States of Mind
December 5, 2020
We all seem to recognise the fact that some states of consciousness are clearly preferable and others clearly aren't. Yet, the conventional wisdom usually stops short of actually illuminating a benefit or describing how to get there and our therapeutic interventions are slow, difficult, or both. More interesting still are those states of mind that are at once taboo and alluring---the infamous 'altered states of consciousness'. These states we feel most ambivalent about appear to sometimes have the most profound effects on our perception and behaviour, beyond anything the traditional therapies and popular wisdom might have to offer. I have some ideas about why.
This article's ideology: There is no such thing as an 'altered' state of mind. Or rather, all states of mind are ones that are altered. Preferring the familiar ones provides a dangerous sense of safety, and avoiding the profound ones obscures some of the greatest benefits.
Our conversations about states of mind are very interesting. We all seem to recognise the fact that some states of consciousness are clearly preferable and others clearly aren't (e.g. "I'm in a good/bad place"). We also seem to see a need to sometimes change our state of mind (e.g "snap out of it"). Yet, the conventional wisdom usually stops short of actually illuminating a benefit or describing how to get there, and our therapeutic interventions are slow, difficult, or both.
For example, in many situations, we might be encouraged to 'get into the right frame of mind', or perhaps adopt a 'growth mindset'. But just what these things are, or how we might enter them, are rarely helpfully explained. Consider this article from 'Psychology Today', the first that pops up in a search, which encourages the growth mindset---thinking of a "setback as a lesson to grow from instead of a failure to endure...what you can learn from difficult outcomes or failures and use them". Of course, this seems more like an activity than a 'mindset', and helps us do so about as much as it did when our parents and teachers told us the same thing as children. This is probably because 'growth mindset', as originally conceived of by Carol Dweck, is actually a complex system of beliefs and automatic thoughts that are typically developed in childhood and may have substantial impacts on lifelong achievement. A bit more involved than simply 'learning from our mistakes'.
The 'easy mindset change' is a common theme of popular wisdom---that by altering our thinking we might improve the situation and doing this task should be a trivial thing. We might be encouraged to 'snap out of it', or 'get our head in the game'. These advices again do little more than indicate that there is some other way of being, and we should hastily adopt it, with no particular guidance on why or how.
The common therapeutic methodologies for changing our mindset are plagued by a different problem. They have endless detail on how, but the methods take forever (as in psychotherapy), are laborious (as in cognitive-behavioural therapy), and in all cases require skilled therapists who can develop strong and ethical therapeutic relationships or the whole thing goes speedily down the shitter.
What is more interesting still are those states of mind that are at once taboo and alluring---the infamous 'altered states of consciousness'. These often chemically-induced progenitors of pleasure, insight, and terror have been the preoccupation of religious persecution and government interference for hundreds of years. And yet, our attraction to altered states of consciousness persist unencumbered.
And in fact, these states we feel most ambivalent about appear to sometimes have the most profound effects on our perception and behaviour, beyond anything the traditional therapies and popular wisdom might have to offer.
I have some ideas about why.
Where 'states of consciousness' go wrong
The issue one has with any conversation about the mind is the bias we have towards attributing things to the 'self'---the entity that sits perched behind the eyes and drives this fragile body of ours. The extent of the role of the 'self' in our thinking and action forms the core of an age old debate that recurs in many forms. One modern incarnation pits 'consciousness' against 'conscious access' but the debate is perhaps more familiar as mind-body dualism or, with slightly different emphasis, Kahneman's fast and slow thinking.
Without spending too long on the subject, or delving into the debates, the running theme is that while many of our thoughts and actions are 'top-down'---driven or controlled by the 'self', many more are 'bottom-up'---driven by the same processes of the body and the 'pre-self' brain that control the behaviour of non-human animals.
For example, hunger is a 'bottom-up' feeling, generated by automatic processes such as hormonal changes in the body. The act of eating, too, may be a bottom-up response. An animal might simply solve the hunger problem by eating the first thing that becomes available to its perceptions, or engaging in instinctual hunting or foraging behaviour. Humans, too, often solve this in a bottom-up fashion---consider how often one finds oneself peering into an open fridge on a boring day at home with no particular memory of wanting to open the door. Humans can however, choose to solve this problem in a top-down manner. Perhaps by choosing to delay eating until a certain time or skipping a meal altogether to achieve a dietary goal.
