“The sense-perceptible world is only part of what surrounds us…
It is like a piece of ice floating on water—the ice consists of the same substance
as the surrounding water but stands out because of certain qualities it possesses.”
— Rudolf Steiner, from Theosophie, p. 114
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
What is an alternate reality to you? Can you describe it? What is the purpose of describing it?
It’s odd we don’t spend more time considering this. I think that is because we believe the reality we’re aware of is the only reality there is. Though we may doubt the present and be dissatisfied with it, we are attached to it.
This reflects a natural fear of losing control and awareness. We hope our investment in our current reality will pay off. In this there is an element of the “sunk cost fallacy.” We don’t want to lose contact with the reality in which we’ve invested so much.
I know satisfied and unsatisfied people who are ready to explore alternate realities. The satisfied are looking to gain more of what they value, and the unsatisfied to lose what they don’t. Many journeyers will attest that there is much to be learned outside “the real world” we normally perceive.
Our perception of reality lies at the heart of the matter. Most people will admit that they’re living in one world. We are looking for an alternate present and not to collect alternate simultaneous realities. No one is really working to establish the coexistence of Dante’s heaven and hell, what is today called a multi-verse. They’re just looking for a choice.
Religions posit alternate simultaneous realities. This challenges the physics of this one. Psychedelic journeyers and those looking for transformation are not invested in this, they just want the power to transform their perception.
We perceive much that we are unaware of. It used to be thought that we had five senses but it’s now recognized our senses are nearly unlimited. All but a few of them don’t impinge on consciousness and are not under conscious control. It’s our understanding of what we perceive that makes perceptions our reality. Understanding perception is called apperception.
Everything our cells are aware of and everything our metabolism responds to is a form of perception. And while we may not be aware of these interactions directly, we become aware of them “downstream.”
Actions in our gut may be indirect and muscle tension may communicate unclearly, but we can learn to improve these channels of awareness if we pay attention to them. Because there is so much that we could do that we don’t do, we don’t know the extent of our apperception.
Eastern and Indigenous cosmologies have a presence in our culture. These alternative narratives are present in concept but they are only beginning to affect our belief systems. Has our culture really integrated other ways of thinking? If we’re practiced in meditation, yoga, and dreamwork we might say “yes”, but as a culture we have not.
There is perception—what we can be aware of—apperception—what we are aware of—and attention—what we choose to be aware of. In spite of our baptisms, mitzvahs, and other rites of passage we remain an acquisitive and materialistic culture. We exert our greatest self-limiting behavior in what we choose to be aware of. The Western mindset has not changed much.
Compare your awareness to the cacophonous sounds of many people speaking at once in a cocktail party. There is much you could be aware of but you focus your attention on one speaker and you hear only them.
This is a metaphor for your reality. There are many options and you filter it down to only one. This all centers on your attention. For the most part, you direct your attention by habit and reflex and take in only a tiny amount of information.
When we’re conscious we perceive the world with our minds and bodies, and our minds and bodies apperceive sensations that are primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on to the limits of our attention. Like the conversations in the cocktail party, we build our reality not on the basis of what we can perceive, but on the basis of what we attend to. We can enlarge our perceptions.
We believe our dreams are real while dreaming because our viewpoint is the familiar vantage point of ourselves. The dream narrative may make no sense, but reality is internal, and as long as we believe we remain ourselves, then we interpret our environment as reality.
In lucid dreaming, we become aware that we are in a dream. This does not change our reality as much as it changes what we recognize as who we are. We’re still in a mostly out of our control, nonsensical world, but we’re more aware of it.
When we become lucid in a dream—or to whatever extent we become lucid in a dream—we can change our dream but we can’t change it much. What we’re really doing is changing our apperception because, in a dream, there is no perception, it is all imagined.
Some claim becoming lucid in a dream is a transformative “Thelma and Louise” moment, and that in this moment we can drive our awareness into a transcendent reality. There is little evidence of that as we hardly know where to go. There are some cases of lucid dreamers asking for higher knowledge but I am not convinced that they get it.
I don’t believe lucid dreaming accomplishes anything by itself. To the extent that you “take control” your reality becomes smaller. Much the same as having awareness. It’s not being lucid that’s of value, it’s what you do with it.
What you want to do is to change yourself. The reality that you apperceive reflects who you imagine yourself to be, and you want to imagine yourself to be something greater. If knowledge was just for the asking, and you got just by asking, then you must know it already. I suspect that even if you gained access to the kitchen of universal awareness you still would not instantly know how to cook.
Controlling your attention can have as much effect as becoming lucid. Realizing that you have control of what you apperceive opens the possibility of seeing, being, doing, and understanding more. None of these benefits are guaranteed, but broader attention creates new ingredients and contexts.
Nothing reaches our awareness without our attention. Without attention you will not apperceive another reality even if you perceive it. Perceiving what you cannot understand simply results in a blur.
We know this from reports of people blind since birth whose sight as been surgically restored. These people can “see” but they cannot make sense of anything. They have to learn automatic recognition, and it’s not clear that all of them do. Consider this in the context of your own growing perceptions.
By focusing on one conversation, all the auditory information in the other cocktail party conversations is lost even though you might perceive them. Even though these conversations are opportunities, you must give them your attention. You must have control of your attention and you must expand it.
