Exploring Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness
By Mark Thurston, Ph.D.
Atlantic University's courses are in the interdisciplinary field of transpersonal
This mini-lesson-with optional references to Internet Web sites-is a sample
of the kind of work you could be doing with one of our distance-learning courses.
The essence of personal transformation and spiritual growth is contained in
a single word: consciousness.
What a remarkable human achievement that we are able to step aside in our awareness
and ask ourselves, "What is the quality of my state of consciousness?
Just how aware am I?"
The study of human consciousness is particularly fascinating because so many
different levels of consciousness seem to be available to us.
The tendency is to call everyday awareness (if there really is such a thing)
the standard and then to label everything else as an "altered"
state of consciousness.
In recent years, however, it has becoming increasingly clear to consciousness
researchers that "normal" is a relative term, and they have
begun to use the term "non-ordinary states of consciousness"
for states such as dreaming, hypnosis, clairvoyant perception, meditation, psychedelic
drug states, etc.
In this mini-lesson, we will take a brief look at the meaning of "consciousness"
and explore two fascinating examples of unusual states of consciousness: hypnosis
and lucid dreaming.
What is Consciousness?
The problem is a long-standing one. Some researchers and scholars doubt that
the term has much meaning.
The Edgar Cayce readings and other transpersonal psychologies suggest, however,
that our capacity to both "know" and to be self-reflective
about our capacity for "knowing" is a very real and significant
What's more, life's essential purpose is the growth or development of our consciousness.
It is a matter of expanding the scope of our awareness and the refinement of
how we process and interact with that expanded sensitivity.
As Cayce put it, the very goal of spiritual evolution is the attainment of
a special kind of consciousness: to know ourselves to be ourselves and yet one
with the Whole.
Not everyone is so quick to put consciousness at the center of lifeís meaning,
The Encarta online encyclopedia has an interesting entry about "consciousness."
Though its tone is somewhat skeptical, the entry is an interesting, concise
You may read it for yourself: Here!
Some even say that so-called non-ordinary states of consciousness are phenomena
created by the physical brain and nothing further is required to explain such
experiences, that they tell us nothing about the human mind or soul.
While possibly not very appealing, studying such a position can be worthwhile. A good, brief online example "What
Is Mind?" can be found at: Here!
For a more comprehensive, insightful Internet article, read "Mind and
Body: Rene Descartes to William James," a book chapter by Robert Wozniak
on the nineteenth-century roots of consciousness psychology.
It provides a very useful historical overview of consciousness
theories and is located: Here!
Hypnosis As a Non-Ordinary
State of Consciousness
Some spiritual psychologies suggest that most of us spend most of the day in
a kind of "hypnosis," fooled into misunderstandings about what
life is all about.
Whether or not you agree with this rather dismaying assessment of the human
condition, it is nevertheless fascinating to study the formal practice of hypnosis.
The term hypnosis originated with the work of a Scottish surgeon, James Braid,
in the 1840s, and it comes from the Greek word hypnos (sleep).
It refers to a state of consciousness that resembles sleep but that allows
a variety of mental and behavioral responses to stimulation.
In response to suggestions to the unconscious, even memory patterns and the
awareness of self may be changed during hypnosis.
When hypnotized by someone else, the subject may appear to relinquish his or
her own will-seeing, feeling, smelling, and tasting in accordance with the suggestions
Depending upon the depth of the hypnotic state and the strength of the suggestions,
the subject may even accept as being real certain distortions of memory and
perception offered by the hypnotist.
Hypnotic techniques have been used for thousands of years. Certain healing
therapies conducted by priests in ancient Egypt, Greece, and China greatly resemble
current hypnosis practices.
The modern rediscovery of hypnosis is generally attributed to Dr. Franz Mesmer
(1734-1815), an Austrian physician working in Vienna and Paris in the late 1700s.
He discovered that some ailing people obtained relief when magnets were brought
near their bodies. Patients were instructed to sit as a group around an open
container of water in which magnetized metal bars were visible.