The 'self' seeks, where it can, to unite these bottom-up processes in service of more comprehensive goals---the plans you have for the future, or the person you wish to be. In this, it does effortful work---to switch your attention, or hold you back from certain actions and so on. Though the bottom-up processes are more numerous, the top-down self is more obvious.
And so it's no surprise that the way we frame our conversations about states of mind is generally 'top-down'. The implication is that we should be able to choose or alter these states at the will of the 'self' in its unifying efforts. But in fact, states of mind are more typically 'bottom-up' processes---generated by our body's responses to the world around us. Perhaps more importantly, the process of changing states of mind is also more often 'bottom-up'. Indeed, the very fact that we must be sometimes reminded to 'get into the right frame of mind' indicates that we understand we can slip into wrong frame unintentionally.
This 'self'-first thinking, as we'll see, is the biggest obstacle to understanding states of consciousness and their value.
Familiar states, new perspectives
Let's start by exploring states of mind we all recognise---moods and emotion.
Emotions, moods, and their dysfunction
Perhaps the most familiar states of mind are emotions. Emotions are fleeting and specific responses to certain events that motivate us to act. When events interrupt our various routines and action plans, our emotions (ideally) help guide us to the response best suited to addressing the interruption.
This will, of course, depend on the nature of the interruption. When someone presets us with flowers, we might be happily surprised. We're motivated to reciprocate with a show of affection. Unless of course, this present is suspiciously unlike the gift-giver. We might then respond with confusion, anxiety, or annoyance. We're motivated to get to the bottom of this dubious offering.
These states of mind are fairly automatic ones. Either instinctive or, more commonly, learned from our experiences about what kinds of interruptions are pleasant or painful, and in what contexts. They help us act faster---helping us navigate a world which is far too complex for some suite of instinctive responses, and yet is in many ways predictable. As such, emotions have important effects on the way we think and behave. Anger can make us behave in ways that make us more angry, for example, and many emotions can blind us to other perspectives. Indeed, emotions can generate a self-reinforcing loop of 'automatic thoughts' which are often helpful, but can also be harmful.
Moods are somewhat related phenomena, but different in important ways. Where emotions are specific responses to specific events, moods are more general feelings that don't necessarily relate to any event in particular. Some days we simply 'wake up on the wrong side of the bed', and on others we're 'walking on sunshine'. While moods are generally less intense than emotions, they tend to last longer, and, like emotions, they also influence our behaviour in important ways. Moods change how tempted we are by indulgences, how much we trust others, and much more. Indeed, like emotion, moods also may have some value in helping us behave appropriately to more general states of the world we find ourselves in.
As we explore these states it becomes clear that both moods and emotions are primarily bottom-up states. They are full-body experiences that capture the state of our physiology in a 'feeling' in preparation for quick automatic responses. Moods do this in a general way, and though the mechanism and likely raison d'être are not entirely clear, they likely developed to encourage general patterns of responding to general patterns of the world.
Emotions do this in a much clearer way. For example, the same physiological state (arousal) can be interpreted as fear or lust or even anger. Indeed rather than anger, one might instead feel hate or hurt. These are each context-dependent interpretations of our bottom-up responses to perception, and they motivate distinct patterns of thinking and behaviour.
Despite this adaptive function, we've long recognised that we can intervene at times and intervention can be valuable. Here, we finally introduce the 'self' into the narrative.
In the case of mood, we might listen to loud music to encourage a more active mood for the gym or a party. Perhaps we might try to distract ourselves out of a mood by doing something consuming like gardening, or shock the system with exercise or a shower. More often though, despite the knowledge we have some agency over our moods, they have an agenda of their own and more frequently we're content to simply ride out the wave. Everyone has those days we indulge our inner teenager with an angsty soundtrack.
