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Ralph Metzner, Ph.D.

California Institute of Integral Studies

In this essay, I propose to examine the states of consciousness induced by hallucinogens or psychedelic drugs in the framework of a general model of altered states of consciousness (ASCs). Although modern science, construed in a strict sense within a materialist worldview, cannot deal adequately with subjective states of consciousness, I argue that a return to William James’ philosophy of radical empiricism can provide an appropriate epistemological underpinning for the empirical study of consciousness. According to the general model of ASCs, the content of a state of consciousness is a function of the internal set and external setting; regardless of the catalyst or trigger, which might be a drug, or hypnotic induction, or shock, or rhythmic sounds, or music, etc. ASCs, whether induced by drugs or other means, differ energetically on the dimensions of (1) arousal vs. sedation, (2) pleasure vs. pain, (3) expansion vs. contraction. I argue that the classical hallucinogenic or psychedelic drugs are consciousness expanding, and therefore opposite in effect to drugs, such as the opiates, alcohol, cocaine and amphetamines, that can lead to addicted, fixated, contracted states of consciousness. I call psychoactive (or “mood regulators”) those drugs, such as the stimulants and depressants in moderate dosages, that affect primarily the dimensions of arousal and pleasure-pain, without significant expansion of consciousness. Finally, the implications for applications in psychotherapy are also discussed.

Radical Empiricism as the Epistemology for the Study of Consciousness
It is only recently, in re-reading William James’ writings on his philosophy of radical empiricism that I came to realize that this philosophy actually provides the epistemology of choice for the study of states of consciousness – ordinary or altered. Within the materialistic paradigm still ruling in scientific circles, any insights or learnings gained from dreams, drug experiences, trances, intuitions, mystical ecstasies or the like, are seen as “merely subjective”, and limited to those states, i.e. not having general applicability or “objective reality.” The psychologist Charles Tart in an essay on “state-specific sciences” attempted to break the conceptual stranglehold of this paradigm by suggesting that observations made in a given state of consciousness could only be verified or replicated in that same state (Tart, 1972). This solution seems theoretically valid, but attended with practical difficulties.

William James started with the basic assumption of the empirical (“experience-based”) approach: all knowledge is derived from experience. Radical empiricism applies this principle inclusively, not exclusively: James writes:

I give the name of ‘radical empiricism’ to my Weltanschauung. ... To be radical an empiricism must neither admit into its construction any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system. (James, 1912/1996, p. 42)

This view can provide a philosophical foundation for a scientific psychology of consciousness. All knowledge must be based on observation, i.e. experience; so far this view coincides with the empiricism of the natural and social sciences. It’s the second statement that is truly ‘radical’ and that explains why James included religious and paranormal experiences in his investigations. The experiences in modified states of consciousness are currently excluded from materialistic, reductionistic science, as are all kinds of anomalous experiences, such as shamanic journeys, near-death experiences, and mystical or paranormal experiences. They need not and should not be excluded in a radical empiricism.

Western psychology may be finally coming around to the views expressed by William James, after his personal research with the psychedelic anaesthetic nitrous oxide, almost 100 years ago, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different...No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded (James, 1901/1958, p. 228).

From the perspective of radical empiricism, it is not where or how observations are made that makes a field of study “scientific”, it is what is done with the observations afterwards. Repeated systematic observations from the same observer, and replicating observations from others, is what distinguishes the scientific method from casual or haphazard observations, or those made with intentions other than gathering knowledge. Whereas the ideology of fundamentalist scientism does not allow permit the objective investigation of subjective experience, the epistemology of radical empiricism posits that it is possible to be objective about subjective experience, using the accepted canons of the scientific method. The methodology of systematic introspection, and phenomenology, are the beginnings of such a more inclusive approach.

Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs) as Paradigm
for the Study of Consciousness

The discovery of psychedelics and the kind of time-limited, profoundly altered states of consciousness they induced, led to a significant re-examination and evaluation of all states of consciousness, both those ordinarily experienced by all, such as waking, sleeping and dreaming, and those deliberately or spontaneously induced. There are those altered states generally considered positive, healthy, expansive, associated with increased knowledge and moral value, such as religious or mystical experience, ecstasy (lit. “ex-stasis”), transcendence, hypnotherapeutic trance, creative inspiration, tantric erotic trance, shamanic journey, cosmic consciousness, samadhi, nirvana, satori; and those considered negative, unhealthy, contractive, associated with delusion, psychopathology, destructiveness and even crime, such as depression, psychosis, madness, hysteria, mania, dissociative disorders, substance addictions (alcohol, narcotics, stimulants) and behavioral addictions and fixations (sexuality, violence, gambling, spending).

