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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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The Spectrum of Consciousness

Anthony Weir

Bob Trubshaw's piece on 'altered' and 'normal' states of consciousness which I seem to have partly inspired has stimulated me to develop a theory of culture in terms of states of consciousness, with reference to that marvellous book by Julian Jaynes, The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind [1].

Consciousness is not awareness, much less understanding (which has been defined as the awareness of pattern as such). Consciousness for Jaynes is awareness of self or awareness of awareness - but dream states are forms of consciousness wherein we are not necessarily aware either of ourselves as distinct from the flow of the dream, or of our awareness within the dream.

Jayne's thesis is that human beings originally had a balance between the two sides of the brain, but that the left hemisphere (responsible for language, numeracy, conceptualisation, structuralising, order and all those things that our culture admires) gradually suppressed the right hemisphere, which is responsible for 'intuition' and empathy, feelings of flow and belonging, music and song and dance, nurture and connection. This is a cultural, rather than an evolutionary, phenomena, for it began only within the last 10,000 years.

So we are born with a bicameral balance, or 'Original State of Consciousness' (OSC) which is then systematically destroyed by upbringing and education, literally squeezed or beaten out of us, because it threatens the unicameral, left-hemisphere rigidity of what we now call 'normality' (a very recent concept) which, being unbalanced by the right hemisphere, and hence restless, questing and ultimately totalitarian, longs for the half-forgotten OSC but cannot allow it to be restored, because it will threaten the house of cards which is ego and civilisation. The left hemisphere suppresses the right rather as men suppress women, heterodox men and the world.

The universal desire (all cultures being drug cultures) to alter our state of consciousness, whether at the lowest level through alcohol or glue or amyl nitrite, music or art or sex, or through fasting, ritual or magic mushrooms, suggests that the state of consciousness regarded as 'normal' is in fact a Depressed State of Consciousness (DSC) at a mechanical and mechanistic level which we are fond of attributing (with no evidence whatsoever) to dogs and snails.

DSC is unsatisfactory, especially for men, who account for most suicides and who, it now seems, are prone to suicidal depression when their cholesterol intake is suddenly reduced. Women, conventionally seen as more intuitive, are just as much in thrall to DSC (even though they have, hitherto at least, been discouraged from contributing to the ever-more-depressing politico-economic 'leaps forward' of civilisation) because they are in thrall to men, men's DSC values and the 'beauty' myth.

Civilisation is the necessary producer and product of DSC - which mechanistically sees everything in terms of producer and product. Thus harmless cannabis which (when taken with due respect) can get us half-way back to OSC, is disapproved of because it 'saps the will' - a dangerous crime in a culture of domination. Often, however, it is taken together with nicotine, alcohol, or other stimulant or depressant, with which the DSC can happily coexist. Addictive cocaine (which does not alter the DSC but makes us feel kings of it) is, on the other hand, secretly admired by dominators-achievers from Sherlock Holmes to megacorp executive, and marketed by government agencies.

OSC is the capacity for joy that we see in dogs, and the capacity for wonder that has almost disappeared from our culture, but which we find in ecstatic poetry of the Sufis, of Rilke or Hopkins, and in the paintings of Rousseau (on the one hand) and Bonnard (on the other). Language being a left-hemisphere activity, it goes without saying that right-hemisphere perception is indescribable, and hence elusive. Language is, in a sense, the original sin which expelled us from the Eden of the right hemisphere.

It is obvious even from history written in DSC, from the DSC's reductionist viewpoint, that the unicameral mind is not viable. It involves the continuous or permanent suppression of the right hemisphere by the left; a war of attrition in the head. Thus must human behaviour is a series of muddled efforts to solve an impossible problem either by the futile bid to reinforce DSC to an imaginary tolerable level, or by trying to find OSC or a substitute through the lowest, most easily-available of a whole range of Altered (or improved, different, alternative) States of Consciousness (ASC), vulgarly termed 'getting high', though 'getting wide' would be more desirable. (These states include 'lucid dreaming', 'meditation' states, hypnosis, trances, 'highs' and 'wides' presented by psychoactive plants and drugs, and feelings of ecstasy.) This is why people today, living in luxury undreamed by Roman emperors, have no joy or generosity or wonder about them. Give people the world of mere appearances and they die inside their heads and hearts.

