In our search for answers to the riddles posed by ancient civilizations, there has been a tendency to focus on the material aspects of these cultures. We ask how they managed to build massive pyramids, where the ‘Hall of Records’ might be, whether there is a ‘lost civilisation’. However, perhaps a far more important line of questioning would address the mass of literature on ancient methods for achieving ‘altered states of consciousness’ (ASC) and anomalous cognition, and whether these practices can teach modern humans ways of harnessing our full potential. There are examples throughout history of the visions of prophets and mystics which defy our rational conception of the world, and much modern research to suggest that our abilities are of far greater range than we take for granted.
Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well-established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance…there is little benefit to continuing experiments designed to offer proof, since there is little more to be offered to anyone who does not accept the current collection of data.1
This is the extraordinary summation of University of California statistician Professor Jessica Utts. The remarks were made in her review of formerly classified government-sponsored research into ‘Psi’ abilities, in particular the ability to ‘see at a distance’ — known in the past as ‘travelling clairvoyance’, and in modern times as ‘remote viewing’. Utts was part of a 2-person review commissioned by the US congress to evaluate the mass of experiments undertaken over the course of two decades. Her partner in this review was noted skeptic (and CSICOP luminary) Professor Ray Hyman. Hyman’s conclusions differed slightly from Utts, although in a telling way — he determined that the:
…experiments are well-designed and the investigators have taken pains to eliminate the known weaknesses in previous parapsychological research.
In addition, I cannot provide suitable candidates for what flaws, if any, might be present. Just the same, it is impossible in principle to say
that any particular experiment or experimental series is completely free from flaws.2
Of course, the critical thinker would notice that Hyman’s sole ‘criticism’ is in fact a statement on scientific experiments in general, and in no way is the validity of the positive data in doubt because of his comments. Utts’ specifically mentions this fact (judging by the ‘standards applied to any other area of science’), and as such Hyman’s statement is indicative of a man who sees results that don’t agree with his worldview, and therefore assumes that although he can’t see the error…there simply must be one. If anything, such words coming from Hyman’s mouth are the closest one would expect for a confirmation of psi effects from a heavyweight ‘skeptic’.
This review is an important step forward in acknowledging that we still have a lot to learn about the nature of the universe and the extent of human abilities. Other recent research serves to reinforce this fact. At Princeton University, Professor of Physics Robert Jahn and psychologist Brenda Dunne have produced evidence that humans can influence the behaviour of physical devices through thought alone — ‘mind over matter’ as it were3. Jahn and Dunne have also conducted experiments in remote viewing, with positive results. The staff at the Consciousness Research Laboratory at the University of Nevada have been working on a phenomenon which they call ‘field consciousness’. Their experiments suggest that groups of people watching live television broadcasts — such as the Academy Awards and the O.J. Simpson verdict — can have an effect on the physical world4. They have also accumulated data to suggest that humans carry the ability to feel emotion before an event occurs — a branch of precognition called pre-sentiment5. Experiments such as these have been replicated by independent laboratories, and have satisfied the requirements for validity of any ‘orthodox’ science hypotheses.
Returning to remote viewing, it may be worthwhile to take a closer look at this phenomenon throughout history. Remote viewing is classed as a type of extrasensory perception (ESP), and describes a protocol in which a person is able to describe in detail activities and locations (‘targets’) blocked from ordinary perception. The effect does not appear to be influenced by distance, with similar results in experiments over a few metres to a range of thousands of kilometres. An illustrative example of a modern remote viewer is former police commissioner and ex-vice-mayor of Burbank, California — Pat Price. In his first informal remote-viewing experiment he was amazingly accurate, down being able to read the labels on folders locked in filing cabinets . Price displayed an excellent ability to remote view over many experiments, to the point where experimenter Dr Hal Puthoff remarked that the Price’s accuracy “began to raise a paranoid fear in me that perhaps Price and the division director were in collusion on this experiment to see if I could detect chicanery”6.
