Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Meaning of Life 3: The Nature and Varieties of Conscious Experience

A psychedelic ayahuasca vision "The Beings of the Vegetation" - Pablo Amaringo

For a more detailed discussion of the Neuroscience, Evolution and Quantum Physics of Consciousness outlined in the first three sections of this article see: The Central Enigma of Consciousness

1. The Paradox of Consciousness

Consciousness lies at the centre of the cyclone of our aspirations for the continuity of life, our dread of annihilation. It is omnipresent in everything we do, as the medium of our interaction with the world at large, and yet is an entirely subjective phenomenon, which we have no direct evidence of in the physical world, except by comparing other people's apparent behavior and descriptions with our own personal experience.

It is thus both somewhat of a scientific paradox and yet is integral to the religious quest for heaven, fear of hell and the whole apocalyptic and spiritual panoply of all the varieties of belief and superstition spanning diverse cultures.

From the subjective point of view, consciousness is all we have and all we know. From birth to death, it is our universal conduit to the physical world around us, without which we would have no experience at all, and would not subjectively know the objective universe existed.

From an objective point of view, consciousness is claimed to be an epi-phenomenon, an indirect apparent by-product of brain dynamics, with no manifest capacity to have any influence on subsequent physical evolution of brain states, or the world at large, and thus there is no scientific basis for its existence separate from the electrochemical phenomena of neuronal excitations in the dynamical brain.

These two paradoxical perspectives, a founding essential subjective conscious reality which spans our entire experience and a physical and biological world outside which appears to be based on molecular structures connected by fundamental forces with no reference to subjective consciousness has led schools of Eastern philosophy to declare that mind is finer than gross matter and that consciousness is at the foundation of the cosmological description.

Natural science has tended to take the opposite view - that cosmology is dominated by vast and terrifying forces of the big bang, black holes and galaxy and star formation and that life and with it intelligent life is just an ephemeral side-show, in which subjective consciousness is at best a type of coherent functional activity in one of the most complex and yet fragile systems in the universe, the living brain.

Thus although consciousness research has become an avante garde area of neuroscience, many such researchers are merely describing the functional nature of coordinated brain states that correspond to perception, working memory, and cognition, such as phase coherence in the gamma band oscillations that some researchers think are associated with conscious attention processes. The essential subjectivity of consciousness is then relegated to the so-called 'hard problem' in consciousness research.

One needs to understand, that unlike the brain, there is no evidence for any form of subjective consciousness in any types of technology constructed by humanity, including the digital computer, although it can functionally solve various classes of computational problem, provided they don't end up in exponential runaway. The manifestation of subjective consciousness is thus something peculiar and unique about the survival strategy biological brains have evolved to make sense of a complex and potentially uncomputable open environment.

The best one can derive from brain research is a loose correspondence between experienced conscious states and certain brain states, in which various regions of activation under magnetic resonance imaging and dynamics under electroencephalogram correspond to conscious experiences of one sort of another.

What is clear from brain studies is that processing of sensory and cognitive information is both wave-based and distributed in a way which results in different aspects of a perceptual mode, such as colour and movement in vision, being processed in different cortical areas and combined together, probably using mutual phase locking of the wave excitations from these areas, to invoke an internal model of reality constructed by the brain. This can result in situations where a brain damaged person sees without colour, or alternatively cannot perceive motion, so that pouring a pot of tea appears as a baffling cascade of still images.

The conscious arena, which some researchers call the 'Cartesian theatre' forms only the tip of the iceberg of waking life, because many of the processes essential to conscious activity occur at, or can be passed of to a subconscious level on the fuzzy periphery of conscious attention, or even be processed unconsciously. We may be driving in a busy city street, but at the same time having an animated conversation having become completely unaware of the fact we have successfully passed through three traffic light in the process. In fact we cannot interrogate all the contents of our experience consciously. When we try to remember a person's name, the best we can do is try to think of a few of their friends, or the first letter. However it is generally better to just think of them once and clear our minds and do something else, so that the electro-chemical stimulus of attempted recall can develop into the biochemical reinforcement that results in the name popping up spontaneously in a flash a few minutes later.

In the everyday mode of perceptual consciousness of the world around us, we are so used to interacting with the perceptual model of reality, when it is strongly bounded by the constraints of the active senses, that many technophilic people simply identify their real world consciousness with the objects of their perception, and their inner cognitive processes with logical deductions, and following an artificial intelligence model, claim there is nothing going on except their functional brain processing, and that once we fully understand the brain as a computer, the problem of consciousness will be solved, or even eliminated.

At the opposite extreme, visionaries, sensitives and people with psychopathic disturbances of their brain function, see visions, hear voices, and depend for their survival on the creative or destructive aspects of their all too rich inner life. Likewise, religious followers, whether they are contemplative mystics, or dyed in the wool conservatives, perceive, or believe, the world to be only a steeping stone to another conscious condition of the immortal soul in which divine rewards or punishments will be metered out in a joyous heaven or a nightmarish hell. Religion, although it may exert oppressive moral dictates, thus depends on human consciousness as the foundation of its viability.

Our internal model of reality gives us our experience of the world around us in a form that bears little or no correspondence to the actual physical systems we are observing, which are composed of atoms and molecules far too small for the eye to see, connected by fundamental wave-particle forces none of which of themselves correspond to the qualitative features of conscious experience. We have five nominal senses of which vision, hearing and smell represent fundamental quantum modes of interaction with the physical world which thus go deeper than mere biology.

These extend naturally to a more diverse array of perceptual qualia. Hearing extends to senses such as touch, and smell to taste and a variety of internal senses associated with emotions, from hunger through sexual arousal to feelings of fear, anger and love, which are modulated by neuro-chemicals such as adrenalin and oxytocin and are the most powerful emotional driving forces in our quest for life and survival.

Although apparently corresponding to colourless electrochemical excitations of similar neurons, the experiences of vision, hearing and smell are qualitatively so distinct that it is almost impossible to believe they same neutral electrochemical oscillations. Our vision is constructed to accentuate edges and contrasts, and to highlight items perceived to be of significance over the background in ways which defy geometry and are prone to oscillating instabilities.

One of the many ways of confirming this is through visual or optical illusions, which highlight in a subtle way some of the ways in which sensory processing can result in paradoxical or contradictory outcomes. These can involve ambiguous representations in which a figure of an old lady alternates with a young woman, parallel lines which appear to converge, or circles which appear to become spirals when viewed over interfering curves, images which appear to move ceaselessly, and fluctuating pink dots which become green when viewed in peripheral vision.