The three states of consciousness which I describe are, of course, not separate. Like sexuality, they are part of a spectrum of consciousness in which DSC is not quite the lowest and OSC perhaps not quite the highest. Gurus, adepts, Rinpoches, et al. would have us believe that there is an elevated state of consciousness beyond OSC but they have only words to tell us so, and their lives do not bear out their words. Nevertheless, in this kind of speculation it would be unreasonable to deny the possibility of a state (or series of states) of awareness beyond OSC. Level One, just below DSC on Level Two, is the dream state of those in DSC when awake, and the level of consciousness induced by narcotic television and awareness-suppressing drugs. Level three is perhaps the sate of 'depression' or awareness of being stuck in the DSC described below. Level Four is perhaps the 'controlled dreaming' state described by Carlos Casteneda. Level Five is attained through the careful and shamanic use of drugs such as psilocybin. Level Six is our Original State of Consciousness. About Levels Seven to (?)Ten I can only speculate, since I believe that people in these states of consciousness are well beyond language so that we never hear from them - just as happy people are invisible. The central joke-idea of The hitch-hiker's guide to the galaxy - that earth is a satellite laboratory experiment set up by mice - may not be so far from 'the truth' (a limited concept of DSC). In any event, the DSC - the pandemic, viral success - is the means whereby Earth/Nature is destroying itself in an experimental, new way, to begin yet another (serendipitous or random) experiment, just as it did after the cataclysms of the late Permian period, when 99% of all life was destroyed.

An apparently lower level of consciousness than DSC (The Slough of Despond, the Black Dog, sometimes called 'Depression' and, variously, melancholy, ennui, spleen,. Weltschmerz, noia, saudade) is probably one degree higher - for all the sages seem to agree that in order to leave the DSC we must descend, harrowing hell and wallowing in the mire. It is perhaps born of simple awareness that one is in DSC: grief + anger (at the destruction of the world by unsatisfiable greed) + shame or guilt. In this state, the waking consciousness is dull misery, and one is restlessly listless and full of grief and anger, impotence and a sense of loss, continual disquietude and unfulfilment.

Because DSC is depressing, it tends to make people live in the past or the future rather than the present. It also requires easily controlled ASCs as safety valves; religion is not only highly controllable (because it tends to worship itself rather than anything outside its explanation) but can be a very powerful bulwark of DSC, while offering strictly rationed doses of ASC through ceremony and ritual and drugs or dancing et. Beer and wine, chocolate, nicotine, sugar and so on offer low-grade highs which keep the DSC on an even keel. Threat to its status quo, real, imagined or induced also provides a low grade ASC through the defence of DSC - hence the attraction of group aggression and war, which are always fermented by priests and leaders (politicians) working on the DSC fears of ordinary people.

The realm of both priests and leaders is that of the sacred (i.e. that which pertains to political or supernatural power). The sacred is an organised and controlling function of the left hemisphere, whereas the magical is a sensibility of the right hemisphere and its shamanic, individual, unorganised adepts. The sacred requires social hierarchies and architectural structures (Stonehenge and Hagar Qim, Boyne Valley necropolis and Athenian Acropolis, Carnac and Karnak, Callanish and Naxca, Dome of the Rock and Temple of Jerusalem) to impress and reinforce DSC, whereas those who have graduated from DSC need no props except for awareness-altering potions or rituals, and tend to operate outdoors in magical (as opposed to sacred) places known to individuals. The sacred is set up, established, constructed, described and prescribed, while the magical is numinous, immanent and natural, there to be discovered and rediscovered within us as well as without.

The Depressed State of Consciousness - which is simultaneously coterminous with the Ego, and is collective - produces such boredom and frustration that the concept of work is invented. Work requires people to remain in DSC, while theoretically enabling them to earn the means to escape DSC through temporary, limited, low-level ASC by drugs, drinking bouts, sport or religion. It is not religion, however, which is the 'opiate of the people' but possessions, the greed for which is an attempt by DSC to satisfy itself in its own terms rather than by escape to ASC.