A brief personal note might be permitted: as a psychologist, I have been involved in the field of consciousness studies, including altered states induced by drugs, plants and other means, for over 40 years. In the 1960's I worked at Harvard University with Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), doing research on the possible applications of psychedelic drugs, that were also called “consciousness-expanding”, such as psilocybin, mescaline and LSD (Leary et al., 1963; Leary et al., 1964). Later, during the 1970's, the focus of my work shifted to the exploration of non-drug methods for the transformation of consciousness, such as are found in Eastern and Western traditions of yoga, meditation and alchemy (Metzner, 1971). I also studied intensively the newer psychotherapeutic methods, many deriving from the work of pioneers such as Wilhelm Reich, that involve deep altered states induced by breath- and body-work. During the 1980's I came into contact with the work of Michael Harner (1973), Joan Halifax (1982), Peter Furst (1976), Terence and Dennis McKenna (1975) and others, who have studied shamanic teachings and practices around the globe. These shamanic traditions involve what are called “non-ordinary states of consciousness” induced by a variety of methods including hallucinogenic plants, but also drumming, fasting, wilderness vision questing, sweat-lodge and others. This work allowed me to see certain consistent patterns in altered states of consciousness, regardless of the technique or catalyst used to induce them.

The key to understanding the content of a psychedelic experience as formulated by Timothy Leary, Frank Barron and colleagues in the early days of the Harvard Psilocybin Research Project, was the “set-and-setting” hypothesis: that the content of a psychedelic experience is not so much a function of pharmacology, i.e. a “drug effect”, but rather a function of the set, which is all the internal factors of expectation, intention, mood, temperament, attitude; and setting, which is the external environment, both physical and social, and including the attitudes and intentions of whoever provides or initiates the experience. The drug is regarded as a trigger, or catalyst, propelling the individual into a different field or state of consciousness, in which the vividness and contextual qualities of sense perceptions are greatly magnified.

This hypothesis helps one to understand how it is possible that the very same drug, was studied and interpreted as a model psychosis (psychotomimetic), an adjunct to psychoanalysis (psycholytic), a treatment for addiction or stimulus to creativity (psychedelic), facilitator of shamanic spiritual insight (entheogenic); or even, as by the US Army and CIA, as a truth-serum type of tool for obtaining secrets from enemy spies. Of the two factors of set and setting, set or intention is clearly primary, since the set ordinarily determines what kind of setting one will choose for the experience. In fact, it has been shown experimentally in small groups, that asking people to pay close attention to their inner experience, with nothing else to occupy their attention, itself is sometimes sufficient to induce a mild altered state (Hunt and Chefurka, 1976).

In my classes on Altered States of Consciousness, I have extended the set and setting hypothesis to all alterations of consciousness, no matter by what trigger they are induced (drugs, foods, fasting, hypnotic inductions, sounds, drumming, breathing methods, movement as in trance dance, wilderness isolation, and many others); and even those states that recur cyclically and regularly, such as sleeping and waking (Metzner, 1989). In those cyclic alterations of consciousness, one may say that internal biochemical events normally trigger the transition to sleeping or waking consciousness, but external factors may provide an additional catalyst. For example, lying in bed, in darkness, may trigger changes in melatonin levels in the pineal gland, which in turn trigger falling asleep; and brighter light, or sounds of an alarm, can be the trigger for awakening, again meditated by cyclical biochemical changes. There may be, in addition, external factors such as stimulant or sedative drugs, which trigger those alterations. Fig. (1) is a reprentation of this General Model of Altered States. I call it a heuristic, rather than explanatory, since it can serve as a framework for discovery and understanding; rather than explaining changes in consciousness by reference to events at another level, such as brain function.


Figure 1: General Heuristic Model of Altered States of Consciousness

In classes I have often asked students to choose one positive and one negative altered state from their recent experience, and then analyze and determine what was the trigger, what the set and what the setting. This is usually quite revealing, in the sense of heightening one’s awareness of the impact of one’s own inner set and intention on the quality of experience.

Clearly, for example, the content of our dreams can be analyzed as a function of set, -- internal factors in our consciousness during the day, as well as the environment in which we find ourselves. Some writers on what is called “dream incubation” make deliberate use of that principle, consciously formulating certain questions related to their inner process or outer situation, as they enter the world of sleep dreaming. In hypnotherapy, as in any form of psychotherapy, we always start with the intention or question that the client brings, using that to direct the movement into and through the trance state. In shamanic practice, whether with rhythmic drumming as the catalyst, or entheogenic plant concoctions like ayahuasca, or conscious night-time dreaming as the preferred method of the practicioner, one always comes initially with a question or intention. Even one’s experience in the ordinary waking state, such as that of the reader perusing this essay, is a function of the internal factors of intention or interest, and the setting where the reading is taking place.

Some researchers, notably Stanislav Grof (Grof, 1985), in his cartography of altered states, whether induced by psychedelics or by holotropic breathing, have categorized the different states by content, such as perinatal memories, identifications with animals or plants, experiences beyond the ordinary framework of time and space, and so on. Others have taken a somewhat different approach, focussing on the energetics of altered states, apart from content. An early paper by Roland Fischer (Fischer, 1971) published in Science, arranged various states of consciousness on a continuum of arousal, or what he called ergotrophic vs trophotropic activation (roughly equivalent to sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system activation).

Since such a scheme involves placing schizophrenia and creative inspiration in the same general category, both being “high energy” states, I thought a second dimension of pain vs pleasure, or what I call the hedonic continuum should be added. The term “high” can means high arousal or stimulation, such as an amphetamine jag; or it can mean highly pleasurable, such as sexual ecstasy. Figure (2) shows an orthogonal mapping of these two dimensions of states of consciousness, with possible placements for psychoactive stimulant and sedative drug effects. In general, I would say the psychoactives (stimulants and depressants) differ from the classical psychedelics in that (1) the pharmacological trigger effect is dominant, and the set-setting content variables less so; and (2) they are not consciousness-expanding (see below for further discussion). It is difficult to place psychedelic drug experiences in the coordinate axes of this model -- because their energetics can be “all over the map”, including high and low arousal, and heavenly as well as hellish components.


