I’ve had some fun experiences teaching in my life, and one of the more unusual ones involved me and group of college students eating wasabi as a way to understand non-typical states of consciousness.
It was a few years back, when I was working at an educational retreat center in administration and education. A group of local college students had created a university club based around studying consciousness. As director of education, they were hoping I would help them arrange a visit onto our campus and have it count as education for their university. We put together a series of bodymindspirit experiences with experienced workshop leaders to provide these students the types of educational experience they were hoping for. As one of the experiences, they asked me to talk to them about non-typical states of consciousness. Of course, I said, “sure!”
To begin, I should mention that I’m using the term “non-typical state of consciousness” in order to create both some similarity as well as difference from the well-known term “non-ordinary state of consciousness”. In its most literal translation, “non-ordinary state of consciousness” is a huge definition. It refers to any state of consciousness that is non-ordinary. Duh. That being said, it is also a term that typically connotes the innovative and wonderful work of Stanislov Grof. And in that context, non-ordinary state of consciousness refers to a form of trance state that can be induced in any variety of ways, partcicularly holotropic breath work.
Although there are some similarities between what this blog is talking about and non-ordinary states, I want to put some main focus on the rather mellower non-typical state of consciousness that happens in every type of deep therapeutic session. In my opinion, a beginning understanding of non-typical states of consciousness is a good idea for any helping professional that works with people, because it is in these states that people are able to access the internal healing characteristic of good bodymindspirit therapy.
So, what do I mean by non-typical state of consciousness? Well, let’s give a concrete example that will apply to massage therapists and other practitioners that use touch as part of their therapy. It is simply “not typical” in general society for an average person to lie down in a vulnerable position and have a relative stranger touch their body. And yet it happens in almost every massage therapy setting! That person went about their entire day where that type of situation would not have been okay and then in a relatively short period of time, it becomes okay, and then that person goes back into the same state of mind as before. It is sufficiently common that many people don’t question it, yet there are some rather impressive mindbody shifts which have to occur in order for that to be okay. It is this shift of boundaries and consciousness that occurs in a therapeutic setting that I am calling a non-typical state of consciousness.
We all have boundaries between what we consider to be “self” and “non-self”. We have physical boundaries as well as mental, emotional, spiritual, and others. Although a therapeutic setting may involve all types of boundaries, for the sake of this example let’s just think in terms of physical boundaries. On the street, a person has a certain amount of personal space that would be considered as belonging to them. It would certainly not be okay for a stranger to enter that space. The closer someone gets within those boundaries, the greater the need to feel safe, to trust the intentions of the person, for there to be valid meaning/purpose to the situation. Now, keeping in mind this typical state of our personal boundaries we just described, consider the act of entering a closed room, removing clothes, laying down into a heightened vulnerable state, and then letting a stranger touch your skin. Some pretty incredible mental/emotional gymnastics have to occur internally for this to be okay. Quite simply, it is not a typical state of consciousness.
As that stranger comes into your “intimate” circle of personal space, your nervous system has two basic options. One option would be to engage its protection systems and fight or flee your way to safety. The other option is to soften the personal boundaries and let them become more permeable, more expansive – boundaries which can permit the entry of people and experiences that wouldn’t normally be allowed in. As your contact with the world around becomes more diffuse, other aspects of your experience change as well. Some common changes that people experience in a non-typical state include time distortion, feelings of expanded consciousness, feelings of bodymindspirit expansiveness, greater intensity of feelings and sensations, greater need for time to integrate experiences, hyper focus on one sensation, greater need for tolerating uncertainty, greater suggestibility, and more.
These experiences aren’t just part of the therapeutic experience, they are actually an important part of why therapy is effective. Basically, when a person’s boundaries become more diffuse, it also permits the person to access thoughts, feelings, memories, insights that also aren’t possible during typical states of consciousness.
