I’ve always been a tad averse to altered states. Not because they aren’t exciting and often fun. Rather, I’ve found them to be limited in their scope — unable to deliver any long-term happiness or benefits.
For example …
As a teeneager I realized that, though alcohol might bring me (and others) to experience and express what felt like significant and potentially profound emotions, the epiphanies were usually short-lived and inaccessible the next morning.
Similarly, the euphoria of an intoxicating crush felt more like a hormonal prison of obsession than a direction worth following to an imagined happily ever after. I could see the inevitable crash coming, whether the crush was requited or not.
Though seductive, I’ve never really been enchanted with getting high on anything. Nor was I interested in turning away from hard experiences and feelings by putting on rose-colored glasses. My quest has always been about seeing clearly.
And so it was that I ended up for ten years sober, celibate, and mostly silent — seeking enlightenment from within my ordinary normal human state.
This approach served me well, and it delivered. But it’s not necessarily the ideal approach for everyone.
As I began to mentor others in their personal and spiritual development, I was forced to let go of laying my path onto them, even though it was the path I knew. What I discovered as I stretched myself as a teacher, and as a seeker, was that **only two things are essential to any sustainable realization or enlightenment. **
Firstly, seekers understand precisely what they are seeking. Secondly, they discover which techniques or methods will serve the realization of their quest.
Pretty simple and straightforward …
Get clear on your goal.
Get clear on what will get you there.
However, all seekers know that getting clear on these two points is not necessarily a simple or quick task. The good fortune of this difficulty is that **much of the journey is forged in simply asking the questions** — and following where the inquiry takes us.
Recently it led me to Janie Wheal.
When my husband expressed an interest in attending Jamie’s annual Flow Camp, all I knew about Jamie was that he has a fascination with altered and peak states. As you can imagine, I did not have an immediate yes to joining my love on this next adventure.
But often the things that we once pushed away come back around for another visit. After all, the quest for enlightenment does not end. It evolves and deepens. Sometimes, what served us in our growth at one stage of our development no longer serves us at another stage. And vice versa. The important thing is to be agile and attentive to what’s warranted right now for our optimal well-being and growth.
So I decided to learn more about Jamie and take another look at the potential benefits and liabilities of peak and altered states.
Here’s what I learned.
Jamie and I share the same life objective. I use the word enlightenment here in this blog as a reference to a quality of realization regarding our humanity (and our divinity) that goes by many names.
In my view, the objective of enlightenment is to become a mature, healthy, aware, and engaged human — what Jamie calls home-grown humans. This embodied realization brings a sustainable fundamental sense of well-being — clear, confident, and calm — regardless of circumstance.
Where my path was forged in disciplined meditation and mindfulness practices — connecting to Self and Source through the slow and steady path of stillness and silence — Jamie got there through peak states, generated by activity, abandon, and adventure.
There truly are many paths to enlightenment.
Knowing which path suits you best is key. This means knowing yourself, and knowing what the various paths consist of.
Let’s look a bit more closely at the differences and similarities between Jamie’s and my paths, and how navigating one’s relationship to states can be super helpful as we go.
What are states?
A state is defined as a particular condition that someone or something is in for a specific time. A peak state points to a heightened condition or climactic experience. But there are many other states. In fact, there’s an infinite variety of states. They arise, exist, and fall away in the course of a day, even an hour, ranging from high/peak to low/nadir.
The significant point here is that, when we speak of states, we are speaking of **experiences that change.**
When I speak of an enlightened sense of well-being, **I’m not talking about a state.** I’m referring to a condition of being that **does not change.** I am pointing towards a realm within existence that holds all states — which can be located outside of us, as well as inside.
It strikes me that the driving question when it comes to states’ relationship to growing ourselves as humans is this: How do certain states support or inhibit our objective of attaining and sustaining the stable condition of well-being I am speaking about — the true source of our ultimate peace and happiness?
Let’s explore more …
Peak states are exceptional, and often bring with them a wave of euphoria that’s intoxicating. These waves can be incredibly inspiring, at times rejuvenating, and, more and more, we are discovering they can actually be healing … shifting patterns of anxiety or depression that have been locked into our nervous systems for years … possibly passed on through generations.
In addition, historically, peak states for mystics and the spiritually inclined have brought profound insights into the numinous, the mystery, the inconceivable and awesome wonder that is everywhere and in everything, including in us.
When peak states are placed into a context of a larger quest, they clearly can be helpful. But when sought simply for their high, they’re likely to suck us into repeatedly chasing the high which can turn into a form of addiction — deadly to the soul of our human beingness, and often to the physical body as well.
Therefore, caution is needed when seeking to bring about specific states.
Mindfulness is essential.
Consider this …
Depression is also a state. It’s not generally pleasurable, so we tend to try to end it as soon as possible. Fix it. Heal it. Transcend it. Transform it.
Boredom is a state.
Sadness is a state.
Happiness is a state.
Remember, the varieties of states are endless …
We are constantly moving in and out of states. Some stay longer than others. Some we can readily shift with our will. Others we cannot. But two things are certain — states range from agony to ecstasy, and they change.
Since it’s a natural human drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and we are wholly unsuccessful in finding a way to be always in a state of pleasure, let’s look at how we might understand and incorporate the experience of all states into our intention to become a certain kind of human — one that responds confidently and clearly to life, is centered in the Mystery, and is highly self-aware.
You may now be clear on what states are, but still wondering **what is this grounded well-being I speak of — untouched by states?**
This condition of well-being can be tricky to talk about because one might argue that this sense of a grounded and encompassing field is also a state.
My response to this claim is simply that it is not. My experience is that the condition of being I speak of is fundamentally different from the encounter with state experiences. Again, it is more akin to the ground on which states come and go. Or the screen on which the film of states is projected.