In the case of emotion, the entire therapeutic model has shifted towards cognitive-behavioural therapy. This is a suite of methods designed to intervene in the learned automatic patterns of thinking that accompany emotions and in doing so, make this process less distressing for the client. Cognitive-behavioural therapy is highly effective for many people, but notoriously slow and laborious. The most popular alternatives come under the heading of psycho- or talk-therapy which are even slower, and regularly critiqued for their inconsistent outcomes. Therapy, you see, is the process of fighting the long-standing and deep-rooted bottom-up architectures with the far newer and relatively feeble top-down 'self'.
And, true to form for 'self'-first thinking, our default position for thousands of years has typically been that the 'self' should be in control of our emotions and moods, despite the evidence that the emotional role of the 'self' is weak, limited, and perhaps less suited for purpose than we'd like.
The self attempts to unite our shifting emotions and moods in service of a more coherent narrative---a person who is reasonable and kind, who responds to threats appropriately regardless of our past experiences. But the rigid narrative the self maintains about how and why we react to things can never entirely make sense of the things we feel. No coherent narrative could ever quite capture the complex dynamics of a human navigating their world.
Working hard and working well
There's another state of mind I think would be quite familiar to many, and demonstrates the same conflict---a flow state. Depending on how liberally the term is applied, flow refers to a state of complete absorption in an activity, immense focus or lack of distractability, and in some conceptions it comes with a feeling of enjoyment. This is probably most familiar in the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and those who followed him, each of which emphasise some fairly important points.
Flow is what happens when a high level of challenge is met by an appropriate amount of skill. Too much challenge and not enough skill leads to anxiety, too little challenge and too little skill leads to apathy or boredom, and low challenge and high skill leads to a state of relaxation and easy distraction. High skill and high challenge, though, leads to a sort of hyperfocused state, that is often quite pleasant if for no other reason than there are there are no unpleasant distractions. That said, many will report that the experience of flow is pleasurable for the satisfaction that follows. The recognition of your skill at performing the task, and possibly an appreciation for all the hard work that got you there.
Another, related concept is Anders Ericsson's deliberate practice. This is a process of breaking down a skill into chunks and then, crucially, practicing those chunks at a challenging level with the intention of mastering it---with a deep focus on performance and feedback. Though it's not necessary to engage in deliberate practice to experience flow, the two are certainly related. Deliberate practice is also a series of behaviours that lead to a state of immense focus on something at a challenging level. Here though, the motivation is to become increasingly expert at that thing and the pleasure is not so immediate. Rather it comes from a knowledge that you're improving, and perhaps adds value to any flow states that come along the way.
As Angela Duckworth describes these states in her influential book on motivation and success:
deliberate practice is a behavior... what experts do... flow is an experience... how experts feel
This emphasis on expertise is an important one. Deliberate practice and flow states are the products of hard work. Deliberate practice requires a goal, intense concentration on performance and feedback, and reflection. Flow comes from the practice, deliberate or otherwise, that came in the past. Experts are experts because they do these things. It should be no surprise to learn, therefore, that any literature on flow or deliberate practice emphasise the fact that we should all be doing these things more. They're linked to better educational outcomes, better lifelong earning potential, and better life satisfaction. The combination of these states of mind are the most effective and efficient methods of improving ourselves. The implication is that we should all turn our attention to these practices, do as the experts do, and feel as the experts feel.
But once again, this emphasis and implication is misplaced because the focus is on the 'self'.
Neither flow, nor deliberate practice, are out of the reach of non-experts. Indeed, many mundane tasks become challenging while remaining within our level of skill. Balancing a tray of drinks at the pub, or untangling a pair of headphones can both produce flow states. In a similar way, deliberate practice is something that appears under trivial circumstances. Recalling the way you cooked your steak to avoid having it come out so dry next time, or making a note of how dirty the windowsills get so your next house clean will produce even better results are both examples of concentrating on feedback to deliberately improve aspects of a skill.
