Altered States of Consciousness, Part 1: Definition?

Conservative Christians hate altered states of consciousness.

Altered states lead to demon influence, demon possession, bad dreams, narcolepsy  and the ownership of Cabbage Patch Kids.  Or is it the other way around?  Anyway, they’re bad for you.  So says the squinty-eyed fellow at the Living Way Christian Discernment Ministry*, which also publishes pamphlets warning of the occult dangers of pyramids, rainbows, and Procter & Gamble.

Before we get too deeply into this, though, we probably ought to define the term.  What is an altered state of consciousness?  Altered from what?

Here enters the first problem: “altered state of consciousness” is an unbelievably sloppy term.  It implies that there’s a baseline state of consciousness, and this other state is ‘altered’ from the normal one.  In reality, though, the state of a given person’s consciousness is in constant flux.  Let’s think this through a little.

6:30 a.m. The alarm woke Jack up.  He fumbled for the clock, slapped the button, and squinted at the glowing red numbers.  Six-thirty already?  He heaved himself out of bed, stumbled into the bathroom, ricocheting off the doorjamb on the way in. He went through the motions almost automatically, still barely awake until he washed his hands.  The shock of the cold water jarred him; he pulled his hands back and waited for it to warm up.

6:33 a.m. Still blinking sleep from his eyes, he headed for the kitchen and got the coffeemaker started.

6:37 a.m. He returned to the bathroom to shower.  By the time he’d returned to the bedroom to dress, his wife, Mary, was awake.

“G’morning, honey.”

“Morning, love,” he replied.  She headed for the door, and as he began to dress, he could hear the shower running.

6:55 a.m. Back to the kitchen to grab his lunch from the refrigerator, pour the coffee into a thermos cup that would fit in his car’s cupholder, a quick kiss for Mary, and out the door.

7:42 a.m. Walking into work, Jack fell in step with Kowalski, a friend from Marketing.

“Ready for your pitch to the V.P.?” Kowalski asked.

“That’s not until Thursday.” Jack said.

“It is Thursday.” Kowalski told him.

Jack’s stomach turned to ice.  “I’ve gotta go,” he said, and raced toward his office.

7:44 a.m. As he entered the office, the phone was ringing.  It was Kowalski.

“Hey, I was wrong — it’s only Wednesday.  Sorry about that.”

Jake’s face reddened.  “You jerk–“

“Hey, it was an accident.  I know how important this is to you.  I’m sorry.”  Kowalski sounded a little wounded.

“Ah, forget it,” Jake said.  “I’m just glad you were wrong.”

They hung up, and Jake dropped into his chair, his gut slowly unclenching.  The aftereffects of the adrenaline left him jittery until lunchtime.

12:30 p.m. Jake wasn’t particularly hungry.  He didn’t even unpack his lunch all the way; just took one sandwich off the top and ate it.  His stomach was still feeling a little iffy.

2:43 p.m. Jake began to feel sleepy.   He took an unnecessary trip to the copier just to move around a little and try to shake it off.  That didn’t work very well, so he stepped into the stairwell and did a dozen squats.  Feeling a little better, he returned to his desk.

3:35 p.m. The sleepy feeling began to return.  Jake decided he’d better eat something.  He retrieved his lunch from the refrigerator in the break room and sat down at the table to eat a little more.  In the bottom of the sack, he noticed a small envelope.  Curious, he retrieved it.   It was a very sensuously worded note from Mary, ending with the words “I can’t wait until you get home tonight.”  He sat at the table for a little longer until his reaction subsided, then returned to his desk, rather less sleepy than before.

5:00 p.m. Jake left work.  Traffic was heavy on the way home, and he found himself clenching the steering wheel, willing people out of his way.

5:46 p.m. Jake opened the front door and the smell of roast duck flooded his senses.  As he rounded the corner to the dining room, he saw the table set in white linen, glittering silver and fine china.  The wine was already poured; everything was ready.

Mary’s older sister Helen came out of the kitchen with a steaming platter.  “Hi, Jake.  She’s upstairs getting dressed; everything else is ready.  Take this for me?”

Jake took the platter and set it on the table as Helen returned to the kitchen and brought out two more dishes.

“Thank you, Helen,” Mary said from the doorway behind them.  Jake turned and his breath caught.  She was wearing that blue chiffon dress she’d worn that time…

Helen smiled.  “Well, my work here is done.  You kids have fun.”  She picked up her purse from beside the door and let herself out.

Jake grinned.  It was going to be a very good evening.

Given the contents of Mary’s note, it would be a little indelicate for us to continue looking in on the rest of Jake’s day.  Let’s just say that Jake and Mary had a mutually blessed evening together, and leave it at that.

Now, how many times did the state of Jake’s consciousness alter, even in this very truncated account of one day?  How many different states of consciousness did he experience?  Barely awake, alert, frightened, angry, jittery, sleepy, aroused, impatient, and so on.  How many things conspired to alter the state of his consciousness?  Cold water, caffeine, fear, anger, adrenaline, food, low blood sugar, exercise, an arousing note, impatience with the traffic, the scent of roast duck, the sight of Mary in that dress…quite a range, isn’t it?

The squinty-eyed fellow at the Living Way Christian Discernment Ministry* isn’t buying it. “That’s not what I’m talking about,” he says.   “All those are part of normal life.  I’m talking about dabbling in ecstatic states — drugs and alcohol, breathing exercises, chanting, so-called ‘relaxation techniques,’ guided meditation, all of that.”

“Ah, so it’s not just any alteration of state.  What you’re really trying to say is that ecstatic states are bad?” I ask him.

“Exactly,” he says, thinking that I’m finally getting it.

I’m still confused.  “Let’s go back to Jake and Mary…without describing the rest of their evening, let’s just say that at a certain point in the proceedings, they propelled each other into a state of ecstasy.  You’re telling me that’s bad?”

“No, no.  It’s not the same thing at all,”  he says.

I ask him for the difference, and he sputters.  Apparently getting a definition of “altered state of consciousness” is going to be a little harder than most people think.  I can’t help wondering if there’s a more biblical way to approach the subject…

*Please note that this is a composite of a number of organizations I’ve encountered and conversations I’ve had over the course of the last thirty years or so.  As far as I know, there is no organization called “Living Way Christian Discernment Ministry,” and I am not taking a shot at any single person or organization, but rather at a set of broad trends and currents of thought.

That said, if the shoe fits, well…in the words of the old Quaker storekeeper who surprised a burglar in the middle of the night, “Friend, I would do thee no harm, but thou standest where I am about to shoot.”


2 Responses to Altered States of Consciousness, Part 1: Definition?

  1. Eric Kemp says:

    You know, I always wondered what was wrong with hypnosis. I mean, sure, if you’re using it instead of God’s Word for fixing your problems, and praising the practice instead of the God who healed you, then your focus might be in the wrong place.

    But what it is about hypnosis, or yoga for that matter, that is so un-Biblical? Uh oh, Tim, you’ve forced me to think again. You know how much I hate that. I look forward to the next installment.

  2. Tim Nichols says:


    Yeah, sorry about that. Take 2 Arnica pastilles and…oh, wait, homeopathy is of the devil. Heh.

    Some “meat offered to idols” problems with a lot of this stuff, but just as the problem is not with the meat, but with the context, so in this case. Move on to the next vendor, and pray he has the good sense to keep schtum. But the earth is the Lord’s and *all* its fullness, and that includes all the things our bodies, and our minds, and most especially our bodyminds, can do. More coming…


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