Let’s say that as a child, a person got punished every time they got visibly angry. There is no way for us to not get angry, so instead that child had to figure out a way to control that anger so as to not show it. Perhaps the child discovered that by tightening neck muscles and tightening the stomach it became possible to not visibly show anger. Thirty years later, that child is now an adult who most likely uses the same emotion regulation strategies, but after so much time and experience, the body responses to anger are basically automatic. In day to day life, that person may not become aware of that process happening. In a healthy therapeutic environment, however, with diffuse boundaries and heightened sensations, that person may become aware of those tightened areas as well as feelings of anger. If there were also negative aspects to that response for that person such as neck pain, headaches, or abdominal issues, then the best possible therapy outcome is that the person gains the ability to begin working and experiencing those feelings in a way which don’t create negative symptoms. The autopilot body response becomes part of the person’s choice and ability to self-author. It is the very presence of that non-typical state of consciousness and diffuse boundaries which enable that healing process to begin occurring.
As a therapist, we may not always be aware of the non-typical consciousness of our client. This can be a potential problem. Because of the heightened vulnerability and diffuse boundaries of our client, small things we say and do can have a much greater impact upon the client. When in a non-typical state, even the most innocuous actions on our part can become infused with meaning and importance. Allowing our clients time to process, integrate, and explore is important within the session and the good practice boundaries around time and therapeutic power differential are important outside the session.
Given the enormity of the mental and physical transformation from an ordinary state of consciousness to non-typical state of consciousness that has to occur within a therapeutic session, I think it is especially important in the touch therapies for the therapist to allow transition time at the beginning and the end of the session. In a typical counseling interview where touch isn’t involved, the client may come in sit down and the therapeutic process begins. The transition from typical state to non-typical state is a gradual process and usually begins happening as a client begins focusing on their concerns or problems with the therapist as witness.
In therapeutic settings where touch is involved, however, it gets more complicated because touch, by itself is an event rather than a process. In other words, either physical touch is happening or it’s not. If touch happens before a client shifts into a non-typical state, it can be jarring for both the therapist and the client. There is no state of “partial touching” during which a client can easily shift into a non-typical state. The transition may be easier in types of touch therapies which don’t explicitly make working with the mind and spirit a part of the session, but in touch therapies where working with the body, mind, and spirit are part of the work, the intentional transition and support of the shift from typical state to a non-typical state is just part of good therapy.
So, how do we intentionally support that transition as touch based bodymindspirit practitioners?
Fortunately, supporting that transition is as easy as leaving the room before therapeutic touch begins and once it ends. Many practitioners already allow for transition time, but the invitation to the reader/therapist now is to bring into awareness the importance and meaning of supporting that transition. For a touch based bodymindspirit practitioner, invite the client in. Interview the client and find out what his or her concerns might be. Touch is not yet a part of the work, but the transition is beginning. Once the interview is over, then simply leave the room to wash hands or ground or come to peace. In the initial interview, touch wasn’t yet acceptable, but in the process of stepping out of the room, it offers privacy and security for the client to shift into a state where touch as part of the therapy is welcomed. For the next period of time, therapeutic touch is part of the subject of the work. Now, when the session is over, step out briefly once again while the client gets up off the table. In that process, the client is internally shifting back into a typical state of consciousness with more typical boundaries.
Even if you already allow for space before and after a session, I think many practitioners will find that by intentionally allowing for that transition, their work becomes a bit more effective. The work gets deeper quicker and clients also leave the session in a more settled state, even in sessions which access mental and emotional content. It is gentler, more respectful, and more impactful to the client for a therapist to support that transition easily and mindfully.
So, back to the story of the college students. Non-typical states can also be induced by strong sensations. We had a short lecture about non-typical states of consciousness as well as a question and answer. I mentioned that sometimes a strong experience can cause us to hyperfocus and result in changing personal boundaries and sense of time. I then pulled out a tube of store bought wasabi used for sushi. The strong sensation of wasabi as well as its rapid diminishment can be a good first hand example of some the qualities of non-typical states that we had been discussing. For a few of the bolder students, after a brief grounding and meditation, we were able to experience the types of distortions that can come from a strong experience and use that as a teaching tool. It was a fun classroom for sure as they pulled the understanding of non-typical states from an immediate experience!