Figure 2: Two Dimensions of Altered States of Consciousness

I have also developed a graphic rating scale (Metzner, 1986), in which the arousal and hedonic continua are shown on a graph, for self-rating, each of the two dimensions converted to a 7-point scale. This Altered State Graphic Profile (ASGP) can be, and has been used to compare different states of consciousness within an individual’s experience; or different people’s experience of a particular kind of state, drug or non-drug. The arousal or wakefulness continuum has a zero or neutral point “awake & calm”, and then goes to “alert/attentive”(+1), “stimulated”(+2), and “aroused/excited”(+3); in the opposite direction, it is “alpha/meditative”(-1), “drifting/twilight”(-2), and “deep trance/sleep”(-1). The hedonic or pleasure-pain continuum has a zero or neutral point, and goes to “pleasant” (+1), “elated/euphoric”(+2) and “ecstatic/heaven”(+3); and in the opposite direction, it is “unpleasant”(-1), “painful/disturbing”(-2) and “agony/hell”(-3). On the hedonic continuum, the negative part of the scale includes such generally unpleasant emotional states as anxiety, depression, anger, sickness and the like. What is being assessed is only the affective intensity and discomfort involved, not the specific emotion involved, nor the underlying thought-content.
no. 2


The two continua are displayed with a time-line: depending on the particulars of the kind of altered state, this can be calibrated for longer or shorter time periods and intervals. The individual can be asked to place a check mark at the appropriate point on the two scales, say, every 15 mins, or 30 mins, as was done in an unpublished study of the effects of MDMA; the resulting graphs of subjective intensity can then also be compared to graphs of levels of biochemical markers, such as serotonin levels. It is best to obtain readings of the two continua for at least an hour prior to the trigger event (e.g. drug ingestion), to establish a base-line in the “ordinary” state. Specific triggering events that presumably affect the altered state can also be indicated at the time they occurred. These might include: 100 mg MDMA, one glass of wine, 3 inhalations of cannabis, hypnotic induction, begin zazen meditation, begin symphonic music, chanting, watching sunset, etc. While in many kinds of studies, individuals can readily assess their subjective state while “in” it, we have also found that for many kinds of experiences, the ASGP can be filled out retrospectively, from memory.

A third purely formal or energetic dimension of altered states, irrespective of content, is expansion vs contraction. Psychedelic drugs were originally called “consciouness-expanding”: in such states, one does not see hallucinated, illusory objects, rather one sees the ordinary objects but in addition sees, knows and feels associated patterns and aspects that one was not aware of before. In such states, in addition to perception, there is apperception - the reflective awareness of the experiencing subject and understanding of associated elements of context. Another way of saying this is that an objective observer or witness consciousness is added to the subjective experiencing. This expanded, aware apperceptive element is generally absent in the psychoactive stimulants and depressants, which simply move consciousness either “up” or “down” on the arousal dimension, and away from pain or discomfort. The observer witness consciousness is also notoriously absent in the addictive state induced by narcotics, which is typically described as “uncaring”, “cloudy”, or “sleep like”.

A note on the term hallucinogenic : this is the term most often used in the psychiatric research literature for these substances, called psychedelic (“mind-manifesting”) in the sub-culture of those interested in conscious self-exploration. The main objection to the term "hallucinogenic" is that these drugs and plants do not in fact induce hallucinations, in the sense of "illusory perceptions". But the term "hallucinogen" deserves to be rehabilitated. The original meaning of the Latin alucinare, from which it is derived, is to "wander in one's mind"; and travelling or journeying in inner space are actually quite appropriate descriptive metaphors for such experiences, which are referred to colloquially as "trips". Another term, entheogen, proposed by R. Gordon Wasson and Jonathan Ott, has the same root as "enthusiasm", and means "releasing or expressing the divine within" (Ott, 1995). This was suggested as an appropriate term for plant-derived substances used in shamanic spiritual healing rituals in indigenous cultures, such as ayahuasca, for which the term “psychedelic” might seem too much tied to modern Western culture and history (Metzner, 1999).

To return for a moment to non-drug alterations of consciousness, waking up, both the ordinary kind, and the metaphorical kind referred to in spiritual texts, is an experience of expanded consciousness: I become aware of the fact that it is I who is lying in this bed, in this room, having just had this particular dream, and the rest of the world outside, with all the relations of family and work, community and cosmos. To transcend means to “go beyond”; therefore transcendent experiences, variously referred to in the spiritual traditions as enlightenment, ecstasy, liberation, mystical, cosmic, revelation, all involve an expansion of consciousness, in which the previous field of consciousness is then seen as more limited (e.g. “that was only a dream”), but included in a greater context, providing insight.

