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Altered States of Consciousness and Religion…Part 1

Changing RealityReligion and altered states of consciousness have been so closely associated over thousands of years that the case could be made that they are in fact symbiotic in nature. Belief in spirits leads to the desire to communicate with spirits, to learn about them and know them. Altered states of consciousness allow this communion. Trance states induced by ritual, drumming, drugs, and suggestion can all be equally effective in facilitating the movement into the spirit world.

Drugs are the ingestion or application of any substance for other than nutritional reasons. Lewin developed a classification of drugs published in 1924 that includes the categories of Euphorica, Phantastica, Inebriantia, Hypnotica, and Excitania. A modern category has been added, known as Ataraxics. These categories include sedatives, hallucinogens, depressants, and stimulants.

Differences exist between western and traditional drug use. In modern culture drug use is primarily limited to medicinal and recreational use. Traditional use was primarily religious in character. These differences can be directly attributed to a culture’s view of reality. Modern society recognizes science as the causative force in nature, while the supernatural holds this distinction in more traditional cultures. Traditionally, drugs were used to move into the spirit world, to touch the reality “on the other side”. Use was typically limited to a religious practitioner with years of experience and training. In modern society, drugs are used or have been used by virtually every individual. Other uses include the search for power, the eternal pursuit of immortality, control over the minds of others, and for recreation and experimentation.

Traditionally drugs were used by a shaman to move into the spirit world where he controlled the spirits for the benefit of his community. These drugs include, but were not limited to, tobacco, datura, psych-tropic substances like mushrooms and peyote (Huichol and Cora), and cannabis. There were many varieties of other drugs derived from things like the Banisteriopsis vine, caterpillars, and peppers. Sedatives were also used by the practitioners. Cocaine, opium, and alcohol were typical. It is interesting to note that these drugs were not only taken orally, but could be applied externally or even delivered by means of enemas. The recent discovery of this method of delivery has become apparent from works of art depicting the act. While medical enemas had been used for centuries to treat constipation, they had in the past not been recognized a drug delivery system. The previously named drugs are all found naturally. Modern day science has devised ways to synthetically produce many of these drugs, or derivatives from them. Derivatives of opium, anesthetics, synthetic narcotics, stimulants, and hallucinogens are now mass produced. Drug problem, anyone?

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Part 2 now available.

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3 comments to Altered States of Consciousness and Religion…Part 1

  • Thanks a lot! That was very informative, I just bookmarked your url.

  • Jean D

    The study of ethnobotany is very complex,and the most reliable body of knowledge is found in Anthropological research and publications. From most of these studies it has been observed that only select members of any cultural group were allowed to use mind-altering substances.typically only those who were chosen by elders/medicine people to have visions.Drugs were not freely available for just anyone.

    There are many misconceptions about altered states,which has lead New Age enthusiasts(before that,hippies)to justify drug use,and ultimately abuse,in the name of spirituality.In actuality,spiritual development of the average member of any cultural group has not been tied to altered states.

    Throughout the world spiritual development was/is based on living a good,honest,cooperative life and by worshipping the traditional god/gods/goddesses with specific rituals. It is universal to be altruistic in one’s dealings with others and to practice some form of the Golden Rule.

    By the way,the word “shaman” comes from Mongolian Asia and is completely unknown to any group outside that region.If you meet someone who uses that word,don’t trust them;they are most likely a scammer,even if they are Native American or Native from another country.(Although you may hear an Anthropologist making a generalization with this word.)This link to the posting by Bad_Hiker has some helpful information:

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