Exploring the Transformative Power of Expanded States of Consciousness
Updated: Mar 13
By Fleet Maull, Ph.D. The idea that there are levels of consciousness beyond our everyday waking state may seem foreign or even unbelievable to some. We are accustomed to thinking of our waking consciousness as the only reality, the state in which we experience the world and make sense of our lives. But the truth is that our perception of reality is limited by the confines of our individual experiences and the constructs of our cultural and societal norms. It's only when we begin to explore the possibilities of expanded states of consciousness that we can truly begin to grasp the vastness of the human mind and its potential for transformation. These states can offer us a glimpse into a whole new world of experience, one with profound potential for both healing and self-actualization.
These states have often been called non-ordinary states or altered states. Charles Tart, a well-known researcher and author in the field of consciousness studies, first coined the term “altered states.” Expanded states of consciousness—the preferred term today—can offer valuable insights into the nature of consciousness and the human experience. They can be induced through a variety of methods, including meditation, psychedelic substances, sensory deprivation, breathwork, and other spiritual practices. When in an expanded state of consciousness, individuals may experience a sense of interconnectedness with the world around them, a feeling of unity or oneness, heightened sensory experiences, altered perceptions of time and space, and other subjective experiences.
There are many reasons why someone might be interested in expanded states of consciousness. For some, these states can provide a way to access different parts of their own psyche and gain insights into their own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. They can provide an opportunity for healing trauma and attachment wounds. For others, expanded states of consciousness can offer a way to connect with something greater than themselves, whether that be a spiritual or religious experience, a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world, or a feeling of unity with others. In addition to the personal benefits of expanded states of consciousness, there is also growing scientific interest in these states as a way to better understand the nature of consciousness itself. Researchers are exploring the neural correlates (the physical and biological manifestations of mental events or states) of different altered states of consciousness and investigating the potential therapeutic benefits of some of these states for mental health issues such as anxiety, addictions, and depression.
HOW TO ACCESS THESE EXPANDED STATES?
Human beings have been exploring these states for millennia, using techniques and practices like meditation or breath work (for example, holotropic breath-work developed by Stan Grof, and elaborated by his then-wife Christina Grof). Shamans have also been using various skillful means to help human beings enter into expanded states of consciousness, using sound, movement, drumming, and rattles. Sometimes, the shamans themselves enter an expanded state of consciousness, in which they have access to information useful to the person they are supporting, like diagnosing an illness and coming up with the right treatment or medicine for a particular ailment. Similarly, seers and prophets could also access a particular state and come back with valuable information to help the person consulting them.
Often these expanded states are induced by some quality of disruption—interrupting our normal waking consciousness, our normal way of being, which, from the perspective of expanded states of consciousness, is somewhat asleep. So another access point is a shocking experience—could be an automobile accident or surgery—either physically to the body or cognitively to the mind. Shamans have traditionally used various means to create that disruption or that pattern-interrupt.
Other means to induce expanded states of consciousness include hypnosis and hypnotherapy. Hypnosis involves inducing a trance-like state in which the individual is deeply relaxed and highly suggestible. In this state, the individual may be more open to suggestions and may experience changes in perception or awareness. In hypnotherapy, the hypnotic state is used for therapeutic purposes, such as reducing anxiety, overcoming fears, or changing unwanted behaviors. The trance-like state helps the patients open up to explore their subconscious mind and access deeper aspects of their psyche. Ecstatic dance and music can also be used as means to induce expanded states of consciousness. The practice of ecstatic dance is a freeform dance, often done in a group setting. It is designed to facilitate self-expression and connect the individual to their body and emotions. During ecstatic dance, individuals may lose their sense of self-consciousness, allowing them to explore their creativity and emotions more deeply. The music and rhythm can also facilitate a sense of unity with others.
Finally, another common way to induce these expanded states is through the ingestion of plant medicines and psychedelics. Below is a non-exhaustive list of some of these substances:
Psilocybin: A psychoactive compound found in certain species of mushrooms
Peyote: a kind of cactus used by the indigenous people in North America for centuries that grows very slowly in only a few places. Various initiatives are underway to protect it and allow indigenous people to continue using it.
