Hacking Our Way to Altered States of Consciousness

A singing bowl used for meditation

I was at a garage sale one Saturday morning when I found what seemed like a diamond in the rough: a perfectly crisp and well taken care of windbreaker with a fleece liner. I thought it would be ideal for winter camping or riding my bike to work. A slender, bearded man who looks like he could have graced the cover of REI’s latest catalog approached me. It was his garage sale, and clearly he had a history with this jacket. “It’s a great jacket for trail running,” he said, smiling. “Oh yeah? I’ll have to give that a try” I said. That nudge started what has become a nearly two year love affair with the sport of trail running. I’ve tried — and failed miserably — to convey the sport’s allure to my friends. I try to tell them about how there is something “primal” about running fast through the woods, or how when I’m trail running the world around me fades away, my focus becomes laser sharp, and I feel as though I’m floating down the trail, jumping perfectly to avoid rocks and tree stumps. You can sometimes fall into a trance: your vision becomes clear, your mind is completely empty of outside thoughts, and you are living in the absolute present.

Activities like trail running and surfing can help us access flow states.
Photo by Brian Metzler on Unsplash

These types of feelings are referred to as “flow states” in the field of positive psychology. It’s that feeling of being in the zone that professional athletes reportedly access regularly and a feeling that Weekend Warriors like myself experience from time to time. I’ve had feelings like this during intense prayer and while participating in sports like surfing.

In their book Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work, Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal study how Silicon Valley executives and Navy Seals access flow states and try to understand their benefits: extreme and focused productivity, deadly accuracy, and the ability to learn new ideas, concepts, and skills very easily. They tell stories of SEALs using biofeedback, sensory deprivation tanks, and brain imaging machines to decrease the time it takes to learn a new language from six months to six weeks. They discuss “G Pause,” a mindfulness program that Google uses to keep its engineers in tip-top mental shape by training them in the art of meditation.

When we participate in these activities, we are not looking to change our brain but we are simply learning how to control it. According to Kotler and Wheal, we can learn how to “tweak the knobs and levers in our brain.” And when we get it right, and with enough practice, we can experience “invaluable sensations of selflessness, timelessness, effortlessness, and richness.”

These “altered states” are highly sought after by Americans and can help to explain the rise in popularity of Eastern spiritual practices like mediation and yoga. People who practice these spiritual endeavors for long periods of time are happier. A neuroscientist who put Buddhist monks in an MRI machine was able to observe how meditation had the ability to make you a kinder, more compassionate person.

Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

But in America, we love to “hack” our way to solutions, clarity, and success. After all, meditation for years can be a hard practice to maintain. So it’s no surprise that the growing allure of flow states brings with it the desire to hack the process and achieve these altered states more quickly. Because of this, we are starting to see the mainstream reemergence of psychoactive and hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, DMT, and mushrooms.

The authors of Stealing Fire discuss the many reasons why hallucinogenic drugs have been stigmatized and pushed underground. These state-changing drugs are often said to deliver profound insights and clarity, but if not used responsibly can lead to “swamps of addiction, superstition, and groupthink, where the unprepared can get stuck,” according to Kotler and Wheal’s research. tBut in his hugely popular new book How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, acclaimed author Michael Pollen is challenging the previous negative stereotypes around hallucinogenics and instead discusses the many ways these drugs have helped millions of people. (Also, check out Pollen’s excellent interview with NPR’s Terry Gross).

The book garnered hours of media attention and received critical acclaim, and led to more people talking about using these drugs to solve problems. In fact, one of the big arguments made in the book is that the field of mental health is ripe for disruption. It’s a field that hasn’t changed significantly in a long time.

Therapists and psychologists all over the country are now becoming trained in how to peacefully and carefully lead people through guided “trips” where they can explore their issues with the helps of psychoactive compounds like magic mushrooms and psilocybin. These mental health professionals operate underground, but there is a growing wave of professionals who are looking to drugs to help people get unstuck. A New York Times reporter followed several psychedelic therapists to understand the research, practice, and methods of this growing field of mental health treatment. 

And of course, thousands of regular people are gathering on Reddit forums like r/Psychonaut where like-minded people can discuss their experiences. According to their page, a psychonaut is “a person who experiences intentionally induced altered states of consciousness and claims to use the experience to investigate his or her mind, and possibly address spiritual questions, through direct experience.” 

I find it really interesting to see this new “spiritual technology” emerge as a mainstream alternative to longer-term practices like yoga and meditation. Personally, I’ve always been terrified of these types of drugs so I will just have to observe this trend from the outside. In the past, it seemed as if Churches were a solemn and holy place where one could experience mysticism, clarity, and understanding, but the times are changing. Perhaps, with the rise of technology and greater understanding about these drugs and “flow states,” people are seeking out other methods of reaching the same mystical experience.

Photo by Fuhrer from Pixabay

About Matthew LaBorde

Matthew is the coordinator of a vocational center at a homeless services non-profit in the Washington D.C area. For the last four years, he has worked with a wide range of poor and low-income individuals and families on the goal of finding meaningful employment. He is interested in topics like psychology, feminism, spirituality, and music. Matthew graduated with a communication arts degree from Spring Hill College, where he also served as the Editor of the student newspaper for two years. (Casa Maura Clarke, Los Angeles 2014-2015)