Spirituality, Drugs, and Meditation
The Power and Limits of Different Ways to Change our State of Being
State Changes are Common
Think about the last dream you remember. It was probably pretty weird. You existed, yet it was a sort of altered state of being. Or you might have felt a runner’s high after intense exercise, another state of being in which you see and experience the world differently from your day to day norm. You have probably felt a jolt of energy from caffeine that instantly shifted your mood; you may have felt a similar change from sugar, or booze, prescription drugs, cocaine, or flying down a mountain on skis. You may have felt a strange shift in perception where you are identified with a larger force in life a result of smoking weed, eating mushrooms, spending time in nature or catching an epic wave on a surfboard. Even emotions change our state of being.
The point is that state changes—changes in the state of being we feel and perceive reality in—are incredibly common. They are a natural part of being human, and they shift every day, many times a day. I believe that we have a natural urge to shift between states.
The Problem with the External State Changes
In the Western world we are not taught ways to shift our state of being from the inside. We have plenty of readily available external options: coffee, beer, wine, Vitamin B, cigarettes, and drugs of all ilk. I would go so far as to say that we are addicted to state changes, yet the problem is that we are always have to rely on the external world to give them to us. This means we never have control. We don’t get to decide when the state change ends, and if we don’t have our catalyst of choice available, we suffer. Caffeine addicts get headaches, smokers get irritable, illicit drug users go through painful withdrawals.
Running, working out, and extreme sports are good alternatives, but they’re still external. They still put us at the effect of our environment, which can lead to profound unhappiness: What do we do when we’re stuck on an airplane, in class, or at the office? What about when we’re already partaking in some other activity?
The Power of Internal State Changes
We learn to change our state from the inside out. Meditation is the world’s most time-tested, universal form of state change. Breathing meditation is incredibly powerful because as long as we are alive, we are breathing. Instead of linking relaxation or whatever state change you seek with coffee, or running, or any other external thing which you may not always have at hand, you link the state you want with the one thing you will always have: your breath.
There are different ways to alter your breathing to achieve different results, and there are many other internal techniques which can also be powerful changers of state. Prayers and mantras, prayer beads and Rosaries, visualizations and mandalas have all been used to induce altered states of being. Singing and dancing are incredibly powerful ways to shift our state; in the United States we have seen a marked increase in attendance at live music festivals and concerts for this very reason. Learning to sing or play music, becoming more confident in your body’s expression through dance, can help unlock the intrinsic power of these activities which are often more readily available and acceptable than external state changers. Simply put: you can take a dance break during work to change how you feel, but you can’t really take acid.
Drugs and Spiritual Insight
Drugs are ubiquitous in human history. We’ve been seeking spiritual insight from external mind alteration since the beginning of time: from shamanistic plant potions to monks brewing beer. These can be powerful sources of illumination, but their power is limited because they are external. When we depend on them for knowledge we can lose sight of the very truth these experiences are usually spotlighting. They may help us take on a new perspective, but to integrate their learning in everyday life we have to keep taking them, and the side effects usually outweigh the benefits. As a result they are not nearly as helpful for us to become more loving, compassionate, moral, forgiving, and wise in our everyday lives as internal state changing practices.
When we learn instead to change state from the inside, that state change supports the person we want to grow into. We can receive spiritual insight anytime, and through practice can gain insight more and more often in the banality of everyday reality. Jesus told us “the Kingdom of God is within you,” and enlightenment is usually defined as recognizing the Divinity within and beyond each and every one of us. So while external state changes can be useful for undoing the emphasis we place on one particular interpretation of reality, they are at best inferior to long term internal practice, and at worst diversions from our spiritual goals.
Recognizing the Presence of Love
Modern societies consume copious amounts of caffeine, painkillers, alcohol, tobacco, and a ton of other stuff with varying degrees of legality. Adrenaline junkies look for more and more dangerous stunts to take them to the next high. Even receiving a text message can release a hit of dopamine in our brains, leading us to become somewhat addicted to the pleasure of texting, even while driving. The stories that surround drugs from Breaking Bad to Mexican cartels are fascinating, horrifying, heartbreaking and strangely attractive. I believe this is all because state changes are inherently part of human nature, but since so many of us do not know how to change our state without external stimulation we gulp up whatever we can get, whenever we can get it.
Some state changes can accelerate our evolution and give us insight into the presence of love operating in our live and the world—whether they come from out or from within. They can help us identify with this all encompassing love so that we always feel connected to a larger happiness, peace, and purpose even when our personal lives are not going the way we want them to. This is a wonderful thing; it is precisely why I think it is so important for us to learn how we can catalyze these changes and experiences inside ourselves, instead of relying on something outside our control.