However even the most boorish technicians among us know that our everyday experiences of the world are not the only mode of our conscious experience. We also can have flashes of inspiration, daydream, and when not so sound asleep that we are dead to the world, and particularly in the increasingly long periods of REM or rapid-eye-movement sleep towards the end of the night find we have often fantastic or even grotesquely nightmarish experiences of vast scenes, frightening encounters, the sensation of flying, or teetering on impossible heights, in the peculiar and as yet not fully understood phenomenon of dreaming. We will examine this shortly.

So what is the role of consciousness in our survival? Is it merely a subjective form of integrated computation in brain function, or does it serve the organism some more fundamental purpose and what are the factors that have caused the kind of brain dynamics we associate with subjective consciousness to evolve in the first place?

Tetrahymena thermophila. Although they are single celled species, Tetrahymena, are excitable and
express the consciousness-modifying neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, serotonin and melatonin.

2. The Evolution of Consciousness

The key to understanding what consciousness is may be discovering how it evolved and hence what it is about it that is essential or highly advantageous to survival.

Although we only know for sure we ourselves as subjects are conscious, given our similarity to other human beings and the accounts we exchange with others it is a reasonable working assumption that all human beings, except perhaps for some brain damaged people in a vegetative state are all conscious, but what about other species?

Some people try to assert that only humans and perhaps a few other animals are conscious because only these are able to be self-conscious - that is to recognize they are conscious and particularly to distinguish self from others. This is however confounded by many obvious examples of animal behaviour which typify key aspects of self-consciousness and with it the understanding of mortality.

Mammals in particular have very similar brains to humans with similar modes of cortical excitation, similar emotional repertoires and comparable phases of REM and non-REM sleep. Elephants for example appear to venerate the bones of dead relatives.

Birds, whose brains differ more extensively from mammals nevertheless show distinct attributes of self-consciousness. Intelligent birds such as crows and parrots display both language potential and acute problem-solving skills involving spontaneous tool use. Crows are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror to the extent of using it to remove an item stuck to their chests in a place they can't see directly.

Going further afield, arthropods, although they have radically different ganglion-based segmented nervous systems headed only by a small sensory brain nevertheless use similar neurotransmitters, as evidenced by the effects of substances from caffeine to LSD on spider web formation. Insects display distinct torpid resting phases with some reports of distinct postures similar to the paralytic REM and non-paralytic slow wave sleep phases in mammals.

Neurochemicals such as cyclic-AMP run all the way back to the aggregation signals of fruiting single celled amoeba of the slime mold. The ciliated protozoan Tetrahymena pyriformis metablozies serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine and melatonin, confirming the occurrence of a spectrum of key amine neurotransmitters involved in modulation of conscious experience in single-celled eukaryotes.

It is thus likely that the nerve net dynamics which gave rise to the phenomenon that we now call consciousness arose in single-celled eucaryotes before multi-celled animals evolved.

A key to this may be the way in which brain dynamics appears to use transitions from higher energy chaos into a lower-energy strange attractor in both perception and insight learning. The key property of dynamical chaos is the butterfly effect -the extreme sensitivity on initial conditions sometimes shared by the weather in the notion that the vortices created by a butterfly’s wings could under chaotic emerging weather conditions become the nucleus of a hurricane's catastrophic eye.

Membrane excitability appears to go all the way back to the first single celled-eucaryotes and non-linearities in membrane excitation naturally lead to the expression of chaotic sensitivity. In a single celled organism, chaotic sensitivity of excitation becomes the principal sense organ, ensuring cellular survival in a hostile environment. IT would function directly as an electro-chemical sense organ which could sense the presence of other neighbouring organisms through perturbations of the electro-dynamic environment in a similar way to the use of electric fields in fish.

Chaotic excitation would naturally be perturbed by each of the physical quantum modes, such neuro-chemical excitations could be modulated by, interaction with photons corresponding to elemental vision, harmonic quantum excitations constituting elementary audition and chemical orbital perturbations constituting elementary olfaction.

There is a variety of evidence for transitions from chaotic excitation to order
in perceptual and cognitive processes, such as the insight learning of 'eureka'.

The next stage in the development of nervous dynamics leading to consciousness appears to be the development of a coordinated genetic program modulating the coherent expression of excitation in a way which enables purposive action. This appears again to have developed in single cells prior to the formation of multi-celled organisms. The coelenterate hydra consists of only a few cell types and can reintegrate its tissues if turned inside out. It possesses only a loosely organized 'random' nerve net, yet is capable of 12 different forms of coordinated locomotion indicating that its program of coordination is not a product of neural net organization but resides in the genetic program of each of the individual cells.

A similar situation pertains in advanced organisms such as Homo sapiens, where single cells, such as neutrophils and macrophages, show purposive chemotactic behavior similar to single celled amoebas and paramecium. The embryonic development of the brain is likewise made possible by waves of chemotactic migration of specific amoeboid cell types all of which are excitable and highly sensitive to their chemotaxis environment.

The development and specialization of the central nervous system is modulated by chaotic wave excitations which are essential to the maturation of regions such as the visual cortex, in which chaotic excitation of the developing retina, serves in turn to help organize development of the geniculate thalamic way stations and in turn of the developing visual cortex.

From this point of view the evolution of consciousness is centered not on computation and classical problem solving, but rather in forming a coherent integrated dynamical response to perturbations in the sensory environment and key to this is real-time responsiveness which directly anticipates major threats to the survival of the organism, as well as providing information about potential sources of food. All the very simple nervous systems studied in which each neuron has a specific genetically defined purpose appear to be tuned directly to this task, with little evidence for any systems which are computation modules in the sense we associate with digital computation.

There is a fundamental reason for this. Classical open environment problems such as the traveling salesman problem - finding the shortest tour round n-cities grow super-exponential because every possible route has to be checked to find the shortest. With 5 cities this involves 12 circular routes but for 32 cities it involves some 31!/2 = ~4111400000000000000000000000000000 routes, taking potentially the history of the universe to compute classically. Most open environment problems have a similar tendency to computational intractability because of their many interacting environmental factors.

There are probabilistic methods, which can provide a reasonable sub-optimal solution and specialized artificial neural nets can be designed to directly solve sub-optimally a given traveling salesman problem using thermodynamic annealing to avoid getting stuck in local minima in the potential energy landscape. Biological nervous systems appear to use a transition from high-energy chaos into a lower energy strange attractor in a similar manner. Quantum computing would also do the trick immediately if it could form a wave superposition of all the possible states. The brain also seems to do something like this by using phase coherence of its excitation waves to distinguish the attended perception from the groundswell, opening the potentiality to combine edge-of-chaos processing with quantum coherence measurement in critical states.

