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  States of Consciousness

    Charles T. Tart


This is a transitional book.
    It is transitional, first, because our society is in the midst of many vital transitions. As this book shows, our ordinary or "normal" state of consciousness is a tool, a structure, a coping mechanism for dealing with a certain agreed-upon social reality—a consensus reality. As long as that consensus reality and the values and experiences behind it remain reasonably stable, we have a fairly good idea of what "normal" consciousness is for an individual and what "pathological" deviations from that norm are. Today, as many of the religious, moral, and emotional underpinnings of our civilization lose their guiding value for our most influential people, the concepts of normal and pathological begin to lose their meanings.
    Because we have begun in recent years to question the foundations of our consensus reality and the value of our normal state of consciousness, some of us have tried to alter consciousness by experimenting with drugs, meditation, new kinds of psychotherapies, new religious systems. My own reading of history suggests that some of the experiences people have had in altered states of consciousness, generally called mystical experiences, have formed the underpinnings of all great religious systems and of the stable societies and consensus realities that were formed from them. Now we not only question our inherited social systems, we go directly to the sources, to altered states of consciousness, in our search for new values and realities. This is a very exciting, very dangerous, and very hopeful undertaking. We are in a social transition, and no one of us knows precisely where it is going. Yet we have, perhaps, a chance to understand our own transition and possibly to guide it—things no society in the past has been able to do.
    This opportunity is granted us by science, particularly the young science of psychology. Instead of being blindly converted to ideologies created by the powerful experiences encountered in altered states of consciousness, or avoiding them because of fear, we may be able, through science, to gain a broader understanding f our own minds and of these forces and to exert some intelligent guidance.
    This book is transitional in a second way because psychology itself is entering a state of rapid transition. Once defined as the study of the mind, psychology made little headway as a science; it lacked the elegance, precision of understanding, and power of doing of the physical sciences. So it was redefined by many of its practitioners as the study of behavior. Overt behavior is easier to study than experience, and the examination of overt behavior has given us many useful tools for predicting and changing behavior.
    Now I see psychology once again becoming a science of or the study of the mind. This trend seems undesirable to many of my older colleagues, but is welcomed by many younger psychologists and by most current students of psychology. We cannot shun the study of the nature of the human mind simply because it is difficult, and confine ourselves to the easier analysis of overt behavior. We are now developing many tools for more precise study of the mind.
    Yet this second transition is unfinished. At the moment I am optimistic that a science of consciousness and states of consciousness will be developed within this decade. But I cannot be certain that this transition in contemporary psychology will definitely lead to a science of consciousness. The interest among younger psychologists and students is not simply a function of some linear progress in the psychological knowledge available to s; it is also a reflection of the transition in our society that has prompted our search for values. If there is a marked change in society, such as an authoritarian, repressive shift to buy security rather than to endure the stress of transition, the new science of consciousness may be aborted.
    This books presents a new way of viewing states of consciousness—a systems approach. it is a way of looking at what people tell us about and how they behave in various altered states of consciousness that I have been slowly developing in a decade of research. I have worked out the major dimensions of this way of understanding to a point of great usefulness to myself, and I believe the method can be useful to others, as well. It is now clear to me that the need is great for some kind of paradigm to make sense of the vast mass of chaotic data in this field, and I offer this systems approach to others even though this approach is still in transition. It will take me another decade to think out all the ramifications of this approach, to begin the broad-scale experimental tests of its usefulness, to adequately fit all the extant and evolving literature into it. But I do not think we have time for such slow and orderly work if, given the first two transitions, we are to understand enough scientifically about states of consciousness to have some influence on the powerful transitions occurring in our society. Thus I present this systems approach now, even though it is unfinished, in the hope that it may lead us toward the understanding we need.
    This book is transitional in still another sense; it represents a variety of personal transitions for me. One of these transitions is a professional one—from experimentalist to theoretician. I am not entirely comfortable with this change. My style has been to conduct small-scale experiments in various areas of the psychology of consciousness where I can stay personally involved with the factual data and not lose track of them in the course of pursuing intriguing abstractions. Yet the systems approach presented here has evolved in the course of that experimentation, and it seems so promising that I have chosen to de-emphasize my immediate involvement in experimentation to look at the larger picture of the nature of states of consciousness. A forthcoming book, Studies of States of Consciousness [132], will collect some of that research for convenient reference. References to all of my research can be found in the Bibliography [61-139].
    Another personal transition is that I have lately given more attention to direct experience of some of the phenomena associated with altered states of consciousness. While much of what I write about here is intellectual or theoretical knowledge based on reports from others and on the experimental literature, some of it comes directly from my own experience—enough so that the systems approach I describe clearly makes basic experiential sense to me, even though many of its ramifications are beyond the scope of my personal experience.
    My personal experience of some of the phenomena associated with altered states of consciousness may be both advantageous and disadvantageous. In the early days of research with LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), scientists often downgraded the work of a researcher who had not taken LSD himself on grounds that he did not really understand the phenomena he was researching. On the other hand, if he had taken LSD himself, his research was suspect on grounds that his judgment probably had been warped by his personal involvement. He was damned if he did and damned if he didn't. So I have tried to steer a middle course—not presenting a personal theory, but also not presenting ideas that have no experiential basis at all for me. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage must be judged by the long-term usefulness of these ideas.
    This book is addressed to everyone who is interested in states of consciousness, whether that interest is personal, professional, or both. Each of us lives in his ordinary state of consciousness, each of us experiencers at least one altered state of consciousness (dreaming), and few of us are immune to the currents of social change that make us ask questions about the nature of our mental life. Understanding consciousness is not the exclusive task or desire of scientists or therapists. Because this is a subject of interest to all of us, I have tried to keep my writing straightforward and clear and to resist the temptation to talk in scientific jargon. I introduce only a few technical terms, usually where the common words we might use have acquired such a wide range of meaning that they are no longer clear.
    This book is also addressed to practitioners and researchers who will see where this way of looking at consciousness is helpful and will refine and expand it, and who will also see where this way of looking things is not helpful and does not fit their experience and so will alter it. I believe what is presented here will be useful to many of us now, but I hope that in a decade the progress made by others in the refinement and application of this approach will allow a far more definitive book to be written.
    The book is organized into two sections. The first section, "States," describes my systems approach to states of consciousness, discusses some of its implications, and gives an overview of what we know about states of consciousness today. The second section, "Speculations," presents ideas that, while consistent with the systems approach, are not a necessary part of it and are more unorthodox.
    My own thinking in evolving this systems approach has depended heavily on the contributions of many others. To name only the ones most prominent in my mind, I am indebted to Roberto Assagioli, John Bennet, Carlos Castaneda (and his teacher, Don Juan), Arthur Deikman, Sigmund Freud, David Galin, George Gurdjieff, Arthur Hastings, Ernest Hilgard, Carl Jung, Thomas Kuhn, John Lilly, Abraham Maslow, Harold McCurdy, Gardner Murphy, Claudio Naranjo, Maurice Nicoll, Robert Ornstein, Peter Ouspensky, Idries Shah, Ronald Shor, Tarthang Tulku, Andrew Weil, and my wife, Judy. I also wish to express my particular to Helen Joan Crawford, Lois Dick, and Irene Segrest, who have done so much to aid me in my research.

Chapter 1

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