In an essay on “Addiction and Transcendence as Altered States of Consciousness”, (Metzner, 1994) I proposed that while psychedelic and other forms of transcendent experiences can be regarded as prototypical expansions of consciousness, the prototypical contracted states of consciousness are found in the fixations of addictions, obsessions, compulsions and attachments.

Addictions and Compulsions as Contracted States of Consciousness

A useful book that summarizes and integrates social psychological research on addiction is Stanton Peele's The Meaning of Addiction (Peele, 1985). In this book, Peele identifies the main features of what he calls "addictive experience" or "involvement". In other words this is an analysis in terms of the state of consciousness of the addicted person. Addictive experiences or involvements are defined as "potent modifications of mood and sensation." When a drug or behavior has the ability to produce an immediate, effective and powerful modification of mood and sensation, then you have the potential for the development of an addictive or compulsive involvement. This definition identifies an addictive experience as a particular variety of altered consciousness. An altered state of consciousness may be defined as a time-limited state in which the patterns of thought, of feeling or mood, of perception and sensation are altered from the ordinary or baseline condition.
The relative role of genetic, biochemical, socio-cultural, personality, and situational factors in the development of addictive involvements is still a matter of considerable controversy. Some believe that genetic, biochemical conditions create a predisposition to become addicted; and personality and situational factors act as triggers or catalysts. Others argue that the addiction is completely learned and that biochemical/genetic factors only predispose the particular choice of the addictive object or behavior. Much more research is obviously needed to sort out the relative contributions of these different contextual factors. In this essay I am focussing on the experience, the phenomenology of addiction.

If we examine addictive experience as an altered state of consciousness of a certain kind, we can compare it with other kinds of altered states of consciousness. I propose that addictive experiences, compulsions and attachments involve a fixation of attention and a narrowing of perceptual focus -- in other words a contracted state of consciousness. This is in contrast to transcendent or ecstatic or mystical states which involve mobility of attention and a widening of perceptual focus -- in other words the classic expanded state of consciousness. "Transcendent" means "above and beyond", and "ecstasy" means "ex-stasis" -- out of the static condition, out of the usual state of consciousness. Addiction and attachment, on the other hand, involve the opposite direction: fixation, repetition, narrowing and selectivity of attention and awareness.

Sentience, awareness, or attention can be thought of as a kind of beam that can be focussed on a very narrow point or band, or can take in much wider arcs and areas of the total circle of potential awareness. This awareness/attention beam changes its focus and range constantly, and narrowing or widening it are obviously normal and natural capacities.

As the psychologist Frank Barron pointed out in his studies of creative individuals (Barron, 1963) creativity involves a preference for the complexity found in expanded states of consciousness. “Waking up” is an experience of moving into an expanded state of consciousnes with more complex information; “falling asleep” on the other hand involves a reduction and narrowing of awareness – facilitated by closing of the eyes, quieting of body movements, etc. Sometimes expansions of consciousness may themselves functions as catalysts for a reactive contraction, as the brain-mind struggles to interpret the increased flow of information and stimuli. This is perhaps part of what happens in a psychotic “break”, in which the brain is no longer able to integrate the complexity of sensory input. A defensive strategy would then be to reduce and simplify the focus of attention . It’s easy to see the short-term adaptive advantages of simplification and contraction of attention in states of fear or rage: the focussing of attention on the stimuli of threat or danger helps to mobilize energy for the appropriate "flight-or-fight" response. We are “hard-wired” to have survival needs and strategies take precedence over creative impulses or mystical yearnings.

If we think of consciousness as a spherical field of perceptual awareness that surrounds us and moves with us wherever we go, we can create a graphic model by taking a horizontal plane section of this sphere: we then have a circle of 360º as the potential field of awareness and attention. In any given state of consciousness we could say attention is selectively focussed on a 30º arc or segment of the circle. In an expanded state of consciousness, we could say the arc of attention expands to 90º or more; and in a contracted state, attention is selectively focused on only 15º, or less.

Figure 4: Contractions of Consciousness

In an addictive trance it is just the object of desire, the craved sensation, the liquor bottle, or the crack pipe, that captures the attention , to the exclusion of other aspects reality, other segments of the total circle of potential awareness. The comedian Richard Pryor did a performance about his cocaine addiction which was filmed and can be seen on video (Richard Pryor – Live on Sunset Strip). It is an awesome performance, in which he describes living a lifestyle that became more and more restricted, until he was isolated from all other relationships except the one with his crack pipe, which had become repetitive and ritualistic. He does not work or socialize or communicate with anyone -- only the pipe with which he talks, and which tells him: "this is all you need". One smoke after another, and nothing else matters; nothing else can capture his interest or attention. Awareness and attention are completely contracted, fixated and simplified.

Another, very different, area of human experience in which selective narrowing of attention also occurs is in the mother-infant bonding situation. The linguistic affinity of the words "bonding", "attachment" and "addiction" already points to the psychological similarity. This was brought home to me in a very vivid way when I was watching my infant daughter and her attachment behavior toward the maternal breast. She would be moving around, gurgling and wiggling her limbs, and then suddenly she would start focusing on the breast. She would start to cry, and all her movements were towards the mother, with her attention completely zeroed in on the breast. I then lost the ability to distract her or capture her attention. I could no longer say, "Here, look at this", and have her follow me with eye and hand movements. I realized that this was exactly the same kind of narrowing of awareness and attention as would occur in a drinker, focusing only on the bottle, or the crack addict on the pipe; or anyone focussing on the object of craving.

