Altered States of What?

Writers on “meditation” sometimes characterize contemplative processes as altered states of consciousness. In many such discussions of comparative experience, “consciousness” denotes the condition of being wide awake, responsive to stimuli, and able to deal with the events of everyday life in the usual ways. Ordinary consciousness so conceived is made to serve as the default setting for experience. All other “states” are considered to be deviations from a mode of mental operation alleged to be normal for the quotidian.

Sunrise Santa Cruz

One problem with that concept is that our knowledge of ordinary, everyday consciousness is so slight. We know very little of how our minds work from moment to moment and day to day. And why should we? Most of the time we are following the dictates of archaic biological dispositions, social necessity, or momentary desire, and therefore we are properly focused on getting the job done. Although the notion of a single, basic mode of mental functioning has great appeal—if only on account of its simplicity—it is very much more likely that in the course of a day our minds cycle through a great many diverse “states,” the precise nature of those modes depending upon the varying circumstances. At least that is the tentative hypothesis to which I am led by my own attempts to monitor the vagaries of moment-to-moment mental functioning.

Everyday life (as it is known) is replete with frequent, if unpredictable, instances of the marvelous and the extraordinary, though of course we must have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. That is, we must be capable of a presence-of-mind that is one of the necessary conditions for the contemplative life. Then again, at the extreme of attentive fixation, dissociation, or imagination, events can occur so far out of the ordinary that they can shed a transfiguring light upon our day-to-day lives, or utterly resist assimilation, and leave us speechless. Yet even when we acknowledge the possibility of stupendous phenomena, it is safe to say that there is no standard-of-consciousness against which to measure them.

It is flattering to suppose that from the moment I awaken until the time I fall asleep I maintain the ability to engage in abstract thinking and problem-solving. It would be more accurate to say that, part of the time, I am in a state of readiness to be fully conscious at a moment’s notice. The rest of the time I am daydreaming, dozing, absorbed in contemplation of a mountain view, performing a familiar task automatically, or otherwise occupied. I am not always in full possession of my faculties and ready to rumble, and there is no point in claiming otherwise. It is more fruitful to think about consciousness as a menu of modi operandi from which the organism and the environment together select the one that is the best fit with the situation, without bothering to consult the higher executive functions. That is why, until I began to explore the opportunities for self-awareness, I did not have to think much about what I was doing.

Black-Billed-Nightingale

In short, when we do not need full consciousness we do not use it. We employ higher-level conscious functioning sparingly because it is slow, costly to maintain in terms of physiological resources, fatiguing, and potentially dangerous—while we are inventing the wheel a saber-toothed cat might be able to sneak up on us. And, as it happens, neither are we nearly as conscious as we think we are when, as in “meditation,” we are making as special effort to be more conscious! I shall expand upon that point in the next post.

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Richard Kollmar

Buddhist minister & trail guide. Leads contemplative hikes & pilgrimages in the mountains of California's central coast.

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