Altered States of Consciousness


Meditation is generally defined as the act of extended thought or contemplation/reflection and is most often associated as being spiritual or devotional in nature. Interest in Eastern religions from the 1960s through the 1980s brought about a vast amount of scientific research regarding the benefits of meditation, which as a result has broadened its definition into two main categories: mystical and secular. Either type can include any of a variety of disciplines of mind and body, and although the techniques and desired goals of meditation are varied, the results are quite similar and include: achieving a higher state of consciousness, psychic powers, self-discovery, self-improvement, stress reduction, reduced anxiety, spiritual growth, better health, creativity, increased intelligence, and union with the Creator or God. Meditation itself doesn't directly provide or guarantee these benefits but somehow is believed to facilitate their cultivation.

Many have said there are only two ways to obtain a mystical state or altered state of consciousness and that is either through drugs or meditation. Hoping to achieve that altered state, there are those who take up meditation as the safe means to the more spectacular psychic experiences of visions, voices, out-of-body experiences, and traveling to an astral realm and to have the mystical "high" without inducing chemicals.

Throughout time, mystics, saints, and gurus have reported these expansive occurrences as commonplace amongst dedicated and longtime meditators; however, most of them caution against entering meditation in order to seek such incidents. Ancient texts caution that whatever the mind meditates on, it eventually takes the shape of or becomes the object habitually dwelled upon.

Zen Buddhism urges meditation practitioners to see the "extraordinary in the ordinary"

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or the "splendor in the simple" and warns that such mystical, supernatural experiences as those listed above are irrelevant to the process of spiritual development and should they occur, they should not be given any special attention at all, as the ultimate goal is to achieve the state of nirvana, which is defined as the complete release from all physical limitations of existence.

Although the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563 B.C.E.–486 B.C.E.), himself found spiritual enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree, the Buddhist approach to spiritual awakening does not only consist of meditation but of three ways believed to work together. Those ways are:

  1. Sila or Purification
  2. Samadhi or Concentration
  3. Punna or Insight

Sila, or purification, is simply cleansing the body, mind, spirit. Samadhi, or concentration, involves fixing one's mind or attention on a single object that can be any object such as a colored wheel, a candle, reflections on attributes of Buddha or the elements of nature, etc.Punna, or insight, doesn't come until the student masters mindfulness of the body, feelings, mind, and mind objects, and even then it is said that there are many states in between that may trick one into rapturous states or feelings such as happiness, lucidity and the like, that might make the student believe the state of nirvana has been reached when in fact there may be many other levels yet to be mastered.

Once the three levels are achieved, meditation becomes effortless and consciousness ceases to have a need of any object of any kind, thus all attachments to the material world are severed to the "wakened being." This final stage is said to only be able to last for seven days as the person's pulse, metabolism, and all other physical functions drop so low that death would occur.

In Tibetan Buddhism, training is composed of three parts as well. Those three parts are:

  1. Hearing, which includes reading and listening to lectures, or studying and the like.
  2. Contemplation.
  3. Meditation.

Meditation dates back to antiquity as the Ria Veda, the earliest recorded religious literature of Northern India, written about 1000 B.C.E., in an Indo-European language, describes in detail the ecstasy experienced in meditation.

In the Taoist work, Tao Teh Ching of China, written four or five centuries B.C.E., formalized meditation is also recorded. The Taoists emphasized breath control in meditative practice and believed it to be a skill to be achieved in many stages. The ultimate stage or goal is to be able to breathe without inhaling or exhaling—to the point of the complete cessation of the pulse. If one were able to arrive at this stage successfully, it was said they would transcend conscious thought to the state of what they called the Great Quiescence, or the highest form of enlightenment and the goal of Taoist meditation.

The Upanishads of India give a detailed description of the psychology of meditation as being the way to control the physical senses and actions, thereby freeing oneself from the bondage of the external world. The Upanishads speak of the cultivation of a one-pointed mind through meditation as being the prelude to attaining God consciousness.

Kabbalistic literature and teachings, as well as biblical references to prayer and meditation throughout both the Old and New Testaments, cite setting self apart from the masses and going to a still, quiet place—within and without—as a source of mystical communication with God.

The process of meditation, whether spiritual or secular, is most often described as simply being a way of learning to still the mind— to slow it down, enabling one to listen within, to the "voice within." Although most individuals are not aware of the myriad of thoughts and chatter that rampage through the mind like a wild, untamed horse at each and any given moment, that is the challenge—to slow down all thoughts to a single thought or even to no thoughts at all—complete stillness, the unruly beast tamed at last.

Another analogy often used to describe the process of meditation is to compare the human mind to a lake that contains great treasures deep within, but an intense storm agitates and stirs the waters—clouding the view of the treasures below. Even if an occasional glimpse of the treasures is possible through the windswept waters, the view would be distorted. Here again, to gain mental control and focus is the aim of slowing down the raging storm or the "mental tapes" that continually play in one's head.

Some say that even the descriptions themselves of meditation are a misnomer by definition. Experts say it is not a manipulation of the mind, but a going beyond mind, beyond thought—to the total absence of thought. That "beyond mind" state—much like a calm, clear reflective pool—that not only mirrors the mind's surface, but also reveals its depths. Accomplishing this mental/spiritual state isn't something that occurs in a one-time meditation and sitting; it is an achievement of much discipline and consistency.

In the early 1970s and 1980s, the National Institutes of Health conducted a series of experiments to determine the efficacy of the reported abilities of gurus from India to slow down their heartbeat, pulse rate, and even to raise and lower their body temperature to extremes through meditative states. Medically, this had been considered impossible, as it was believed that the autonomic nervous system was responsible and it could not be manipulated or controlled by mind or thought. Research proved this to be untrue and a whole bevy of human possibilities began to emerge which gave rise to the secular use of meditation.

As research continued, not only in the Institutes of Health, but in universities worldwide, new and astounding data emerged and continues to emerge on a regular basis. Scientists have proven the benefits of meditation in areas as farreaching as crime reduction to improved health, longevity of life, and stress reduction. The National Institutes for Health and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute now recommend meditation as a viable treatment for moderate hypertension. Their research also shows that certain types of heart arrhythmia or irregularities respond to meditation.

In his groundbreaking book, The Relaxation Response (1975), Dr. Herbert Benson documents some interesting research on meditation. Benson found that by having a patient focus on a sacred sound, or a mantra, as used in transcendental meditation, the person's heart rate decreased, as did their breathing rate and oxygen consumption. In fact, Benson's findings were so convincing that the Mind/Body Medical Institute, of which Benson is president, received $2.7 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to continue to investigate the scientific basis of the relaxation response.

Dr. Andrew Weil is an internationally recognized Harvard Medical School graduate and an advocate of alternative approaches to medicine, including the use of meditation. In his book Spontaneous Healing (1995), he recommends meditation to his patients as a means of restoring balance in their lives. Mood swings, depression, erratic energy levels, hectic schedules, unhealthy eating habits, and unstable relationships are all signs of a life out of balance, which is a high disease factor. Weil and many other doctors are advising and/or teaching a variety of meditation techniques with great success in treating these and other afflictions. Research and documentation continues globally in the use of meditation to treat hypertension, pain, muscle tension, and even high cholesterol.

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