When I first became introduced into indigenous spiritual healing traditions I began to experience things that were out of the ordinary and outside of the rules of modern western conventions that I grew up with. Many of these extraordinary experiences deeply resonated with me and somehow they felt familiar. There was a part in me that recognized the wisdom, knowledge and healing powers present in these ancient practices. However when trying to articulate and research my experiences, I often wondered whether or not what I was experiencing was real or imagined. Was I actually entering different realities, worlds and places or did I simply shift into an altered state of consciousness or awareness? After some research into these questions I realized that whether something is called altered ‘state’ or alternate ‘reality’ depends on the cosmology or ontology that one uses to understand, interpret or relate to an experience.
A cosmology is a set of beliefs about how the universe works and ontology seeks to define the nature of being, existence and reality. Both of these belief systems can vary dramatically from one culture to the next and profoundly shape how we see ourselves as human beings and our relationship to the world around us. Usually these basic beliefs are deeply buried in our psyche and remain implicit and unexamined until we start to question them. I have found that whenever I enter a cultural context that is very different from my own, I encounter the boundaries and structure of my own basic belief systems and I am limited to seeing through the lenses that this belief system provides me with.
I have found that the belief that we can enter alternate realities, worlds and places tends to be more present in earth-based indigenous cultures, while shifting into altered states is more part of mystical and Gnostic traditions; though those distinctions can not always be clearly drawn and both can be present within any one cultural belief system. Generalizations by their very nature oversimplify the complexities that reside within any one culture. For example, the Andean indigenous tradition in Peru, while indigenous has a very complex belief system that blends shamanic and mystical elements. Even their p’aqos, which is the Quechua word for their traditional spiritual healers, are understood to be shaman/priests. My experiences within the Andean shamanic/mystical tradition included stepping across thresholds into extraordinary and futuristic worlds, becoming a large bird and flying high above a canyon, and opening to the refined awareness of the total interconnectedness of life on this planet and beyond.
Entering an altered state is a significant or unusual shift in our internal experience. In this view the actual world of which we are a part has not changed. What has changed is what we experience inside. Entering an alternate reality, in contrast, is a shift into a totally different space or location to which we bring ourselves—the world around us changes. Depending on our belief system, conscious or unconscious, we tend to experience one over another. And if our belief system opens up, other new experiences can be included.
To illustrate, here are some examples of belief systems that reflect notions of altered states and alternate realities. In many shamanic traditions there is the believe that we can leave this reality and journey into other worlds, the cosmos above, or the world below for the purpose of healing, or to attain knowledge or power. All or a part of the shamanic practitioner such as the shaman’s soul can go onto this journey. This also includes the belief we can shift from one location on another. Kalahari Bushman healers when conducting their healing dances can travel up the ropes to God and enter the schoolhouse of the universe where they attain their spiritual knowledge. Within that tradition there is no other location, school or training ground for these healers. The Amazonian medicine man or woman when conducting an ayahuasca (psychoactive entheogen tea) ceremony enters an altered world in which nature spirits assist him or her in the healing of the patient.