Ayahuasca: A brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, sometimes called yage, which acts as a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) and allows DMT (contained in another plant— Psychotria viridis, also called chacruna in Peru) to be orally active. The shaman or curandero will also add other plants to the brew for various effects (calming, anti-nausea, etc.).
Bufo: a type of toad that secretes a potent psychoactive compound in its venom, called 5-Meo-DMT.
In addition to these medicines found in the wild, we have synthetic psychedelics, like LSD and DMT that are derivatives of ergot—a type of fungus that grows on various species of grain, particularly rye. There's conclusive evidence that it was probably used traditionally as a psychoactive substance in the illusion temples of both ancient Greece and Rome.
Sometimes these traditional medicines and the synthesized versions are called entheogens--a term describing psychoactive substances used in the context of traditional shamanic or religious practices to induce altered states of consciousness as a means of connecting with the divine and sometimes leading to profound and mystical experiences. These substances have relatively immediate effects that require no effort on our part, while accessing expanded states of consciousness and awareness through other means like meditation and breath work can demand a lot of training, discipline, and practice.
I'm not in any way here encouraging the use of psychoactive substances. Any use of psychedelics, natural or synthesized, should be approached with great care, respect, humility, and appropriate skilled guidance. Many of them are still illegal in the United States. Exploring expanded states of consciousness can surface traumas and invite all kinds of unresolved psychological issues. It is always important to begin our exploration of expanded states of consciousness with experienced teachers, therapists, guides or mentors. If we are not held in a safe space by competent and experienced people, breath work and even meditation could take us into very un-resourced and fragile places. And that brings up the importance of what is known as “set and setting.”
SET AND SETTING
Set is the mindset, heart set, or body set that we bring to the experience. Our psychological state can greatly influence the nature and quality of a psychedelic or other expanded state experience. When making use of any vehicle to access expanded states of consciousness, it is good to be really clear about our motivation. Even when sitting down to practice basic mindfulness meditation, we want to set a clear intention. What am I doing? Perhaps I'm trying to become calmer and more peaceful. Perhaps I'm trying to manage my stress. Perhaps I aspire to really awaken and do this for the benefit of others. It's always helpful to have that deeper and larger motivation to benefit all beings with whatever we're doing. So, being clear about our motivation, being aware, and intentionally taking care of ourselves going in is important.. With a good mindset, we create the right container for our psychedelic or other expanded state experience. It is also important to take care of our body. For example, with some substances, it's helpful to eat very lightly beforehand or even fast. It is important to be well-rested and relaxed.
Setting is the actual physical and social environment in which the substance is consumed—the lighting, the music, the guidance from a qualified teacher, the accompaniment, the actual room we are in. All these factors are incredibly powerful in terms of influencing the experience we are going to have. Expanded states of consciousness can vary dramatically from experiencing a state of unconditional love, bliss, ease, and wonder, to being chaotic, and scary, filled with shadow material and horrific images or resurfacing old traumas. And these variations are often very connected to set and setting.
BENEFITS OF EXPANDED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS Because of the incredible advances in brain science, there is now growing evidence that expanded states of consciousness, although not a complete panacea or cure for all ailments, may have a range of physical, mental, emotional, neurobiological and spiritual benefits. These benefits include:
Changes in brain function: Research has shown that expanded states of consciousness can produce changes in brain function, including increased connectivity between different brain regions and changes in activity in specific brain networks. These changes may be associated with increased creativity, enhanced cognitive functioning, and improved emotional regulation.
Increase in neuroplasticity: our brain is somewhat fluid and always changing based on what we expose it to, and it can evolve and further develop throughout the lifespan. Three decades ago, we used to think that by the time you're an adult, the brain you have is the brain you have and if anything, it may deteriorate or diminish in its capacity over time. We now know this is not true, and that the brain’s neuroplasticity can extend even into old age. Expanded states of consciousness may increase the brain’s neuroplasticity allowing for literal rewiring of the brain, developing new or more robust neural networks that support greater emotional and cognitive balance, and more positive outlook as well as enhanced learning and psychological and spiritual growth
Reduction in stress and anxiety: Expanded states of consciousness have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, which can have a range of physical and psychological benefits. These benefits may include improved immune function, reduced inflammation, and improved mental health outcomes.
