Expanded States of Consciousness for Healing and Growth

1 / 2
2 / 2


Photo by Getty Images/omairhq.

Like all explorers, we are drawn to discover what’s out there without knowing yet if we have the courage to face it.

—Pema Chödrön

Over many millennia, humans have explored the vast reaches of our planet: its deserts, oceans, mountain ranges, and forests. Throughout our evolution we have developed numerous civilizations, cultures, languages, weapons, and foods. We have discovered and studied animals, plants, fungi, and minerals. Meanwhile, for as long as we have been exploring our external world, we have pursued the equally fascinating realms of our inner world. There is evidence that humans have been exploring consciousness for thousands of years.

Yet, despite centuries of speculation and investigation into the origins and nature of consciousness, this most intimate basis of our being remains elusive to modern science. Many contemporary philosophers and scientists propose that conscious- ness arises from the brain, beginning at some point in utero and ending at death. This perspective views our consciousness as a result of chemicals and electrical impulses responding to internal and external influences. In another view, the brain and nervous system serve as organic antennae, picking up information like a radio receiver as we move through an ocean of consciousness. Eastern traditions propose that consciousness arises from an empty yet cognizant field of awareness that is the source of all phenomena. Perhaps surprisingly, the physicist Max Planck also held this belief in some form, famously saying: “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

There is a vast spectrum of state-specific experiences available to our consciousness. Most often, we each feel contentedly separate, as though we are individual organisms moving through space, alternating between comfort, discomfort, or boredom depending on whether we feel attraction, aversion, or indifference in the moment. Sometimes we feel tight in our bodies, mentally contracted, unable to connect with others or even ourselves. We might feel isolated from other people, even those close to us. At other times, we find ourselves feeling open and loving, connecting easily with other people, animals, plants, and our natural environment. We feel a sense of effortlessness and flow and receive understandings and insights, feeling the warmth of compassion toward all of life. We are in a constant dance of experience depending on our state. No wonder people have been investigating consciousness—and ways to shift it—for millennia.

In the more archaic quest to explore consciousness, humans developed ways to shift their states of consciousness by employing various techniques and practices. Humans have likely been drumming, rattling and chanting together, creating art, fasting, sweating and cleansing, meditating, exploring sleep deprivation, going on vision quests, spending extended time in isolation alone, dancing, and singing together for ritual, rite of passage, and spiritual purposes for thousands of years. The famous caves at Lascaux in southwest France, which are less than forty kilometers from my family home, appear to show humans participating in shamanic rituals 17,000 years ago. This spirit of exploration was likely the inspiration for people to ferment fruits and grains into alcohol, as well as to ingest plants and mushrooms with psychotropic compounds in their seeds, bark, leaves, flowers, roots, and flesh. Consciousness-changing compounds have even been found in the venom and excretions of certain amphibians. People explored whatever was growing in their local environment. Mescaline-containing cacti grow abundantly in hot, arid climates. Ayahuasca vines and leafy plants grow abundantly in the jungle, while psilocybin mushrooms grow in damp or forested climates.

There is evidence of ritual ingestion of psychoactive plants and fungi-based practices from nearly every place where humans have lived on this planet. Carved stone mushroom effigies have been found throughout Mexico and Central America dating back to 1000 BCE. There are cave murals in Algeria, Spain, and Bulgaria depicting psilocybin mushrooms that date back to Neolithic times, according to ethnobotanical research. The use of the fly agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria, has been documented as part of the indigenous shamanic traditions of ancient Siberia, Lithuania, and northern Scandinavian Lapland. Africa has many indigenous psychoactive plant medicines that have yet to be studied. The most well-known, iboga, has been used for initiations in central Africa for possibly thousands of years, including most recently the Bwiti society centered in Gabon.

While no one knows how long ayahuasca has been central to the indigenous and mestizo healing traditions of South America, archeological evidence for the use of DMT—a tryptamine molecule that occurs naturally in many plants and animals—goes back to 2000 BCE. Mescaline-containing cactus has been used throughout South America and Mexico since pre-Columbian times, while documented use of cannabis in India goes back to 2000 BCE. In medieval Europe, henbane, belladonna, and other psychotropic plants were used for divination and astral travel by herbalists and medicine women. While there is no formal research, anthropologists have documented the presence of stained glass windows in Renaissance period European churches depicting Jesus and saints with mushrooms thought to be in the psilocybe genus. Including psychotropic plants in the exploration of consciousness is nothing new at all.

