Spiritism and Altered States of Consciousness

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2012
The strong historical linkage between pagan cultures and consciousness manipulation for occult purposes indicates that the spirit world has always had a vested interest in encouraging the exploration of Altered States of Consciousness along specific lines, especially those devoted to spirit contact and possession.

 

Spiritism and Altered States of Consciousness

The strong historical linkage between pagan cultures and consciousness manipulation for occult purposes—e.g., spirit possession in shamanism—indicates that the spirit world has always had a vested interest in encouraging the exploration of Altered States of Consciousness (ASCs) along specific lines, especially those devoted to spirit contact and possession.

To show that this vested interest remains true today, we will document several examples. The research of sociologist Erika Bourguignon indicated that of 488 contemporary societies observed, over 90 percent had made trance and spirit-possession states socially acceptable.[1]

Obviously, in the West today, trance and possession states are becoming more acceptable. Spiritism and altered states of consciousness continue to increase in popularity.

The most recent pop culture example of this teaching is found in Eckhart Tolle’s writing, including the mega-bestselling book A New Earth.[2]

His teachings and books were featured as part of Oprah’s popular talk show, resulting in study groups of his teachings across America and beyond. His website states that “at the core of Tolle’s teachings lies the transformation of consciousness, a spiritual awakening that he sees as the next step in human evolution. An essential aspect of this awakening consists in transcending our ego-based state of consciousness. This is a prerequisite not only for personal happiness but also for the ending of violent conflict endemic on our planet.”

On March 3, 2008, Oprah began co-hosting a series of weekly webcasts with Tolle based on his book A New Earth. During one webcast, Tolle led Oprah to follow him into an altered state of consciousness, leading to much renewed interest in this topic.

Further, the popular book and DVD The Secret (now also in a student edition) by Rhonda Byrne[3] has helped to fuel interest into altered states of consciousness with the Law of Attraction. Simply put, the focus on “thoughts beget actions” teaches that what a person truly believes will happen actually will take place in reality. If a person thinks he or she will become a millionaire and works toward this goal, The Secret promises it will happen. This popularized version of an altered state of consciousness has lifted this practice from mystical teachers and gurus to the popular culture in a form now embraced by millions of Americans and others around the world.

Bourguignon observes, “In traditional societies—and to a considerable extent in modern societies as well… altered states tend to be spoken of in connection with supernatural entities such as ‘spirits’….”[4] According to Bourguignon, “the vast majority of societies” have socially institutionalized the phenomenon of altered states that are typically those associated with spirit contact and spirit possession.[5]

Indeed, numerous texts about consciousness exploration reveal that the modern exploration of altered states is frequently a euphemism for psychic development, occult exploration, and/or spirit contact in general. Among these volumes are Ken Wilbur’s The Atman Project[6]; Stan and Christina Grof’s (eds.) Spiritual Emergency[7]; Benjamin B. Wolman and Montague Ullman’s (eds.) Handbook of States of Consciousness[8]; John White’s Frontiers of Consciousness[9] and What Is Enlightenment?[10]; and Jeffrey Mishlove’s The Roots of Consciousness.[11]

More than one text exploring altered or mystical states has stated that the mystical state of consciousness and the state of spirit possession can be one and the same. For example, Cambridge-educated John Ferguson observes in his Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mysticism that spirit “possession… is the core of mystical experience.”[12]

In essence, the history of Eastern religion, Western occultism, and modern parapsychology persistently reveals the importance of developing altered states of consciousness for contacting occult dimensions, and that these dimensions are linked to the spirit world.

Nobel scientist Sir John Eccles once commented that the human brain was “a machine that a ghost can operate.”[13] His statement illustrates the truth that, given the proper conditions, the human mind can become an open door permitting the influence of spirits. If the mind can be so affected that spirits gain some measure of control over it, how do they do so? It would appear that ASCs are the principal method for offering the proper conditions. And there are an almost unlimited number of methods for inducing ASCs.

Revelations from the spirits themselves often stress the importance of ASCs as essential for contacting them.[14] The spirit guides “Orin” and “DaBen,” who channel through Sanaya Roman and Dr. Duane Packer respectively, assert, “A trance state is a state of consciousness that allows you to connect with a guide…. Achieving a channeling state is easier… than [most people] thought it would be…. The trance state creates very subtle changes in your perception of reality.”[15]

The trance condition itself may involve only a relatively mild altered state. Even channelers comment that “channeling involves the achievement of a slightly relaxed state where you can turn your attention inward and upward to receive messages from higher realms…. Most people who mediate have already begun to access the channeling space.”[16]

In Adventures in Consciousness, the late medium Jane Roberts described how her spirit guide “Seth” led classes in altered states of consciousness exercises in order to facilitate students’ occult development and their capacity to contact the spirit world.[17] In Dr. Kathryn Ridall’s Channeling: How to Reach Out to Your Spirit Guides, ASCs are described as the means to begin channeling, that “wonderful adventure in consciousness.”[18]

Altered states are associated with a large variety of subjects, everything from hypnosis and other trance states, to possession states (as in channeling or mediumism and shamanism), to altered states that are pathological, as in kundalini arousal ( yoga and shamanism), to directed visualization and imagery, lucid dreaming, drug-induced states of consciousness, meditation, and biofeedback-induced consciousness, as well as many others.

