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Documentary on Consciousness Explores Territory Where Words Fail

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Documentary on Consciousness Explores Territory Where Words Fail

There’s nothing like a high-dose trip on magic mushrooms, ketamine or 5-MeO-DMT to get one wondering about this thing we call “consciousness.”

What is it? Where is it? And why is it so hard to retain, explain and learn from the insights these drugs reveal once we return to our old patterns of thinking? 

When we transcend our skin-encapsulated egos and connect in new ways to a power greater than ourselves, what is that force we perceive? Is it God, a delusion or something in between? Is this a “higher self” or a “true self” or is it all just a mental projection? Is this all inside our heads, or are we tuning into some cosmic reality?

For more years than I care to admit, I’ve tried to write about altered states of consciousness as a journalist — first for a daily newspaper in San Francisco and more recently as the author of three books on the psychedelic renaissance.

Words can only take us so far when we try to write about the ineffable.

So it was with all this in mind that I watched a preview of a wondrous new documentary film, Aware — Glimpses of Consciousness, by directors Frauke Sandig and Eric Black.

Not only do words fail. It’s notoriously difficult to visually depict a psychedelic state of mind on film. Sandig and Black do so in subtle but powerful ways. Not with cheesy special effects, but with mystical footage of the cosmic dance between sea and sky, forests and ferns, birds and bees, all over an evocative soundtrack that could be sampled to enliven any psychonaunt’s playlist.

Profiled in Aware are six of the world’s leading researchers into the nature of our minds and how they connect us to the larger world. Some approach the consciousness conundrum as scientists, others as spiritual teachers. Some employ psychedelics. Some don’t. But there’s a revealing continuity to their insights. Both the scientists and the spiritualists in this film remain open to the many mysteries of the human mind. 

The film features Richard Boothby, a professor of philosophy at Loyola University; Monica Gagliano, a professor of plant behavior and cognition at the University of Sydney; Roland Griffiths, director of the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University; Josefa Kirvin Kulix, a Mayan healer from Chiapas, Mexico; Christof Koch, director of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle; and Matthieu Ricard, a French-born Tibetan Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Tibet.

Some of the most fascinating scenes focus on Gagliano, whose scientific research seems to indicate that plants are able to hear, see, communicate, learn, remember and feel pain. This is one of those ideas that is hard to believe until you lay in a field of flowers after ingesting 300 micrograms of LSD. Now we have the proof.

Boothby, the philosophy professor, called himself an atheist until he had a five-hour psilocybin session at Roland Griffiths’ lab Johns Hopkins. Now he has no trouble using the word “divine” when describing how he felt “the heartbeat of reality itself.”

Griffiths, whom I profile in my 2017 book Changing Our Minds — Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy, notes that meditation can slowly allow us to access a larger reality than our workaday ego-centric selves. “Psilocybin is the crash course,” he adds with a laugh.

For those who’d rather skip the drugs, Ricard offers tips on how Buddhist meditation can allow a glimpse of a “pure awareness at the depth of consciousness.” He and Griffiths, the monk and the scientist, agree that the trick is to “become aware of being aware.”

Griffiths notes that no matter how we get there, via meditation or psychedelics, the important thing is to change the way we treat each other and the natural world.

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Sandig and Black agree.

“This is not just a case of ancient wisdom versus modern science,” they state in their directors’ statement. “Consciousness is political. Defining consciousness is the most invisible yet most powerful form of political control. The idea of separateness has turned the rest of our world – oceans, forests, animals, plants and other people and perhaps ourselves – into objects, leading to overwhelming crises, from racial mania and ethnic conflict to the exploitation of ‘natural resources’ and the climate catastrophe.”

All the recent advances in high-tech imagining, brain dissection, computer modeling and the other tools of neuroscience have raised as many questions as answers when it comes to understanding the true nature of human consciousness. 

And that’s okay. 

There is awe and wonder coming from all the “experts” interviewed in Aware, whether they are scientists or mystics. In the end, this is a hopeful film, and God knows we could all use some of that right now. 

Aware: Glimpses of Consciousness opens this Friday (September 24, 2021) at theaters in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Rafael, and on October 8 in New York City. For the complete theatrical schedule and other information, visit the website.

Images: Aware Film

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