Counting the Sands
The remote viewing research mentioned above has its parallels in anecdotes throughout history. Herodotus, that most celebrated of ancient historians, recorded the following account of an ‘experiment’ by Croesus, King of Lydia, in 550 BCE. Croesus dispatched messengers to the great oracles of the time, in order that he could assess their abilities:
The messengers who were despatched to make trial of the oracles were given the following instructions: they were to keep count of the days from the time of their leaving Sardis, and, reckoning from that date, on the hundredth day they were to consult the oracles, and to inquire of them what Croesus the son of Alyattes, king of Lydia, was doing at that moment. The answers given them were to be taken down in writing, and brought back to him. None of the replies remain on record except that of the oracle at Delphi. There, the moment that the Lydians entered the sanctuary, and before they put their questions, the Pythoness thus answered them in hexameter verse:-
“I can count the sands, and I can measure the ocean;
I have ears for the silent, and know what the dumb man meaneth;
Lo! on my sense there striketh the smell of a shell-covered tortoise,
Boiling now on a fire, with the flesh of a lamb, in a cauldron-
Brass is the vessel below, and brass the cover above it.”
These words the Lydians wrote down at the mouth of the Pythoness as she prophesied, and then set off on their return to Sardis. When all the messengers had come back with the answers which they had received, Croesus undid the rolls, and read what was written in each. Only one approved itself to him, that of the Delphic oracle. This he had no sooner heard than he instantly made an act of adoration, and accepted it as true, declaring that the Delphic was the only really oracular shrine, the only one that had discovered in what way he was in fact employed. For on the departure of his messengers he had set himself to think what was most impossible for any one to conceive of his doing, and then, waiting till the day agreed on came, he acted as he had determined. He took a tortoise and a lamb, and cutting them in pieces with his own hands, boiled them both together in a brazen cauldron, covered over with a lid which was also of brass.7
Herodotus’ account describes the oracle of Delphi observing happenings at a remote location sans the usual means of perception. While it can hardly be taken as proof of remote viewing in antiquity, it does contain startling similarities to the phenomenon. And it is not a lone example.
The 18th century Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg first swept into the public eye after a notorious incident which occurred in 1759. Swedenborg was dining with friends in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, when he became agitated and withdrew from the table for a time, retiring to the garden. Upon his return, he announced that a great fire had broken out in his hometown of Stockholm — some 300 miles distant — and feared that his residence would be consumed by the inferno. Later that evening, he happily announced “Thank God! The fire is extinguished the third door from my house”. It was not until two days later that a messenger arrived from Stockholm with details of the fire the Swedenborg had mentioned. His account was accurate8.
Techniques of Ecstasy
Perhaps the original and greatest exponent of ‘seeing at a distance’, the shaman, is an archetypal figure seen in most ancient cultures. The respected anthropologist Mircea Eliade saw shamanism as the ‘technique of ecstasy’ (not the modern definition of ecstasy, but ‘a trance state in which intense absorption in divine or cosmic matters is accompanied by loss of sense perception and voluntary control’9). The shaman specializes in a trance during which his soul apparently leaves his body and ascends to the sky or descends to the underworld10.
While there is little surviving documentation on ancient shamanistic journeys, there are modern examples which offer a glimpse into the abilities of these ancient magicians. A report by a missionary, Father Trilles, working with the pygmies of equatorial Africa, suggests that not only were shamans able to ‘see’, but also communicate with others. Father Trilles had asked a native who was apparently visiting a village four days walk distant, to transmit a message to a person there named Esab’ Ava requesting ammunition. He was allowed to be present during the departure preparations, and must have been astonished at what followed. He reported that the native:
…first smeared his body with a special mixture…then he lit a fire and walked around it, saying prayers to the spirits of the air and the guardian spirits of the magic brotherhood. He then fell into a state of ecstasy, showed the whites of his eyes, his skin became insensitive and his limbs rigid. It was ten o’clock the next day when he came out of his trance, and during that time Father Trilles had not left his side. When he awoke, the man gave some details about the reunion at which he had been present and then, without being asked, said:
“Your message has been carried out. Esab’ Ava has been warned. He will set out this morning and will bring you the powder and the cartridges.”
Three days later…Esab’ Ava arrived at the village with the goods.11
This ‘special mixture’ which the native smeared his body with was no doubt an entheogen (also known as hallucinogens). Smearing the body with such an ointment to induce magical journeys was a tradition known across many cultures and throughout history. In ‘Metamorphoses’, the ancient writer Lucius Apuleius seeks from a witch a magical ointment which would transform him into a bird, in order that he could fly through the air12. And anthropologist Michael Harner’s research into European witchcraft led to the discovery that witches rubbed their bodies with a salve containing entheogenic plants such as henbane, mandrake and deadly nightshade to assist in ‘travelling’ to the Sabbat. Indeed, Harner has put forth solid evidence that the now legendary use of a broomstick by witches served a double purpose — as an applicator for the atropine-containing plants to the sensitive vaginal membranes, as well as providing the witch with the helpful imagery of a physical device which they could use as transport to the otherworldly realm (pitchforks, baskets and bowls were also used)13.
