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Higher states of consciousness are a reality, and through intuition we can find out what is truly real.

by Steve Taylor

We all experience ‘higher states of consciousness’ from time to time, when an inner peace seems to fill us and the world around us seems magically transformed. Everything seems much more real and more beautiful, we feel like we’re actually part of our surroundings, and there seems to be a meaning in things which we aren’t normally aware of. The world seems a benevolent, harmonious place, and we may even become aware of a kind of force or presence which seems to pervade all things. We also have a sense that we’re seeing the world in a wider and truer way than normal, as if a veil has been pushed aside and we’re catching a glimpse of how things really are.

Studies show that, while these ‘higher states of consciousness’ can occur for no apparent reason, they are often ‘triggered’ by certain things: they often occur when we’re amongst natural surroundings, for example, or when we do meditation and yoga, or after periods of emotional turmoil and depression. They also sometimes occur when we do certain sports (such as long-distance running); people who suffer from epilepsy often experience them in the moments before seizures.

Mainstream science and psychology have never known what to do with these experiences. Since Freud interpreted them as a regression to the ego-less state of early childhood, psychologists have tended to treat them as undesirable pathological states. They’ve been seen as a form of schizophrenia, in which the normal ‘healthy’ ego stops functioning and loses the ability to differentiate between itself and the world ‘out there’.

Recently neuroscientists have also put forward explanations. Noting that they often occur in times of crisis, one theory suggests they’re caused by an ‘emergency response mechanism’ in the brain. This part of the brain is ‘switched on’ whenever we’re in dangerous situations, which makes us aware of the significance of the danger so that we can respond to it in the right way. However, sometimes this mechanism can be activated accidentally—in times of high emotional or physical stress, for example—so that our brain reacts as if we’re in an emergency situation and everything we see seems to be powerfully real and significant.

Another theory is that these ‘spiritual’ feelings might simply be the result of natural selection. Religion makes human societies more stable and cohesive, and so gives them a better chance of surviving. So perhaps ‘spirituality’ was simply an illusory sensation (created by certain brain chemicals) which was ‘selected’ by nature because it gave rise to religious beliefs and helped to create stable, cohesive societies.

What all these theories have in common is the assumption that there’s something aberrant about higher states of consciousness, or mystical experiences: pleasant but illusory feelings which are caused by a malfunctioning of the brain or the psyche. It’s taken for granted that our ordinary state of being is the ideal state for us to be in, one which tells us the absolute truth about our world. Anything that deviates from the state, and which shows a different ‘reality’ to us must, therefore, be unhealthy and illusory.

But in fact it makes more sense if we take the opposite stance—if we say that it’s our ordinary state of consciousness which shows a false reality to us, and it’s only in higher states of consciousness that we glimpse ‘reality’. In other words, our ordinary consciousness has something ‘wrong’ with it, and only higher states of consciousness should be considered normal and healthy.

Native Peoples & Children

Strangely, some peoples in the world seem to naturally live in what we could call a higher state of consciousness, or at least something close to it. Native Americans and Australian Aborigines seem to perceive the world around them in a more real way than modern Europeans or Americans. Because nature is so alive to them, these peoples don’t seem to experience the sharp duality between the individual and a world which is ‘out there’ which is our normal state. They seem to naturally experience a sense of connectedness and belonging to the world which is a facet of what we call higher states of consciousness.

It’s also strange that we seem to experience a degree of this kind of vision of the world as children. It may seem absurd to say that children live in a higher state of consciousness than adults, but it’s true that children experience the world in an intensely real way. As children we find the world a fascinating place, we stare in awe and wonder at ‘humdrum’ things which adults no longer bother about, and we feel a powerful natural delight in being alive. Because our ego’s haven’t yet become strongly developed, we also have a natural sense of connectedness to the world—instead of being ‘in here’ with the world ‘out there’, we are, in a sense, ‘out there’ with the world. The American psychologist H. Werner, in Comparative Psychology of Mental Development, notes that the perceptions of both native peoples and children are ‘more vivid and sensuous, and de-differentiated with respect to the distinctions between self and object and between objects.’

The Familiarity Mechanism

As I see it, two things ‘went wrong’. First was the development of a strong sense of ego. Many of our ancestors originated in very hostile environments in which they had to struggle to survive—the ancestors of modern Europeans/Americans, the Indo-Europeans, for example, originated in the steppes of southern Russia, which are a cold and arid semi-desert. Thus they probably needed to develop specialised survival skills. Their practical problems must have brought a need for self-reflection, a need for a problem-solving intelligence—in other words, a need for a separate sense of self with which to think abstractly. And perhaps this was how we developed our strong sense of ego.