Orgasm also provides a temporary ASC but prolonged and widespread activity would threaten DSC as much as cannabis, so it is strictly controlled by a whole series of tabus and strictures. An addiction to the endorphins produced by sexual fulfilment has been very plausibly suggested in some medical quarters, and the control of sex by 'screwing it up' makes sure that endorphin addiction of this kind is rare. On the other hand, the extremely competitive nature of our culture produces other kinds of addiction experienced by racing drivers, paragliders and athletes high on adrenaline; the excitement of rollercoasters produces a similar, if tiny, high.

Sacramental means to ASC, or returns to OSC, are used by the collective DSC to keep it going. Thus coffee, cannabis, tobacco, cocaine, chocolate, alcohol, mushrooms and peyote are all deritualised to 'recreational' drugs in order to prop up DSC. Art in its higher forms as expression of vision or right-hemisphere apercu similarly ends up as justification of the DSC just as religions do. Art is for some, of course, a kind of religion of aesthetic or expression. 'Meditation' or at least its appearance is converted from a means of return to OSC into yet another tentacle of DSC.

In The varieties of religious experience (1902) William James wrote: 'Our normal waking consciousness . . . is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are all there in all their completeness . . . No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.'

The great leap forward for DSC came with 'The Enlightenment', hard on the heels of 'The Renaissance', ushering in a Dark Age for intuition. The left lobe of the brain became a universal lawn mower, leaving only unnoticed verges of the right brain untrimmed. But the ultimate guarantor of DSC, 'our normal waking consciousness' is, of course, television - the lie which tells us that images are reality when, in reality, they are only symbols of the apparent reality of DSC.

Television, by combining sound with vision, completely blocks and takes over the consciousness. If it is just possible, with great effort, to ignore the hypnotic flickering on the screen, it is impossible to resist the combined effect of moving image and sound. Even when sitting with one's back to a television set, the temptation to turn round, when a phrase or voice gets through to us, is overwhelming. This would not be so bad if television stations operated for only three to four hours a day, as they once did, or if their output were 'high art', but television is now continuously available on some channels, broadcasting banalities whether they be the ever-more-popular news programmes with instant comment and speculation, or entertainment for the masses manufactured specifically to keep them watching. Apart from a few British wildlife series and the old-fashioned lecture programme (e.g. Kenneth Clark's Civilisation series) nothing on television is treated with serious respect, and even the excellent programmes cites treat their subjects superficially. The cinema enlarged banality to pseudo-epic while television reduces everything to boxed banality, turning everyone into vapid television-watchers incapable of questioning or commenting on what they see, because what they saw has been replaced by something else just as powerfully hallucinatory. The effect of television is almost identical to hypnosis.

Some of us, though, having banished television, are not satisfied with hardly- and briefly-won improved states of consciousness, and want our OSC back again, the lost Eden and state of grace. These people, whose right hemispheres are not entirely disconnected, become shamans (lightning conductors), dervishes, prophets, poets, painters, 'visionaries'. But the totalitarian DSC makes sure they never find the lost Eden lest like the Pied Piper in the allegory all children are led away into the Earth or OSC. Visionaries and so on are executed (Jesus), taken over (Francis of Assisi), made to modify their message, locked up, drugged by television or chemicals, or driven to suicide.

People who find the OSC are, however, silent and invisible: something that is never understood by those in DSC with its constant and unsatisfiable desire for excitement with stability and improvement with stability (Alan Watts pointed out that insecurity is the product of the desire for security), which lead on the one hand to war and the total war against nature, and on the other to such sophisticated means of communication (radio and novels) that they render all message trite. Form becomes content, medium is message and massage.

Yet sufficient information is around - embedded in the bulwarks of DSC - for us to know that the OSC (kingdom of heaven or enlightenment) is still in our heads or hearts, although the whole world has been ravaged to pander to the unsatisfiable cravings of DSC for toys and kick, control and revenge, power and glory, property and status. The OSC needs none of these, and can hide, like the pygmies in the forest or the bushmen in the desert, until the unsatisfiable DSC hauls it out and re-educates it to manipulatible misery. The DSC is not so much a state ('below grace') as a kind of exponential inertia: evil.