But all people don't engage in deliberate practice or relish flow states all the time because they're hard. Rather, the desire to achieve a flow state---to achieve a state of absorbing performance of a skill---and the deliberate practice needed to get there more typically comes from a bottom-up place. We must first have the motivation, some intrinsic desire to do so that outweighs the cost. And as anyone who has tried to force themselves to like something has found out, generating intrinsic motivation is something the 'self' is dreadful at.
And so, instead of a rolling journey of absorbing practice and satisfying flow, and instead of following the advice of countless experts on performance and expertise, we more commonly engage in far less effective methods of self improvement---we must instead use the self to force us to improve and remain distracted or anxious or bored or apathetic.
Once again, the role of the self is to overlay a rigid narrative about our performance, or lack thereof. We don't simply follow our passions and performance that flows naturally thus. Instead we allow our choices about work to be dictated by who we wish to be, or who we think others imagine or expect us to be, or---in rarer cases---what we feel needs to be accomplished to survive.
Self actualisation and the 'peak' experience
The final common example we'll discuss is the highest tier of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. For those who haven't encountered the hierarchy before, it's worth examining. The premise is that we place certain needs at a far higher priority than others, and understanding where we may have deficits can help us understand various aspects of our dissatisfaction or dysfunction. We may well have plenty of money, friends, and vocational fulfilment, but if we return home to an unsafe home and thus violate our 'safety' needs, Maslow would suggest we will feel little benefit from our successes.
Maslow's model is a simple model, but compelling. So compelling that in many circles it is used as a kind of short-hand for psychological well-being and every year or so, some famous news outlet will republish the theory in the opinion pages to help us understand how we're failing some group of people. Here's the New York Times, The Guardian, and even the Financial Times.
Of particular interest to us, however, is the highest tier on Maslow's hierarchy (that people paid attention to), that of "self-actualisation". This tier is so attractive that it garnered its own Wikipedia page and the Instagram hashtag has almost 200,000 posts.
Like the rest of the hierarchy, self-actualisation is used mostly as a shorthand. In this case, for something like 'living your best life'. For many people, we should strive to reach a state of self-actualisation. This kind of short hand is an understandable and fair enough simplification of Maslow's own labyrinthine definition, the "tendency... to become actualized in what [one] is potentially... the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming".
One can certainly see the appeal of self-actualisation, and understand the enthusiasm with which it has been received in the public consciousness. What the common usage of the term fails to recognise however, or deliberately avoids recognising, is that self-actualisation for Maslow was not something one could strive for, but rather something that one achieved when they had sufficiently met their other, more fundamental needs first. It is a need unlike the others in that it represents the growth that can happen only when one has the cognitive and physiological space in which to grow.
Thus once again, we have transformed our understanding of a bottom-up process---growth when growth is possible--into one that should be managed by the self---growth when we desire it.
Few people do not wish to grow, and indeed Maslow and his humanist compatriats believe humans to be fundamentally oriented towards growth. And so, our self encourages a narrative of growth, and as a result we tend to neglect those deficiencies in our needs. In doing so we're doomed to suffer both because our fundamental needs aren't met and because growth will thus remain difficult or out of reach. The clearest example of this is perhaps the growing epidemic of loneliness---disconnected individuals deprioritising community and the resulting ever-increasing levels of depression and anxiety.
Perhaps it's no surprise to learn therefore that Maslow was pessimistic about how often people self-actualized. For Maslow, "self-actualisation ... rarely happens ... certainly in less than 1% of the adult population."
Altered states of consciousness and an odd insight into a solution to the 'self' bias
As a helpful segue, it's interesting to note that in his later years, Maslow tacked an additional tier onto his hierarchy of needs---transcendence. In his 1971 work The Farther Reaches of Human Nature Maslow noted "Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos".
Maslow's interest in transcendence can be seen as something of an extension of his work on 'peak' states or experiences. For Maslow, these were "moments of highest happiness and fulfillment" which had a "special flavour of wonder, of awe, of reverence, of humility and surrender before the experience as before something great". They're associated with euphoria, complete absorption in the moment, and were more frequently experienced by those who had self-actualized than those who had not.
Two things are notable about this. First, that they sound strikingly similar to flow states---a focused state of mind most easily accessed by those at the peak of performance---a connection that hasn't been missed. But also that his writings on peak experiences, from which these quotes come, were a core aspect of his 1964 work Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences.
