From time to time, most of us have moments when the world becomes more real and beautiful; when natural phenomena like trees, rocks and the sky seem to come alive and reveal their inner being to us. An atmosphere of harmony seems to fill our surroundings and we feel a tremendous sense of wellbeing. The world becomes a benevolent place, and our normal sense of separation seems to fade away; all things appear related and we ourselves feel a part of this oneness too.

These are the experiences that are often referred to as “higher states of consciousness” or “spiritual experiences”. However, in Waking From Sleep, I suggest that rather than seeing them as transcendent or ‘higher’, we should simply see them as natural because it is my belief that these experiences represent a way of seeing and relating to the world which was once normal to all human beings, but which we have lost.

In my book, I describe our everyday consciousness as a kind of ‘sleep’ from which, in these moments, we wake. Most of us are asleep in the sense that our perception of the world is automatic which means we don’t sense the ‘is-ness’ and ‘aliveness’ of our surroundings. We’re also asleep in the sense that we see all things – including ourselves – as separate from each other, which can make life itself seem meaningless, and the Universe may appear an indifferent and even hostile place.

This state of ‘sleeping consciousness’ can also be seen as the root of our reckless disregard for the environment: since we see the natural world as inanimate and as something other to us, we have no qualms about abusing it. We see it as nothing more than a supply of resources to use for our own devices, without responsibility. But in Waking From Sleep, I suggest that this state is really a psychological aberration, and that it is actually natural and normal for us to be ‘awake’.

Many of the world’s Indigenous peoples live in a state of wakefulness: they naturally possess(ed) a heightened perception, a sense of the ‘aliveness’ of things, and an awareness of spirit-force pervading the world. As Cherokee Indian scholar Rebecca Adamson points out, for Indigenous peoples “the environment is perceived as a sensate, conscious entity suffused with spiritual powers”. Almost all Indigenous peoples have a term for an all-pervading spirit-force: in America, the Hopi call it maasauu; to the Lakota it is wakan-tanka (literally, the ‘force which moves all things’). The Ainu of Japan call it ramut, while in parts of New Guinea it was imunu, or ‘universal soul’. In Africa the Nuer call it kwoth and the Mbuti call it pepo. The Ufaina Indians of the Amazon Rainforest call it fufaka. To these peoples, this isn’t an esoteric or mystical concept but an everyday reality.

Young children in all cultures are awake to the ‘is-ness’ of reality in a similar way. Their world appears a much brighter, more colourful, complex and beautiful place, and as developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik puts it, “Babies and young children are actually more conscious and more vividly aware of their external world and internal life than adults are… I think that, for babies, every day is first love in Paris.”

All of this then raises the question: If this ‘wakefulness’ was once natural to us – both as individuals and perhaps as a species – why do we (and did we) lose it?

In Waking From Sleep, I suggest that the answer is the same in both cases. As a species, we lost this state because of the over-development of the ego. At some point in our history, we developed a heightened sense of individuality, and began to experience ourselves as egos occupying the space inside our heads, with the rest of reality ‘out there’. (I describe how and why this development occurred in my earlier book The Fall.) As well as creating a disconnection between ourselves and Nature, this ego began to monopolise our psychic energy, so that there was less energy available for us to devote to perceiving the is-ness of the world. And this is also what happens as we grow into adults. We ‘fall’ into separateness and automatic perception, and the world, so full of wonder in childhood, becomes a separate, shadowy, half-real place.

This isn’t to say that the ego is a negative development. For adults, it confers many benefits, including logical and abstract thought, the ability to organise and plan our lives, and to control our impulses, and so on. The point is that the ego has become too strong, like a government which has become too authoritarian and oppressive. However, human beings have always felt instinctively that our normal consciousness is limited and so have striven to attain temporary higher states of consciousness – or ‘awakening experiences’.

In Waking From Sleep, I examine the methods we have used, throughout history, to do this, including fasting, sleep deprivation, psychedelic drugs and meditation. Sometimes, though, awakening experiences happen accidentally, through contact with Nature, playing or listening to music, playing sports, or during sex. All of these activities can give us access to the world of ‘is-ness’ and meaning which is normally hidden from us.

I suggest too that awakening experiences have two basic sources: they can be caused by a dramatic change to our normal physiology or brain chemistry (for example through fasting, sleep deprivation or drugs) or through what I call an “intensification and stilling of life-energy”, through meditation, yoga, general relaxation, listening to music, and so on. If we know what causes them, we should be able to generate awakening experiences whenever we desire, but ultimately we need to make wakefulness our normal state again.

We need to wake up for ourselves, to become free of the illusion of separation and of the psychological discord which fills our lives with suffering. We need to wake up for the sake of the human race as a whole, in order to become free of the social chaos and conflict which have blighted the last few thousand years of history. And we need to wake up and sense the sacredness of the Earth so we can transcend our sense of separation and live in harmony with Nature again.

Steve Taylor is also the author of The Fall and Making Time.