Altered states and the boundaries of the mind
Is the phrase ‘altered states’ too powerful for things that we take for granted on a daily level? Things we do to perform, be productive, and make a living? Is this description only about the massive disruptions we experience when we take psychotropic substances or go to the edges of earth and/or experience to take us out of our prescribed reality? Having been to those kinds of places and states, I’d say no. There is more to the definition of altered states than only its extreme manifestations.
When I look at a painting like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, I’m not only quite sure I’m seeing an artist in an altered state, I’m also experiencing one myself. Or listening to Hendrix or Bach. Or reading a novel like Anil’s Ghost by Ondaatje or almost anything by Haruki Murakami. All of these experiences, for both the artist and the person experiencing their work, stand out precisely because of how they alter our way of experiencing art, music, storytelling, etc.
Is calmness our natural state?
Meditation, when you get down to it, is simply sitting while alert and focusing on a recurring constant, typically your breath (the breath is used because it’s always there, as a reference point you can circle back to when distracted). If you’re like me, you do it daily and most of the time you spend watching the crazy stream of thoughts or being distracted by muscle aches, itches, etc. But every once in a while things stop. You’re just there in the moment. You can’t make it happen, you can’t consciously sustain it. It is there for a few precious instants and then it goes.
Is being entirely here for a few moments an altered state? Arguably it is our natural state, something we’ve lost as we learned to think independently of our environment. Back to nature, so to speak. If this lovely instance is natural, what is this day to day thing we live in?
Coffee and humanity
Enough philosophizing. The title of this piece references coffee, a substance we take, writing, an activity we pursue, and creativity, a mysterious source we tap into. Michael Pollan has a new book, audio only, on caffeine and its impact on society. He makes a compelling case for its almost universal use (90% of the race uses it daily) being a game changer for human thinking, work, and sleep habits. We may have left the agricultural lifestyle and entered into the Industrial Age because of caffeine. Think about it: we were no longer locked into day and night circadian rhythms. We could drink a cup and go to work, even at night.
As a writer, I was interested in Pollan’s observation, based on quitting coffee for three months, that he could not focus on writing the book about caffeine! A drug you can’t write about without taking it regularly. I recently decided to stop drinking coffee after twelve noon because it was affecting my ability to fall asleep even twelve hours after ingestion. But I know that my writing is fueled by this wonderful addiction and I’m not ashamed to say it. Picasso grew up in a society that consumed cups of espresso all through the day. Ondaatje always thanks his neighborhood coffee shop in his acknowledgements (Jetfuel in Toronto). So, what about coffee, writing (art), and creativity? Are they hand in hand?
Tapping into the ‘unobtanium’
Creativity, like that elusive calm reached now and then while meditating, is not something that takes pinning down. It’s a grail you can’t seek by seeking, but you have to make the quest nevertheless. In my case, I drink my bitter espresso and sit down to write, every day. Some days it is unbelievably mundane. Website copy or an article about software. Some days, sometimes the same day, it is enlightening. A character in a novel does something interesting that tilts the whole thing off its axis and catapults you into another direction (or maybe another world).
These mysterious moments, like the comic element ‘unobtanium’, can’t be planned for. When they are, they read like bad fantasy fiction where a writer conveniently gives a character something magical to get the story out of a poorly written corner. Creativity, fueled in my case by coffee or meditation, says ‘let’s see what happens’.
The point here is that life is an altered state. If our natural state is that moment of real time that has become rare, then we live in an altered state and should engage with it. It offers abilities that transcend fiction. If you’re stuck, and mentally healthy, maybe a big jolt like mushrooms will help. But if you’re here in the now, you have more subtle tools. Drink a little coffee or sit and breathe for a few minutes, then go pursue your interest. Something interesting will happen.*
*Want to make sure it does? Pursue that interest every day no matter how you feel or whether it is any good. Every job has a lot of dirty work before you see the beauty.