Why do all these different practices have the potential to induce spirit contact? Because nearly all altered states share some degree of common ground,[19] and it is this common ground which is apparently conducive to spirit influence. In essence, almost any continually cultivated altered state is at least potentially capable of producing spirit encounters.

This is the reason altered states have undergirded virtually all of Eastern and Western occultism[20]: They are typically prerequisites for the spirit contact necessary for success along the occult path. In other words, the needed spirit contact and/or manifestation of power (e.g., the development of psychic abilities) typically do not occur apart from the altered state. Thus, again, nearly all methods that attempt to induce ASCs have the potential to lead to spirit contact and spirit possession.[21] The technique is virtually irrelevant; it is the altered state itself that is instrumental in permitting spiritistic influence.

Tal Brooke, in Riders of the Cosmic Circuit, offers a detailed examination and critique of Eastern metaphysics, including ASCs developed by the meditative disciplines of Eastern gurus. Brooke, too, reveals that ASCs are typically the means to spirit contact and possession.[22] Read his thought-provoking article about the movie, Avatar at http://scp-inc.org/.

Consider the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the influential Indian guru. His early experiences on the road to enlightenment produced temporary insanity, possession, and almost killed him. Through intense absorption into various altered states, Rajneesh’s previous personality disappeared and was replaced by a new consciousness that was entirely alien. The new personality recalled of the encounter, “The one who died, died totally; nothing of him has remained… not even a shadow. It died totally, utterly…. Another being, absolutely new, not connected at all with the old, started to exist.” Rajneesh had become possessed by a “new consciousness,” a living personality that directed his mind and body from that day forward.[23]

It is sobering to realize that, in many quarters, what was once termed “spirit possession” is now often simply termed “altered consciousness.” Raymond Prince’s Trance and Possession States[24], Erika Bourguignon’s Religion, Altered States of Consciousness and Social Change[25], and Stan and Christina Grof’s Spiritual Emergency[26] are three examples of research studies revealing such connections (cf. R. Allison, Mind in Many Pieces[27]).

The reason New Age literature often fails to make any final distinction between occult ASCs and spirit possession is because they are so difficult to separate. Spirit possession is, finally, just the manifestation of another altered state.

Consider the following illustrations that also connect spiritism and altered states:

• When modern parapsychology began in the late nineteenth century, the subjects examined were typically spirit mediums. And most of them had become mediums and contacted the spirit world by experimentation with various forms of hypnosis and meditation, or other induced altered states of consciousness. In our chapter on hypnosis, we cite several researchers who failed to see much distinction between a mediumistic trance and a hypnotic one.

• What some researchers term the “shamanistic state of consciousness” (SSC) is considered essential for the shaman to contact his “power animals” or spirit guides.

• Spirit mediums routinely enter a light to moderate trance that permits the spirits to take them over and speak messages through them.

• Occult meditation is generally acknowledged as an excellent method to contact the spirit world.

• Spirits can be contacted through the light trances of dowsing or a supervised program of dream work”

• Many New Age disciplines offer various techniques of visualization as a help to contacting the spirit world.

• Even drugs, such as psychedelics and marijuana, are known to foster contact with the spirit world.[28]

Clearly, modern experimentation with ASCs in general can open a door to the spirit world. What is disconcerting is that modern scientific researchers themselves are increasingly turning to altered states.

Modern Consciousness Research

Modern consciousness research provides the opportunity to blend traditional science (measuring the physical correlates of states of consciousness) and subjective experience (the personal cultivation of altered states for religious purposes). Because these states are so powerful and fascinating, many academic researchers are blending their scientific expertise with their personal exploration of altered states. The end result is what could be termed the “New Age scientist”: a person academically trained in the field of science, who attempts to integrate revelations from altered states and personal occult development into his respective discipline.