Clearly an organism cannot afford to remain stranded computing what to do for the entire history of the universe, when a predator is about to strike. Consciousness has a central function anticipating such complex crises in rapid enough real-time to take successful immediate action. We thus need to get a handle on how this real-time anticipation might be facilitated, and this takes us into the intriguing paradoxes of quantum reality.

The Wheeler delayed choice experiment (e) and the transactional interpretation (c)
help explain how consciousness might have evolved to utilize quantum anticipation

3. Conscious Experience and Quantum Reality

There is a fundamental difference between the quantum world, of which the physical universe is composed and the everyday 'classical' world-view of our conscious experience.

In the quantum description all of the possible outcomes of a given interaction, such as a wave-particle passing through a double-slit interference apparatus exist as wave superpositions. When an observer makes a measurement of the state of a quantum system, this superposition of states is said to collapse to just one of the possible outcomes.

In the famous Schrödinger cat paradox, a cat in a box is going to be killed if a geiger counter detects a single excited particle emitted by a radioactive sample. When we open the box the cat is alive or dead but in the quantum description, it is in a superposition of states having a certain probability of being alive, and indeed all future states of the quantum universe exist as superpositions, producing an effective set of multiverses, in which all possible outcomes occur.

Debate continues in the physics community as to the source of collapse of the wave function and whether or not it is the consciousness of the observer that is critical in the collapse, or whether it is part of a more general measurement process that a computer might perform, or even a result of 'decoherence' - the interaction of the system with other incidental quanta, such as gravitons.

Collapse of the wave function is also intimately connected with another mystery of consciousness, the property of conscious intentionality we often describe as 'free-will'. All sane people, even when they believe we are just the product of our brain function, consider themselves, despite being conditioned by their environment, culture and experiences, to be autonomous beings capable of making independent decisions about their survival, welfare and strategic decisions in their lives.

This belief is however in stark collision with physical causality because it implies that somehow conscious experiences are not just passive epi-phenomena but can influence our physical actions, through conscious decision-making affecting our brain state, and through this our behaviour.

From the conscious perspective, we thus find that the cat is alive or dead and that when we exert our 'free' will the superimposed probability outcomes of the quantum universe are likewise collapsed into the course taken by our choice. It is this decision-making capacity that leads to the uniqueness of world history - the Spanish Armada is defeated after Nelson looks upon the spectacle through a telescope with his blind glass eye and Napoleon loses the battle of Waterloo.

Although the outcomes of these events are partly a result of inevitable inequalities - the British warships were lower than the Spanish, thus making the larger ships fatally vulnerable, they can all ultimately be traced back to previous conscious decisions of one party or another.

This suggests that a fundamental role of consciousness and with it intentionality is to resolve the superabundance of superimposed states of the quantum universe by collapsing the wave function, thereby giving rise to the uniqueness of history.

We now come full circle back to the evolutionary question and the anticipation of imminent threats to survival of the organism. The central nervous system poised in a critically unstable state becomes potentially sensitive to arbitrarily small fluctuations. There are valid experimental reasons why sensitivity to arbitrarily small fluctuations may extend to the quantum level. Several different neurodynamic processes have been shown to have the capacity for such sensitivity in active brain tissues. At the same time the central nervous system uses phase coherence processing, analogous, or possibly even equivalent, to quantum measurement to distinguish random ground swell from perceived pattern.

In at least one formulation of quantum theory - the transactional interpretation - real exchanged wave-particles are generated by a space-time hand-shaking between offer waves generated by the emitter of the exchanged particle and confirmation waves generated at a later time by the absorber which travel backwards in time to enable hand-shaking to occur at the emission vertex. In such a situation the emitter is privy to implicit information about the future absorption states effectively anticipating them in the hand-shaking process, even though this implicit information cannot be made explicit without violating the quantum rules.

One theory of the role of consciousness is thus that the edge-of-chaos wave processing in nervous systems, in which the brain emits and later absorbs its own coherent excitations, permits a form of implicit space-time anticipation, which became selected by evolution because it resulted in the enhanced survival of organisms which possessed it, through enabling them to better anticipate immediate threats to survival, leading over time to the evolution of complex organisms with conscious brains.

Not only are open environment problems liable to be computationally intractable, but many critical survival problems are not even in principle computable in terms of risk because, the events we are dealing with are a function of chance and coincidence rather than deterministically deducible factors. It is not a question of which path is safer, because no path is safe. It is only a question of which path is the tiger lurking on today. If we have a choice of taking a shady path, or an exposed rocky one, there is no reliable way to tell which is more dangerous, because the lion which hunts us will tend to choose whichever path the prey is most likely to consider safe. It is thus necessary for an organism to be able to anticipate accidental and coincidental crises, through paranoia and hair-trigger anticipation of threats in real time, rather than only being capable of deductive computation.

Given the way brains process sensory information, such a form of anticipation would be a natural complement to increasing computational complexity. It would closely mirror the alert attention a wary animal places on situation of uncertainty in the wild, in which there is a great deal of direct conscious sensitivity of awareness and only a marginal smi-conscious degree of computation, just as when a hunter keeps a silent vigil with an intuitive degree of strategy combined with intense alertness attuned for the faintest hint of the presence of the quarry.

Once again this suggests that conscious attention, even though it may be a product of one of the most sensitive and vulnerable physical systems in the universe, the sentient brain, may also be a fundamental manifestation of quantum properties, giving it a cosmological status similar to that in Eastern philosophy. In splitting the wave function of the universe, intentional consciousness resolves the problem of cosmic superabundance of alternative states, giving rise to a unique experienced history, which is an integral part of emerging world history.

Other properties of the quantum world such as decoherence through interacting with third party quanta may also result in splitting the wave function in certain models of quantum theory. We have concluded that the Moon was once a Mars sized planet that collided with Earth and that the dinosaurs' demise may have been triggered by an asteroid hitting the gulf of Mexico and treat major physical interactions in the past, including other great traumatic events, such as the Permian extinction, which are also entombed in the geological record, as historical facts.

However, although our subjective consciousness may not be the only factor splitting the wave function of the universe, it nevertheless appears to be one of the key factors which do so. In this way, conscious sentient beings participate, individually and collectively, in bringing about a condition of knowing coexistence, in which the physical universe becomes consciously aware of its capacity to understand its cosmic condition, hopefully bringing about a more beneficent epoch for the diversity of life on living planets blessed by climax sentient consciousness, that is provided the dominant species don't annihilate themselves in the process!

