It might be possible to define "higher" states of consciousness as
conditions in which reality is perceived as consisting of "more", than that
which everyday vision brings to light or in which some higher purpose to
life may be observed. "Higher" states may be thought of as those which
bypass discursive rational processes of thinking, or which give greater
scope to "imaginative" vision, or which raise us toward some greater
self-knowledge or some sense of harmony with the cosmos.
All these aspects suggest a merging of one state, if not into another, at
least into a more expanded version. It is difficult to be precise about
the point at which quantitative difference is such that it marks a
qualitative change. Perhaps it is helpful to remember here that quantum
theory recognizes that particles manifest themselves as distinct quanta of
energy at different frequencies, but are also found as non-localized waves;
and these waves may themselves be derived from the "plenum" or vacuum
state, a kind of residue of potential energy. Thus it is possible to say
that the distinct states of manifestation are distinguished according to
the degree to which that potentiality is energized. To apply this to
consciousness would suggest that a possible criterion for making
qualitative distinctions is the degree to which the neutral or potential
state of consciousness (its quality as awareness of awareness, pure
consciousness) is experienced. Thus a clear experience of this by itself
constitutes a fourth state of consciousness, as distinct from waking,
dreaming and sleeping. This state functions as a gateway to a fifth state
in which it is retained as a basis for or backdrop to perception and
action. It would then be possible to define a state of consciousness as
not merely "altered" but "higher" on the grounds that it includes the
fourth state, the only known condition of pure meta-awareness.
Consciousness in this condition may be said to be self-referential and
self-sufficient. In order to circumvent the current fragmentary view of
world and self (built into the structures of language and underpinned by
the Cartesian/ Newtonian classical model in physics), it would be necessary
to develop ways of achieving insight into how the instrument of thought is
working. To do this, would be to overcome the tendency for thought to
analyze itself in terms of a presumed separation between the process of
thinking and the content of thought that is its product. This
(phenomenological and structuralist) view clarifies the issue in one sense,
namely that thinking is a process
consisting of the transformations of "thought-events" as continuous waves.
Thoughts are not distinct from thinking, and similarly "I" am not distinct
from the process by which I recognize myself Thought, thinking and thinker
are a continuity.
Taking it a step further, it makes sense to see thinking, thought, self and
experienced world as a non-localized flow of awareness, in which "blips"
occur. Thoughts, locations events, objects or particles (all of which are
only relatively circumscribed), remain subject to the interpenetration and
modification which characterizes the
flow. The term "reality" indicates an unknown and undefinable totality of
flux that is the ground of all things and of the process of thought itself
as well as of the movement of intelligent perception.
Thus when consciousness in this condition additionally recognizes this
quality as its own basis, it is not only self-referential but also fully
integrated within itself and with everything (which is another way of
saying the same thing). Here the self is experienced as capacity, rather
than existential identity. It is therefore correct to call such
consciousness "higher" precisely because it does not merely amend but
radically revises the evaluation of self from bound to boundless. Such
consciousness represents a paradigm shift which relativizes all other
recognitions of the phenomenon of self or consciousness.
The specific focus of close involvement is sharpened or thrown into relief
by the broad scan of "detached" awareness which can locate contours of
individual events precisely because it is aware of the context within which
they move. As in the quantum view of physical reality, character and events
can be seen as processes in space-time rather than isolated phenomena.
Hence, too, we can view art as a generative set of relations rather than a
closed statement. And, as for artist and work, so too for the receiver:
aesthetic distance or catharsis seem to require that state of balance
between involvement and detachment, experiencing and comprehending, in
which the work can be said to resonate with and enliven all the receptive
(sensitive) and organizing attributes of awareness, to be actively
"scripted" rather than passively "read", in Barthes' sense.
As awareness, it contains the attributes of sensitivity, discrimination and
organization; it is the ability of perception per se and thus the
generative power for activity within new contexts and frames of reference.