In addition, there are numerous modalities for altering consciousness that do not depend on plants. Lakota people have included sweat lodges as a cultural practice for thousands of years. Sweat lodges are conducted by a group gathered in a dome-shaped hut made of canvas or cloth blankets and branches, built upon the earth. Stones are heated in an outdoor fire then brought in and placed in a center pit. The entrance of the dome is shut and water is poured over the hot stones while the leader guides the group through songs and prayers. The flap is opened occasionally for fresh air, and water is passed around to drink. The physical intensity of the heat, the disorientation of the darkness, and the potency of the prayers initiate a state of internal softening and emotional surrender, shifting the participants beyond habitual states of functioning.

Music has long been used to access expanded states. Flutes have been found in Europe dated over 30,000 years old, while the practice of drumming has a long history throughout the world.19 African drumming and dance rituals are an ancient form of group journeying. A large group of people dances to rhythms played by several drummers. As the rhythms slowly accelerate and after a period of dancing, people begin to enter trance states. In brain imaging studies on long-term meditators, researchers have noted characteristics of altered states of consciousness, including changes in perception of space and time, and spontaneous visions of light. These various techniques, when practiced intentionally and for an extended period of time, shift brain activity—some of them releasing specific chemicals into the brain and body—and temporarily changing the activity of the nervous system. All of this combined directly affects the internal and external experience as well as the perception of the practitioner. It is in these physiological states that consciousness expands, awareness increases, and healing can occur spontaneously or with guidance.

Accessing expanded states of consciousness requires these specific techniques, tools, or practices to journey beyond an ordinary state of being. These states and the knowledge they make available are used by indigenous communities to connect with the spiritual realm and their ancestors, manage their relationships with one another and their environment, and make important decisions that affect the long-term health and happiness of the group. They are used for divinatory purposes, for rite of passage rituals, to find water, and to decide where to migrate. Through the power of expanded states of consciousness, native peoples strengthen their connection with the local plants and animals they need for survival. Most relevant to our purposes for the subject of this book is how expanded states support healing and growth for an individual, or for an entire community.

Indigenous cultures that include these states of consciousness tend toward animistic earth-based spiritual practices that honor the local environment and elements. This earth-based “shamanism” predates organized religion, making it the earliest expression of spirituality. Tragically, many indigenous peoples around the world who carried the knowledge of these original, earth-based rituals and traditions have been killed or colonized over the last five centuries. Although colonization and the domination wrought by expanding kingdoms and empires have existed for thousands of years, the last five hundred years have seen the most brutal destruction of native ways of life in all parts of the world.

This colonization has been fueled by the agglomeration of land ownership by European kingdoms, expanding their reach across the world by extracting resources in the form of objects, precious metals, rubber, and worst of all—human beings as slaves. At the same time Christian missionaries arrived in the newly colonized lands. Under the guise of education and healthcare they disrupted indigenous traditions and aggressively imposed their belief system on native people. This disregard for indigenous traditions and blatant devastation of earth-based ways of life continue to this day through the unbridled growth of capitalism and its resulting destruction of forests, rivers, and mountains where many indigenous peoples live. Thus, many people have been severed from their original ways of tending their connection with one another, their community, and the living earth.

Although original earth-based practices have been mostly abandoned by industrialized culture, as human beings we all share indigenous roots that tug at us from within. Through our relationships with the people around us, our environment, and the divine, we inevitably encounter suffering and discord. Every problem in life seems to challenge us to find a solution. We naturally seek healing, knowing on some level that our challenges hold potential for us to learn from, yet we wonder how we can see the big picture of our life from a more compassionate perspective. To put it in psychological language, we strive for mental and emotional well-being. We seek the resolution of the traumas we have endured in our life along with old family wounds and the inheritance of transgenerational trauma due to war, slavery, genocide, famine, and so on. Ironically, many of the descendants of the European colonizers are now hungry to reconnect with indigenous ways of life in their desperate search for healing and purpose.

