Tag Archives: altered states

The Qur’an: On Consciousness and Perception

The exploration of consciousness and perception is something that fascinates me, and is something I search for within all spiritual texts that I read. During my reading of the Qur’an, I came across some interesting passages concerning consciousness and perception that are worth sharing and contemplating.

The first passage addresses the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. After eating the fruit, they become conscious of their physical state of being.

But Satan whispered to Adam, saying, ‘Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and power that never decays?’ and they both ate from it. They became conscious of their nakedness and began to cover themselves with leaves from the garden.

(p. 201)

There are a couple things I find interesting about this passage. First, there is a connection established between “immortality and power” and human consciousness. It is consciousness that makes us divine beings. Also, there is an implication that consciousness is immortal, that it lives on after our bodies cease to exist. This is a concept in which I firmly believe. The other thing that intrigued me about this passage is the subtle difference between the Judeo-Christian version of the story: in this version, Eve does not tempt Adam to eat the fruit. In fact, it almost seems like a reversal, that Adam gave in to Satan’s temptation and then gave the fruit to Eve also.

So, if consciousness if immortal, what happens to it after we die?

God takes souls at the time of death and the souls of the living while they sleep. He keeps hold of those whose death He has ordained and sends the others back until their appointed time: there truly are signs in this for those who reflect.

(p. 298)

The way I interpret this, when we die, our consciousness is reunited with the divine, which is the source of our consciousness. But also, when we sleep and enter the realm of the subconscious, we also temporarily merge our consciousness with the divine. I feel that this also happens during states of altered awareness, such as during meditation or under the influence of mind-altering substances.

Then what is the role of perception in all this? We are constantly exposed to spiritual and mystical experiences, but too often we are caught up in our lives to notice when these occur. The Qur’an offers a great parable describing this.

Even if they saw a piece of heaven falling down on them, they would say, ‘Just a heap of clouds,’ so leave them, Prophet, until they face the Day when they will be thunderstruck…

(p. 346)

We are always surrounded by signs of the divine spirit manifest in our world. Often, all we need is a slight shift in our consciousness and we begin to perceive what has always been there. If we are rushing about in our cars, or distracted by our cellular devices, when we look up, all we see is a heap of clouds. But if we slow down, take some deep cleansing breaths, and then look up at the sky, we notice something we failed to see before, a bit of heaven in our plane of existence.

4 Comments

Filed under Literature, Spiritual

Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 6: The Symbolism of the Cave

donquixote_cave

On a hero’s journey, the hero often goes through a symbolic exploration of the subconscious mind. This can be represented by the hero going into water, the underworld, or a cave. For this reason, I was not surprised when Don Quixote entered a cave and explored the abyss within, emerging with an expanded consciousness.

Before undertaking a daunting task, heroes will summon strength from an outside source. Before entering the cave, Don Quixote calls upon Dulcinea for protection and guidance upon his journey into the underworld.

“O mistress of my actions and movements, illustrious and peerless Dulcinea del Toboso, if so be the prayers and supplications of this fortunate lover can reach thy ears, by thy incomparable beauty I entreat thee to listen to them, for they but ask thee not to refuse my favour and protection now that I stand in need of them. I am about to precipitate, to sink, to plunge myself into the abyss that is here before me, only to let the world know that while thou dost favour me there is no impossibility I will not attempt and accomplish.”

(p. 716)

After Don Quixote reemerges from the cave, he relates his experience to his companions. The visions he describes are consistent with altered states of consciousness. He actually describes how he slipped into a state of reverie prior to the shift in awareness that brought on the mystical visions.

“… and as I was thus deep in thought and perplexity, suddenly and without provocation a profound sleep fell upon me, and when I least expected it, I know not how, I awoke and found myself in the midst of the most beautiful, delightful meadow that nature could produce or the most lively human imagination conceive. I opened my eyes, I rubbed them, and found I was not asleep but thoroughly awake. Nevertheless, I felt my head and breast to satisfy myself whether it was I myself who was there or some empty delusive phantom; but touch, feeling, the collected thoughts that passed through my mind, all convinced me that I was the same then and there that I am this moment. Next there presented itself to my sight a stately royal palace or castle, with walls that seemed built of clear transparent crystal; and through two great doors that opened wide therein, I saw coming forth and advancing toward me a venerable old man, clad in a long gown of mulberry-coloured serge that trailed upon the ground.”