As frictionless flow of awareness, it is not perceptible but rather the
sine qua non of perception. It thus inevitably gives rise to other
"higher" states in which increasingly fundamental implicate orders of
manifestation are recognized. Indeed, it is such recognition of structural
levels or orders in creation that is the only way in which consciousness
can develop further. Its awareness of itself as plenum cannot be surpassed
or added to. But the latent power of perception which it unfolds may allow
it to identify two important aspects of the manifest order of things.
The first of these is the ability to perceive increasingly fundamental
structural principles "hidden" within the ways we think and behave, and to
see evidence of similar principles in the implicate orders enfolded within
more clearly visible levels of manifestation (features of structuralist
models). Ultimately this implies being aware of design or formative
causation at its most delicate or subtly compacted level-sensing the
blueprint for any emergent event, structure or activity in its specificity.
Intuitive insight is wholeness before it is "worked out".
The second distinct level is one where all material form is found to exist
as transformational energy, "beyond" even any specific blueprint. Here,
consciousness as an awareness of its own nature as potential is united with
matter in its ground state as "energy filled" void (or Unity Consciousness
Equivalents clearly exist in literature and other arts, for example in the
sense that a work of art presents a system in which all parts encode the
structure of the whole. Close analysis frequently aims to show that a
small extract contains, or has enfolded within it, the essential features
of the whole work; whether these are approached stylistically or
ideologically. Moreover, appreciating this wholeness is a major element in
aesthetic satisfaction, which seems to be shorthand for consciousness
functioning in a holistic way, operating at the level at which it can take
in the implicate order. Theories of creative activity which are
essentially process-models (related to the process philosophies of
Whitehead and Bergson), are presented as united or identical-as both flow
of form and consciousness of that flow, as both expression and the organic
potential for articulation.
In terms of the "development" of art in recent times, its increasing
self-consciousness may be perceived as a movement toward understanding its
own nature. Even forms of negation, like "anti-art" or the undermining of
structural assumptions by the multiplication of narrative identity,
function ultimately as ways of opening up the capacity for plurality. Many
recent theories tend in the same direction, locating the end of art as the
capacity for participatory structuring by the viewers in partnership with
the art, identifying levels or structures which act as generators.
Art in which the living organism strives for higher motives provides an
opportunity for what could be called integration, the discarding of masks,
the revealing of the real substance. Thus, technique is not abstract or
external: it is how the body accedes to its own resources, how it discovers
that it can be, say, do, understand and transmit, with and to anything and
anyone. This is so because the bodily condition in which that capacity is
touched is a tensed and balanced orderliness which-like an act of love is
not closed off from anything. In this state, we interpenetrate.
In the same way, according to modern physics, we interpenetrate with the
universe. We are not separate observers but part of the play.
New ways of understanding involve a change in perspective, and that change
is marked by an extended capacity for order.
Structures which have this capacity are emergent in that they lead into
higher levels of organization; they can redistribute their energy in an
orderly way. Similarly, shifts in consciousness involve a passage through
the "anarchy" of neutrality, giving up the existing framework of self and
world, taking in aspects we might prefer to shut out:
But they are the way in which we do more living, and involve the discovery
of new organizational energy as we evolve new patterns of response and
expression. A work of art presents just this challenge, exploding
frameworks and requiring new understanding, as metaphors require us to
redraw the contours of parts of language and the concepts and sensations
"Higher" states of consciousness mean more energy in more orderly forms.
The orderliness is in the consciousness, in the matter which is organized,
and in the organizing relationship. There is no separate envelope of
awareness, even in the resting phase of neutrality. Consciousness is
participation: in the multiple possibilities of self, in the capacity for
play, and perhaps ultimately in the sense that we are the universe's way of
becoming conscious of itself
"Altered" states of consciousness, whether through dreams, drugs, art or
"mystical" practice, have, whatever their respective shortcomings, always
been attractive in the final instance because they offer "more", in terms
of our experience and understanding of ourselves and our universe. We
normally conceive of this as a disclosure of different levels or ways of
perceiving, an opening of doors (Blake) or bypassing of valves (Huxley).