Wedding. Many of Marc Chagall's paintings reflect the bizarre imagery and thematic dislocations of dreaming.

4. Dreaming Consciousness and the Dreamtime

As the clear light of day is to the everyday waking world of sensory consciousness of natural processes, so the subtle moonlight of the night is to the elusive experiences of sleep and dreaming. Besides our waking experiences of everyday life, dreams can be at once one of the most bizarre and subjectively real experiences a person can have.

Some of these images come from recapitulating experiences which may have been stressful or challenging in our daily lives but they are perceptually ornamented by our subconscious into apparently fully fledged realities with incidental details that go far beyond mere memories of past events.

While in a dream, although the situations may be utterly bizarre, from teetering on impossibly high precipices to journeying in fabled lands, which we may have never visited, they can also be compellingly ornate and real, far more so than mere daydreaming or the hypnagogic imagery we sometimes experience as we are falling asleep. The dreamer experiences dreaming reality as if it is a real external condition. One can marvel at the ornateness and beauty of scenes one is witnessing, often even more awesome than in real life, although at other times they may seem to be portrayed in black and white and events may become disconnected and if we apply the right test, such as turning off the light or trying to tell the time, we may be able to tell we are are in dreaming reality because the scene will not get dark or the watch's digit will behave very oddly.

As an example in the midst of writing this section, last night I dreamed a recurring dream.

In the first episode I was driving the family down from a hilltop meeting at night which I had already dreamed. I had the sense we were late and as I turned the first corner, I couldn't quite make the curve and drove up on the curb only to find it had become about half a metre high sending the van crashing down scraping back onto the road. I had vague thoughts that the brake lines could have become ruptured but before I could consider this further I discovered that we were skidding freely on black ice and snow. I have had similar experiences on rural shingle roads in the vehicle. We did a four wheel drift to a standstill when I found that there was a barrier preventing us getting on the motor way, and that we were in a deserted car park surrounded by a snowy scene, and glanced around to find there was a feeder exit over on my left that I hadn't seen before. Here there is both an intense dynamic experience of driving in a landscape as palpably real as in waking life, with surprising spontaneous happenings apparently coming out of my subconscious skating me onto thin ice and catching me spinning in a car park I have never seen before.

In the second episode I have had to steer an ocean going ship into port over treacherous rocks because the pilot os missing. In fact there has been a recent news announcement about an inexperienced sailboat passenger having to try to steer an ocean-going yacht to Tonga when the skipper fell overboard in the night and was lost. Here at first the whole experience becomes crudely iconic and stereotyped, staring at the rocks in blue water a few inches below my eyes while desperately trying to steer a toy-like tiller in the manner of a small rowboat, rather than a big ocean going liner. When the craft then sinks without warning in the port, I know I'm going to be in big trouble with the Chinese owners.

In the third episode I have escaped to another city, taking only the remnants of the sinking, which I now proceed to hide in a derelict warehouse on the edge of an industrial river. I am worried that the owners have my address and may find me. When I return to the warehouse next day, the whole landscape has changed there are businesses set up whose property we have to pass through to get to the site. They are peculiar two storey businesses on high stilts, with the office up a long ladder. I am worried they can see us trying to get down to the warehouse. When we get there, we all go skittering out on a cliff above the river, as if an unseen force is carrying us off the edge. The entire land has now become loose and crunchy, crusted with slippery glass shards, and highly unstable, and we nearly all fall headlong into the river. Somehow the scene now shifts to what I think is our house in the city but it doesn't actually look anything like our house and has tacky shop stall extensions along the front like a wild west film prop. I am now engrossed with worrying that we might be busted for sub-standard housing.

While the dream is episodically consistent and appears to be a realistic description of reality within each sequence, there are major fault lines in the narrative, which fracture the experience, although these tend not to be noticed by the dreamer unless they are looking for triggers to recognize they are dreaming, even when they are as bizarre as standing in a room which has become a witches mouth, whose giant tongue is trying to suck me down her slippery throat.

All mammals dream, but the amounts of sleep and dreaming REM sleep
depend less on cerebral complexity than circadian, nocturnal and foraging habits.

All mammals sleep and although sleep patterns vary a great deal with ecological habits, most have a sleep cycle which alternates between phases of deep slow wave sleep and so-called REM, or rapid eye movement sleep, which broadly coincides with periods of dreaming, in which our brain waves are highly active and very similar to the waking state, except for having a degree of reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex responsible for voluntary planning, consistent with the lack of control over our circumstances we experience in our dreaming.

The rapid eye movements of dreaming sleep appear to coincide with the intense mental activity which accompanies dreaming, which is prevented from activating the body due to a basal brain inhibition which effectively paralyses us while dreaming, leading to the loss of our body image and the dreaming sensations of floating or flying. If this paralysis is deficient, people may act out their dreams with unintended consequences, however most cases of sleepwalking arise from non-dreaming sleep where there is no actual bodily paralysis.

Despite a great deal of research, the actual functional role of sleep and particularly dreaming remains enigmatic. Deep slow wave non-dreaming sleep fairly clearly has a restorative role in allowing the brain to regain functional and metabolic acuity after a long period of waking activity. Sleep deprival causes manifest detriments in functionality and performance consistent with this role. Most animals have cycles of daily or nocturnal activity and sleep also serves to keep the animal quiescent during its inactive phase, allowing the organism to adapt to being in metabolic overdrive during waking cycles and compensating during sleep.

The biological purpose of REM or rapid eye movement sleep associated with phases of dreaming however remains obscure. One suggested role for REM sleeps is that it is a way the brain recapitulates of stressful and significant encounters in the day, in establishing long-term memories in feedbacks in which the hippocampus - the area of peripheral cortex responsible for indexing sequential memories for subsequent long-term storage in the neocortex. However although this research is suggestive, it is far from conclusive. As a counterfoil to such an idea, people on monoamine oxidase inhibitor antidepressants have neither any dreaming episodes nor any evidence for REM cycles during their sleep and yet show no manifest deficits in memory, even over months of use.

Young babies spend a great deal of time in REM sleep and make almost direct transitions between waking and dreaming which suggests dreaming is important in development and growth. People deprived of REM sleep appear to compensate with increased periods of REM and do show some signs of REM sleep deprival, but there is no clear indicator of a deficit in brain function. Although we often have trouble remembering our dreams unless we focus on them right at the moment we become aroused, our memory centers such as the hippocampus are active during REM sleep and thus can contribute to dreaming having an integrated episodic coherence.

