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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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What is 'normal' anyway?

Bob Trubshaw

One the phrases often bandied around in Earth mysteries circles - and elsewhere - is 'altered states of consciousness', or 'ASCs' to the lovers of acronyms. But few ever get round to defining what ASCs are - or are not. The views of arid academe rarely reconcile with the equally-infuriating unacademic 'consciousness-zapping' New Age. Perhaps this is because those who have been on the 'front line' of ASC experiences rarely think seriously about the brain, while the academics are constrained by their career prospects and rarely use any imagination. All the more frustrating because, for the first time in human history, we have access to most of the world's religious, healing and consciousness-altering disciplines.

The first use of the term ASCs seems to have been by Charles Tart at the University of California in the late 1960s. His use of the jargon covers dreaming, lucid dreaming, Yoga or Zen meditation states, hypnosis, trances, effects of psychoactive plants and drugs, and several other 'states of mind', including the feeling of profound ecstasy. Tart refuses to give a tight definition of an ASC but outlines it as:

'For any individual, his normal state of consciousness is the one in which he spends the major part of his waking hours. That your normal state of consciousness and mine are quite similar to that of all other normal men is an almost universal assumption, albeit one of questionable validity. An altered state of consciousness for a given individual is one in which he clearly feels a qualitative shift in his pattern of mental functioning, that is, he feels not just a quantitative shift (more or less alert, more or less visual imagery, sharper or duller, etc.) but that some quality or qualities of his mental processes are different.' [1]

This recalls the rather neater observation of William James, back in 1902: '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.' [2]

Given the era during which Tart was working, a good deal of his ideas are concerned with attempting to understand the effects of cannabis and LSD on mental processes. It was Stanislav Grof who produced the more or less definitive work on the effects of LSD (before research into such drugs became entirely hindered by legislative restrictions). On the basis of observing and interviewing several thousands of 'clinical' LSD trials he radically changed his initial assumptions about the working of the mind. From being antagonistic to Jung's hypotheses he recognised that they were the best model for mental processes [3].

The druggy 60s were just the peak of a trend for drug-induced ASCs in European artistic circles which dates back to at least the nineteenth century. Aldous Huxley analysed in detail his experiences with psychedelics. These emerged in Doors of perception [4] and various other articles collected posthumously [5] which make up key first-hand descriptions of ASCs.

An unlikely trio of chemist, mycologist (fungus freak to you or me) and Greek classicist took the study of psychedelics in a different direction. The chemist was Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD; the mycologist R. Gordon Wasson and the classicist Carl Ruck. Their book, The road to Eleusis [6] was a rigorous examination of the Elusian Mysteries and argued that the key to the rituals was a drink made from rye infested by ergot (a known psychedelic micro-fungus).

Wasson went on to investigate amanita muscaria as the 'Soma' of the Vendantic religious rites and the use of the same species of mushroom among Siberian shamans [7]. He then looked at the religious use of fungi in central America [8]. The idea of 'magic mushrooms' was taken up by John Allegro in the well-known Sacred mushroom and the cross [9] although most would consider that he uses takes too far some highly selective evidence.

Otherwise this was so far mostly just academic research that really didn't take the public by storm. But, apparently unknown to them, other researchers were working along paths which would lead to the need for some serious inter-disciplinary dialogue. Anthropologists and ethnobotanists were beginning to obtain detailed first-hand accounts of the use of various psychoactive plants among native tribes throughout the world. The first of these to gain prominence was Carlos Castaneda with The teachings of Don Juan [10] and various sequels. At the same time other young anthropologists were working in similar ways with other tribal wise men - such as Alberto Villoldo [11]. Space does not permit a detailed discussion of the literature on psychoactive plants but I have left in the footnotes a number of books which are relevant [12-16].

Let us not get too emotive about what we mean by 'psychoactive plants'. Colonial activity has taken a number of such plants from their original context as sacraments and brought them home for recreational use - tobacco (sacred to many north and south American indian tribes); coca (sacred to Andeans but now part of cocaine - and reputedly a one-time ingredient in Coca Cola); coffee (used by sufis during all-night prayer sessions); cannabis (used by some hindu tantrics to enhance visualisation and meditation).

And if all these seems foreign, there is good evidence to believe that the wise men and women of the middle ages in Europe were well acquainted with the 'mindbending' effects of thorn apple, belladonna, mandrake, henbane, wolfsbane and (to use its domestic name) hemp.