Trauma healing: Expanded states allow access to a deeper level of awareness, which can help us process and release the emotional pain associated with traumatic experiences, so we may gain a new perspective on our life challenges.
Profound insights into the nature of reality and the nature of who and what we are. The sense of fear-based, egoic self may diminish or even dissolve along with the subject-object duality that reinforces our separate sense of self, leading to significant personal growth and positive changes in one's relationships, worldview, and sense of purpose.
Experiences of interconnectedness and oneness with all of life— sometimes manifesting as a sense of falling in love with nature (biophilia) and increased connection to the natural world, as well as a sense of effortless flow of consciousness—our true nature.
A lessening of the fear of death: The experience of oneness and interconnectedness often leads to a realization that death is not an end, but rather a transformation of energy from one state to another. In some cases, people have reported experiences that feel similar to near-death experiences (NDEs), during which people often feel a sense of peace and comfort, as well as a connection to a higher power or spiritual realm. These experiences can offer reassurance that there is more to life than what we see in our physical reality, and this can lessen the fear of what lies beyond death.
IMPORTANCE OF INTEGRATION
Integration is a crucial component for gaining maximum benefit from expanded states of consciousness experiences. It refers to the process of incorporating these experiences into our lives. Without proper integration, we may find ourselves struggling to apply the insights and lessons learned to our day-to-day experiences, leading to a sense of disorientation, confusion, or even anxiety. Integrating expanded states of consciousness experiences could involve a variety of practices, such as journaling, meditation, therapy, group work, and other spiritual or community practices. Additionally, we may realize that we are called to make changes to our lives, relationships, or belief systems in order to align with the new insights and perspectives gained during the expanded state of consciousness experience. In that eventuality, therapy or some form of counseling or mentoring could be very helpful.
Letting go is always helpful. It's important to trust that these experiences arise within our own body, heart, and mind, and are a natural part of who we are. We don't need to cling onto them as if we are afraid of losing something that wasn't ours to begin with. We can allow them to flow through us and trust that they will continue to inform our being and understanding of the world around us.
After an expanded state of consciousness experience, as part of the integration process, it is important to re-ground ourselves. This can be achieved through practices such as taking a hot bath with Epsom salts, getting a good night's sleep, eating nourishing food, and drinking plenty of water. Meditation practice can also be a helpful tool for integration, as can music or chanting. By bringing our attention to the body and breath, we can shift our focus from the discursive mind to a more stabilized state of awareness, fostering attitudinal qualities such as openness, curiosity, and self-compassion.
While talking to someone can be helpful for integration, it's important to exercise caution and avoid trying to reify some kind of self-identity based on the experience we’ve had. At times, we may want to keep some experiences private, and if we decide to share them, do so in the right setting with someone who understands. Integration work can also be done with a skilled therapist. Extensive research is currently being done on the benefits of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Being part of a community of like-minded individuals who understand the value of expanded states of consciousness can also be helpful for integration. The main point is that expanded states of consciousness are a normal part of human experience and evolution. With sufficient preparation and integration, they can become a pathway for self-actualization, psychological growth, and spiritual evolution. It's important to remember that these experiences, like any others, are ephemeral and impermanent, and to have people around who understand and can support our path of integration.
Personally, although I had many profound experiences with plant medicines and other psychedelics in early adulthood, my main pathway for entering into expanded states of consciousness has been meditation. And the wonderful thing about meditation is that it includes everything and is the ideal vehicle for integration as well. As you can probably tell, the exploration of expanded states of consciousness area is a passion of mine. I‘m very excited to announce our upcoming free online summit, The Expanded States of Consciousness World Summit, from April 18th through the 26th, 2023 with over 65 presenters exploring different vehicles for accessing and integrating expanded states of consciousness. You can register for free here.
I really believe that accessing expanded states of consciousness and integrating the insights gained through these experiences is crucial for our individual and collective healing, growth, and evolution. I also believe that these experiences will play an important part in our human evolution and can contribute to transforming our relationship with each other and the planet. By accessing these states, we can initiate a shift of consciousness and find solutions to existential threats like climate change.
Thank you for joining me in this exploration, and I wish you all the best on your journey.