The model implied here is largely vertical or synchronic: the doors open
suddenly and mysteriously under the influence of "inspiration" or
chemicals. The trouble with many such descriptions, whether artistic or
mystical, is that ineffability or enthusiasm may convey the value, but
often obscure the mechanics.
It is important to focus on the nature of this moment of revelation, and on
all its implications; but we should also remember that consciousness is not
a static phenomenon, but a historical process in time.
In other words, consciousness is a development, and certainly for
individuals this means that it occurs physiologically, and is dependent on
everything that has happened before. In order to understand altered
states, and to see where they might lead, we therefore need a sense of this
development and a model of consciousness which can account for
physiological change. Antonin Artaud claims (in Le theatre et son double)
that theater is a means of directly influencing the physical organism and
altering the quality of our sensibility; he puts the same case for poetry.
You are blasted out of your mental set experiencing no longer what you
thought you knew but more a prelude to knowing. The recognition process
therefore involves a stopping or unseating, a prying-loose from former
bonds of identity, which is uncomfortable, or puzzling, or exciting, or all
It is essentially a challenge and a proposal: a challenge to find the
context, the mental and physical resources, to cope with the new situation;
a proposal that the very gasp of recognition implies that those resources
are available, if as yet undefined. Neutrality or witnessing is, as it
were, potentially anticipatory or excited: it looks forward to displaying
its own capacity in an extended range of action.
Defamiliarizations shift awareness from one set of criteria by which we
recognize "reality" to another. We need to acknowledge, I think, that
these approaches are complementary, even interchangeable, and not mutually
The essential characteristics of this transformational quality of
consciousness may be grouped into two sets. The first set (A) includes
suspension or extreme refinement of physical activity, suspension of
judgment (indifference, neutrality), extension of perceptual boundaries
(including sensitivity to language), and consciousness of being conscious
(meta-awareness). The second set (B) includes sense of unity or wholeness
(self + work/world, all aspects of work, organic understanding),
modification of evaluation of self, potential for creating form (readiness
for voluntary acts, awareness of multiple possibilities, spontaneity), and
conjunction of distance and involvement. Of these criteria, the first set
has mainly to do with a temporary or synchronic condition; the second set
involves a more active and continuous situation. But experience probably
repeated experiene: A is necessary in order to produce B.
Defamiliarizations can be understood as methods of instituting A, which is
itself a preparation for and almost inevitable instigator of B.
Evidence for the existence of such conditions is not hard to find, provided
we assume that the entire Vedic, Taoist and Buddhist traditions are not
based on mere speculation, or that Plotinus, Eckhart, Boehme, Goethe, the
English Romantics and the Symbolists are not entirely deluded about the
nature of their experience.
Much art comments-as it progresses-on its own compositional process,
thereby producing a level of meta-awareness which runs along throughout,
always at least implicitly-and often overtly-weighing up the possibilities
for what comes next.
Once activated, awareness in this condition goes into overdrive, (operates
in a "high") in which it is able to pick up information from many different
channels simultaneously. Its co-ordinates of expectation are significantly
An extremely pliable state of consciousness, resting on the basis of
relaxed (extended) attentiveness, may thus become available; and it is
within this elastic framework-ideally constituted both between artist and
audience and within the individual awareness of each participant-that the
art takes place. When this does occur, even to a limited degree, one has,
not surprisingly, an "uplifting" experience, which brings a sense of
communion and completeness. Again, this is a major part of what thinkers
like Artaud have described as the sacred, ritualistic or Shamanistic
function. We are close here to participation in the "divine play" of
forms, the freedom to perceive relationships in the making, if we stop
"blocking" and eliminate our resistance to this psychic process of
wholeness and holiness.
