"What we ordinarily call "reality" is merely that slice of total fact which our biological equipment, our linguistic heritage and our social conventions of thought and feeling make it possible for us to apprehend..."
- Aldous Huxley, Moksha
What is a tree? Of course, it depends on who you ask. To a cat it may be a safe place to climb up and take a snooze, to somebody caught in the rain or pounding sun it's a shelter, to a biologist it's a tall plant, a timber merchant potential wood, to some cultures it's a meeting and discussion place, and so on. So what is the actual tree itself? This example is used in Indian philosophy to remind as that what we think we know something is, is just an opinion based on what our eyes can see (we don't even think about the vast underground root system) and what our brain tells us, it can be different for everyone.
In the above quote Huxley goes on to say that hallucinogens (e.g. LSD) allow us to 'cut another slice' of reality. We'll look at the role of mind-altering substances shortly, but first it's worth expanding on how biology, language and society shape our reality. Our 'biological equipment' not only refers to our senses, but how we act on them. It includes our survival instinct, which attracts us to things that might be to our advantage and makes us avoid that which might be harmful. On top of that we have our newer brain, our cerebral cortex, our social brain, which often conflicts with our 'subconscious' ancient brain. Much of our reality is spent in this biologically set tug-of-war; between desire and threat, praise and blame.
What about our 'linguistic heritage'? Language can be seen as a code, a set of written symbols and verbal sounds which we agree represent a certain thing - this is an apple, that's a lamp-post - so that we can understand each other. From there it explodes into increasingly complex structures which enable us to express and imagine all kinds of situations: potential ones, things that didn't happen but we wish had, and so on. This shapes our thinking, not always to the good: Regret and resentment anchor us to an unchangeable past. Could I regret or resent if I didn't have the word-structures to do it? And how much time do I spend 'monologuing' in my head, or imaging talking to (at) someone? At any given point am I perceiving reality directly, or am describing it in my head?
Then we have our social conventions: our laws and rules, our codes of behavior, morals etc. These don't necessarily affect what we perceive (though arguably they can), but they certainly affect how we perceive reality. There is nothing especially remarkable about a naked person - we're all naked under our clothes after all - but we'd probably freak out if one walked out the local Starbucks carrying a latte. Our social codes make an ordinary thing seem abnormal, and vice versa.
So language, society and biology all shape our reality. Yet, what choice did we have in any of this? The fact is, by the time we are old enough to make any meaningful decision regarding the above we have already been 'conditioned'. I don't mean to sound ungrateful: I'm glad I'm a human being, I'm happy I know a language, especially one so widely spoken, and grateful I live in a relatively civilized society. Our reality gets us by, it 'works'. Yet it doesn't stop some of us from wanting to know if there is more to it than that. And how many of us find this reality burdensome? How many seek diversion in box-sets or other escapes such as alcohol? Why do we need, in the words of Iain Banks, to 'get out of our heads' now and again?
Throughout history there has been a universal need to either escape this reality or seek new ones. The Vedantic, Yogic and Buddhist ideas of reality have been explored elsewhere, and all are subtly different, but one thread that runs through all these 'ways of liberation' is the realization that our 'reality' is shaped by our world - our biology, language and society. It is our karma, it is why we repeat the same patterns over and over again. Therefore one task of liberation is to accept this and then find ways to see beyond our conditioned and ego-centric mental reality.
In many Native American traditions the reality we perceive is but one layer - one dream - in a multitude of realities. In ceremonies this plane of existence can be transcended. This is usually under the guidance of a shaman, or medicine man or woman, or 'Road Man' (who 'shows the Road'). Often psychotropic medicine is used. I use the term medicine deliberately, as often these rituals have a healing intention. The hallucinogen is a sacrament rather than a drug, which guides the user to another reality for insight and healing.
In his book The Dancing Healers, Carl Hammerschlag, a doctor and psychiatrist who worked for the Indian Health Service in the 1960-80s, describes one such ceremony of the Native American Church (a kind of pan-Indian movement founded in Arizona in the late 19th Century). After entering the Tipi with a group of Indians, including a friend - Billy - who had advanced cancer and wanted to attend the 'Peyote Church', they are passed a bowl of mashed peyote, which they drink then shortly after vomit up. This is all part of the ritual, "...the songs, the drumbeat and the fire were all trance inducing, the medicine always works well when you come to it in truth."
After midnight when his friend spoke of his reasons for being at the ceremony the "..Road Man walked to the fire. Poking around in the ashes he picked up a glowing coal the size of a peach pit and placed it on a metal jar lid. He walked back to his seat; then, taking the coal from the lid, he placed it in his mouth... The Road Man saw the coal from some extraordinary consciousness as something that would not endanger him physically. The coal spoke to him... Using his cheeks as bellows, the road man sucked in air until the coal was white hot - we could see it illuminating the inside of his mouth."
"Then he leaned over and blew sparks right over Billy's neck and chest. Billy sat unflinching, transfixed in the magic.The Road Man took the coal out of his mouth, placed it back in the lid and carried it back to the fire. Returning to his seat, he picked up his cedar bag."
Hammerschlag does not attempt to explain away this vision. He simply states that "when you perceive things from an ordinary state of consciousness, you see only what you have already seen." Scientifically this is also true: our eyes perceive relatively small spots of visual information as it 'saccades' around, much of what we think we see is actually our brain filling in the picture - seeing what we have already seen. I wonder how true this is for our other senses.
The ceremony does not cure his friend's disease, but afterwards he told the doctor how he felt much stronger both physically, mentally and spiritually and was able to tie up various loose ends in his life before passing on. Recent research into mood/mind-altering compounds such as MDMA, LSD or psilocybin suggests they are effective in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and even helped patients with life-threatening illness overcome anxiety about death. One common feature of these experiences is that patients report how their sense of self or ego seems to dissolve and they feel a deep connection with the universe. Our self, our reality, our identity...our culture puts great importance on these things, but how much do we really need them?
Another ritual seen in Native American culture is the 'vision quest' where the initiate - often but not exclusively an adolescent - goes to live in isolation for a period of time (usually a few weeks). Often they will fast for a few days, sometimes a sacrament/hallucinogenic might be used, along with chanting and prayer. It is a way to transcend 'this' reality - to overcome physical needs, to exist without words, to get beyond the influence of others - and often insight will arise, often in a vision. Something similar has been practiced in Tibet for thousands of years, an initiation involving meditating in a cave - often in complete darkness - for days or even weeks, often resulting in vivid hallucinations, but with the purpose of gaining insight and purpose. Those of us who have ever daydreamed about going 'off the grid' are perhaps seeking something similar.
Ultimately however, I think we are able to attain a deeper perception without having to live in a cave, and it is possible to access other realities whether one uses chemical means or not. After all, what is meditation, if not a way to get 'beyond' the confines of our day-to-day, conditioned 'reality'? When I sit and pay attention to my breathing, or whatever is most vivid in my awareness, and when (if I am lucky) the thinking mind goes to the background, or drops away entirely, then I am already in a different reality. A deeper reality. I am in a reality without worry or judgment, without planning, without words or commentary, I'm in the zone: Where my mind is not thinking about the blue sky, or calling it 'blue', or thinking about how nice it is, or how I should be outdoors enjoying it... in such moments my mind is the blue sky. As the Zen phrase goes 'when red comes, there is red, when white comes, there is white.' If you haven't tried it already, it's worth a go.
The Dancing Healers: A Doctor's Journey of Healing with Native Americans by Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., 1989
Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram by Iain Banks, 2003
LSD permits us to "cut another kind of slice"