While there is a vast amount of literature available on the use of entheogens to facilitate altered states of consciousness, it is hardly the only method used. Other techniques included sonic driving (e.g. drumming), kinetic stimulation and hyperventilation (e.g. ritual dancing), meditation, trance, sensory deprivation, ritualisation (ritual magick) and extreme temperature conditions (seen most typically in the Native American sweat lodges)14. Cultures throughout history have used such techniques to access other ‘realities’. Sometimes these involved psi-like effects, as mentioned above. On other occasions though, the access given was to a far more mystical realm.
The Subtle Body
Another fascinating branch of consciousness research is that concerned with ‘peak experiences’ — out of body experiences (OBE), near death experiences (NDE), non-rational comprehension and mystical insight. While this area is far more subjective, and faces obvious difficulties in providing evidence (being closer in many respects to meta-physics than physics), there is still a great deal of material which is of interest.
Near death experiences first came to public prominence with the publication of Dr Raymond Moody’s bestseller, Life After Life, in which he found that the many stories of NDE subjects shared common elements. From this Moody was able to construct a ‘typical NDE’ (although he points out that no NDE contains all the details included):
A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his own physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.
After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices he still has a “body”, but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before — a being of light — appears before him. This being asks him a question, nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.
Later he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life.15
Others have built on Moody’s original work since its publication in the mid 1970’s. Reading through this literature certainly offers a meaningful insight into what the subject of an NDE feels and understands, and also reinforces Moody’s view of archetypal elements to an NDE. This is hardly a modern invention. Consider the following passages from Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri, in which the dying subject is attempting to ensure immortality or regeneration:
When you have spoken in this wise [magical names], you will hear thunder and rushing of the air-space all around; and you yourself will feel that you are shaken to your depths. Then say again: ‘Silence’…; thereupon open your eyes and you will see the gates open and the world of the gods within the gates; and your spirit, gladdened by the sight, will feel itself drawn onwards and upwards. Now remain standing still and draw the divine essence into yourself, regarding it fixedly. And when your soul has come to itself again, then speak: ‘Approach Lord!’ [magic words]. After these words, the rays will turn towards you; and you, focus your gaze on the center. If you do that, you will see a god, very young, beautifully formed, with flame-like hair, in a white tunic with a red mantle and a fiery wreath.16
This passage obviously follows the archetype of the NDE — the hearing of strange noises, the feeling of the spirit being drawn upwards, and an experience with a divine light or being. However, the magical scheme in which the above passage is rooted begs the question: is the NDE an experience unto itself, or part of a much wider catalogue of mystical journeys?
Cities of Gold
Professor Kenneth Ring of the University of Connecticut is another individual who has contributed greatly to our understanding of Near Death Experiences. Ring found that different elements of the experience could be associated with the ‘depth’ of the NDE. One interesting detail was that some experiencers ‘travelled’ to a city of light, sometimes also called a ‘city of knowledge’. In Ring’s book “Heading Towards Omega”, he describes two such accounts in separate NDEs:
…the first thing that I saw was this street. And it had such a clarity. The only thing I can relate it to in this life was a look of gold, but it was clear.17
…the building I went in was a cathedral. It was built like St. Mark’s or the Sistine Chapel, but the bricks or blocks appeared to be made of plexiglass. They were square, they had dimensions to ‘em, except you could see through ‘em and in the center of each one of these was this gold and silver light.18
Ring lists these two experiences without linking the similar theme — that the city is made of a ‘transparent gold’ (not literally, but the best ‘rational’ description of an ineffable vision). This in itself is interesting enough, but perhaps even more so if we consider the Revelation to John in the Christian Bible. John is taken by one of the seven angels to view the ‘Holy City’. John says:
…the Spirit took control of me, and the angel carried me to the top of a very high mountain. He showed me Jerusalem, the Holy City, coming down out of heaven from God and shining with the glory of God…the city itself was made of pure gold, as clear as glass.19
Here we see that the NDE experience perhaps might have parallels in the ancient mystical literature. The Tibetan Book of the Dead was used as a preparation for what may be experienced by the individual after death, and indeed it has details in common with the NDE archetype. The Egyptian Book of the Dead also suggests an ordeal after death, and many of its passages make much more sense when one has a grounding in the mystical/shamanistic/magical literature. Yoga, an ancient Indian technique for achieving altered states of consciousness, is said to awaken in the individual abilities which sound very much like those of the shaman and magician, to the extent of echoing the psi-effects mentioned at the beginning of this essay. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, compiled around the 3rd century BCE, speak of such abilities — in fact, the third part of the book is entirely devoted to the various ‘powers’ that are apparently acquired during the practice of Yoga20. This is but a short list of ancient texts worth reviewing by the modern reader.