It seems counter-intuitive, but the closer you look at your awareness, the less aware you are of it. This might be better stated as, “the closer you come to where you are standing, the less aware you are of your location.”
You cannot look at the eyes you see with. You cannot hold your sense of self away from yourself. You can only see the extent of yourself from some position outside yourself. You have the most complete picture of yourself when you can see everything between where you are and the horizon.
Meditation is an attempt to see all of yourself and enlarge parts of yourself. Yoga is an attempt to connect your mind and body. Dreamwork attempts to bring your subconscious into consciousness. Brain training is an attempt to apperceive aspects of your perception you have overlooked. Interoception attempts to elevate to awareness perceptions from within your body. Psychedelics can throw you into new realms with or without the security blanket of familiarity.
Hypnosis can serve the same purpose as dreams, namely to confront you with those things that are dogging you. Carl Jung advocated a hypnotic technique he called “active imagination” wherein the contents of your subconscious are translated into conscious narratives. This serves to bridge the conscious with the subconscious.
“It was during Advent of the year 1913 – December 12, to be exact – I resolved upon the decisive step. I was sitting at my desk once more, thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged into the dark depths.” — Carl Jung, from Memories, Dreams, and Reflections
All of these are trainings. They are not aimed toward instant revelation, and they will not provide knowledge of themselves. They are ways to develop raw skills. The less you try to understand them and simply pay attention to them, the more quickly you will learn.
New levels of attention can be achieved through different means. The first time you’re on a bicycle or a pair of skis, it’s fear that forces you to become more aware. Your sense of balance and movement displaces thought. Pain, curiosity, ecstasy, inspiration, and imagination can also redirect your attention and change your personality at least temporarily.
Depending on the chemical, psychedelics can be the most uncontrolled, unpredictable, and uncontrollable source of alternate reality experience. There is no reason, and I believe it to be unwise, to use psychedelics to expand your awareness if you are not prepared to manage your reality.
I am a proponent of the use of psychedelics to explore the territory of one’s mind. At the same time, what you get out of any experience is often proportional to what you put into it. Psychedelics ask for little preparation and many people provide none.
Using psychedelics without preparation is lazy and uninformed. It is like taking a vacation to a foreign land without studying the culture and geography. Your visit may be fun, but you’ll learn nothing. It’s also possible that your visit will be a disappointment or a disaster. Don’t blame the psychedelic.
I believe the reason that all but one of my chemical psychedelic experiences have been positive is because I was familiar with the territory. Those were trips to foreign realities in which I drove the car, sailed the boat, or at least chose my direction.
My one negative experience was using Salvia Divinorum. That was a visit to an unfamiliar territory without any body, perception from the present, or memory of the past. I remember everything about the experience but I cannot integrate it because it made no contact with my “real” world. I learned how negative a reality could be and felt lucky when I escaped from it.
Before voyaging to other realities, prepare yourself. You would not jump out of an airplane without a parachute, off a cliff without a rope, or into a cave without a light. Why would you presume you will be able to navigate in an unfamiliar world?
There are many aspects to being prepared, as many aspects as there emotions that can overwhelm you. Two of the most basic are being grounded and being able.
Being grounded means being attached to who you are and having the ability to maintain this. Being grounded means being stable and in touch with your identity. You usually have this in a dream: you think that you know who you are and you experience things as yourself. The integrative property of dreams comes from your ability to integrate conflict into a grounded sense of self.
Being able means you have some control. You can allow or deny, approach or retreat, invite or refuse the energies you encounter. As I learned from my Salvia experience, you want to have at least some control in an emergency. You want that “abort” button we find in fire alarms and shut-down switches.
Finally, you want guidance. This is the shaman’s main purpose. They’re not there to send you and they don’t do much to ground you, their particular skill is to call the energies. Depending on their cosmology they will describe this in different ways. My favorite shamanic explanation is “calling down the angels” where the angels do all the healing.
As powerful psychedelics are poised to go mainstream, this would be a good time to learn how to use them. These concepts of grounding, ability, and guidance may not be familiar to you.
Recreational drug users are willing to take the risks. This is fair assuming they know what they are. Psychologists are hoping to explore the territory using a preconceived medical model, but it’s not really appropriate. You may be traumatized or depressed outside the experience, but you may not be either of those things within it. The medical model does not include the concepts of ability or guidance.
Current psychedelic-assisted psychology only recognizes grounding, it has no concept of ability or guidance. These come with experience, and the best way to get experience is to start on the Bunny slopes.
No one learns to rock climb by starting up El Capitan or skiing down Mt. Everest, and you shouldn’t expect to learn about navigating alternate realities starting with the most powerful substances.
Literature might orient you, psychologists might protect you, and shamans might guide you. But literature cannot protect you, psychologists don’t know how to guide you, and it’s not the shamans job to determine if you’re ready for the experience.
These are skills you learn yourself, and you start with training wheels. Start with experiences you can understand where falling down won’t hurt you. Start out training your brain, exploring your dreams, visions, and emotions. Exercise and test yourself. Make small mistakes. Don’t start with a powerwash of your mind.
“This higher consciousness is of such a kind that it makes a shattering experience in the soul: one comes through a kind of inner jump out of all one has been connected to in ordinary life. One is able to enter into this observer, even if only for a moment.” — Rudolf Steiner
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