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Christa Smith Psy.D.
Christa Smith Psy.D.

Altered States of Consciousness

Sometimes, the smartest thing to do is give your intellect a rest.

When you hear the words “altered state of consciousness” you may think of bellbottoms, hippies, and LSD. But some altered states have nothing to do with drugs and are more important than we may think.

Altered states of consciousness, sometimes called non-ordinary states, include various mental states in which the mind can be aware but is not in its usual wakeful condition, such as during hypnosis, meditation, hallucination, trance, and the dream stage.* Altered states can occur anywhere from yoga class to the birth of a child. They allow us to see our lives and ourselves with a broader lens and from different angles of perception than the ordinary mind.

I often witness clients relying too heavily on the ordinary mind. They painstakingly analyze themselves and their problems with little payoff, as if the ordinary mind is the only and best tool for healing.

Adele was one such client. She was a 45 year-old mother of two who suffered from depression related to aging. She was highly intelligent and could articulate perfectly why being in her forties bothered her so much. But as much as she tried to convince herself it wasn’t true, she could not shake the idea that her life was essentially over, that all of the good times were in the past. She struggled to overcome this belief, which was at the heart of her depression, but made little progress.

Many of us are like Adele. We live our lives and meet our challenges with the intellect, neglecting the opportunities that altered states offer. Maybe we just prefer the safety and predictability of the ordinary mind and the world of thought. We know what’s wrong intellectually but we feel stuck when it comes to getting relief.

We feel stuck, in part, because we are relying too heavily on "figuring out" our problems. When we only use the ordinary mode of consciousness, our problems can become self-perpetuating.

We are like a person stuck in a hole who digs with a shovel rather than climbing out with a ladder. Sometimes we can’t see the ladder with the ordinary mind. At times like these, dropping the effort to figure ourselves out can be the best medicine. That doesn't mean dropping the effort to get better, but giving the intellect a rest for a while.

Some of psychology’s most effective models of depression treatment, like Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), are based on the notion that the intellect can’t always solve our problems and can actually make matters worse.

In treatments such as MBCT, healing requires getting into non-ordinary modes of mind, such as mindfulness. These alternate modes are beyond words. Whatever transpires in these states of mind does so in a different language than that of thought. Maybe that’s why non-ordinary states can be so transformative, because they offer something that thinking never will.

After many months of processing her grief and her fears about aging in therapy, Adele gave up. She decided that she wasn’t going to try to figure out how to get rid of her depression. Instead, she spent time creating opportunities for non-ordinary states to arise. She went on a retreat, and when at home, she took long walks in the woods. At the end of one such walk, looking at a river, something mysteriously coalesced. She knew she could focus again on what she liked about life and what she could do with the rest of hers. From that point on, she began to feel better and eventually made a full recovery.

Thinking through our problems is an important part of healing, but we may end up viewing the problems we face solely with the same mind that helped create them. Altered states of consciousness are sacred and powerful places which reveal that there is more to ourselves and our potential for healing than the ordinary mind can grasp.

© Christa Smith 2015

*The free dictionary by FARLEX

About the Author
Christa Smith Psy.D.

Christa Smith, Psy.D., is a psychologist and mindfulness enthusiast who works with people who want to make a shift.

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