The Australian aboriginal dreamtime is an existential realm beyond time and space

Australian aboriginals, who form one of the first migrations out of Africa, tell of the dream time as a second parallel dimension of existential reality forming an infinite cycle beyond time establishing the values of their society and expressed in the unusual spiritual powers some people have, such as knowing from a great distance when a relative has died.

The expressed relationship between this and the dreaming we have during REM periods of sleep suggests that dreaming itself may open a doorway to an unusual form of perception. Some people report dreams which appear to be anticipate events which subsequently come to pass in the real world. An early double-blind study by JW Dunne found dream records correlated as closely with future as with past events in the dreamers' lives.

I have had stunning experiences of powerful dreams which prefigure unexpected events that often happen shortly after waking, including some that I have narrated to others before the events have come about.

After one graphic double nightmare, I complained to my partner as she rose about two intensely painful dreams of being stung. An hour later I was stung wide awake in bed after she rose before me and left a window open in the morning and a wasp flew in.

Although the idea of precognitive dreaming might seem at odds with a causal scientific description of reality, it is completely consistent with the idea that the conscious brain uses a form of quantum transaction to anticipate future events, as discussed in the previous section. In fact the uncontrolled nature of the dreaming process may accentuate its potential to anticipate the immediate future.

Lucid dreaming can result in vivid experiences of flying over vast landscapes

Another extension of the dreaming condition is so-called lucid dreaming, in which the dreamer endeavours to become conscious of the fact that they are currently dreaming and thus gains the capacity to view the dream and to take advantage of the sometimes astounding existential situations dreaming provides, such as flying over a pristine mountain valley. There are a variety of mnemonic techniques such as look at one's hands, or doing something technological such as turning off the light or looking at the time, which can provide triggers to break out of the uncontrolled dream sequence and realize one is dreaming. These tests however are not always conclusive.

My father, who was a doctor and should have known better, described a dream in which he was on an endless stairway, and realizing it was a dream, told the next person beside him to kick him bloody hard in the head to prove he couldn't really be hurt, only to be absolutely convulsed with pain as severe as any in waking life.

There is an intrinsic problem with maintaining the lucid dreaming state for any significant period of time. The brain has basal flip-flop neural circuits which make a switch between sleep and wakefulness and between REM and arousal, so attempting lucidity takes the feedback on to an unstable cusp and is liable to cause an avalanche of reticular brain stem activation which rapidly causes the person to become awake and the dream to end, or otherwise to descend again into the uncontrolled dream state.

In some situations a person may think they have become lucid or that they have awoken only to find later that they had had a false awakening and had woken up into another dream state. Some people who are lighter sleepers or people having disturbed sleep in unusual surroundings may have quite graphic episodes of semi-lucid dreaming. The attempt to enter the lucid state may also result in other kinds of 'out of the body' experience such as perceiving one's body from a distance as if floating.

Some of these experiences can have bizarre existential consequences, which defy the stream of consciousness. For a time I practiced lucid dreaming by endeavouring to look at the backs of my hands in the dream. At fist I had dreams of my hands for example climbing a ladder, but couldn't recognize the dream. Then in one episode I looked at my hands and realized I was dreaming.

I was immediately hit by an powerful vortex accelerating me upwards. At the same time I became transfixed by a gust of sea breeze on the promenade on which I was walking. I became acutely aware of the sensation of every drop of sea spray hitting my muslin shirt. I looked up into the sky in panic and the stars beyond - "Where was the way back to the real world?" I rushed up to an approaching woman, holding her by the shoulders, staring down into her dark eyes with this silent question. She just smiled and shook her head. At the same time another me was bumping lightly on the ceiling of the room in which I was sleeping looking down at my body saying "No its alright, you are just down there sleeping". In the same instant I came wide awake in shock. The astounding thing about the episode is that the three experiences, being thrown upward, walking on the promenade and bumping on the ceiling all began at the moment I looked at my hands and ended as I awoke - my consciousness had been split in three!

Chakras of the contemplative superimposed on the Sri Yantra yoni mandala.

5. Contemplative Consciousness and Religious Experience

For a detailed discussion of the research on God in the Brain see: The Gaia Shibboleth
Additional references are provided at the end of the article.

In counterpoint to the elusive nature of dreaming, another spectrum of conscious states revolve around a variety of contemplative states, from prayer and meditation, through sensory deprivation to daydreaming. These all share a common factor of applying focused attention on the waking conscious process in the absence of active interaction with the external world. These states are highly varied but have the common feature of examining the nature of consciousness in various states of feedback in which the strong boundary constraints of active sensory perception and motor responses give way to focused attention on introspective process in which consciousness is in a sense examining itself.

When we relax and sit back without any pressing demands or activities, rather than becoming quiescent, our thoughts tend to drift into a state of reflective rehearsal of various things that have happened to us which we are worried about, or may be about to happen which we are concerned to make sure come off well. Researchers studying supposed discarded artifacts of magnetic resonance experiment recently discovered that these discarded images all portrayed a consistent pattern of brain activation, which has come to be called the brain's 'default network' that it tends to engage when in idle mode.

Like the utility of sleep making possible a higher metabolic rate of brain activity in waking hours, the default network is a logical way the brain can compensate for stresses imposed by the active environment by rehearsing and achieving greater strategic clarity on stressful, threatening or important issues facing us, so that we are better able to deal with these effectively when the time comes. Of course such activities if over-stressed could lead to compulsive cycles of anxiety or paranoia which could lead to psychopathological conditions as well, but nevertheless the default network has obvious adaptive value.

Eastern forms of meditation attempt to induce a state of mental clarity in which the internal dialogue is suppressed and a one pointed stillness of mind is achieved by a variety of means, chanting mantras which both block verbal thought and instill a meditative purpose to the activity, meditating on a koan, such as the sound of one hand clapping, hand-holding mudras to help keep a continuity of physical focus, pranayama breathing exercises to link the focus to the interface the breath has between intentional and autonomic behaviour, or visualization exercises in which we picture mandalas giving expression to the significance of the meditative process. Such meditative practices are also associated with a series of chakras running up the spine, expressing modalities of conscious drives, from sexuality through heart emotions to mental illumination.

Several studies have investigated the changes when meditating Buddhist subjects reached their self-reported peak, in which they lose their sense of existence as separate individuals. This was associated with both a large drop in activity in a portion of the parietal lobe, which aids with spatial orientation, and an increase in activity in the right prefrontal cortex, involved in attention and planning, consistent with perceived dissolution of physical boundaries and the feeling of being at one with the universe and the one-pointed focus of the meditative exercise. In another study of several hundred Buddhists from around the world meditations coincided with activation in the left prefrontal cortex, again perhaps reflecting the ability to focus despite distraction. The activity of the default network was also found to be diminished consistent with suppressing the internal dialogue.