Alongside the ethnobotanists, a number of anthropologists were beginning to come to terms with the various tribes who practised forms of shamanism - which was often (but not always) associated with psychoactive substances, such as amanita muscaria among the Siberians. Other shamanic cultures seem to have relied on drumming and other non-drug means of inducing trance states. I think shamanism is relatively familiar to MM readers so will not dwell on this aspect, except to observe that everything important about shamans - from their initiations through to the healing rituals - is closely bound-up with ASCs. Psychological or physical traumas - almost invariably leading to 'out of the body' experiences - are part of the path for becoming a shaman. Rituals in darkened tents with apparently paranormal voices or objects are the stock-in-trade of northern shamanic practices. The best introductions is the recently-published work by Walsh [17].

Rarely addressed are the implications for normal consciousness. If there are so many different forms of ASC - various dream states, different forms of trance and hypnosis, as well as drug-induced forms - is it correct to think in terms of just one state of 'normal' consciousness? Well, so far, nothing that biology or psychology has come up with has shown that normality is any way defined in our tissues. Indeed, a little awareness of anthropology would quickly demonstrate that most other cultures have a different 'normality' to our own. The recently-published book on Aboriginal traditions by James Cowan [18] makes it quite clear that the native Australian 'normal consciousness' cannot separate myth, language and landscape. If there are many forms of ASC then there are, at least among different cultures, many different normal states of consciousness (perhaps I may coin the abbreviation NSCs?) The range of healthy states of consciousness is broader than commonly imagined. States of exceptional concentration, calm, clarity and perceptual sensitivity are among many that can be distinguished.

But to separate into ASCs and NSCs is entirely false and simply based on our perception of ASCs as being 'different'. Instead, they are all best regarded as part of the continuum of consciousness, a multi-dimensional spectrum of awareness.

As if that is not sufficiently profound, what if we begin to acknowledge that the 'human psyche is not a limited reflection of the material universe [but is,] in a certain sense, identical with the entire universe and with all existences' [19]? Is to enter a different spectrum of consciousness also to enter an altered universe?

Rather than answer this metaphysical dilemma, let me add a further observation: ethnologists frequently report that traditional ceremonies are simultaneously religious, medicinal and psychotherapeutic. To state the obvious, such a view frightens the custodians of the separate paradigms of Western medicine, psychology and religion [20]. Just such fears block our own approaches to cultures separated widely in time or place.

To begin to approach what is possible outside our own confines of 'normality' and grasp the realities of 'altered realities' or (to draw upon the jargon of the shamans themselves) 'Otherworld journeys' would take a full book. Read Castaneda's or Villoldo [21]; or, if you have a copy of The Ley Hunter No.112 handy the interview with Christian Ratsch gives several examples [22]. Or, to move to the different domain of western esoterics, read Will Parfitt's Walking through walls [23].

Which leads me to repeat that drugs - natural or otherwise - are not the only way of entering deeply into ASCs. In the laboratory it has been found that hypnosis is equally effective, as is the very up-to-date 'technological' approach usually known as Ganzfeld. This involves covering the eyes with translucent red plastic and using headphones to fill the ears with 'white noise' (or similar natural sounds such as waterfalls). Outside the laboratory various 'magical' traditions employ techniques of ritual to enhance similar mind states - for modern-day shamans this may be little more than loud, repetitive drumming.

Let us not ignore other 'natural' ASC-inducing activities. Perhaps we should see military bands as just such an ASC-enhancing device - as marching into battle is itself an ASC. Other experiences rarely met in the Western world which lead to ASCs include hunger, cold, the searing heat of a sweat lodge, profound loneliness, sleep deprivation, even 'hyperventilation' or other breath-control techniques.

If an ASC is attained, by whatever means, another problem opens up. Simply put, we do not have the mental concepts - still less the words - by which to grasp and differentiate the experience. English - indeed any European language - is quite unable to describe the experiences which make up much of an ASC. To a greater extent than we can ever comprehend we are confined within the prison of our vocabulary. Slightly new experiences we can - with careful phrasing - describe effectively. But the entirely novel leaves us 'speechless' - recall the cliche of trying to describe the colour red to a person blind from birth.

Even the words we do use often have pejorative or misleading overtones. For instance, Anthony Weir has referred to getting 'wide' at stone circles on Psilocybe - a term which seems much more useful than 'high' or 'intoxicated' [24]. Maybe even the verb 'bemushroomed' should be encouraged, as Furst [25] suggested, because it avoids the negative - and erroneous - epithets such as 'intoxication'.