(pp. 719 – 720)

The old man that Don Quixote encountered was Montesinos, but I could not help but seeing him as a Merlin figure. In fact, Merlin is mentioned later in the chapter as having prophesized the arrival of Don Quixote (p. 723). And the castle being made of crystal corresponds to the crystal cave of the Merlin mythology.

The last thing I want to discuss is the distortion of time associated with altered states of consciousness.

“I cannot understand, Senor Don Quixote,” remarked the cousin here, “how it is that your worship, in such a short space of time as you have been below there, could have seen so many things, and said and answered so much.”

“How long is it since I went down?” asked Don Quixote.

“Little better than an hour,” replied Sancho.

“That cannot be,” returned Don Quixote, “because night overtook me while I was there, and day came, and it was night again and day again three times; so that, by my reckoning, I have been three days in those remote regions beyond our ken.”

“My master must be right,” replied Sancho, “for as everything that has happened to him is by enchantment, maybe what seems to us an hour would seem three days and nights there.”

(p. 725)

In addition to the distortion of time, there is some number mysticism woven in here. We have three days existing within one hour, or three comprising the one. I cannot help but wonder if this is a reference to the trinity forming the godhead (father, son, holy ghost), or the mind/body/spirit trinity within a human being. Additionally, it could be symbolic of the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone). Regardless, we have a situation where the hero travels to the underworld, encounters a mystical being, experiences time distortion, and is presented with the number three as being connected to the mystical experience.

2 Comments

Filed under Literature

“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake: Opening the Doors of Perception

MarriageHeavenHell

This is probably my favorite work by William Blake. It is fairly long (about 15 pages), so it is too long to include in this post, but I am sure you can find digital versions online should you need. The piece is a combination of prose and poetry, so the style and tone changes throughout the text. Essentially, you have a debate between angels and devils about heaven and hell, good and evil, reason and emotion, and so forth. The key concept is that you cannot have one without the other, that contradictions are necessary for existence. As such, Blake is challenging all the established ideas of his time. Coming out of the Age of Reason, he argues the importance of creativity and emotion (embodied by the Romantic movement). Additionally, he challenges the doctrines of the church, which are represented by the passive, and asserts the importance of energy, or the passionate desires and instincts that Christian ideology seeks to suppress.

One of the key things to keep in mind when reading this text is that Hell is not inherently evil, but it is a symbol for energy, passion, emotion, and creativity. The fourth section of the text is subtitled “Proverbs of Hell” and include several pages of short proverbs intended to teach the importance of tapping into creative energy. I will include a few of my favorites to give an idea of the concepts embodied in the proverbs.

  • The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

  • He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.

  • A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.

  • He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.

  • No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.

  • What is now proved was once only imagin’d.

  • One thought fills immensity.

  • You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.

  • Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.

One of the most interesting aspects of this piece is the exploration of the subconscious through the use of altered perception. Blake asserts that in our normal state of consciousness, we are unable to perceive the divine. It is only through altered consciousness that we can catch a glimpse of the divine realm.

The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them; and whether they did not think at the time that they would be misunderstood, and so be the cause of imposition.

Isaiah answer’d: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in everything, and as I was then persuaded, & remain confirm’d, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences, but wrote.”

In his famous quote regarding the doors of perception, Blake acknowledges that the use of hallucinogenic substances, such as those used by indigenous shamanic cultures, can shift one’s consciousness to the point that an individual can perceive the divine. This quote and idea would later go on to inspire Aldous Huxley and later the rock group The Doors.

I then asked Ezekiel why he ate dung, and lay so long on his right and left side. He answer’d, “The desire of raising other men into a perception of the infinite: this the North American tribes practise, and is he honest who resists his genius or conscience only for the sake of present ease or gratification?”

. . .

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

Blake then goes on to describe a mushroom-induced experience of what it’s like to shift perception and plunge into the subconscious realm of visions and inspiration.

So I remain’d with him, sitting in the twisted root of an oak. He was suspended in a fungus, which hung with the head downward into the deep.

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swum, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption; & the air was full of them, and seem’d composed of them—these are Devils, and are called Powers of the Air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot? He said: “Between the black & white spiders.”

Toward the end of the text, one of the devils makes an argument about Jesus, essentially asserting that Christ was rebellious and acted from impulse and passion, and did not restrain his desires as is taught by church doctrine. The result of the devil’s argument is that the angel who was listening embraced the flame (symbol of enlightenment and passion) and became one of the devils.