The Way Forward
This treatment of altered states of consciousness and human potential has been necessarily superficial — to explain the subject thoroughly would take a full book, if not a set of volumes. Nevertheless, the examples I have mentioned should give us pause to think about our priorities. Altered states of consciousness have become a pathological phenomenon in modern society — most entheogens are banned by law, practice of ‘magick’ is considered being tempted by the devil or some such nonsense, psi effects are dismissed as pseudo-science by the establishment, and those who talk about out of body states are ridiculed as insane. It’s interesting to note, as distinguished consciousness researcher Professor Charles Tart has, that in some cultures it is a given that almost every normal adult has the ability to go into a trance state and be possessed by a god, and those that cannot are considered psychological cripples — we in the western world would certainly seem deficient by those standards21. It is certainly true that there are contexts in which an ASC is not desirable, such as when caring for a child, driving a car, and othe numerous examples. But by setting aside private time in which to learn more about these enigmatic states, we might further our understanding of ancient peoples and our own potential. However, we must release ourselves from the social expectations of Western society, and what we believe is ‘reality’, if we are to move towards a better understanding of these phenomena.
Also too, we must reclaim the sanctity of these techniques of ecstasy. Entheogens are becoming a recreational diversion to the troubles of modern society. In the rave dance parties we have a recipe for altered states as fine as ancient techniques — sonic driving, kinetic stimulation and entheogen use typify such events. Unfortunately, the numbers of those who use this echo of ancient shamanism as a method of advancing their potential and understanding of their place in the world are few. Similarly, individuals who wish to learn remote viewing and out-of-body techniques are charged exorbitant amounts of money, for the privilege of what should be free information to all for spiritual and social advancement. It is time, now, that we paid these ancient techniques the respect deserved. They may truly offer spiritual insights which could better the world we live in — at the very least they offer a better understanding of the way our own mind works and can be improved.
- Utts, Jessica. “An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning”.
- Radin, Dean. “The Conscious Universe”, p. 103.
- Dunne, Brenda J. & Jahn, Robert G. “Consciousness and Anomalous Physical Phenomena”.
- Radin, Dean. “The Conscious Universe”, pp. 157 — 174.
- Ibid., pp. 121 — 124.
- Targ, Russell. “A Decade of Remote-Viewing Research”.
- Herodotus. “The Histories”.
- Sigstedt, Cyriel. “The Swedenborg Epic”, available online at http://www.swedenborgdigitallibrary.org/ES/epic31.htm
- Encyclopedia Brittanica Dictionary.
- Eliade, Mircea. “Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy”, p. 5.
- Drury, Nevill. “Don Juan, Mescalito and Modern Magic”, p. 12.
- Apulieus, Lucius. “Metamorphoses”.
- Harner, Michael J. “The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft”, in “Hallucinogens and Shamanism” ed. Michael J. Harner.
- Heinze, Ruth-Inge. “Alternate States of Consciousness: Access to Other Realities”, in “Silver Threads”.
- Moody, Raymond A. “Life After Life”, pp. 11-12.
- Butler, E.M. “Ritual Magic”, pp. 11-12.
- Ring, Kenneth. “Heading Toward Omega”, p. 73.
- Ibid., p. 72
- Revelation 21:9-18, King James Bible.
- Kanthamani, B.K. “Psychical Study in India — Past and Present”, in “A Century of Psychical Research”.
- Tart, Charles. “Altered States of Consciousness: A Book of Readings”, ed. Charles T. Tart, p. 3.