This theory of States of Consciousness (or Awareness) allows us to see places such as Carnac, Stonehenge or Avebury in a clear perspective: they are the equivalent of Expo 1889's Eiffel Tower and looming, intimidating buildings of Florence or Wall Street. They are part of an attempt to create or induce pseudo-numinosity artificially, for political reasons, deliberately ignoring the places of clthonic numinosity which are everywhere. The magic of place gives way to vainglorious palace, temple or church. Similarly, the numinosity, the 'spirituality' in every one of us (as in animals), is systematically replaced by morality and orthodoxy - and we become the only animals without souls, searching for meaning and magic in the rubbish heap which civilisation has always been.

I have received further amplification of my ideas on states of consciousness from Terence McKenna's Food of the gods [2] - a rather flabby book in the recent American hobby-horse tradition, which lazes on the wilder shores of speculation, nut nevertheless introduces some interesting ideas.

Jared Diamond, amongst others, pointed out that all cultures are drug-cultures and explained this rather unconvincingly in terms of the wounded-hero-as-genetic-improver, that is to say: a male who could afford to 'damage' himself by use of destructive drugs such as alcohol and heroin, is seen by women as a strong progenitor and beneficial contributor to the gene-bank. This explanation ignores the fact that most drugs are destructive only because of their peculiar anti-social and often compulsive use outside ritual. McKenna, on the other hand, agreeing with Diamond that all cultures are drug cultures, sees drugs as means to improved states of consciousness, and hence now greatly controlled, manipulated and made illegal by the dominator DSC-societies which rule globally - now also Bhutan, and soon Ladakh.

There is of course a gulf between drug use in what McKenna (after Eisler) calls 'dominator cultures' - a 'recreational' and meaningless use of drugs for kicks and escape - and drug use in what McKenna and Eisler call 'partnership cultures' in which humans co-operated rather than competed, and worked with nature rather than dominating it. In the latter cultures, drugs of all kinds were used as aids to partnership. Unfortunately, the partnership cultures that McKenna identifies in the African Eden were ultimately responsible for creating the Sahara and the desert area which will soon stretch from France to the Cape of Good Hope, and Morocco to the the Himalayas and beyond.

Our own culture of domination does not favour drugs which raise awareness beyond DSC but peddles those (all very addictive) which enhance and entrench DSC: nicotine, coffee, tea, chocolate - and especially - sugar and cocaine. Recent action against cocaine results from, McKenna says, the passing of control from governmental agencies to uncontrollable, criminal drug-cartels, whose success is almost complete and inviolable.

McKenna interestingly credits women with the invention of language, which was a prerequisite for agriculture as well as consciousness. Women, symbolised by Demeter et al., being mainly gatherers, he suggests, first transplanted food plants, then cultivated them from seed and cuttings. Agriculture passed to male control with the rise of Indo-European dominator cultures but women did the work as they continue to do today almost everywhere east of the Elbe.

The main burden of McKenna's book, however, is the identification of the Vedic Soma with a mushroom containing psilocybin. He quite rightly discounts the immensely variable Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) but focuses on Steopharia cubensis (alias Psilocybe coprophila) which grows on the dung of horses as well as of cattle, ignoring the ubiquitous Psilocybe semilanceata which will grow on grassland and on grazing land anywhere autumnal temperatures drop to near freezing, Although he deplores the prissiness of writers on drugs who have not themselves experimented with them, he is also unaware that psilocybin is hardly metabolised and can be recycled via urine - as can easily be verified. Among awareness-expanding drugs he does not include the seeds of the cultivated Japanese quince (Chaenomeles species and cultivars) which can also be used to attain the bicameral OSC.

Despite sloppy thinking and writing - and an inadequate definition of consciousness as awareness of pattern - Food of the gods is awareness-enhancing food for thought, and will help the rediscoverer to find Big Consciousness rather than big dick, big money, big house, ever-greater consumption, control and domination, which has led inevitably and stupidly to the imminent big destruction of the planet so that small, trapped. depressed consciousness can desperately keep dominating to the bitter end.


1: Houghton Mifflin 1976
2: Rider 1992

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.14 February 1993.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008