The general idea on the basis of which Western civilization operates could be summarized as positivism, which is an outgrowth of empiricism. We base our worldview on what we can measure through use of our senses. We validate those measurements against other people’s measurements. On the basis of those measurements, we then acquire knowledge. Ancient Greek philosophers and many others spent their lives arguing over whether this is a correct approach towards reality.
Positivism is generally associated with another idea, which is physicalism, the idea that everything that exists is physical. Although this is historically a relatively uncommon position within societies, within the modern Western world it has grown dominant. It leads us to Laplace’s demon, the question of whether knowing the position and velocity of every particle in the universe means that none of us have free will and the outcome of everything can be anticipated. This seems like an absurdity to us, but modern science has no good clue what to do with consciousness. Consciousness is generally hand-waved away, interpreted as a higher level consequence of interacting particles, in spite of all the awkward implications this entails.
My contrasting belief, in line with traditional Western occultism, is that consciousness operates in the external universe, within the limits allowed by physics. There are boundaries set by the laws of physics, that prohibit certain events from happening and necessitate others, but within those limits events in the universe take shape in accordance to the influence of consciousness. Spirit and matter in the philosophy of the Cabala, from which Western occultism is derived, exist on a continuum. This continuum can be divided into five different levels.
The physical level is experienced through the five ordinary senses. It’s the only level of experience that Western science has any clue what to do with. The etheric level exists above this and comes with its own senses, which more or less parallel ordinary sight and touch. This level of experience shares some qualities with both energy and matter, but is closely connected to biological life. Within Hindu philosophy, it’s referred to as Prana.
Above the etheric level lies the astral level, the level of concrete consciousness. Important to understand is that the astral level is a level not limited to any single individual being’s mind. The astral level is thought of as a realm of flowing energies, linking mind to mind, shaped by our own consciousness and that of others. If you experience a dream, you’re capable of seeing and hearing things, despite not genuinely seeing or hearing them with your regular senses. This experience, is a phenomenon of the astral level and the deepest that most people ever enter into the astral level.
Above the astral level, lies the mental level. This is experienced through the innate capacities of awareness itself and exists beyond space and time. At this level exist abstract patterns, it is roughly synonymous with the realm of ideas that Plato conceived of. Consider for example, that the idea of a triangle, can exist independently of any triangle that can be observed within our universe. Ideas exist in a form that is not dependent upon what happens within the external observable universe. There could be zero triangular objects in the universe, yet the idea of a triangle would still exist. The prior three levels are based on the organizing principle of the mental level.
Finally, above this level lies the spiritual level, which is the source of consciousness. These levels can be thought of as part of a single spectrum, reaching from complete potential, to complete manifestation. Further explanation can be found in John Michael Greer’s books on ritual magic in the Western tradition. You’re free to disagree with the theoretical construct outlined above, but the point to understand is that it seeks to incorporate and bring order into a realm of experiences that the Western scientific tradition merely tends to dismiss as a derivative of the realms of physics.
The point I wish to make today, is that the latter perspective, of the Western occult tradition, is better capable of providing an explanation of the type of experiences that people go through when taking psychedelic substances. Most people never venture out into the astral level of experience, except through dreams. Dreams can be dismissed as chaotic fluctuations and reassembly of experiences in the physical world.
Those who take psychedelics however, find themselves visiting worlds and interacting with beings, who seem to exist in a form of their own, despite having no physical bodies that can be perceived by external observers. To the psychedelic explorer, the entities he contacts during the psychedelic state can feel as real, as the entities we interact with when we visit the supermarket. The conversations are lucid and sensible, the subject feels completely conscious and aware of the experience, able to recall the experience in a level of detail that is uncommon in dreams. Simultaneously, while the psychedelic explorer interacts in this realm, the explorer is capable of participating in the physical realm with no significant difficulty. As I witnessed with a friend, the psychedelic explorer can walk outside, greet people and send text messages to his tripsitter, with no evidence of impairment.
The psychedelic naive scientific materialist would suggest that we imagine ourselves interacting with chaotic fluctuations occurring within our brain. For those going through the experience however, it can make more sense to dismiss the external physical universe as a chaotic fluctuation in his head, than to dismiss the world he experiences. The entities the psychonaut tends to communicate with are often friendly and generally seem to know the subject well. Depending on the substance the psychonaut exposed himself to, entities can be contacted who appear surprised by the visitors’ presence, as if he has intruded upon a realm he does not normally visit.
Important to note is that these kind of experiences are reliably reproduced by those who take psychedelic substances. A study that exposed eight people to Salvinorin A for example, noted that all eight of them fully consciously re-experienced events in their past and all eight communicated with benign non-human entities.
The problem with these experiences, is that they tend to be among the most significant experiences in people’s lives according to those who experience them, yet there is no real place for them within our culture and our frame of reference. Contrast the knowledge and literature we have about such significant events as childbirth, sex, sickness, marriage and other life events, with the sparse literature we have on what constitutes one of the most significant events of the people who have experienced it. The literature is scarce on this subject, because the experience can not be independently verified, which means that within the scientific materialist frame of mind it might as well have never happened.
My suggestion is that those who wish to gain a deeper understanding and a theoretical framework within which to place these experiences should look at the traditions of the shamans and indigenous people who have experience with the psychedelic substances that bring about these experiences. Over generations, they have come to understand these plants and fungi as able to help address various psychological issues that affect a human being.
In addition, I recommend looking into the occult Western tradition. Within the occult tradition, it is generally understood that human consciousness extends beyond the physical dimensions of space and time, rather than being a mere derivative of the particles that constitute the external universe. In addition, it is understood that these higher levels of experience are inhabited by entities, who can be best understood as having a non-corporeal existence of their own.
I do not claim to have a complete and thorough understanding of the realm within which the psychedelic phenomenon is experienced. However, it is clear to me that it can not be properly investigated through the techniques that are generally used within our culture to gain understanding of the external universe. It’s not possible for other observers to independently validate the psychedelic phenomenon, or to use instruments with which the experience can be objectively measured and demonstrated beyond reasonably doubt.
Those who choose to venture out into this realm have to accept the inevitable consequence, that they are going to experience a phenomenon that is likely going to more significant than anything you have ever experienced before, but will remain unimaginable to those who have never dared to venture there themselves.