Maslow's thesis in his later years appeared to be that though one could achieve peak experiences while self-actualised during activities involving sex, nature, art and music, scientific discovery, and personal reflection, these states were most commonly achieved in the context of spirituality.
In this, Maslow was far from alone.
A great number of spiritual practices have recognised this fact. Most 'pre-religious' shamanistic traditions, and the mystic aspects of literally any major religon you care to name, from Christianity, Sufi Islam, and Judaism of the Abrahamic religions, to the many forms of Yoga in religions of Indian origin such as Hinduism and Jainism, as well as eastern contemplative religions like Buddhism and Shinto.
In the surrender of the 'self' to something greater, we achieve a state of mind that brings insight, peace of mind, and appreciation which reverberates far beyond the moment and into our daily lives.
For Maslow, the link was a direct one:
The goal of identity (self-actualization, autonomy, individuation, Horney's real self, authenticity, etc.) seems to be simultaneously an end-goal in itself, and also a transitional goal, a rite of passage, a step along the path to the transcendence of identity. This is like saying its function is to erase itself. Put the other way about, if our goal is the Eastern one of ego-transcendence and obliteration, of leaving behind self-consciousness and self-observation, of fusion with the world and identification with it (Bucke), of homonomy (Angyal), then it looks as if the best path to this goal for most people is via achieving identity, a strong real self, and via basic-need-gratification rather than via asceticism.
Maslow came to see self-actualisation as the full realisation of the self; of the top-down entity uniting our fractious body and the bottom-up processes that maintain it. And through the realisation of self, one could transcend the self to achieve a peak experience.
This 'self-less' state is so valuable specifically because it permits one to transcend, however momentarily, the constraints imposed by the uniting force of the top-down 'self'. One is liberated from the pressures to explain to ourselves our patterns of thinking and feeling and so appreciate our place without the various vexations of life intruding. Indeed, in various eastern traditions, this state is expressed in the concept of moksha which quite literally means the liberation from the burdens of the cycle of life and death.
Through this liberation, one becomes free to grant oneself permission to act or think in a way that might be out of character, or to address the tensions and dissonances that aren't captured by the normal self narrative. And, perhaps most importantly, one can appreciate the countless other self narratives that could exist were we to simply breathe life into them instead of taking up our old patterns of thinking and acting.
The various implementations of the practice, and the endless list of benefits that follow are well worth their own article, but for now I think it's uncontroversial to recognise that many people throughout time and history have strived to reach this state of consciousness, both by following spiritual pathways, but as Maslow suggested, increasingly along a secular pathway towards wellbeing.
But, of course, achieving this 'self-less' state is difficult. As we have discovered, the self is heavily invested in sustaining itself. As such, recognising the forces at play in the liberation from the self will always therefore be demanding. In his famous article on consciousness, Thomas Nagel suggests that some ways of seeing the world are puzzling or difficult because of our perspective, "simply because our structure does not permit us to operate with concepts of the requisite type". A large part of that comes from the self, weaving its greedy tendrils around our thoughts and perceptions.
And thus, there is a rich history of human innovations designed to break us out of these consuming patterns.
Getting high to get by
Returning briefly to Buddhism, Zen koans are one example of this. In most circles I come across Zen koans are little more than a platitude used to describe something confusing. But the practice of Zen is precisely the attempt to break out of the linear patterns of thought the 'self' imposes upon us. As Douglas Harding in his curious book On Having No Head:
Zen Buddhism has the reputation of being difficult - and almost impossibly so for Westerners, who for this reason are often advised to stick to their own religious tradition if they can... Many of these masters, I found, had not only lost their heads... but were vividly aware of their condition and its immense significance, and used every device to bring their disciples to the same realization.