The attachment or addiction process then involves an immediate or very rapid alteration of mood and sensation, in the direction of need satisfaction, anxiety reduction, and cognitive simplification. By focusing awareness and attention on the object or experience we are craving or wanting, awareness ceases to be engaged with other aspects of our experienced reality, particularly pain, fear or anxiety. There is a genuine need to reduce pain and fear, and this need is immediately and effectively satisfied. There is a narrowed focus, a fixation of attention. Then there is repetition of these steps, and gradually over time, a kind of ritual may develop.

The ritual aspect of addictions and compulsions is very significant. I once worked with a man with a self-described sexual addiction, that involved compulsive viewing of pornography and visits with prostitutes in which he always placed himself in submissive and degrading positions. It was extremely repetitive and ritualistic behavior -- and no other kind of sexual activity or experience had any attraction for him. Even the orgasmic sexual fufillment seemed to be secondary to the peculiar satsifaction gained from ritualistic repetition of certain symbolic actions.

The ingestion of drugs that produce dependency always seems to become associated with ritualistic behavior, which is compulsively repeated in the same way over and over. This is true of the narcotic drugs such as the opiates, depressants such as the barbiturates, psychiatric tranquilizers and anti-depressants, and stimulants such as amphetamine and cocaine. Ritualistic ingestion is quite obvious and well-known in the case of the socially sanctioned and commercially promoted addictive substances, including alcohol, tobacco and coffee: in these situations the ingestion ritual forms part of the advertising message promoting consumption. Ingestion rituals are also evident in the case of food addictions, especially those involving sugar, wheat products and meat. Food ingestion rituals become painfully distorted in the binge and purge behaviors of those with " eating disorders", who may be among other things, trying to forcefully control their addictions.

The immediate or very rapid modification of mood and sensation produced by such drugs and foods is one of the factors facilitating the development of dependency. Alcoholics often remark upon the empowerment they feel when their chosen drink first hits the stomach: immediately the anxiety or frustration is lifted, one experiences relief from the pain, or, in the case of stimulants, relief from the feelings of impotence and inadequacy. The sense of power comes from the immediacy of the change of state. Any unpleasant after-effects, which may be well-known to the addict, are too far removed in future time to override the immediate feedback of satisfaction.

The power to instantly alter one's state of consciousness, especially to move it from painful to pleasurable or even neutral, may generalize from the physiological drug effect to the ritualistic behavior surrounding it. For the smoker, just pulling out the cigarette and preparing it for lighting may already have some anxiety-reducing effects. Similar considerations apply in the case of the activity addictions, including compulsive sexuality, gambling, shopping or working, where the ritualistic repetition of certain behaviours in itself seems to be able to reduce anxiety and change one's consciousness. By becoming absorbed in routine tasks one can avoid dwelling on anxiety-provoking aspects of my life. The fact that "working hard" is an essential ingredient of the American (especially Protestant) work ethic, and that obvious social rewards are associated with it, does not alter the basic dynamics. When "working hard" is associated with an extreme narrowing and fixation of attention, to the exclusion of other pursuits and interests, it becomes compulsive "workaholism". Family and other social relationships may be impaired and even work productivity and resourcefulness can decline – as corporate managers have begun to recognize.

Transcendent experiences, expansions of consciousness, also powerfully modify mood and sensation, but in a way that is quite different: the entire range of experience, the continuum of sensation and perception, is extended and made more fluid. Terminal cancer patients who were given LSD and compared its pain-reducing effect to that of morphine, said that with the psychedelic they still felt the pain but it wasn't as painful anymore; and there were many other more differentiated experiences that occupied their attention. Generally, the consciousness-expanding psychedelics have not led to addiction, and narcotics addicts tend not to like them. The effects are too unpredictable, too varied, too subtle and too delayed, to allow the kind of immediate pain- or tension-relief the addict is seeking.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence to suggest that in rare cicumstances transcendent experiences themselves, whether induced by drugs, or by meditation, or by physical practices such as running, can also become the objects of addiction. If someone is taking psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, or empathogens, such as MDMA, repetitively, with a similar kind of change of state involved, to the exclusion of other interests, and the eventual neglect of family and other responsibilities, then again you have the classic pattern of addiction and abuse. The pattern has even been observed with some meditators, who may avoid dealing with intrapsychic or interpersonal conflict by constantly and obsessively meditating. Teachers in the Asian spiritual traditions talk about the possibility of spiritual addiction, or "spiritual materialism", and warn of becoming attached or too fascinated by unusual, ecstatic, or visionary experiences -- which are disparaged as "illusions".

The compulsive meditator or user of psychedelics may become addicted to that transcendent experience itself, so they then just want to keep repeating the transcendent experience over and over, which of course is not possible. There is an inherent self-limiting factor in these kinds of experiences: you can't keep transcending, you have to have something to transcend from. Or, the ego first has to build some boundaries, before they can dissolve in unitive states of consciousness.