"Mindfulness" expands awareness to many possible mental events-sensations,
thought, memory, emotions, perceptions exactly as they occur over time.
The natural tendency is to habituate to the world surrounding one, to
substitute abstract cognitive patterns or perceptual preconceptions for the
raw sensory experience. The practice of mindfulness is purposeful
to face the bare facts of experience, seeing each event as though occurring
for the first time. The means for dehabituation is continual observation
of the first phase of perception when the mind is in a receptive, rather
than reactive, state. Attention is restricted to the bare noticing of
Thus, as opposed to the conceptual nature of everyday perception with its
inherent categorization, there is a shift to a more "direct" mode of
perception which entails e sensory experience. Such an uncoupling of
thought from perception is attained through the deautomatization of the
perceptual process, whereby more emphasis is placed on recording the
perceptual world than on constructing it.
The technique of art is to make objects unfamiliar, to make form difficult,
to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of
perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
In his essay "On some Motifs in Baudelaire", Walter Benjamin remarks:
Since the end of the last century, philosophy has made a series of attempts
to lay hold of the true experience as opposed to the kind that manifests
itself in the standardized, denatured life of the civilized masses. It is
customary to classify these efforts under the heading of a philosophy of
life. Their point of departure, understandably enough, was not man's life
in society. What they invoked was poetry, preferably nature, and, finally
and most emphatically, the age of myths.
The concern here is to shift the criterion of truth and significance away
from that which is central to rationalist and pragmatic ways of thinking,
to shift the center of "reality" to a new locus in a depth separate from
the surfaces of material or social human phenomena.
The mythic stratum of life which enters and transforms the ordinary domain
of existence, therefore, is opposed to the pragmatic considerations of
advantage and security. It breaks into that domain disruptively and
rapturously. In contrast to the pedestrian values of the "civilized
masses", it is an ecstasy and an intoxication.
The fundamental idea behind the interpretation of enraptured, ecstatic and
intoxicated states, in a tradition which turns toward a hidden mythic or
elemental level for its truth, is that this alteration of consciousness is
a break with the singular level of unified world.
It is not a more fluid, swifter, less inhibited movement through the
articulations of one continuous reality, like a renewed melody in a single
key, but the sound of new notes from a quite different key, one with a
deeper and more universal tone.
The boundaries which make up the various territories of the horizontal
plane of objective or historical knowledge are transcended by their
relation to the depth of the elemental and the mythic representations by
which we attempt to grasp it. All branches of learning in this light begin
to resemble the compositions of poetry. They are metaphors or translations
of something both separate from them, yet perhaps alive in the spirit which
animates them. As Benjamin observes in his essay on Surrealism: "The
dialectics of intoxication are indeed curious. Is not perhaps all ecstasy
in one world humiliating sobriety in that complementary to it?"
The Surrealist understanding of the subconscious clearly posits it as an
extension of the human sphere, not an alternative to it. A harshly
demanding mythic domain is one where the person not only transcends the
narrow and bogus values of bourgeois individuality but also frees himself
from all the desires of security, comfort, pleasure and happiness which
animate the familiar experience of everyday life.
For the Surrealists, the subconscious was merely the home of a more vivid,
vibrant and unfettered version of those desires. Although there is a real
difference between the desire uncovered by revelation of subconscious
contents of the mind and personality and that of the bourgeois domain, that
difference does not involve breaking out into a realm which disrupts the
integrity of the desiring subject. Surrealism simply subverts the false
limits constructed about the enfeebled and conventionalized image of the
bourgeois individual as defined by the relations and demands of a
competitive economy and administrative structure.