In reality, the evolution of human civilization has been shaped by insights drawn from expanded states of consciousness through the mystical states of prophets, art, and spiritual practices—though the history of these practices in many parts of the world has been eradicated, their methods forgotten. Rather than solely borrowing from or copying other cultures, we can be inspired by still-living traditions to reach back into each of our own ancestral lineages and see what we can find.

Beginning with the advent of Western psychology and psychiatry in the nineteenth century, psychologists and other scientists reinitiated the exploration of expanded states of consciousness. William James, considered the father of American psychology, was known to experiment with various mind-expanding substances, including the study of “mystical states,” among his many interests. In the 1960s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced the term “peak experience,” which took away the religious overtones and suggested that anyone could access these transcendent, egoless, awe-inducing states. In the late 1960s, Maslow, along with Stanislav Grof and Anthony Sutich, coined the term “Transpersonal Psychology,” which proposed a discipline that would include such states and experiences existing beyond the quantifiable reality of our biology and biography. Transpersonal psychology draws from dreamwork, cross-cultural myths and archetypes, Eastern wisdom practices, and indigenous healing traditions.

These days, it is easy to find countless books, websites, and courses on yoga, meditation, hypnotherapy, shamanic practices, or guided imagery. Stress and tension have been discovered at the core of many illnesses, and people are more and more willing to explore new and ancient modes of healing, seeking relief from uncomfortable symptoms. Practices that support relaxation and healing are sought after to the extent that they now have a capitalist sector of their own: the wellness industry.

Perhaps due to this willingness, beginning in the early 1990s, contemporary psychology and psychiatry experienced a widespread resurgence of interest into the healing potential of expanded states accessed by psychedelic medicines after decades of prohibition following the 1960s. Medical research has resumed after a long hiatus, with many major universities exploring the usefulness of psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, ketamine, and other compounds for the treatment of anxiety, depression, addiction, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as exploring how these medicines can support people with social anxiety.

There has also been research with healthy volunteers, meditators, and clergy, investigating how mystical states induced by psilocybin improve one’s quality of relationships, creativity, and spiritual practice. It is clear that interest has boomed with the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) drawing over 3,000 people to San Francisco for its annual conference in 2017. Other organizations interested in the clinical benefits of psychedelic substances and medical legalization are also conducting research while more and more articles, studies, and books are reporting the beneficial potential of psychedelic compounds and entheogenic plant medicines for healing.

So, how do these modalities shift consciousness and activate healing? As I described above, the shifts begin by bringing the body out of its normal homeostasis. Psychedelics and entheogenic plant medicines can initiate these shifts quickly and directly. MDMA increases the activity of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain and has been shown to decrease activity in the amygdala, the region of the brain associated with fear and the physiological processing of traumatic memories. Psychoactive mushrooms contain psilocybin, which converts to psilocin in the body and binds to serotonin receptors, which in turn increases dopamine levels. Ayahuasca contains DMT, which is molecularly similar to psilocin, and also attaches to serotonin and dopamine receptors in the brain.

Brain imaging has shown that both psilocin and DMT facilitate communication between regions of the brain that do not normally communicate, as well as dampen activity in the default mode network region of the brain. This is a region of the brain that is thought to maintain a sense of separate self, and a region that when overly active, is associated with depression, ruminations, and obsessive-compulsive thought patterns. When activity in the default mode network is reduced, many people report a decreased sense of separate self-identity and an increased feeling of oneness with their surroundings. They report novel insights, an ability to perceive previously unseen connections, and increased access to raw emotional states and memories without the normal tendency to analyze them.

Techniques that do not include psychotropic medicines work similarly. Meditation practices typically include slowing the breath, which slows the heart rate and affects brain activity and biochemistry in the body. Brain imaging on experienced practitioners engaged in meditation has also shown decreased default mode network activity, along with increased growth in the hippocampus, the learning and memory center of the brain, as well as decreased brain cell volume in the amygdala, the part of the brain connected with the fight, flight, or freeze fear response. Drumming has been studied and shown to change brain chemistry as adrenaline is released, blood glucose levels are lowered, and adrenochrome is released. Endorphins are released, which increase alpha waves in the brain and induce synchronous brain activity, with brain waves entering a synchronized rhythm. This can initiate an entirely different state of consciousness replete with visionary experiences. Vision quests with minimal food or water, sweat lodges that increase the body’s internal temperature, dancing and sports all have their unique effects on the body and brain. Many athletes report flow states and peak experiences while immersed in their sport.

