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Developing skill in meditation practice can result in the experience of altered states of consciousness. These altered states can be used to examine and understand the nature of perception. Here we'll take a look at various altered states - later we'll discuss several techniques to explore these aspects of consciousness.
Various religions and belief systems discuss entering and controlling these altered states to achieve spiritual growth. It's possible that you've already experienced these states without realizing it.
An altered state of consciousness arises when your brain waves move outside the range of normal waking awareness. Going from Beta waves (normal waking awareness) down to Alpha, Theta or Delta can potentially result in lucid dreams or out-of-body experiences. You can find out more about mental states and brainwave frequencies here: Binaural Beats and meditative states
To get a better understanding of these mental states in practice, we'll take a look at some that you may encounter.
Lucid dreaming is the experience of having waking consciousness in a dream state. Awareness in the dream state makes the dream world more vivid and allows you to gain control over some aspects of the experience. There is no end to what you can do in lucid dreams, it really is only limited by your imagination.
Lucid dreaming can be considered a spiritual practice and is also used to analyze the psyche. Like other spiritual practices, there are different views about its purpose.
In Buddhist traditions, the end goal is to dissolve the illusion of the dream. Resolving the perceived separation between the dreamer and the dream leads to enlightenment. There are various practices in Tibetan Dream Yoga to help realize this goal.
The Western approach involves analyzing the different characters or events within a dream to provide understanding of subconscious thoughts. Recognizing and working with reoccurring symbols can help resolve troublesome thoughts or overcome obstacles in life.
Lucid dreaming can enrich your life in many ways. It can give you valuable insight into your subconscious thoughts, act as a playground for your imagination or be a deeply spiritual experience.
Approximately 8 million people in the United States have had a near-death experience according to polls. One in ten have reported having out-of-body experiences. NDEs and OBEs are related, in that consciousness is perceived as being external to the physical body in both events.
In the case of a NDE consciousness is shifted away from the physical body without specific intention to do so (usually in the event of a trauma). With OBEs a practitioner can exert control over the experience. There are techniques for guiding oneself into a mental state to have an OBE; this is often used as a tool for exploring consciousness.
There are different interpretations of what happens during an OBE. Some spiritual practitioners believe that the spirit is experiencing the astral plane. Others interpret it as consciousness vibrating within a specific energy frequency and perceiving that dimension of existence.
Knowing whether consciousness exists beyond physical life might help resolve some of the mystery associated with death. I believe that most people are innately fascinated with the subject and must ultimately reach their own conclusions.
The subjective nature of consciousness makes the exploration of OBEs a deeply personal one. If you were to freely roam through space in an altered state, it's not an experience you could share with someone; unless of course you had a companion who was equally adept at consciousness shifting.
The Jhanas in Buddhist traditions
In Buddhist traditions the Jhanas are meditative states of deep absorption. They represent mental states experienced in meditation practice while on the path to enlightenment. These states are characterized by peacefulness and sublime joy.
These states are like layers of the mind that can be accessed through training in concentration. Most traditions describe 8 Jhanas divided into two categories. The first 4 Jhanas are called the Fine Material Jhanas or Jhana with Form. The last 4 Jhanas are called the Immaterial Jhanas or the Formless Jhanas.
The main difference is that the first 4 Jhanas generally contain bodily awareness and concentration on a meditation object. The Formless Jhanas are focused on the experience of awareness itself. When the Jhanas arise moving through them is a matter of shifting attention and increasing concentration.
Practice in concentration is meant to eliminate mental defilements and bring about purification of the mind. This purification causes the Jhanas to arise naturally. When absorbed in meditation, effort and expectation will actually prevent the Jhanas from arising.
Although these mental states are considered right concentration, some beliefs hold that concentration is not enough. Concentration is only a tool used to gain insight. For that reason, the Jhanas shouldn't be considered the ultimate goal of meditation practice, only a stage along the path.
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