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Taking spiritual journeys: On altered states of consciousness

The question of what reality is—of different dimensions, alternate timelines, or even the nature of our existence in this world—has continued to boggle scientists and philosophers from thousands of years ago until this very day. While others simply bury these concepts under the rug, many consider things like the possibility of an afterlife as fundamentally important, affecting how they choose to live and take their spiritual journeys.

Seeking an intimation of these transcendent aspects of reality, humanity has engaged in various spiritual or mindfulness practices, such as forms of meditation and yoga, to attain altered states of consciousness (ASCs) since time immemorial. Interestingly enough, there are also substances—psychedelic drugs, or simply psychedelics—that can similarly alter one’s state of mind.

According to the National Center for Biological Information, a psychedelic is a substance that can induce ASCs, distorting one’s perception of space and time by activating the serotonin receptors of the body. Some of the more popular forms include psilocybin, mescaline, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), and dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Furthermore, these substances have been used for thousands of years for religious and spiritual ceremonies all over the world: from the shamans to the oracles of various civilizations for their mind-altering properties.

Beyond objective reality

Through ancient traditions, certain aspects of reality have been known by humankind in the past, yet are now lost and forgotten due to the reductionist nature of modernity, branding them as “unscientific”.

“We live in a very technological age and very materialistic as well,” explains Dr. Raj Mansukhani, an associate professor in the DLSU Philosophy Department. “There was a time in the past where people would say there are other realities or dimensions, but fewer and fewer people agree with that now.”

Experiences of people who have entered these altered states of consciousness show that reality is not simply to be reduced to the atomic or material world—there are other aspects that are equally, if not more important, than these objective facets of reality.

As such, upon tapping into these altered states, one realizes that reality is more than it seems to be. “There are very big philosophical implications. When you take psychedelics, you begin to understand that the world is not what you think it is,” says Mansukhani.

This is exemplified by the psychedelic experience of Abraham* (AB-ISE, ‘19). “Things started to look so out of this world, as if I was born again like a baby, seeing things for the first time,” he shares. Further describing the child-like awe that enriched his viewpoint after taking psilocybin mushrooms, Abraham notes, “Everything was so beautiful, and I started to appreciate things more.”

Moses*, a business development executive who took DMT, also expressed positive and appreciative perspectives, relating similar sentiments that “life is beautiful” and is a “gift”.

The power of ASCs is further expounded by Mansukhani’s colleague, senior lecturer Victor Gojocco, in his exploration of DMT, which has a link with his interest on near death experiences (NDEs). According to his research, DMT is not merely a hallucinogenic or recreational drug, but is nicknamed as a “spiritual molecule” for a reason. DMT, Gojocco notes, allows a person to become more moral and can even change someone’s life as it “opens up a conduit to the spiritual dimension.”

Life-changing effects

The effects that these ASCs bring are much more than mere philosophical discoveries. In fact, recent research has shown that the insights gleaned from the mystical experiences that psychedelics provide are immensely beneficial to human psychological health. For example, MDMA has been used in various cases to treat intractable post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD in patients. 

Additionally, a study at Johns Hopkins University found that psilocybin use helped 80 percent or 12 out of 15 participants to quit smoking for at least six months. This was the most astounding result of any medication used to treat any kind of addiction; other medications usually only provide a 35 percent success rate.

Furthermore, a 2016 study conducted by the Beckley Foundation, a UN-accredited NGO that conducts research on psychoactive substances, found that a one-time use of psilocybin mushrooms consistently aided more than 40 percent of the participants to be free of depressive symptoms for more than three months.

This is echoed by Isaac’s* (V, AB-PLM) experience as he shares, “A few years ago, I was officially diagnosed by a doctor with mild depression. A few months after that…I [happened] to come across an opportunity to try psilocybin mushrooms. My life changed from that single trip. My mild depression never came back.”

A potential conduit to profound wisdom

Mansukahni explains that these realizations occur because entering these altered states allows individuals to have very direct experiences of reality. “They will tell you it creates a very profound change in them…their view of reality is very different,” he says.

Joseph* (VI, BS-LGL) shares that he takes DMT when he wants to change his perspective in life. On one occasion, he recounts that the DMT trip led him to get out of his shell; this insight showed him the “need to experience and learn more” in order to turn his “black and white [life] into a whole view of colorful [and] beautiful patterns.”

Additionally, even the fear of death can be dealt with through the insights that these experiences espouse. Mansukhani remarks, “If you have a very direct experience of [God or spirituality], it will transform you, it will change you…Because so much of what we do might be a reaction to a fear of death, so when you’re able to face and deal with that directly through a particular experience, it makes you live better.”

Still, such ASCs, whether induced by psychedelics or not, can be potentially dangerous, leading to certain side effects. “What happens is they might have a memory of it and they might actually make them a little more paranoid,” Mansukhani explains, citing reports of psychotic breakdowns and paranoia in some people who took psychedelics.

To help avoid these adverse reactions, Mansukhani advises, “The best thing to do…is to make sure you do it in a good environment and prepare for it.”

In the end, however, he believes that it is one’s intention that truly matters when making the most out of these experiences. It seems that what one may gain—or lose—from experiencing these altered states of consciousness simply reflect the deepest intentions of one’s psyche.

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.

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