Occasionally, a patient would seem to fall into a sleeplike state and, soon
after regaining consciousness, would be much improved or even fully cured. Later,
Mesmer discovered that the magnets were unnecessary.
He found that results could also be obtained in some cases simply by touching
the patient or by touching the water before the patient drank it. To his mind,
the touching of the water "magnetized it."
Mesmer theorized that he and other people had "animal magnetism"-that
they had access to a kind of mysterious "fluid" that was stored
within and could be transferred to others and, thus, effect a healing.
Soon there were more than 100 groups in France performing similar healings;
they were called the Society of Harmony.
The late nineteenth century saw a reawakening of interest in hypnosis. The
Austrian physician, Sigmund Freud, learned about hypnosis techniques during
visits to France and was impressed by its potential for treating neurotic disorders.
In his own practice, he began to use hypnosis to help some of his patients
remember disturbing events from the past.
As his system of psychoanalysis began to take shape, however, he rejected deep-state
hypnosis in favor of the technique of relaxed-level free association.
This may have been at least partly due to difficulties he encountered in hypnotizing
In the twentieth century, there has been an impressive amount of experimental
research with hypnosis; however, no one theory is universally accepted by practitioners.
Broadly speaking, there are two camps among professionals who work with hypnosis.
On the one hand are those who feel that hypnosis is a distinct non-ordinary
state of consciousness, in many ways resembling sleep.
In this state of awareness, they believe, the subject responds to suggestion
in a rather automatic and non-critical fashion. The perspective of hypnosis
that we find in the Edgar Cayce readings seems to favor this first theory.
On the other hand are those who feel that it is unnecessary to theorize about
other states of consciousness in order to explain the workings of hypnosis.
People operating from this perspective stress that behavior during hypnotic
episodes can usually be explained in terms of social or interpersonal dynamics
and learned behavior.
As examples, they point to the placebo effect, which is demonstrated when a
patient obtains relief from a neutral or inert medication or treatment simply
because the patient has expectations that the remedy will work.
There is also considerable information on the Internet about hypnosis as a non-ordinary
state of consciousness. Two sources that you may find particularly valuable
"Hypnosis 101" Click Here!
Lucid Dreams and
Lucid dreaming is another non-ordinary state of consciousness that has received
considerable attention in the last two decades. Most simply, it is the experience
of knowing you are dreaming while the dream is still going on.
Contrary to what some people assume, however, a "lucid" dream
is not necessarily one in which you are any more clever, spiritually enlightened,
wise, or any other attribute of "lucidity" than in an ordinary
Almost everyone who has had a lucid dream reports that it is, at least initially,
a startling experience.
Waking from a lucid dream may call into question the very nature of what is
"real," with the dreamer concluding that the dream world they
have just left seemed to be every bit as real as the material world before them
in their bedroom.
A lucid dream can be very unsettling, and yet strangely inspirational, because
it throws the nature of reality into question.
In an online book chapter, "Varieties of Lucid Dreaming Experience,"
lucid dream researcher Dr. Stephen LaBerge describes (with his coauthors) the
foundations of how to understand the phenomenon.
Don't let the technical details in the chapter confuse you; just keep reading.
Dr. LaBerge is one of the world's leading authorities on this
type of non-ordinary state of consciousness, and it is worth
becoming familiar with his work.
The chapter is: Click Here!
Although not the same as a lucid dream, so-called out-of-body experiences (OBEs)
are a close cousin and share several features with lucid dreaming, including
the opportunity to experience directly certain "powers" that
we donít have in waking life (e.g., the capacity to fly).
Out-of-body experiences most often have been presented as case studies. Although
such narrative data makes it hard to create a "science" of
OBE, the stories and reports are fascinating for any student of consciousness.
Profiles of five famous OBE experiencers are available online: Here!
The site also includes a profile of Susan Blackmore, the professor who wrote
the case history summaries.
More about various forms of non-ordinary states of consciousness
will follow in a mini-lesson in the July-August issue of Venture
Inward... or you'll see it here at: www.intuitive-connections.net
in the fall.