The Ineffable Experience of Altered States
Like a rolling stone washed up on an ancient shore, I blissfully dug my toes into the silky white sand that
ringed the deep turquoise blue of the Aegean sea. Sitting there, surrounded by the sky and sun I
savored the illusion based on Ptolemy’s astronomy that the sun had gone around the earth for
thousands of years. It’s the earth that is spinning and moving and all of us on it, not the sun, though
does it really matter which perspective one takes? I went back in my head to 100 AD when that idea
was dominant and imagined when wooden ships landed near this very beach, and soldiers grabbed their
swords and spears and went to war. It fit their nature back then.
The salty sea is feeding my soul with stories of gods and heroes, healers and mystics who walked these
paths, saw this earth, cultivated these fields, caught the breeze, and headed out to sea. In this region,
originally Macedonia, earthly Gods got the love, or at least that’s what the frieze’s in the museum
suggested. First and foremost, Dionysus and his pal Pan were on the scene. Party animals. They might
have sat out here under trees too, drinking their wine, inviting their friends over for a good time, just
like we are doing now. Artemis goddess of the hunt and childbirth and Aphrodite goddess of love might
have been there too. Maybe Hermes. But none of those serious Gods like Zeus or Apollo, Ares or
Poseidon got the call.
The altered state of choice: ecstasy, however it was achieved. Fast forward, to the current rage for
raves, slaking an age-old need for people to surrender their fast-paced existence to a world of illusion, a
world where everything is permissible, a world of no boundaries where heroes and athletes suffer and
or thrive. Like Alexander the Great, born nearby, powerful, strong, fast, a unifier, a nation builder, a
warrior, slaying his dragons, eating and drinking, surrounded by his soldiers and vast groves of olive
trees and gentle green slopes, under starry skies, while they danced and sang into the night, tunes
played by an ancient guitar.
But there is that other way. Near Mount Olympus and Mount Athos, across the plains of Thrace, in
Meteora, scores of large monoliths reach to the sky. Eighteen hundred years after Alexander marched
his armies to Persia, when the Ottoman Empire ruled Macedonia, people were searching for a better
way. They climbed up and over the rocky outcroppings in Meteora one by one at first, on their personal
quest to be one with God. Climbing ever higher, camping on ledges and in caves, eating what could
forage, cold at night, dry and difficult during the day, they committed themselves to quiet asceticism,
purging desires, fasting, going within, praying, meditating on God. Over time colonies emerged and
then buildings made of stone and brick were constructed on top of ridges and hills. Isolated, hard to
access, and owned by orders of monks, hermits, and holy men, they dragged their food and water up
and down the mountains and let in only those who took their vows to heart.
The order of monks that inhabited these mountains in their protected stone houses and gardens,
balanced on tops of rocky hills, grew and prospered over the centuries. They vowed to become closer to
God. Imagining that existence, prayer and fasting, being at one with the earth, reaching up to the sky,
the way to go. Seeking the sacred, far from the secular world below.
And then it happened. All that energy concentrated in those carved-out spaces. All that prayer, past and
present, whispering around those hills and through those stone passageways. I was a day tripper in
Paradise sitting on an outside patio in the Monastery of Varlaam-All Saints, high up in the hills. I was
admiring the Filia, a Gazebo-like structure where they blessed the water, a precious element up high. In
the distance large birds took flight and my psyche seemed to go with them, as they rounded the cliffs
and I saw out of the corner of my eye, the symbol of a double-headed eagle carved into a wall.
I took my cue and went into the Varlaam chapel. An explosion of colors and images surrounded me.
Lions and angels and saints from the olden days appeared. Images in red, green, blue, and gold, people
with haloes and rings of light around them. Their inward journey had lit them up. Deep in communion
with God, what flowed out of their creative selves was transformative. A Gregorian chant, piped in for
effect, pushed me into another place and I knew I had been in that glorious and uplifted state of being
somewhere, sometime long before.
The ineffable experience of an altered state, so different than those experienced on the plains and
beaches below. The layers of history melt away and we see the same patterns, feel the same influences,
seek that same oneness with God and the Universe as we always have. In that brief moment, I found
what I had been seeking. I am grateful for those who have come before me. And those who are yet to