There are traditions around the world where people consume plant matter in order to have visions. Mainstream culture doesn’t have much time for this, and mind altering substances are frequently classified as illegal. It’s worth noting that everything we consume affects our perceptions, and perfectly legal things like alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, sugar and animal fats can all have affects. The absence of things (which it is entirely legal to do to yourself) is also very powerful. There are traditions of fasting and abstaining as part of religious cleansing and dedication. This also has the power to mess with your head and perceptions!
As an insomniac teenager, I discovered that sleep deprivation makes me hallucinate. Or have visions. It depends on how you want to look at it. 24 hours or more without sleep, and I start experiencing things that others do not – I have no idea if I’m seeing what’s there, or if, as is supposedly the case with acid, my brain is responding to reduced input by randomly filling in the gaps, creating a waking dream. I have no idea where science ends and spirituality begins. Perhaps it isn’t important. Add in an insufficiency of food and water, a dash of alcohol or anything else to shake things up, and visions are a certainty.
I’ll share a few of the more memorable ones. They all happened around midsummer, which may not be an accident – I tend to sleep less then anyway, and the energies are strange and crazy for me at that time of year.
Stood on the car park at a folk festival, the Sunday night of a weekend. I’d maybe had 8 hours sleep over two nights. I’d not eaten enough, was very likely a touch de-hydrated – it had been hot, but we’d finally reached twilight. A lone wolf walked across the tarmac, its pelt pale. I watched it for a while before it dawned on me that we don’t get many wolves in the UK, or even unattended dogs for that matter. I asked the people with me if they had seen anything, and found they had not.
An overnight journey south, and the prospect of my first time in ritual at Stonehenge meant that I didn’t sleep at all. It was a misty dawn, and the strands of fog seemed to twirl and shift into tendrils. I watched a herd of wild horses canter across the Salisbury plain. Horses made of mist and memory. I watched the fog play and shift, as though I was seeing water elementals. I was fairly sure I was hallucinating, until at the end of the ritual, I watched one of the other druids there playing with the fog, and it responding to her.
Last year, again at the folk festival, sleepless, exhausted and emotional overwrought. I’d buried a friend of mine the week before, was still raw with grief. Then a friend at the festival announced he was so stressed he thought he could have a heart attack. I retreated as carefully and undramatically into the night as I could, and wept alone, full of fear and anguish. I was too close to death and loss to be able to think at all, and cried until salt levels were depleted, blood pressure plummeted and I felt dizzy and sick. Somehow I made it back to the campsite. There, in the near darkness, I saw figures coming towards me. At first I thought they were people, then I knew they weren’t. When I walked towards them, they ceased to be there. There was a line of willow trees, the remains of an old hedge, but otherwise the campsite consisted of fields. I could see trees. A huge and ancient forest. Deer, fox and wild boar.
I can’t offer any kind of direct meaning behind any of these experiences, but each has touched me deeply. They give me a sense of there being other things beyond the world as I usually see it. Different layers of reality perhaps.