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Altering consciousness. volume 1: multidisciplinary perspectives
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Eastern civilizations have traditionally placed much greater emphasis on altered states of consciousness than the civilizations of the West. Altered, "higher" states are crucial to the major Eastern religions. They play an important role in the practice and content of cultural activities from poetry, painting, and dance to traditional martial arts throughout much of Asia. And their existence is taken for granted, and often emphasized, in popular mythology. So it is only natural that Eastern civilizations over the centuries have paid a great deal of attention to analyzing the nature of these states and developing techniques to produce them as effectively as possible.
A wide variety of approaches to altering states of consciousness have been developed and used. These include purely mental meditation procedures, ancillary physical procedures, and behavioral procedures combining mental and physical components. The story of Eastern approaches to altering consciousness is much too vast and complex to be covered in a single chapter. Nevertheless if we confine ourselves to the major traditions such as Yoga, Vedanta and East-Asian Buddhism, important common understandings of altered, "higher" states of consciousness readily emerge. For despite their different imagery and often conflicting metaphysical interpretations, they all emphasize meditation, recognize comparable "levels" of mind, and describe the same basic "higher" states of consciousness.
This chapter describes important experiences, states of consciousness, levels of consciousness, and real-world effects emphasized by these traditions, relate them to features of meditation procedures, and offer reflections from the perspective of ongoing scientific research.
 The use of pharmaceutical approaches is also mentioned favorably in some very ancient texts. In recent millennia, however, it has generally been downplayed and portrayed negatively, and major traditions often discourage it as damaging to aspects of the nervous system responsible for the growth of higher states of consciousness.
Copyright © Jonathan Shear. Originally published in Cardeña, E., & Winkelman, M. (2011). Altering consciousness: Multidisciplinary perspectives. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger. This is the author's version of the chapter that was accepted for publication.
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VCU Philosophy Publications