Although it is often through physical practices that expanded states of consciousness are accessed, those entering find themselves able to transcend the normal restrictions of the body and the habitual patterns of the ego. Though it is difficult to scientifically measure, many people report a sense of merging with something larger than themselves and encountering aspects of themselves beyond their normal identity. Many report expanding beyond their human conditioning and even beyond their current human incarnation. From a psychological perspective, we might say these techniques open the doorway between the conscious and unconscious dimensions of the psyche. Many earth-based cultures equate the expansion of consciousness with the lifting of the veil between the human and spirit realms. They say that by reconnecting with the eternal, formless dimension of our identity, we are able to heal and discern the original purpose and wisdom of our soul.

In my years of supporting clients who explore these expanded states as well as through my personal experience, I have studied how expanded states of consciousness initiate healing from a psychological perspective. As bodily tensions and their corresponding psychological defenses begin to relax, the first thing that often happens, especially if we are new to this realm of experience, is that we may feel fear or even terror. There is a sensation of contraction and a primal concern for our safety. Our layers of meticulously crafted defense strategies that have maintained our physical and psychological survival (i.e., our ego structure) begin to soften. These self-protective layers and the corresponding fear are extremely intelligent. They serve an invaluable purpose of managing and organizing the inflow of external information and responding in ways that allow for our greatest safety and well-being. These strategies have developed in response to the specific physical and social circumstances of our childhood and adult environment.

Expanded states amplify deeply held patterns and tensions, their effects akin to bringing a magnifying glass to one’s inner world. Along these lines, Stanislav Grof has referred to psychedelics as amplifiers of the psyche. Due to this amplification effect, a journeyer is brought into intimate contact with the total reality of the moment. As the body relaxes, so do the mind and discursive thoughts. Normally filtered sensory gates open, and more information begins to enter the perceptual field of awareness. When these filters dissolve, we are able to understand patterns and see connections that were previously unseen. What is normally unconscious begins to flow into the conscious mind.

Repressed emotions or long-forgotten memories can surface. Grief and sadness or overwhelming love and compassion can arise, sometimes right after one another. Profound insights, visions, and intense somatic expressions can come through. During this inner unfolding, we are able to perceive the symbols, images, visions, and archetypes that live in our unconscious. One fascinating characteristic of this process is that different layers of insight can happen simultaneously. As the body becomes sharply aware of the state of its tissues, muscles, joints, bones, and fluids, and calcified energy begins to melt, we begin to perceive the connections between the visceral layers and the more complex psychological dimensions of our consciousness.

We can perceive how our protective strategies have resulted from our belief systems and our buried wounds. We can make contact with our shame. We can experience wounds in their purity, understanding their causes and seeing them for what they truly are. They may derive from feeling unseen, unloved, or disconnected from others. Looking at our original wounding from an adult perspective allows us to empathize with what our younger self endured and the complex strategies that we constructed to survive. The direct experiences of previously unconscious memories, thoughts, tensions, and emotions enter into our conscious mind allowing us the opportunity to process and integrate them into the wholeness of our psyche and life.

In this relaxed state, the body and mind are free to follow their deepest impulse: to seek wholeness and flow. The resolution of inner conflicts is possible through accessing a more resourced state than the one in which a conflict or pattern of tension was created. I find that when someone enters an expanded state of consciousness—whether accessed via an entheogenic plant medicine, a drumming journey, a meditation retreat, or any other modality— what is most imbalanced in the overall person is revealed. The psyche, like all things natural and wild, strives for balance, and when attended to and listened to, will intelligently communicate and move toward what it needs to reestablish the highest level of health possible.


From Consciousness Medicine by Francoise Bourzat with Kristina Hunter, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright 2019 by Francoise Bourzat with Kristina Hunter. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.