An Altered State, Part 2
In part one we discussed the benefits of naturally induced altered states of consciousness, and in part two we will talk about common practices used to induce these states.
The most common induction method when referring to altering consciousness naturally is meditation. Although one of the oldest and best-known practices, it is also the most difficult and inconsistent, especially for the novice. Western civilization seemed to have abandoned this practice until its revival in the past century. Linages of practice have been forgotten for the most part in the West. Meditation takes time and diligent practice before one can experience a true flow state consistently. In our fast-paced and time-restricted society, taking time to meditate is not valued enough for most individuals to invest enough time. We have lost a valuable tool to combat depression and anxiety, foster creativity and productivity, and live a more fulfilling existence. Speaking from personal experience, a daily meditation practice has allowed me to springboard past the self-made barriers that act as shackles to restrict me from my higher potential.
In the world of meditation, there is no silver bullet when it comes to method. Everyone is different when it comes to achieving that calm mind space that is required for full effectiveness. I have found that most people do well using “training wheels,” especially for those just starting. Guided meditation is a good starting point and acts almost like a type of hypnosis to trick the busy mind into shifting to a quiet state. Once the neuro-framework is established, it becomes much more natural to achieve that state without guidance.
Although meditation is extremely effective for achieving flow states in the brain, it can be very difficult for active individuals to practice and become proficient. Action sports are probably the superior alternative to meditation for these individuals. The right combination of risk and stress will force the brain to shift into flow out of pure survival. The noisy prefrontal cortex of our brain is the area that dominates our day-to-day consciousness. This area of the brain is required for rote memory, formulating concepts, and communicating. Our society demands these neuro-functions in order to produce and consume, which is the narrative programmed into every individual of the TV generation. Because of this, these brain functions not only dominate our consciousness, but have become quite malignant, hence the difficulty that comes when trying to turn them off. When the body is in a fast moving, stressful, and risky situation, the prefrontal cortex does not have the capacity to solve the problems that the body is facing, so it literally turns off. Since the prefrontal cortex is the home of the calculator that estimates our position in time and space, as well as the ego, we experience the sensation of time moving slowly and the lack of self that comes during flow states. In addition, when the body is in a stressful situation, the brain will up regulate receptor sites for “feel good” neuro-transmitters, which can explain the euphoria and the high that is felt during and after these experiences.
Now that we have discussed the two extremes on the spectrum of various activities that work to achieve a flow state in the brain, we would be remiss to leave out the creative arts, such as painting and playing music. These activities have long been known to cause a left-to-right brain shift. Because these activities are for the most part non-verbal, the prefrontal cortex activity is not required and, in fact, hinders proficiency. Many practitioners of these arts often refer to the activities as “being intoxicating,” putting them well within the requirements of an altered state of consciousness.
As you may recognize there is a common thread between all these activities: quieting the noisy frontal lobe, which dominates our daily lives, and an intentional focus on the current moment. Unfortunately, this is not a daily ritual in our society and one of the reasons that psychological illness and the lack of joy of life are at an all time high. These activities need to be implemented and have the same importance as eating and sleeping in our personal healthcare regime to achieve a happier and more fulfilling life experience.
By Kevin Waldron, L.Ac.
Originally published in Listen, Share, and Be Kind