Benjamin, in his essay on the Surrealists, notes how their emphasis on
ecstatic experience as an opposition to that domain of purposes does indeed
dissolve away the idea of the self determined by it. Yet he sees an
important dialectical element in their procedure here: "This loosening of
the self by intoxication is, at the same time, precisely the fruitful,
living experience that allowed these people to step outside the domain of
intoxication." This is all-important to Benjamin, for, writing in 1929, the
aspect of their work and their movement which strikes him as embodying its
principal value is its place in the political awareness and struggle of
socialist resistance to the rising threat of Fascism. The dialectical step
beyond intoxication which is reached by entering into it is the beginning
of a new realm of purposes, now directed toward the revolutionary
transformation of social reality. This means that the intoxicated rapture
of poetry must be carried over beyond the limited space of a momentary
ecstasy, and sustain a renewed sense of the rights and potentials to be
redeemed in all levels of actual human life.
Their task is to step beyond the imaginative rejection of things as these
make themselves known under the conditions of bourgeois knowledge, a
rejection pursued into the alternative domains of art, literature, the
occult and drug-induced raptures, and bring this exterior perspective to
bear on the irrational self-contradictions of an ideology which insists on
calling itself rationalism. The danger to which they are subject and which
threatens their ability to complete this task lies in the "pernicious
romantic prejudices" which lead to fascination with those alternatives as
objects of desire and pursuit for their own sake. Are they emphasized
instead as the renewed possibilities of consciousness in political reality?
Or are they a place of flight and complacent illusion? Understanding
this is the key to all Benjamin has to say about the dialectic of
Any serious exploration of occult, surrealistic, phantasmagoric gifts and
phenomena presupposes a dialectical intertwinement to which a romantic
turn of mind is impervious. For histrionic of fanatical stress on the
mysterious side of the mysterious takes us no further; we penetrate the
mystery only to the degree that we recognize it in the everyday world, by
virtue of a dialectical optic that perceives the everyday as impenetrable,
the impenetrable as everyday. The most passionate investigation of
telepathic phenomena, for example, will not teach us half as much about
reading (which is an eminently telepathic process), as the profane
illumination of reading about telepathic phenomena. And the most
passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as
much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane
illumination of thinking about the hashish trance.
The validity of exploration of such altered states of consciousness depends
on the capacity to overcome that romantic attribution of separate reality
which enthralls the mind and takes us no further. That in turn depends on
the understanding that the subject experiencing an altered state of
consciousness remains in principle the same; the consciousness is
essentially that of the same person, and the content of consciousness, the
ideas and dreams, are those of the same person also, albeit revealed at a
heightened level of intensity by the removal of inhibiting agencies and
habits of mind.
In "Les Paradis artificiels", Baudelaire affirms the closeness of the
intoxicated state of the norm which reigns in the drug-taker's life: "Dans
ses Confrssions, De Quincey affirme avec raison que l'opium... n excite
[l'homme]... que dans sa voie naturelle, et qu'ainsi, pour juger les
merveilles de l'opium...
It is on this basis that Benjamin can demand that the revelations of
ecstatic visions be made subject to the same criteria of knowledge as those
of a sober state, just as the conventions of conformist ideology must be
treated to the same skepticism as one applies to raptures and dreams.
Ecstatic experience has two phases. First it is a liberation, a breaking
free of an ordinary place cramped among the oppressive desiderata of
individual existence. That is an intoxication beyond all intoxications, an
unleashing that burst every bond. But it is also an experience which
brings another sphere, uniting one with a larger reality, one melted
together with the universe as though the wave had glided back into the
The abandon of wide ecstatic courage is a self-abandonment. It breaks away
from the despised brief life of an individual and the enclosed, fragile
existence one knows, to hatch out for flight through an experience beyond
bounds. The things of the narrow world therefore undergo a reduction in
significance. Their meaning in themselves is also abandoned; they must
become indifferent as ends. Nothing may be desired for its part in the
texture of ordinary human life. This ecstasy of self-forgetting weakens
the links of consciousness to a domain of rational purposes and breaks
loose from an identity anchored there. Consequently strength accumulates
in the reality and attraction of what lies beyond, even though it may
strike the person looking on from outside as strangely abstract and
This intoxication is the construction of a unified world where there is no
unity in the reigning order of things.