The second thing which might have gone wrong relates to this. There seems to be a mechanism in our minds which ‘edits out’ the real-ness of things once we’ve been exposed to them for a while. For instance, when we go into a room with a terrible smell in it we feel nauseous and are amazed that the other people can stand it—but after a few minutes we seem to ‘switch off’ to the intensity of the smell and it no longer affects us as much. The same thing happens on a larger scale when we go to a foreign country for the first time, or when we move house into a new area—everything around us seems to be much more real and to clamour for our attention. We can really sense the new atmosphere and the exciting new sights and sounds. But this intensity of perception only lasts for a short time: after a few weeks or months we get used to the new environment, it becomes familiar and even dreary to us—as, again, something inside us seems to ‘switch off’ to its reality.

This ‘familiarity mechanism’—as we could call it—affects all our perceptions. We spend almost all our time surrounded by things which we’ve seen or experienced thousands of times before and whose reality we have, therefore, been de-sensitized to. In other words, we look at everything in the world through a veil of familiarity. In fact this is the main difference between us and children: children haven’t developed this ‘familiarity mechanism’ yet, the reality of the phenomenal world hasn’t been ‘edited out’ to them, which is why they perceive the world in such a real way, and why it’s so fascinating to them.

Our ancestors probably also developed this mechanism in response to the demands of survival. It must have been important for them to be continually vigilant, alert to possible dangers and sources of food, and to be practical and technically skilled. In other words, they needed to develop the ability to concentrate, to close their attention off to their surroundings and narrow it down to particulars. And perhaps the ‘familiarity mechanism’ developed to help them do this. It edited out the realness of the world so they no longer needed to give their attention to it, and so they wouldn’t be distracted from the practical business of survival.

Once this mechanism developed it must have aided the development of the ego too. As the reality of the ‘outside’ world was switched off to our senses, our attention became focused inside ourselves, so that we developed a more pronounced inner life and a greater sense of duality between our selves and the world.

Ordinary Consciousness

These are the two main factors which have gone into the development of our normal consciousness. The ‘familiarity mechanism’ means that the world is a fairly dreary place to us—and also an inanimate place, so that we see stones, rivers and even the earth itself as inert chemical machines; we aren’t aware of the spiritual essence which flows through all things and makes them one. And our strong sense of ego means that we experience a strong sense of disconnection to the world, and live inside ourselves instead of actually in the world.

But it’s hopefully clear by now that the assumption that this normal consciousness is perfectly healthy and gives us a ‘true’ vision of the world is wrong. This consciousness is the result of a ‘fall away’ from the more intense and fuller consciousness of native peoples and children, the end result of a process of limiting and filtering our awareness of reality, so that what we’re left with is a vision of the world which, far from being ‘correct’, is actually only a kind of false shadow reality.

In other words, our normal consciousness is really a kind of ‘sleep’, which we’re so used to we don’t even realise we’re in it. And the importance of higher states of consciousness is that when we have them we ‘wake up’. When we meditate, when we’re alone in nature or when we go long-distance running (or any occasion when we experience higher states of consciousness) we often manage to free ourselves from these limiting mechanisms. I haven’t got space here to explain the details (I try to do this in my yet-to-be-published book, Waking Up From Sleep), but it’s mainly because, in these moments, the channels through which we normally give away our vitality (or life-energy) close down. We normally give our vitality away by being active, by thinking, and through the work we have to do to process the sensory material around us. But when we meditate, for example, we’re completely inactive, our senses are closed to the external world and our minds are (hopefully) no longer filled with thought-chatter; as a result we retain our vitality. And this means that, since the essential purpose of the ‘familiarity mechanism’ is to save attentional energy, there’s no need for it to function, in the same way that you no longer need to save money when there’s a lot of it in your bank account. So for once our perceptions become free of familiarity and we become able to perceive the incredibly beautiful, animate and harmonious world which is normally hidden from us.

What this means is that we shouldn’t treat higher states of consciousness as illusions—instead we should see them as temporary glimpses of reality. It’s also important to remember that these glimpses don’t have to remain just temporary. After all, this is what spiritual practice is all about: turning the ‘peak experience’ into the ‘plateau experience’, turning these temporary ‘waking up experiences’ into a permanent state of wakefulness. Spiritual development is (from this point of view at least) a process of gradually ‘undoing’ the development of the ego and of the familiarity mechanism, eventually leading to a permanent higher state of consciousness. Every time we sit down to meditate, every time we do yoga, or when we manage to detach ourselves a little more from external sources of happiness or to make our lives less active or less hedonistic, we take a step closer to reality.

This article was published in New Renaissance, Vol. 10, No. 1

Steve Taylor, the author of two books, is a free-lance writer and teacher, living in Manchester, England. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.