Psychedelics and Transcendence as Expanded States of Consciousness
In terms of the 360º circle of potential awareness, in transcendence and ecstasy, awareness and attention expand from the normal or usual baseline, which might be an arc of 30º or 60º, to a wider arc of 90º, or 120º, or 180º, -- i.e. a fuller, more complex, range of perceptual awareness. Individuals who take LSD, the prototypical consciousness-expanding experience, often report that their range of visual perception had expanded to 360º -- so that they felt they could see out of the backs of their heads. This could be considered a metaphor for an experience of expanded, all-around sentience. The individual may actually become more aware of what was happening all around – a form of sense perception not necessarily limited to psychedelic drug states.


Transcendent or ecstatic experiences, like the classic accounts of mystical or cosmic consciousness, the involve a widening of the focus of attention, an expansion of awareness beyond the boundaries of the ordinary or baseline state. Barron’s research on creativity also demonstrated that creative inspiration involves complex, expanded states of awareness. The “empathogenic” psychedelics, such as MDMA, apparently produce an expansion and deepening of the field of emotional awareness (while not altering perceptual awareness), -- which probably accounts for their value as an adjunct to psychotherapy (Metzner, 2001). Expansions of consciousness generally involve detachment, a “rising above”, the attachments of cravings and addictions. In alchemical language, they involve the operation of solutio, the dissolving of obsessive fixations and defensive rigidities. Meditation practices, including "Transcendental Meditation" (TM), also clearly aim to produce a kind of unitive state of consciousness, in which the conflicts and dualisms of ordinary consciousness are dissolved or transcended.

Two analogies or metaphors for the drug experience have been repeatedly used by writers in the field of psychedelic consciousness studies. One is the amplifier analogy, according to which the drug functions as an amplifier of sense perception, both interior and exterior. The amplification may occur in part as a result of a lowering of sensory thresholds, a "cleansing of the doors of perception" -- to use the phrase of William Blake that Aldous Huxley used to describe his mescaline experience. The other analogy most often used is the microscope: it has repeatedly been said that psychedelics could play the same role in psychology as the microscope does in biology. This too is a metaphor of expanded consciousness: the psychedelic microscope opens up to direct, repeatable, verifiable observation realms and processes of the human mind that have hitherto been largely hidden or inaccessible.

That mystical and spiritual experiences can and do often occur with psychedelics was recognized early on by most researchers in this field, thereby posing both a challenge and promise to the psychological disciplines and professions. Albert Hofmann, who discovered the unusual properties of LSD “by accident”, has testified that his ability to recognize the consciousness-expanding nature of the LSD experience was based on its similarity to his childhood mystical experiences in nature (Hofmann, 1983). Stanislav Grof found that after resolving biographical childhood issues, and then perinatal traumata, individuals would often find themselves in realms of consciousness completely transcendent of time, space and other parameters of our ordinary worldview (Grof, 1985). He gave the name "transpersonal" to these realms of consciousness and "holotropic" ("seeking the whole") to the predominant quality of consciousness in these realms, as well as to other means of accessing these realms, such as certain breathing methods (holotropic beathwork).

Timothy Leary, stimulated no doubt by his association with Aldous Huxley, Huston Smith and Alan Watts, devoted considerable time and energy to exploring and describing the spiritual and religious dimensions of psychedelic experience. This work resulted in adaptations of the Tibetan Buddhist Bardo Thödol and the Chinese Taoist Tao Te Ching as guidebooks for psychedelic experience (Leary, Metzner & Alpert, 1964; Leary, 1997).

Synchronistically with the revelations and insights emerging from psychedelic research in psychology and religion, a generation of students and researchers in anthropology and ethnobotany was inspired to explore the roots of humankind's involvement with psychoactive plants in shamanism. In shamanic rituals of healing or divination (“obtaining knowledge from spiritual realms”) there is also an expanded state of consciousness, called a “shamanic journey”. This journey-state may be induced by hallucinogenic plant substances, or through techniques of rhythmic drumming (Harner, 1980). Shamanic rituals involving hallucinogens are the intentional arrangement of the set and the setting for purposes of healing and divination. Traditional Western psychotherapy, with or without psychedelics, can also appropriately be seen as a ritual, i.e. an experience formally structured according to the intention of healing or problem-solving.

The Use of Psychedelics in Psychotherapy and the Treatment of Addictions
The first research papers that came out of the Sandoz labs where Albert Hofmann had synthesized LSD and accidentally discovered its astounding properties, described it as bringing about "psychic loosening or opening" (seelische Auflockerung). This was the psycholytic concept that became the dominant model for LSD-assisted psychotherapy in Europe. In psycholytic therapy, neurotic patients suffering from anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive or psychosomatic disorders, were given LSD in a series of sessions at gradually increasing doses, while undergoing more or less standard analytic interactions using a Freudian perspective (Passie, 1997; Grof, 1980). The rationale was that through the psycholysis (the alchemical solutio metaphor), the loosening of defenses, the patient would become more vividly aware of his or her previously unconscious emotional dynamics and reaction patterns (presumably acquired in early family interactions), and such insight would bring about a resolution of inner conflicts. The Czech psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, working within this model, made the startling discovery that in such a series (involving increasing doses) there could be an even deeper psychic opening -- to birth and pre-natal memories. After resolving the conflicts stemming from the Freudian dynamics of early childhood, patients would find themselves reliving the significant sensory-emotional features of their birth experience -- patterns to which Grof gave the name perinatal matrices (Grof, 1985).