Zen koans are one example of this. "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" This koan, though distorted by it's popularisation, is clearly an example of an attempt to make you consider the world abruptly from a new perspective. Many koans specifically attack the apparent location of the 'self'---its perch behind the eyes. Another koan commands "do away with your throat and lips, and let me hear what you can say", or the riddle-like "you cannot describe it or draw it, You cannot praise it enough or perceive it." Each strikes at the self that lives behind the face. Though our 'self', hidden behind the face, seems to manipulate your body, it can never be seen or perceived. The 'head' that doesn't truly exist in any kind of tangible way. Thus the origin of the name of Harding's book "On Having No Head".
There are many other practices that are but different attempts to achieve the same end. To divorce oneself from or loosen the rigid narrative of the self, and view the world from new perspectives. Various meditative practices, for example, are designed to permit one to notice the self in operation as a distant spectator. To come to see the body as a multitude of processes only tenuously united by our internal monologue. These innovations continue today, with 'mindfulness' practices and holotropic breathwork appearing in the last forty-odd years.
But the most enduring remain the most basic. The most primitive and universal practices are those of shamanism---the religion that gave birth to all religions, and the one that is recognisable across time, culture, and geography. Shamans or witch doctors or medicine men, wherever they appear, interact with the spirit world by altering their consciousness. The universal aspect of shamanism is the existence of a 'second reality'. This alternate reality is the place where one can commune with the spirits. Shamans, by entering a trance state, may journey there and enlist the help of these spirits in a variety of tasks. The specifics will vary of course, and the 'two realities' metaphor hardly captures the richness of shamanistic theology (an indeed forces an improbably distinct structure upon it). It is nevertheless useful for a brief discussion.
Whether we interpret these spirits as literal spirits, and this alternate reality as a literal alternate reality, or perhaps instead prefer to view this as another method of shaking loose the rigid patterns of the self and seeing the world and its many interrelationships from new perspectives, there is no doubt that the utility of this practice is such that it arises independently in any indigenous or tribal culture that lasted long enough to provide a record of their existence.
It's important to note that the shamanic 'spirits' are under no obligation to be anything like the spirits we might recognise in our modern media. Perhaps they might take the form of animals, or represent repositories for the dead. But just as likely, depending on the culture, they might be represented by lights, sounds, or other less tangible forms. In whatever form they take, they are merely a mental approximation of the essential natures of the creatures and objects of the world around us---of their role in the various systems within systems that comprise our world. The crucial aspect of shamanism is not the form of the spirits and the spirit world, but the 'seeing' of them---their role in our lives and in the systems we are embedded within, and the ability to understand what they have to tell us about the world. The motif of a special 'eye', like the 'third eye' in the east, or the 'strong eye' in some indigenous Australian groups, is a common motif.
This ability to commune with the spirits is so useful that it remains a practice in altered form in the ecstatic traditions of modern religions which have been otherwise altered irreconcilably from their shamanistic roots---the samādhi of the yogic schools, the wajad of Sufism, and the various interactions with the holy spirit in many Christian sects.
In its more benign forms, the shaman may journey with the use of drums, rattles, sweat lodges, or simply by concentration. Here, the shamanic state is the almost weaponisation of what the secular might call the fantasy state. Descriptively similar to those states of dissociation that bring daydreams and possibly the free association of dreams, these trances are used to inform the shaman of important ideas, themes, and concerns that may escape one in the normal manner of processing information. Perhaps the spirits may communicate via the pattern in which a handful of thrown stones fall, or the shapes one might see in the scrawls of tree bark. Or perhaps the spirits will be more present, and appear in this state in a more tangible form---a creature, object, shape, or light that indicates the ailment someone is suffering.
Of course, to the shaman, this is no fantasy state, but rather a true and useful tool to escape the linear confines of the self narrative. In a similar way, psychotherapists still favour projective tests such as the Rorschach or the thematic apperception test which operate on much the same principles---ambiguous images that help us discern beyond the articulations of the self and reach into the unconscious. Indeed, the tendency of the shaman to refer to various illnesses and cures as 'spirits' is not unlike our tendency to call all illnesses 'bugs', or the doctor's joking lament that 'it's probably viral', when they have no idea what the illness might be (ask one and you'll see). It is a useful shorthand to characterise these things, and one that is apparently effective enough to pervade every fledgling human culture.