Try this …
Imagine that states are waves in the ocean and the entire ocean is the condition of well-being I am referring to. If I, as a human, am swimming in the ocean, I might choose to focus my attention on the waves. I might train myself to become a surfer. This can be super fun — and challenging. I might also just allow the waves to carry me around. Fine when the ocean is calm but not very fun when storms pass through. In either case, there are infinite waves of all kinds, and all of them end — with many crashing on shorelines along with us.
However, if I am conscious of the entire ocean, even as I float on or surf the waves, I will begin to sense the depth and current, which would pull my attention away from becoming too infatuated with the waves or enamored with surfing. I might begin to simply focus on staying connected to the vastness of the water while allowing the waves to come and go. Some waves I may surf, others I may choose to float on, and some I will allow to thrash me — **but always I will feel held by the buoyancy of the entire ocean.**
So, you see … it is not as much about waves or the ocean. It is more about where my attention is.
Here’s the deal …
I spent ten years in retreat experiencing — and even amplifying — discomfort in order to access the ground of being within me, beneath the pain. **Had I sought pleasure as the route to locating this ground, I would likely never have found it.** I know myself. Pleasure would have captured me and I would have chased the pleasure instead of the ground beneath it.
I mean …
Wouldn’t you choose pleasure over pain? And if so, what would inspire you to seek the ground beneath the pleasure — when the pleasure is, well, so pleasurable?
If you’re a good surfer, why wouldn’t you chase the big waves?
But what if you’re not a good surfer? What if you are terrified of the water? What if you physically cannot surf?
And yet …
What if you were told from a very young age that life is not ultimately about being a good surfer or even solely about what you do with the waves? Maybe life is about knowing the fullness of the ocean while finding your ideal relationship with the waves.
Sounds so simple. And beautiful.
Yet most of us were never told this. Or at least not told in a way that made sense — **often wrapped in religion or the philosophical talk of some teacher who was not embodying what they spoke to.**
I mean …
How could we ever choose to stand in the ground beneath the states if we don’t know it exists? If all we are shown are states and which ones to chase if we want to feel good or high all of the time?
We would chase pleasure.
We would think the purpose of life is to be a good surfer and constantly compare ourselves to the one percent of people who are actually good at it.
You getting the idea?
How would we orient ourselves to a bigger view, a greater expanse of our being and our awareness, if we didn’t receive the knowledge of this condition being passed on to us, whispered to us, shown to us?
Or we would have to stumble and dig and search for our way there, as I did.
I did not know that the way I was raised in western society, which led with supporting an unchecked drive for more of anything — pleasure, money, fame — is a sickness. It will never bring lasting well-being, peace, or joy.
Without this information, we are all subject to acting solely from our animal nature, which avoids pain and seeks pleasure. This is not a problem. If we were solely animals.
But we aren’t.
Something about our brain and mind prevents us from the elegant and efficient movement through states that animals experience in their living and their dying.
This something that sets us apart causes us to be often stuck in states, unable to unfreeze ourselves from reacting in habitual patterns. Our neurophysiology makes it so that the past impinges on our responses to the present. And, well, this makes life really hard for a lot of us.
The good news is …
We can disrupt and reintegrate those old patterns. We can heal and train ourselves to be more present and responsive to this very moment.
Meeting pain rather than running towards pleasure is one pathway to a new life.
Think of Victor Frankl, holocaust survivor and author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning. It was in meeting the horror and pain of life inside a concentration camp that liberated Frankl to the abiding joyful curious presence beneath the pain.
Frankl did not choose a painful life in order to become enlightened. The consequence of such intense pain yielded his awakening to this deeper place. But for millions of others, this was not the case.
What can we learn from Frankl?
We can learn about the ground beneath difficult (and pleasurable) states.
It’s not that we seek out an incredibly difficult life like his. It’s enough to meet the standard hardships in every human life. To meet the given difficulties in our life means we learn to not run, avoid, or numb out. With proper guidance and tools, we learn to practice accessing an embodied realization of this deeper place, while simultaneously transforming our stuck patterns.
Nobody in their right mind would choose to be placed in a concentration camp. Yet, historically, shamans and mystics have invoked pain in order to access a deeper freedom.
I did my version of this.
I consciously chose to put myself into a restricted lifestyle, filling my days with meditation, silence, fasting, yoga, and intentional simplicity. I made this choice because I began to hear the whisper of Source and of my ancestors — **and because I had already seen through the craving of pleasure.**
After my second abortion, I was ripe to harvest the joy beneath the pain and the pleasure.
The question is, are you?
Are you driven towards pleasure, and perhaps a delusional ideal that more of what you crave will finally satisfy you — money, fame, wealth, beauty, and/or love?
Or are you curious about this foundational ground I speak of that is beneath the pleasure and the pain? Some might call this soul. Others might call it the higher self or the centered self. **By whatever name, this is the consciousness in you that is present for it all, raptured and captured by the mysterious awe of simply being alive. This inner capacity is capable of helping you use the highs and lows to make a beautiful life.**
It’s that simple.
PS. Thanks for reading this all the way to the end. I usually don’t post blogs this long, but my editor encouraged me to just give it wings. She also suggested that I consider tightening it up. So, I am doing both. What you have read here is my meandering longish rendition. The cool thing is that I can come back here and edit it and you can read it again! I will do so soon. You can also revisit other writings in my blog that may have been updated as well. Writing is a sacred art for me. Sometimes I feel in aligned with the flow of the essence of what I want to share. Sometimes I don’t. Like all artistry, especially the Artistry of the Self, it’s a journey. Thanks for sharing it with me.