More or less simultaneously with the psycholytic approach being developed in Europe, the psychedelic model became the preferred approach in Anglo-American psychological and psychiatric circles. The English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, who worked in Canada with Abram Hoffer on the treatment of alcoholism with LSD, and who provided Aldous Huxley with his first mescaline experience (immortalized in The Doors of Perception) , introduced this term in an exchange of letters with Huxley. First used in the treatment of alcoholics, where it was thought to simulate the often life-changing "bottoming out" experience, psychedelic therapy usually involved one or a small number of high-dose sessions, during which the contents of the unconscious mind would be manifested in the form of vivid hallucinatory imagery, leading to insight and transformation (Passie, 1997).

The understanding of the dynamics of contractions and expansions of consciousness offered here, supports and extends the applications of consciousness-expanding psychedelics, particularly in the treatment of consciousness contracting compulsions and addictions (Halpern, 1996). LSD found one of its principal early uses in the treatment of alcoholism (Mangini, 1998). Native American participants in the peyote rituals of the Native American Church have been consistently successful in recovery from alcoholism (McClusky, 1997; Horgan, 2003). Ayahuasca, or hoasca, an Amazonian hallucinogenic concoction has been used in the treatment alcoholism and other addictions (Grob, et al. 1996). Ibogaine, a derivative from an African religious hallucinogen, has been researched for its use in the treatment cocaine addiction (Mash et al. 1998). Psilocybin, the psychoactive principle of Mexican visionary mushroom, was tried in the treatment of recidivst offenders (Leary et al., 1965); and is currently being tested as a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorders (Delgado and Mereno, 1998).

It should be pointed out that in proposing the use of consciousness-expanding substances in the treatment of addictions, we are not suggesting a “magic bullet” pharmacological “cure” for addiction, a drug effect to counteract a drug effect. Rather, the treatment with psychedelic substances, in traditional shamanistic societies, as well as in innovative Western therapy settings, involves a prolonged guided experience of self-confrontation, participation in shared group ritual experiences, and the acceptance of and support by a community of like-minded individuals.

Not only certain drugs, but cognitive processes that lead to expanded awareness, such as mindfulness meditation, can be used to counteract the fixations and attachments found in psychopathology. Indeed, mindfulness awareness practice as the antidote to the attachments and cravings inherent in everyday existence has been a key element of Buddhist, and other yogic, teachings for thousands of years. And Western physicians have begun also to utilize those kinds of meditative methods to alleviate suffering and increase recovery for a wide variety of medical conditions.

Psychoactive Drugs and Alterations of Consciousness
Examination of the 360º circle model of the field of consciousness reveals a third kind of possible alteration that is neither an expansion nor a contraction of attentional focus, but merely the re-direction of attention to another part of the total spectrum.


Here, the hypothetical 30º arc of attention is moved away from, dissociated, from the previous baseline to some other part of the sensorium, not expanded and perhaps not contracted either, just different. We could call this kind of alteration of consciousness “channel-switching”, to use an analogy from television.

If the focus of attention is on some object or event in the exterior or interior world, the analogy would be that it's like looking at a program on a TV channel. The focus of attention and perception is on the images being presented to you. We might call this the normal "attachment mode" of perception. If I am depressed, or sad, or watching some exterior event or activity, I am perceptually attached, or focussed, or fixated, on that depression, or sadness, or perceived event. The analogy to compulsive, fixated consciousness would be if the individual becomes so totally absorbed by the program being watched that he or she is oblivious to what is going in the immediate environment, and even recklessly ignoring of the real needs of others, such as children. For true transcendence, with consciousness expansion, the anology would be that you would still be seeing the TV images, but you step back from it and you also see what is around you in the room, and through the window, outside the house. The transcendent state always includes the former narrower focus of attention , and adds to it. You get the bigger picture, as it were, the differentiated context, the more complex awareness that there's a whole world out there, and that you have a choice as to where to direct your attention.

Now, switching the channel is a kind of transcendence, in the sense that you are no longer watching the program to which you were previously attending. If you are depressed, and you are able to "switch channels" somehow, you would have "gone beyond" the depression. Anti-depressant drugs could be considered "channel-switching" drugs; probably most psychiatric mood-altering drugs function in this way. Some forms of psychotherapy, such as the use of affirmations, and some kinds of interventions or distractions by friends, what the French call "changer les idées", could be understood in this way. You're able to change the focus of your attention, away from the distressing or painful contents that were preoccupying you. Such re-direction of attention can have definite therapeutic value.

The effect of the psychoactive, mood-altering drugs can, I believe, best be understood in terms of this channel-switching analogy. They are consciousness-altering, whereas the psychedelic drugs are truly consciousness-expanding. Alcohol, for example, just switches your channel of attention and awareness, plus moving your consciousness downward on the arousal continuum, toward greater relaxation. It doesn't expand your awareness or your perception. It switches the focus of your attention, so that instead of feeling tense or anxious, you feel relaxed and euphoric; at least for a while, until the depressant effect spreads to more and more aspects of cognitive and sensory-motor function. The same is true of the other depressant drugs: they shift the focus of attention from anxiety to relaxation. Because they bring about this change of mood-state effectively and rapidly, we learn that we can "escape" painful inner states in that way -- a fixation-addiction can easily develop.

