Waking From Sleep: The Causes of Higher States of Consciousness (cont.)
By Steve Taylor
My view is that there are two basic types of awakening experiences, which have two distinct causes. The first type are wild, ecstatic experiences that happen when the normal homeostasis of our brain and bodies is disrupted. This is a ‘loophole’ which human beings have made use of throughout history. This is why there has always been a link between fasting and spirituality, for example. A prolonged lack of food appears to make the hold which ordinary consciousness has over us looser, and bring us closer to an awakened vision of the world. Fasting puts us ‘out of homeostasis’ by causing physiological changes, such as a lower level of blood glucose, higher levels of insulin and a lower body temperature.
Indigenous peoples often fast and deprive themselves of sleep as a preparation for rituals, dance and vision quests, using physical deprivation as a way of ‘purifying’ themselves. The Vision Quest was a spiritual exercise used by some Native American peoples as a way of building up spiritual power and communicating with spirits. The person would go to a solitary spot – often the top of a mountain – and stay there for up to four days, fasting and exposing themselves to the elements (usually wearing almost no clothes, even if the weather was cold). He or she would try to attain a state of complete attentiveness to their surroundings, since sacred powers might try to communicate with them at any moment. As a result, they might experience a higher state of consciousness (that is, higher than their normal low level higher state), with strong feelings of peace and a sense of connection to the natural world, and also be given special knowledge – such as a message or a new song or dance – from spirits.
In ancient Greece and – at a later time – throughout the Middle East and the Roman Empire, a large number of esoteric cults existed outside conventional religions. These ‘mystery cults’ were usually centred around particular gods, but rather than just worshipping them, the participants aimed to become one with the gods, or to be possessed by them. They fasted and went without sleep before ceremonies, and used a variety of other methods of disrupting homeostasis during them: they would take drugs, beat themselves, and dance frenziedly, so that they might be – in the words of the ancient philosopher Proclus, who observed the mysteries at first hand – ‘filled with divine awe...assimilate themselves to the holy symbols, leave their own identity, become at home with the gods, and experience divine possession.’
Like fasting, sleep deprivation is a very uncomfortable experience and doesn’t have any psychological effects apart from making us more anxious and irritable. However, sleep deprivation also puts out of homeostasis. It causes physiological changes such as higher blood pressure, a depressed immune system and hormonal and metabolic changes. As a result, it can occasionally give rise to a higher state of consciousness. This was why the mystery initiates and native peoples went without sleep before ceremonies and rituals.