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Why we need to alter our consciousness

Updated: Apr 4

The importance of altered, or non-ordinary states of consciousness in the evolution of humanity.


Throughout history, hunter-gatherer and other ancient societies have engaged in a variety of different rituals to enter altered states of consciousness. These rituals included fasting, inducing trance through singing, drumming, dancing, the adopting of specific body postures for prolonged periods of time, group worship ceremonies, or ingesting psychedelic entheogens like psilocybin mushrooms.


The prevalence of rituals for inducing altered states have been observed in many cultures across the world. The Tugusic peoples of Siberia, the San people of Botswana and Namibia, and aboriginal Australians used music and dance. Indigenous communities in the Amazon as well as the ancient Greeks used entheogens. Practitioners of Taoism and Tamil Hinduism experience trance through deity possession, which enable them to walk across fire or pierce their own skins with sharp objects and feel no pain, and Pentecostals, when “possessed” by the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues.


This strongly suggests that as a species, we humans are hardwired to seek out altered states of consciousness, because these states are necessary for optimal physical and psychological wellbeing. One might surmise that like shelter, food, and sex, altered states are a necessary means of ensuring our survival. Often, rituals for altering consciousness occur in the context of healing, initiation into a different life phase (for example when a girl starts menstruating and becomes a woman), and problem solving (as is exemplified by the priestess of Apollo at the Greek Oracle of Delphi). Such rituals have long served an important and powerful purpose in the evolution and growth of individuals and societies. Not only does learning to alter our consciousness encourage healing, help us cope with change, or problem-solve, this skill is also an anecdote to tedium, boredom, restlessness, and feeling stuck.


Unfortunately, modernity societies have — for the most part — done away with the old rituals. But that doesn’t mean that our desire to go into altered states have disappeared. We’ve just found a whole lot of really unhealthy and harmful ways to enter into them. Workaholism, sex addiction, gaming, Internet and porn addiction, alcoholism, gambling, drug addiction, shopaholism, and overeating are just some of the less than salubrious methods we now use to get out of our default, or ordinary, state of mind and into a different state of mind (an altered state). As history has shown, our desire for altered states of consciousness is perfectly healthy. It is the methods we employ for the alteration that are killing us.


If we are humble enough and curious enough to learn the consciousness-altering procedures of our ancestors, we have a better chance of breaking harmful habits and receiving the gifts of healing, community, wisdom, and personal growth that those who came before us enjoyed.


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