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[ Opinion ]

Altering Consciousness: Is It A Human Need?

The curious paradox about abusing vices to escape is that you don’t actually go anywhere. At best, you stay stuck. And, at worst, you regress completely.

Psychological speculation suggests that addicts stunt emotional maturing when they begin heavily using substances. This places many people smack in their adolescent and teenage years, in the tumultuous roller coaster marked by impulsive thinking and erratic behavior, all under a guise of low self-esteem and lack of clear identity.

What a great place to be stuck, right?

This desire to escape from life and everything in it is far from shocking. Existence throws us hurdles and traumas and uncertainties–often without the courtesy of teaching us the necessary tools for coping and managing. Left to our own devices, it is easier to numb. Left to our own devices, it is easier to locate shortcuts and quick fixes. And, left to our own devices, we will fast-forward and skip through the teaching lessons in order to best expedite the discomfort.

Through the progression of addiction, the desire for escape becomes more and more urgent. It is a sickening two-fold. As the individual slips further from reality and into isolation and compulsion, the more he wants to escape these complicated feelings. And, as the escape continues to provide immense pleasure and relief, he continues to crave and seek it out as often as possible.

Escape is the shortcut, the predictable, foolproof method of avoiding pain. It is also a normal desire. One of my evolutionary psychology professors (whose name I have sadly forgotten) insisted that humans have four basic drives: eating, sleeping, mating, and the desire to alter consciousness. Since the beginning of time, he argued, human behavior has revolved around these drives. This is in spite of any and all supposed human advancements. 

The first three make sense, on biological and sociological levels. We need to eat and sleep to survive. Mating achieves reproduction, which maintains the human race. And, yet, the fourth one one, the desire to alter consciousness, is the bread and butter of escape, of the slippery slope of addiction and losing touch with reality. After all, isn’t addiction the ultimate crux of altering consciousness? Isn’t it the desire to alter consciousness gone complete haywire? 

But, what about all the other nuances? What about what lies in every human being? 

We all alter consciousness, in our own ways and with our own methods, by choice and by involuntary action. It makes the human journey more pleasurable, more worthwhile. We alter consciousness in prayer and in meditation. We find it in the boosts our daily cups of coffee, in the endorphins after a hard run, in cigarette breaks, in the times we “get lost” in tasks or activities, even those moments in the day where we find our minds wandering and slipping in and out of focus. We are constantly shifting our conscious states. 

We are constantly at work with our emotions, toying and manipulating with them in ways we see fit. This is humanity. This is melding emotions with imagination, testing our own limits, discovering the capabilities of our minds.

Addiction happens when this desire becomes larger than life, when altering consciousness takes disproportionate priority over the other three fundamental needs (eating, sleeping, and mating) and over everything else (sanity, stability, health). This is all in the name of continuing the primary escape. This is all to continue the running, the numbing, the shortcutting. 

The escape matters more than the reality, even if that reality is life itself. Maybe this is addiction, and this is why it so complicated, so cunning, and so deadly. 

But, if all the individual knows and covets is escape, how does he learn how to stay still? How does he learn to stop running? How to accept the present?

Perhaps, the answer lies not so much in eliminating the altering of consciousness, but rather embracing forms of it that enhance the present experiences with self (think back to prayer and meditation, to pleasurable and engaging activities, to satisfying creative flows, to spiritual experiences). 

Maybe we’re all meant to change and enhance our moods, but we need to regulate it in ways that serve, rather than hinder, our other inherent needs. Maybe we still have a lot to figure out.