An ‘altered state of consciousness‘ is any state that is significantly different than a ‘normal’ waking state’, usage of the term popularised by the research of psychologist, Dr. Charles Tart. An altered state can occur in association with a disease such as epilepsy (see post: Epilepsy and the Divine), infection or trauma. It can also be instigated by metabolic changes such as lack of sleep, physical/mental exhaustion, extreme pain, nitrogen ‘narcosis’ (in scuba divers).
|San Bushman in Trance|
Many cultures have discovered then have continued to actively seek out activities or drugs that ‘alter consciousness’, inducing ‘ecstasy’, ‘providential inspiration’ or ‘contact with the divine’. This is achieved in many different ways: the San Bushmen of southern Africa induce trance-like states through ritual and exhaustive dancing, producing visual and auditory hallucinations. Another technique used in the past by natives of North America involved heat exposure (sweat lodges), extreme fasting or the infliction of pain, either the individual hurting himself (‘self-torture‘) or with the help of friends in order to reach the same ecstatic state.
|Self-Flagellant in Spain|
Self-flagellation has been used in certain Greek and Roman cults (mystery cults) and is still used in certain areas of Catholic Europe as well as in Shi’a Islam. Hyperventilation and near-asphyxiation have also been mechanisms used. More popular in eastern cultures has been meditation/contemplation or chanting.
Many researchers have postulated that these altered states and the means used to achieve them, may have led to the development of religion, a state where the individual establishes a mechanism to be ‘close to the divine‘.
But the most frequently used mechanism to achieve ‘closeness to the divine’ and probably one of the oldest mechanisms in the history of humanity is the use of drugs, usually found in naturally occurring plant sources. These are the ‘Drugs used in Religion‘.
*Drugs used in religion: subject of research for the novel The Tao of the Thirteenth God – Amazon Kindle.