All in all these studies point to contemplative meditation inducing a state of focused equanimity with a reduction in internal flights of thought and enhanced feeling of oneness. EEG studies show that meditators, spanning Buddhists including Tibetan recluses, to Vedantic Transcendental Meditation practitioners, tend to remain focused in alpha and beta activity characteristic of active conscious attention, with increased phase coherence, indicating a stable mental state, while controls drift into theta rhythms characteristic of drowsy relaxation. Other studies have showed that meditators achieved synchrony in the gamma electroencephalogram band associated with active cognition, suggesting a coherent state of repose. Studies suggest several of these forms of meditation may be good for long-term brain health and vitality, although this is also true for both vigorous physical exercise and all forms of intellectual activity.

The situation regarding theistic religious conviction and prayer is somewhat different. A study of people involved in improvised prayers showed that the same centers were activated as when we are having a friendly conversation with a real person. Another study has found that people with strong religious convictions have less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area associated with detecting something is amiss, suggesting religious conviction reduces the capacity to be conscious of discordant evidence. When nuns were asked to recall a vivid experience of God they showed activation in regions connected with learning experiences of live and visceral feelings of pleasure and an activation of the spatial awareness of the inferior parietal opposite to that of the Buddhist meditators. The most prevalent brain waves were long, slow alpha waves such as those produced by sleep, consistent with the nuns’ relaxed state and even lower-frequency delta waves and theta waves in the prefrontal and parietal cortices and temporal lobe that are associated with meditation and trance.
Yet another activity pattern was discovered scanning the brains of five women while they were speaking in tongues. The activity in their frontal lobes declined relative to that of five religious people who were simply singing gospel, suggesting that the decrement in activity enabled the loss of control necessary for such garrulous outbursts.

In 1997 Vilayanur Ramachandran suggested that the brain had a 'God spot" or "God module", which united feelings of religious fervour with supreme significance. The physiological basis for this is the fact that the emotional limbic system, and particularly the amygdala, which is responsible for integrating intense emotional feelings of paranoia and ecstasy associated with survival and threats to survival, is situated alongside the limits of the temporal lobe, which processes semantic meaning and its significance. Thus excitations linking the two could result in a simultaneous experience of extreme fulfillment and intense significance - equating to a profound religious, or mystical experience. However, like dreaming and memory consolidation, the evidence for such a God-module' remains speculative.

In terms of conscious experience there is a fundamental problem with the status of religious experience as an investigation of the existential condition. Religious paradigms are driven by two types of actor, and two very different socially formative forces.

Human conscious experiences vary greatly as a function of their genetics and social context. Monoamine oxidase activity for example varies up to 100-fold between different individuals, leading to very different levels of critical neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Some people thus live most of their lives containing a manifest tendency to vision and hallucination while others lead stolid common sense lives punctuated by various form of superstition. Many of the prophetic figures and religious innovators are drawn from the visionary fringe bordering on psychopathology and often suffer unfortunate fates as a result, only to end up influencing large numbers of people later through the infectious power of their visionary charisma, because human societies have an fundamental need to understand the meaning of life and frequently use such people as mediums to the unseen world.

But then a second type of religious player takes over that turns the visionary's spiritual discoveries into a formal religion and cements the beliefs into a set of rules and rituals with the aim of creating an ordered dominant society. Because such societies are better able to resist incursion and can grow larger through the coherence imposed by the 'divine' order, religious cultures tend to dominate world history and influence the beliefs of large numbers of people. Of course some innovators, such as Muhammad can play out both these roles, but others like Jesus, along with many of the prophets, fall into the former, while the orthodox church fathers, from St. Peter on through Constantine, fall into the latter.

But, in the process of laying down doctrines, whose purposes are also social and moral control, the visionary account becomes doubly corrupted, from the inspiration of the first person, through the personal teachings of the second person, to the dogmas and doctrines of the third person, which frequently launches the prophetic figure to divine or semi-divine status, as is the case with both Jesus and Muhammad. In doing so, such descriptions cease to be a valid and verifiable experiential account, counting instead on demanding belief in God, his prophet, or messiah, and his religion, in fear of spiritual annihilation, or damnation, as the key to salvation.

Both Christianity and Islam convey major deceptions, in the form of false doctrines, such as the male-neuter trinity, the virgin birth and physical resurrection, the 72 black-eyed houris of Muslim paradise made anew as virgins every day for the sexual pleasure of men and the bird-winged angels of a sexless Christian heaven in the sky, as well as the day of judgment and dire punishments in both religions awaiting those who disobey the scriptures, or commit the ultimate heresy of deciding for themselves the best way to care for the world.
Only when the experience is brought back to the first person, with no imposed prior assumptions, can the spiritual process satisfy the acid test of unbiased discovery. We shall consider this 'acid test' in the next section.

An artist's impression of psychedelic kaliedoscopic imagery

6. Psychedelic Consciousness NDEs and Shamanic Experience

Since the dawn of history, humans have been using plants and other species not only as food but to open new doors of perception in their conscious experience. Cannabis and opium poppies have been used since prehistoric times dating back to some of the earliest pottery in Europe. The Kalahari !Kung-san bushmen, who, based on mitochondrial DNA evidence, form one of the oldest human cultural groupings in evolutionary terms, make frequent use of trance dancing in which they enter altered states of consciousness and also consume cannabis using a unique traditional arrangement of an underground 'water pipe'. Although they have adopted cannabis in more recent times, their use of a wide array of herbs and diverse food and medicinal plants, combined with the cultivation and ritual use of the hallucinogen iboga by the Biaka pygmies of the Congo, who occupy a similarly ancient gatherer-hunter niche, demonstrate the ancient usage of mind-altering substances as a fundamental motif of emerging human culture.

Virtually every human society throughout history that has come upon psychedelic or hallucinogenic plants or fungi has incorporated them into its sacred sacraments as a vehicle to understanding the inner nature of existential reality. It is only with the demands of conformity to traditional religions and the taboos of a consumer society that finds mind altering species an existential threat to the addictive compulsiveness of purchasing, financial careers and material playthings that these sacraments have become banned in most of the modern world.

Psychoactive plants and fungi vary greatly in their toxicity and visionary power. While some are extremely toxic and at best achieve a blunt effect at great cost to the body, the group of true psychedelic species, all of which have been revered by cultures that have discovered them have no significant long-term toxicity and precipitate profound effects on consciousness because they contain molecules which mimic and modify the interactions of key neurotransmitter molecules modulating conscious activity in the brain, predominantly the serotonin receptors which respond to ascending pathways which fan out from the basal brain to modulate the activity of virtually all cortical areas.