The Devil answer’d: “Bray a fool in a mortar with wheat, yet shall not his folly be beaten out of him. If Jesus Christ is the greatest man, you ought to love Him in the greatest degree. Now hear how He has given His sanction to the law of ten commandments. Did He not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God; murder those who were murder’d because of Him; turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery; steal the labour of others to support Him; bear false witness when He omitted making a defence before Pilate; covet when He pray’d for His disciples, and when He bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

The text concludes with a powerful line, asserting the divinity inherent within all things.

For every thing that lives is Holy.

I hear this line echoed in Allen Ginsberg’s great poem “Howl.” And I firmly believe this. Every living thing has a spark of the divine within it, but sometimes our perception is shrouded and we cannot see it. And this is the message of Blake’s text; We must clear away the debris that clouds our vision and seek to perceive the infinite and divine essence that is all around us.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have an inspired day.

2 Comments

Filed under Literature, Spiritual

Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 9

Nosferatu

Nosferatu

As a musician, I have always been intrigued at the way sounds and rhythms can be used to stimulate parts of the subconscious mind and cause hidden aspects of the psyche to surface. I believe this is why chanting and drumming are integral parts of ritual, the goal of which is to alter the consciousness of the participants.

There is a great passage in Infinite Jest where a recovering addict is sharing an experience he had where he was playing violin and the notes blended with other vibrations resulting in a sudden shift in his consciousness. This shift allowed a dark, primordial aspect of his psyche to surface, an experience that was terrifying and traumatic.

‘The direction of flow is beside the point. It was on, and its position in the window made the glass of the upraised pane vibrate somehow. It produced an odd high-pitched vibration, invariant and constant. By itself it was strange but benign. But on this afternoon, the fan’s vibration combined with some certain set of notes I was practicing on the violin, and the two vibrations set up a resonance that made something happen in my head. It is impossible really to explain it, but it was a certain quality of this resonance that produced it.’

‘A thing.’

‘As the two vibrations combined, it was as if a large dark billowing shape came billowing out of some corner in my mind. I can be no more precise than to say large, dark, shape, and billowing, what came flapping out of some backwater of my psyche I had not had the slightest inkling was there.’

‘But it was inside you, though.’

‘Katherine, Kate, it was total horror. It was all horror everywhere, distilled and given form. It rose in me, out of me, summoned somehow by the odd confluence of the fan and those notes. It rose and grew larger and became engulfing and more horrible than I shall ever have the power to convey. I dropped the violin and ran from the room.’

(p. 649)

In this scene, the addict experiences the emergence of what Jung termed the shadow.

The shadow, said celebrated Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung, is the unknown “dark side” of our personality–dark both because it tends to consist predominantly of the primitive, negative, socially or religiously depreciated human emotions and impulses like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage, and due to its unenlightened nature, completely obscured from consciousness.

(Source: Psychology Today)

Throughout my life, I have experienced instances where music or sound caused my consciousness to shift, sometimes dramatically. But it can be particularly unsettling when the shift is unexpected. It’s one thing to experience this while meditating and actively seeking to unlock hidden realms of the psyche, but when it occurs for no apparent reason, it can have a devastating effect on a person.

9 Comments

Filed under Literature

Neil Gaiman’s “Miracleman” Issue #1

Miracleman_01

I read recently about a “new” comic arc written by Neil Gaiman. Being a big fan of Gaiman’s writing, I inquired about it at the local comic store. The owner said that it was originally written in the 1990’s and only part of the series was ever published, and that they were finally releasing the rest of the arc. He got the six original issues for me and said the first “new” issue is scheduled to be release in March.

I really enjoyed this first installment. It is classic Gaiman writing, rich in mystical symbolism. The writing is augmented nicely by Mark Buckingham’s artwork, which feels surrealistically modern, yet appears classical in style.

In this first issue, four pilgrims are climbing the stairs of a massive temple to reach their god, Miracleman, where they can pray directly to him. The climb is symbolic of the struggle one must take to attain a spiritual goal, where each level represents a stage in the spiritual ascension.

I ache all over. The rhythms of the climb begin to imprint themselves on my consciousness. Step after step after step, hour after hour, until we reach the next floor. Then we walk around the inside of this tower of miracles, through hall after hall filled with oddments and delights of every shape and kind, until we reach the bottom of the next rung of stairs. And up.

