Plato described ecstasis as an altered state where our normal waking consciousness vanishes completely, replaced by an intense euphoria and a powerful connection to a greater intelligence.
So while ecstatic states (which are brief and transitory) aren’t the same as developmental stages (which are stable and long-lasting), it appears that having more of the former can, under the right conditions, help accelerate the latter. In short, altered states can lead to altered traits.
At least as far back as the French Enlightenment and Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore, I am), we’ve relied on our rational selves—what psychologists call our “egos”—to run the whole show. It’s a Maslow’s hammer kind of reaction. Every issue we encounter, we try to solve by thinking. And we know it’s not working. Even a quick glance at today’s dire mental health statistics—the one in four Americans now on psychiatric medicines; the escalating rate of suicide for everyone from ages ten to seventy-eight—shows how critically overtaxed our mental processing is these days. We may have come to the end of our psychological tether. It might be time to rethink all that thinking.
Rather than treating our psychology like the unquestioned operating system (or OS) of our entire lives, we can repurpose it to function more like a user interface (or UI)—that easy-to-use dashboard that sits atop all the other, more complex programs. By treating the mind like a dashboard, by treating different states of consciousness like apps to be judiciously deployed, we can bypass a lot of psychological storytelling and get results faster and, often, with less frustration.
In his book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that coevolution—when two different species come together, often without knowing it, to advance each other’s self-interest—also extends to humans and intoxicating plants. In return for helping mind-altering plants propagate and outcompete other species, these same plants have evolved even greater psychoactive properties for us to enjoy. “Plants,” Pollan explained in a recent essay, “evolved to gratify our desires. . . . [In return], we give them more habitat and we carry their genes around the world. This is what I mean by the ‘botany of desire.’ Our desire . . . for intoxication, for changes in consciousness, [is] a powerful force in natural history.”
A lot of people have been pointing out that the modern world is in crisis. I don’t know if I agree with the most pessimistic of those assessments, but I do know it takes significant cognitive flexibility to solve complex problems.
“Look,” Potter once explained, “I know the dark secret. I know my options. I can sit on a cushion and meditate for two hours and maybe I get a glimpse of something interesting—and maybe it lasts two seconds—but I put on a wingsuit and leap off a cliff and it’s instantaneous: Whammo, there I am, in an alternate universe that lasts for hours.”
Psychedelics overwhelm the senses with data, throwing so much information at us per second that paying attention to anything else becomes impossible. And for action and adventure athletes seeking flow, risk serves this same function. “When a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning,” Samuel Johnson once remarked, “it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
… considering all the recent advances in brain science and wearable sensors, meditation was pretty low-tech. So Siegel decided to build better tools, birthing the field that has come to be called “enlightenment engineering.”
Don’t become a Bliss Junkie.