Such species include psilocybes and related fungi containing psilocybin, mescalin containing peyote and San Pedro cacti, plants containing dimethyl-tryptamine and harmine derivatives used in the drink ayahuasca, or yage, and morning glory seeds containing lysergic acid derivatives, all of which affect serotonin receptors. Cannabis species and Salvia divinorum also contain visionary psychoactive agents that affect other neurotransmitter pathways. Tobacco, datura species, coca and opium poppies have also been used as sacred sacraments but are either toxic or have narcotic effects not directly conducive to the visionary state.

Venosa Astralci

Virtually all of them have been adopted for shamanic use from their own locale by diverse ethnic peoples. Shamanism forms a groundswell of spiritual discovery which is more consistent with the use of natural agents because the cultures using these sacraments have retained a closer relationship with their own survival in nature and in the face of natural cycles than major traditional religions. As visionaries who are sometimes misfits in their own societies, shamans have frequently become visionary mediators of the unseen world, just as have the prophets of traditional religions. Contrary to Mircea Eliade's misconceptions, that use of psychic plants was a degenerate form of shamanism, visionary shamanism using power plants forms the central core of the visionary and trance-inducing techniques of world shamanism. Nevertheless major founding world religions have also accessed such sacraments, from the ritual use of cannabis as the Ganga or liver of life of the sadhu, through the fabled Soma of the Aryans, to the use of opium poppies in the Fertile Crescent and solonaceous plants in medieval and pre-Christian Europe.

These agents are not drugs, but living sacraments produced naturally by the biosphere in the same manner our food plants and other medicinal species are. Several of them are difficult and bitter to eat and sometimes cause nausea, as is generally the case for ayahuasca and peyote. In contrast to the soma and sangre or bread and wine of the Christian holy communion, these are not empty symbolic sacraments of a carnivorous nature, but real agents of visionary discovery and transformation.

There are other psychedelic or psycho-transformative pharmaceutical substances, from LSD, through Ketamine to Ecstasy, which have been discovered by chemical research and indeed the active substances in these species (like the vitamins and biodynamic constituents of food plants) can be concentrated and purified to chemical molecules such as psilocybin and mescalin, but as natural sacraments they have stood the test of long cultural use and have a purity and deserve a respect and confidence equivalent to organic foods.

While peyote has long been recognized as a native American sacrament, the traditional pre-Colombian use of magic mushrooms was discovered only in 1952, when the banker Gordon Wasson finally met the traditional Mazatec healer Maria Sabina, and in an all-night velada session declared he had become part of an enchanted encounter with the power, beauty and mystery of Pentecost. Maria Sabina likewise called both on Christ and Mary and the Mazatec Chicon Nindal, Lord of the Mountains. The native American Church likewise has components both of sacramental Christianity and native worship. As a result of revealing this secret, Maria Sabina's house was burned to the ground and one of her sons was killed. The next time Wasson returned, the CIA had already sent a double agent with the party to spy on the discovery for the military.

Despite the nearly complete ban on any legitimate scientific research into the hallucinogens which began with the suppression of LSD, psilocybin and other psychedelics in the late 1960s, recent research into the transformative effects of psilocybin when given under controlled conditions to non-drug users, confirms that the subjects claim to have had genuine religious or spiritual experiences as a result, which have had a continuing beneficial influence on their lives. These reports are also reinforced by those of a continuing underground culture which has continued to seek out, cultivate and access these natural agents and to report their effects in the literature and on the internet.

I will describe my own relationship with the sacraments as an example. In the late 1970s, as part of an investigation into both the mystical practices of the Eastern meditative traditions and into the traditional use of natural sacraments I made a world journey to the sources of many of the world's psychotropic power plants, from the cannabis Ganga of the Shiva sadhus of India, through the traditional use of coca leaves by the peoples of the Andes, to the opium poppies of the golden triangle. Central to this was a psychedelic vigil to the sources of the world's power plants, in which I took peyote in traditional ceremonies of the Native American Church, and the deserts of central Mexico, sampled magic mushrooms form their habitat in Central America, and took ayahuasca with a slum shaman in Peru.

The outcome of this journey was a long-term symbiotic relationship with the living sacraments, in which I give sanctuary in turn to these species and affirm their use as central to the vision quest of my life journey and a continuing creative insight into my past, present and future. Although I may not partake of the sacraments for many months, or even years at a time, they are my conscious allies, without which I would have a very stereotyped view of the inner nature of reality, gained only through meditation and third person accounts of mystical and religious descriptions in the literature. With them I have a direct relationship with the inner nature of reality I regard as a formative manifestation of my life purpose and an oracle to critical decisions and the discovery process.

People have many different ways of using the psychedelic experience, from going to rock concerts, to deep sea diving, but I prefer to use their power in forms of Tantric meditative practice, either in the seclusion of a quiet evening, as the Mazatecs did, or on a moonlit night in the wilderness, alone or with a small group of voyagers looking after one another and caring for one another's welfare.

Having partaken of the sacrament, I try to find a place where I can lie still and enter a state of meditative repose, so that, as the effects come on, I won't become lost in excited chains of thought I will regret as obsessive and inconsequential later. I am setting out on a 'trip' a psychic voyage which although I will be sane if a little intoxicated by the effects from moment to moment will become a vision quest of discovery if I sit back and allow the effects to play out to the full.

If I maintain this condition of effective zazen, or one-pointed meditation on emptiness, which is effectively placing my brain in a state of self-organized criticality, in which it is attempting to perceive its own inner instabilities, I will then slowly begin to notice the emergence of kaleidoscopic 'vibrations' which are an accentuation of the natural phosphenes some people see when falling asleep or in the auras that precede migraines. These are synaesthesic, spanning all the senses and pervading our senses of meaning and emotions, so they appear as both sounds and visual patterns which are coherently part of one vibrational 'resonance'. This probably corresponds to mild waves of spontaneous excitation traveling across all parts of the cortex which are more able to be perceived in its fullness when internal and external distractions are at a minimum.

Nick Hyde - Abraxasa

As I 'listen' to this emerging 'resonance' it will rapidly amplify in intensity until it can become a shrieking banshee and the entire experience becomes an enveloping alternative reality in which kaleidoscopic visual patterns expand into an experience of staring down into an existential 'void' - the cosmic gateway, or 'Nierika' as the Huichol peyote takers name it - in which all the phenomena of the universe's karma appear to be entangled, accompanied by scenes and dream-like visualized happenings which can take the form of strange memories of events we know we have never experienced or think may come about, as well as uncanny out of the body views of another kind of reality. At the same time I am able to creatively explore major life decisions, new creative avenues, writing, music or journeys I might be undertaking to other places.

