Waking From Sleep: The Causes of Higher States of Consciousness (cont.)
By Steve Taylor
Pain is usually desperately unpleasant too, of course, but it can also be used as a way of inducing awakening experiences. We can see this in the long tradition of asceticism, for instance, which runs through all of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. An ascetic is someone who deliberately denies his body’s needs, and inflicts pain and discomfort on himself, either through fasting, abstaining from sensual pleasures and comforts, or by physically beating or injuring himself. This sounds like sadism, and for some ascetics it probably was. It’s also likely that some ascetics were motivated by morbid self-hatred and neurotic feelings of guilt towards sex and other bodily processes, which made them want to punish themselves.
It goes without saying that inflicting pain on yourself, or forcing yourself to go without sleep or food, are hardly ideal ways of transcending ordinary consciousness. Although some ascetics apparently managed to continue torturing themselves for years and even decades, there’s obviously a very high risk of seriously injuring yourself, or dying of self-neglect. Aside from the famous ascetics like St Simeon Stylites and Henry de Suso, there were probably many others who followed similar practices but didn’t live long enough to gain any recognition. As a short term spiritual technology asceticism is fairly futile anyway; you might gain a brief glimpse of a higher reality but this only lasts as long as the chemical changes that the pain and suffering have produced inside you. Your body always returns to homeostasis, and you always have to return your constricted normal consciousness.
There must be easier ways of ‘disrupting the equilibrium’ than fasting, sleep deprivation or pain – and there are. If we know that all an ascetic is really doing by torturing himself is changing his normal chemistry, then surely, you might say, it'd be more sensible to just interfere with this chemistry directly – by taking drugs, for example, which would give us the same effect but wouldn't involve any self-harm.
Human beings have always used drugs as a means of intensifying or altering consciousness. The ancient peoples of Europe apparently smoked opium and cannabis 6,000 years ago; 2,000 years later the early Indo-European conquerors of India worshipped their drink Soma, which most scholars believe was made from magic mushrooms; while the initiates of the Greek Eleusinian mysteries used a psychoactive drink called kykeon. Indigenous peoples often use drugs too: Native Americans ingested sacred plants such as fly-agaric mushrooms and peyote, while the Australian Aborigines have a powerful form of tobacco called pituri. By far the most powerful in terms of their transcendental effects are psychedelic drugs, such as mescaline, LSD or magic mushrooms. In the right circumstances – and the right state of mind – these drugs can, it seems, take our minds out of the ‘mould’ of ordinary consciousness, and give us access to wider and more intense realities.