One example is the eminent scientist Dr. John Lilly, perhaps best known for his research with dolphins. Lilly’s autobiography, The Scientist, and his The Deep Self reveal the typical connection between ASC exploration, spirit contact and guidance, the potential consequences of these practices, and the blending of scientific discipline with occult practices and philosophy.[29] Since Lilly first published his book in 1978, hundreds and even thousands of scientists have followed in his footsteps.[30]

Nevertheless, consider what Dr. Lilly endured as a result of his excursions into altered consciousness. By use of drugs and sensory deprivation, while resting in a water-filled isolation tank, Lilly induced a variety of ASCs and contacted spirit entities who for several years began to subject him to what they termed “ruthless education”:

Something begins to approach me. I see new domains, new spaces. I leave my body totally and join some Beings far away. The Beings give me instructions. I am to continue using this chemical agent for educational purposes…. The Beings continue teaching me in the luminous space. I am to use this chemical agent to change my current belief systems…. Thus began a thirteen-month period of investigation of new spaces, of new domains…. The cost of this year was to be several close brushes with death and various disqualifications by professional colleagues…. During that year [my] inner reality became projected upon the outer reality.[31] [In other words, Lilly could not distinguish fantasy from reality.]

Consciousness research links to spiritism in other ways. For example, the supposedly scientific process of “mapping” different levels of consciousness is typically drawn from Eastern and occult traditions, which are notoriously dependent upon spiritistic influences.[32]


  1. Erika Bourguignon, ed., Religion, Altered States of Consciousness and Social Change (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1973), pp. 16-17.
  2. See[1].
  3. Bourguignon, p. 3; cf. p. 5.
  4. Ibid., pp. 3-5.
  5. Ken Wilbur, The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical, 1977, 1985).
  6. Stanislav Grof, Christina Grof, eds., Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis (Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989).
  7. Benjamin B. Wolman, Montague Ullman, eds., Handbook of States of Consciousness (NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1986).
  8. John White, ed., Frontiers of Consciousness (NY: Avon, 1975).
  9. John White, ed., What is Enlightenment? (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1984).
  10. Jeffrey Mishlove, The Roots of Consciousness: Psychic Liberation through History, Science and Experience (NY: Random House, 1975).
  11. John Ferguson, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Mysticism and the Mystery Religions (NY: Seabury Press, 1977), p. 148.
  12. Stanislav Grof, Christina Grof, eds., Spiritual Emergency (Los Angeles, CA: J. P. Tarcher, 1989), p. 19.
  13. Jon Klimo, Channeling: Investigations on Receiving Information from Paranormal Sources (Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1987); Sanaya Roman and Duane Packer, Opening to Channel: How to Connect with Your Guide (Tiburon, CA: H. J. Kramer, Inc. 1987); Robin Westen, Channelers: A New Age Directory (NY: Perigree Books, 1988); Kathryn Ridall, Channeling: How to Reach Out to Your Spirit Guides (NY: Bantam Books, 1988).
  14. Roman and Packer, Opening to Channel, p. 25.
  15. Ibid., pp. 25, 28.
  16. Jane Roberts, Adventures in Consciousness (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975), p. 4.
  17. Ridall, Channeling, p. 1.
  18. Dr. Hillstrom (Testing the Spirits) points out the key characteristics of altered states are generally similar.
  19. Mishlove, The Roots of Consciousness.
  20. Brooke, Riders; cf. Grof and Grof, Spiritual Emergency, p. 107.
  21. Ibid., pp. 39-50,107-39,165-208.
  22. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, The Discipline of Transcendence: Discourses on the 42 Sutras of the Buddha, Vol. 2 (Poona, India: Rajneesh Foundation International, 1978), pp. 313-14.
  23. Raymond Prince, ed., Trance and Possession States (Montreal: R. M. Bucke Society, 1968).
  24. Erika Bourguignon, ed., Religion, Altered States of Consciousness and Social Change (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1973).
  25. Stanislav Grof, Christina Grof, eds., Spiritual Emergency (Los Angeles, CA: J. P. Tarcher, 1989).
  26. R. Allison, Mind in Many Pieces (NY: Rawson Wade, 1980).
  27. Ring, “A Transpersonal View,” p. 149; R. C. Zaehner, Zen Drugs and Mysticism (NY: Random House/Vintage, 1974), p. 72.
  28. John Lilly, The Scientist: A Novel Autobiography (NY: J. B. Lippincott, 1978), pp. 109, 134-35, 180-98, 207-08.
  29. Illustrations can be found in the following magazines: The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology; Revision; The Common Boundary; Shaman’s Drum; Parapsychology Review and others.
  30. Lilly, The Scientist, pp. 144-146.
  31. Mishlove, The Roots of Consciousness; Ring, “A Transpersonal View;” cf. Ken Wilbur, The Spectrum of Consciousness and The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical, 1977, 1985); Ken Wilbur, No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1979); John White, ed., What is Enlightenment? (Los Angeles, CA: J. P. Tarcher, 1984); Douglas and Barbara Dillon, An Explosion of Being: An American Family’s Journey into the Psychic (West Nyack, NY: Parker, 1984); Grof and Grof, Spiritual Emergency.

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