These visionary waves are very liable to drift off into day dreaming or over-stimulated thought sequences, so I tend to alternate between emptiness meditation with eyes closed and focused concentration with eyes open, to avoid the psychedelic flow carrying me away into carousels of trivia. As the process continues, the effects will slowly erode my usual ego identity, so that I begin to sense another, more dispassionate 'self', which exists in the existential continuum beyond my immediate struggle for personal survival - a chaotic 'self' somewhat similar to the Toltec concept of the 'nagual', which complements the 'tonal' of one's birth destiny with a self of spiritual power connected in a deeper way with the pattern of all processes and coincidences in the karma of existence. If the velada is in the wilderness, one may intuitively sense patterns in the gusting of the breezes, in the cry of night birds, or the sudden appearance of shooting stars, that appear to be connected to the flow of karmic coincidence and with the 'inner resonances' of one's mental state.

If I am applying consistent concentration on the emptiness of existence, a number of other phenomena may happen. These may include the acute sensation that one is inexorably converging toward a state of telepathic communion with an absolute being who is both oneself and the absolute cosmic self - a phenomenon also frequently reported in near death experiences in which people are resuscitated from heart attacks, have critical injuries in an accident, or have emergency operations. These may also be accompanied by a wave of sexual excitation similar to those that occur in dreaming sleep, or a sudden illumination of the kaleidoscopic phosphenes into a brilliant 'white light' with the intensity of a magnesium flare. One may also enter a state where one has deep feelings of being part of, and in intuitive communication with, all sentient life forms, throughout the past, present and future of the universe, gaining a deep sense of disembodied compassion for all incarnate beings caught in the mortal coil.

There is no sense of belief, as such, in any of these happenings, because, in the fertile 'magic' of personal experience, we are all active participants in the existential universe, so it is in the unconditioned freedom of our will, not imprisoned in bondage to our preordained beliefs, that the conscious process really comes alive. To add any component of belief would be to cloud and contaminate the experience, in the same way that all forms of obsessive and egotistical thought do.

As the reveries gradually fade, even if a little tired from the difficulty of getting to sleep still echoing with the lingering auras of the effect which sometimes become even more mysterious in the somnolent hours just before dawn, one afterwards generally feels transformed by the journey undertaken - strengthened, refreshed, knowing one's source nature as an existential being and understanding better the esoteric nature of our will. The mortal angst of being trapped in the nightmare of a universe full of violence and entropy, with little hope of anything more certain than our own slow attrition into demise, is replaced by a conviction in the awesome depth and power of consciousness to tap the essential core of the existential condition - not believing in the religious sense, but 'having to believe' as a participatory working hypothesis, in interacting creatively with the flux of existence, amid the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Heaven is a perennial paradise of living diversity (Garden of Eden Bosch)

7. Consciousness and the Perennial Cosmology

Many religious people will have religious or mystical experiences on natural sacraments as the above research and several traditional movements, from the Native American Church, to the ayahuasca drinking Union Vegetale, attest. This doesn't mean that every person's experience is positive. Even some of the cultures which have held these agents as sacred, from the Aztecs to the Jivaro, have used them in ways more characteristic of their own violent warrior fantasies than their natural fulfillment. Careful protection of the participants and a good setting are essential to avoiding the pitfalls accompanying some of the early psychedelic voyages, that justifiably, or otherwise, resulted in their becoming banned substances.

A critical distinction in favour of the sacraments is that, when taken under positive guidance, they do provide a fertile, rich, inspiring and transformative visionary experience, by contrast with the altered states of borderline psychosis, which are frequently stereotyped, dominated by paranoia and conspiracy theories, hearing voices and feeling subject to unseen and often malicious influences. Many of these negative attributes are also shared by the charismatic prophet figures that drive many religious sects, resulting in brain-washing, intimidation, abductions and forced isolation of followers, sometimes leading to murderous confrontations and mass suicides.

But there is an even more fundamental benefit the living sacraments bring, and that is the empowerment of the first person vision quest, which removes all the totalitarian bondages of the religious imperative to have to believe the doctrines, or claims of others, or the worship of gurus, or hero figures, deemed to have achieved a state of perfection unattained by ordinary human beings, and instead provides a true sacramental tradition of democracy, in which every participant has an equal opportunity to experience the mysterium tremendum and enter the blessed realm.

Finally the natural sacraments bring a new, more ecological perspective to spirituality, in an era when humanity is having a major detrimental, and potentially lethal impact on the stability of the biosphere, and its capacity to sustain our future generations. The sacraments are both natural products of the biosphere which are akin to the psychic equivalent of food and engender a sense of spiritual symbiosis with other species through their profound psychic effects. The state of spiritual experience they invoke is much more closely attuned to the nature-oriented practices of shamanism, and to the future ecological age of sustainability, than the scorched-earth apocalyptic religions of desert, divine punishment in hell fire and unearthly rapture.

The fact that we have a sappy neurochemical brain, making 'eureka' transitions form chaos to order, fits hand-in-glove with the active use of natural psychoactive agents to enrich and enhance this interface of chaos and order, in plumbing the depths and mysteries of the conscious experience. Indeed one might consider the possibility that the full flowering of consciousness in the biosphere, and its sustainable regeneration into the future, comes about, not through fixed affirmative, dogmatic, religious beliefs of a single elite dominant species, but through the climax complexity of consciousness generated by the symbiotic interaction of humanity with the species bearing natural sacraments.

Thus, even if I might claim to be no less than the messiah of the Tree of Life, on the basis that, unlike the unverifiable fantasy of God almighty, the root Hebrew tradition of the mashiach is that of a natural human being, ushering in an epoch of long term future goodness, I don't have to ask you to believe me, or to believe in me. Rather I invite you to make your own mind up freely about the paradigm of sustainable life, as visionaries in your own right, through the egalitarian first-person source experience of the living sacraments, and thereby to come to do the good thing and protect the living diversity of the planet spontaneously and autonomously, as your own free choice. Isn't this the natural fulfillment of the sacramental tradition Christianity aspires to in holy communion, in finally seeing one another face to face, knowing also as we are known, rather than through a glass darkly?

There are hints of this blessed age of symbiosis permeating even the most firebrand religions of Christianity and Islam, both of which invoke paradises in heaven from whose trees and fountains come splendid drafts, and twelve monthly fruits for the healing of the nations, borne forth by the Tree of Life itself.


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