One of the floors of the temple is a hall of mirrors. The mirrors symbolize the stage in the spiritual quest when one begins to examine oneself through the lens of altered consciousness, seeing yourself in new and myriad ways, catching glimpses of your subconscious mind.

I don’t know how long we spent on the hundred and fiftieth floor in the mirror halls. We must have walked for miles, looking for a way up, or a way out, finding only mirrors. Regular mirrors, row after row of them. Distorting mirrors, that made us look fat, or thin, or twisted. And other mirrors. Taipek said he saw an angel in one of them. I didn’t see any angels. In one mirror I saw myself naked. In another I was looking out at myself, but I was holding up a piece of paper.

I love a graphic novel that uses visual art and written word to explore the intricacies of the mystical and the subconscious. This clearly falls into that category of graphic novel. I am eager to delve into issue 2.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literature

Poem #7: “The feet of people walking home” by Emily Dickinson

Sunrise

The feet of people walking home
With gayer sandals go—
The Crocus— til she rises
The Vassal of the snow—
The lips at Hallelujah
Long years of practise bore
Til bye and bye these Bargemen
Walked singing on the shore.

Pearls are the Diver’s farthings
Extorted from the Sea—
Pinions— the Seraph’s wagon
Pedestrian once— as we—
Night is the morning’s Canvas
Larceny— legacy—
Death, but our rapt attention
To Immortality.

My figures fail to tell me
How far the Village lies—
Whose peasants are the Angels—
Whose Cantons dot the skies—
My Classics veil their faces—
My faith that Dark adores—
Which from its solemn abbeys
Such resurrection pours.

One of the benefits of being a book nerd with a child in college is that I get to acquire used books from completed courses. This is the case with a collection of Emily Dickinson poems. I was happy when my daughter gave me this book, since reading more Dickinson was something I wanted to do. The book does not include everything that she wrote, but it is a good collection of selected poems, so I figured I’d start with the first one in the book.

I really love the metaphors in this poem, which for me deals with rebirth and resurrection. “The feet of people walking home” conjures an image of souls slowly making the pilgrimage back to the divine source. Dickinson immediately follows that image with a reference to the Crocus. I have crocuses around my house, so I get this symbol. They are the first flowers to bloom after the cold death of winter. I have taken pictures of these vibrant yellow and purple flowers as they burst through the hardened earth. For me, they are the harbingers of spring, the promise of rebirth. Every year, when I see the crocuses bloom in my yard, I know that spring is near.

In the second stanza, there is a reference to a diver collecting pearls from the sea. For me, this is probably the most complex of the metaphors in this poem, because it can mean multiple things. The pearls could symbolize spiritual insights collected during one’s lifetime, which become useful in the transitional period after death. They can also be deeds of kindness. Since the sea is a common metaphor for the subconscious mind, then the pearls could be those gems of ineffable wisdom acquired during states of heightened awareness. Finally, the pearls could be poems, collected from the sea of life’s experiences and suffering.

As I look out my window and see dawn coloring the sky outside, the line “Night is the morning’s Canvas” deeply resonates. As soon as I read this line, I could visualize streaks of pastel color forming on the dark background of the sky. Dawn is such a powerful symbol of rebirth, and one that occurs every day. It is our daily reminder that life begins anew each time we arise. As we get caught up in our lives, it’s easy to forget that each day is essentially a small resurrection, an opportunity to start a new life.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts, and I hope you have a blessed day!

7 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Phantom” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

All look and likeness caught from earth
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own ;—
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.

According to the editor’s note in my book, this short poem is one of Coleridge’s attempts at describing Sara Hutchinson as she appeared to him in a dream. But as is often the case with Coleridge’s work, there is more meaning hidden below the surface.

As one who was fascinated by the supernatural and metaphysics, we can assume that Coleridge believed that the human body is inhabited by a soul that continues to exist after a person has died. When a person enters into an altered state of consciousness—whether through sleep/dreams or psychotropic substances or meditation—that person becomes more open to perceiving non-corporeal entities. Coleridge makes it clear in this poem that he believes the spirit is the true essence of a person and not the physical form. Based upon the way he describes his interaction with Sara, I suspect that Coleridge believed he actually crossed a threshold while in the dream state and met with the spirit of Sara Hutchinson.

5 Comments

Filed under Literature