From time to time people have exceptional experiences that seem to give them a glimpse of another world, or at least a different take on reality. Often people feel that such exceptional experiences give them a better understanding of reality that we get from ordinary everyday experience. The big question is whether to accept this claim, or to dismiss it.
There seem to be various factors that make such exceptional experiences more likely to occur. They can arise from exceptional physical states, induced by unusual patterns of exercise, sleep or eating, or by psychedelic drugs. They can also arise from meditation, or other personal growth practices designed to develop unusual states of consciousness. They are also more likely under stress or trauma, or with mental or physical illness.
William Blake famously remarked that “if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is”. In these unusual experiences are the doors of perception being cleansed in that sense? Do they enable people to see things as they really are? Or do such experiences just arise from the brain messing up. Do they ‘cleanse’ or confuse the gates of perception?
This is an important question, but a very difficult one to answer. I don’t think that anyone has a cast-iron argument for going one way or the other on it. But here are a few thoughts.
I doubt if all such experiences are a good guide to reality, but neither does it seem right to dismiss them all. My guess is that they are a complex mixture of real insights into the nature of reality with weird processes that just reflect things going wrong in our cognitive processing. If so, we should not believe all such experiences, nor dismiss them all, but try to sift them as best we can.
I think it is unlikely that these unusual experiences give us access to another world. But I do think they sometimes enable us to pick up more of what is going on than we normally do. We usually become consciously aware of only a fraction if what we could potentially know. We operate with filters that screen a lot of stuff out. It seems that, in exceptional experiences, we screen less out, and become conscious of things that would not normally get past the filters.
Exceptional experiences generally nudge people towards seeing the world in more spiritual, less materialistic terms. Though not all details of exceptional
experiences are reliable, I am inclined to think that, in broad terms, that outlook on the world is basically correct. So, I think we should take these exceptional experiences seriously as a rough guide to the fundamental nature of reality.