to my continuing explorations of rites of passages in indigenous and contemporary cultures, the concept of liminality, and working with change in our turbulent times. 

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