But, a more notorious method of shamanic journeying exists---intoxication. We are perhaps most familiar with various entheogens like peyote, mescaline, and ayahuasca. These psychoactive substances produce the same outcomes as above; journeys to the shamanic 'other place'. But such journeys can be undertaken by anyone with the will and appropriate attention to the 'set and setting', without the need to train in the ways of the shamanic trance. These journeys can range from short visits to answer specific questions, longer vision quests to recover power animals (a metaphor for the source of our strength), all the way to the notorious 'ego-death' and the experience of the self-less state so coveted by all mystic traditions.
Yet, entheogens are not the sole means of intoxicated journeying. Indeed, an entire article here covers the long and universal history of fermented potions in spiritual practice. The 'ego-death' may be well coveted, but intoxication has been important for less profound and equally useful conflicts with the self. Indeed, this is something we can come to understand by simply looking at modern creative and intellectual marvels.
Stephen King notoriously spent the majority of his highly successful career abusing (his words) alcohol and cocaine while his writing. The crew of poets and writers that surrounded Mary Shelley and Lord Byron were enthusiastic Laudinum patrons, Shelley herself noting that Frankenstein was the product of an opium dream. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was the product of a cocaine binge. The works which popularised the philosophies of Ayn Rand and Jean-Paul Sartre were written with the liberal assistance of amphetamines. Francis Crick was discovering the effects of LSD when he and James Watson completed their famous model of DNA, as was Dock Ellis when he threw a no-hitter for the San Diego Padres. And William James, the grandfather of psychology, writes that his experiments with the drug nitrous oxide had an abiding influence his work. James had this to say:
I myself made some observations on... nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.
And thus, like the Zen Koan, intoxication too has the capacity to move the mind beyond the linear articulations of the 'self' and into the waters of remarkable creativity, insight, and understanding.
The core theme here is, of course, the impediment that the self imposes on our self understanding by adhering tightly to a rigid narrative that permits little in the way of understanding things from new perspectives or adopting different narratives. But the fundamental insight that different states afford different opportunities revealed in our friendly advice and our therapeutic approaches is, I think, more clear.
To understand that the top-down self is distinct from, and often more feeble than, those bottom-up processes of perception and action which preceded it in the evolutionary sense, is to understand the reason why emotional control is at times so difficult, or why learning new skills is so troublesome. These things are difficult to unite under the narrative the self weaves because they extend much deeper than the self and are more complex than any narrative could possibly capture.
It also leads us to understand why states of intoxication and spiritual ecstasy both seduce us and repulse us. These states offend the self, and drive it from the seat of control; a seat it is reluctant to part with. But it would appear that these states, under the right conditions, can be a far keener way to harness the capacities of this fragile body of ours. It just takes a little perspective.
This article's ideology
Ideology: There is no such thing as an 'altered' state of mind. Or rather, all states of mind are ones that are altered. Preferring the familiar ones provides a dangerous sense of safety, and avoiding the profound ones obscures some of the greatest benefits.
We frame our conversations about states of mind in a 'top-down' manner---that we should choose or alter our mental state at will. But more often states of mind are bottom-up processes---generated by our body's responses to the world around us. This illusion of control we weave for ourselves stops us from seeing that even the humble emotion is a state of mind. One that motivates us to act in some way or other. Such states of mind are often automatic, and have important effects on the way we think and behave. And rarely do we truly control these in some top-down way, but merely swap one bottom-up state of mind for another. Our attempts to control these states stem from our lack of understanding that it is the world that alters our states of mind more often that it is us that does so. In exploring more unusual states of mind, we see that, in fact, this emphasis on top-down control can be a problematic constraint. In flow states of concentration, or peak experiences, we see that breakthroughs occur when we leave behind our sense-of-self and become free to act or think in new ways. And thus it should come as no surprise that many mystical traditions have centred on this funny facet of the human experience, or that the use of drugs that share this quality has led to some of the most astounding art and science. The idea of top-down control imposes a rigidity in our way of understanding and responding to the world. Embracing bottom-up states for what they can offer, and learning to work with them rather than seek to control them seems like an effort worth making.