The stimulant drugs, including cocaine, the amphetamines, and caffeine, also trigger a shift of the focus of attention, without an expansion of awareness; and a movement “upward” along the arousal continuum. With these drugs there is a switch from feelings of powerlessness, inadequacy and impotence, to feelings of powerfulness, competence and sexual arousal. The so-called cocaine "rush", or the amphetamine "speed" feeling is the feeling of being "on top of the world", full of competence and power, immediately after ingestion. There is the fantasy illusion of personal power, which is inevitably followed by deflation and “let down”, as the pharmacological “high” wears off.

One may wonder whether the pervasive and spreading attraction of cocaine and other stimulants, as well as of nicotine, a comparatively mild stimulant, is not in some way a reflection of the increasing sense of powerlessness and helplessness that so many people feel, in our fragmented society, marked by profound social inequities and dislocations. Perhaps too, there is a personality or temperament difference between those who are drawn to the depressants to escape anxiety in a passive manner, and those who are drawn to the stimulants, and the activity addictions, for switching to a state of feeling powerful and competent.

Rage addiction, or compulsive violence, which is often, though not always, associated with sexual aggression and abuse, may also be understood as a learned fixated response to early and repeated feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness. Assaultive and destructive behavior temporarily switches the perpetrator's attention and awareness away from painful feelings of inadequacy and impotence, and fear of even deeper helplessness. Having once learned a "way out" of extraordinarily painful feeling-states, the road to addiction and compulsive repetition is easily followed.

The addictions to shopping and gambling may develop because these activities momentarily shift attention away from feelings of worthlessness, and where a great deal of identity and self-esteem is tied up with how many material possessions one owns or how much money one has to spend. Shopping gives one the momentary illusion of an increase in possession and greater self-worth based on spending. The advertising media know this "consumer complex" and play on it to maximal effect, as one can readily observe in any suburban shopping mall, where the powerful, constantly repeated subliminal message is: "buying is good", "you are good and beautiful when you buy". The compulsive gamblers likewise can toy with the illusion, and the possibility, of suddenly winning large sums. Having material possessions, or even being close to the possibility of monetary wealth, gives a feeling of worth, of prosperity and social esteem.

The process I am here describing as "channel-switching", a pseudo-transcendent method of altering one's consciousness, may also be involved in what is popularly referred to as "head-tripping". This is the kind of compulsive intellectualizing that has also been characterized as a "thinking addiction". If I am "tripping" in my head, in the realm of thoughts, ideas and books, I can avoid really feeling and learning from my own emotions and bodily sensations. For many, this is the easiest form of escape, the easiest and least noticed form of addictive fixation. Freud called it "sublimation" (an alchemical metaphor) and stated that it was the one defense mechanism that "really worked". Perhaps because the head is spatially located above the rest of the body, the notion of transcending or "climbing above", by directing attention to the head, comes easily to mind.

Channel-switching is probably also the appropriate analogy to use in describing spiritual addiction, or compulsive meditation practice. I once had a client who was a former practicioner of TM. She was quite nervous and anxious all the time, except when she was meditating, which was twice a day for 20 minutes. In TM, you concentrate on a specific, selected mantra -- and your mind can exclude all other thoughts. While she was meditating she was not anxious -- when she was not meditating she was anxious. So it was a shift in focus, in attention, a channel-switching, not a true transcendence, not an expansion of consciousness.

True transcendence dissolves fixations and expands contracted forms of perception. "The doors of perception are cleansed", as William Blake put it, with the phrase that Aldous Huxley used as the title for his book on his mescaline experiences. Mindfulness meditation (vipassana) produces true transcendence, because in mindfulness meditation, you don't try hold concentration on some chosen object or subject. You simply observe and note the continuous stream of sensations, feelings and thoughts. Whatever comes up, you just note it. You just observe it. You don't go away from, you don't try to leave it, you don't try to concentrate on something else. You also don't analyze or interpret it, as you would in psychotherapy. Just let it come up and let it pass away. Thoughts arise and pass. All aspects of experiece are included, none are excluded. That's why mindfulness meditation produces a gradual transcendence, a gradual, progressive detachment and disidentification, that includes the former contents of consciousness as elements of a larger whole.

In the addiction-recovery movement, as exemplified in the writings and seminars of teachers such as John Bradshaw, as well as in the basic Twelve Step teaching, tremendous importance is given to acknowledging and validating the horrible and painful experiences that one has had: the pain, shame, guilt, grief, loneliness, abandonment, abuse, humiliation, despair and so on. This acknowledging of the pain and shame is seen as essential to freeing oneself from the addiction. We can see this from the point of view of the process of true transcendence, where everything is included, with all its often terrifying complexities; as compared to channel-switching, as usually occurs in the addictions, where we simply try to escape from the difficulties and demons.


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This essay will be published in Mind-Altering Drugs- The Science of Subjective Experience, ed Mitch Earlywine (Oxford University Press, due March 2005)

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