And what if we start to look, not at cultures separate in place, but ones separate in time? If the paleolithic cave painters were, in fact, responding to visions seen in ASCs (or, indeed, were painting 'under the influence'), as has been suggested by Lewis-Williams and Dowson [26], then our 'NSC' language of hunting magic is sinfully wide of the mark. If there is one environment supremely capable of enhancing ASCs it is caves - the darkness, constant temperature, absence of noise, the possible effects of screening from natural electro-magnetic fields and/or increased radon concentrations - each of these is a powerful ally to altering mental states.

Move on to the builders of the neolithic long barrows for a different speculation. Throughout Europe, Britain included, the skulls of those buried there include a significant number who have been trepanned. Yes, very neat almost perfectly circular holes were carefully cut into their skulls (presumably using just flint implements) and the bone removed. This was not a postmortem act, as some lived long enough for the bone to heal again. Although trepanning is still a necessary surgical technique for brain operations (and can be done under local anaesthetic!) there seems to be no first-hand literature on the effect of having a permanent hole in the head. My suspicion is that this produced a different range of ASCs, especially those involving 'subliminal' information from such organs as the pineal gland - which is light-sensitive but normally fully enclosed in the nearly opaque bone of the skull.

What, too, were our bronze age ancestors doing at sites such as stone circles which still put forth a good crop of Psilocybe sp.? Were they as aware of the psychoactive flora of their environment as they seem to have been aware of the subtleties of landscape and astronomy? Just what was the 'NSC' of their culture - and would we see it as an 'ASC'? Although often overlooked by excavators and invariably omitted from published excavation reports, where recognisable plant remains are recovered on a 'dig' there have been a number of cases where psychoactive plants and fungi were well represented. So far I am not aware of any 'serious' research into this, certainly not in the UK.

We are beginning to recognise that cultures separated from us in time or place often have a different 'NSC' to ourselves and had access to a wide range of ASCs. We must assume that our prehistoric precursors lived with a world view not entirely in accord with our own and - most probably - based upon the insights of varied ASCs. Even if we are unable to answer the many imponderables this invokes our approach to ancient sites will be greatly enhanced if we, too, try to see with the gaze of a wider spectrum of consciousness.


[1] Altered states of consciousness, ed. C.T. Tart, Wiley & Sons, 1969.
[2] The varieties of religious experience, W. James, 1902
[3] Realms of the human unconsciousness, S. Grof, Viking, 1975
[4] The doors of perception and heaven and hell, A. Huxley, Harper & Row, 1954
[5] Moksha, A. Huxley, Chatto & Windus, 1980
[6] The road to Eleusis, R.G. Wasson, A. Hoffmann, C.A.P. Ruck, Harcourt Brace, 1978.
[7] Soma: the divine mushroom of immortality, R.G. Wasson, 1968
[8] The wondrous mushroom: mycolatry in mesoamerica, R.G. Wasson, McGraw-Hill, 1980
[9]The sacred mushroom and the cross, J. Allegro, 1970
[10] The teachings of Don Juan, C. Casteneda, Univ. of California, 1968 (UK: Penguin 1970)
[11] The four winds, A. Villoldo, E. Jendresen, Harper & Row, 1990 (Reviewed in MM No.10.)
[12] Flesh of the gods: the ritual use of hallucinogens, ed. P.T. Furst, Praeger, 1976
[13] Hallucinogens: cross-cultural perspectives, M.D. de Rios, Univ of New Mexico, 1984 (UK paperback: Prism 1990).
[14] Gateway to inner space, ed. C. Ratsch, Prism, 1989
[15] Magical plants, C. Ratsch, Prism, 1992
[16] I am also aware that Paul Bennett has used the pages of Earth magazine to explore similar topics and understand he is to publish a guide to British psychoactive plants. See Earth No.17.
[17] The spirit of shamanism, R.N. Walsh, Mandala, 1990. If I had to suggest just one book among the many cited here as the most useful follow up on ASC research, this would be it.
[18] The elements of Aboriginal tradition, J.G. Cowan, Element, 1992 (Reviewed in MM No.11.)
[19] S. Grof in Ratsch 1989, op. cit.
[20] R. Metzner in ibid.
[21] op. cit.
[22] 'A conversation with Christian Ratsch', Paul Devereux, TLH No,112, 1990
[23] Walking through walls: practical esoteric psychology, W. Parfitt, Element, 1990
[24] pers. comm. I am grateful to Anthony Weir for a number of observations on ASCs which have been incorporated into this article without overt acknowledgement. Indeed, it was one of his letters which stimulated me to get to grips with writing this down.
[25] op. cit.
[26] 'The signs of all times' in Current anthropology Vol. 29, No.2, April 1988. A summary by R. Lewin appeared in New Scientist 8th June 1991 as 'Stone age psychedelia'.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.12 August 1992.


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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008