working definition I am using here is: any state of consciousness
that correlates with being single-mindedly absorbed in a specific
activity, without internal mental clutter or kibitzing about the
actual activity or the thought processes associated with that activity.
Trance states seem to be biologically hard-wired in humans and mammals,
with many different internal or external triggers possible. Common
mechanisms for trance induction include psychoactive chemicals,
drumming, exhaustion, pain, and sensory overload or deprivation.
states are accompanied by releases of beta-endorphin, an opiate
several hundred times more potent per gram than heroin. The sensation
is pleasurable, and can be repeated indefinitely without requiring
more stimulus. In effect, our neurochemistry "rewards"
us for entering a trance state. A compelling question arises; what
survival advantage does trance convey? My suspicion is that trance
and meditative states allow for less (or for randomly) patterned
processing of information in unusual, complex or dangerous situations,
and an escape from ordinary or previously learned behaviors or pattern
recognition, permitting the formulation of new options. (Studies
of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) subjects indicate that allergies,
body posture and other physical characteristics shift when the self
may also be an in extremis coping mechanism for illnesses that might
otherwise be fatal.) This would also include an escape from verbal
thinking and/or the normative "chunking" of raw sensory
information into data, and the data into a narrative. This manifestation
of trance is known in Japanese as mu shin no shin, or the mind of
no mind state, which is the immediate precursor of Zen. The trance
state almost always optimizes movement, biomechanically and physiologically
for the performance of physical activity.The trance option seems
to allow for the creation of new filters for perceiving the world,
and possibly even different "selves" within the body.
common sense and statistical theory dictates that only a small percentage
of these new filters will prove useful. Some schemes for the non-ordinary
patterning of data will prove more effective than others. "Ordinary"
here allows quite a broad scope. Without accepting the strong formulation
of the Sapir-Worf hypothesis1, we can still see that artistic, philosophic
and scientific thinking depends on the cultural worldview. The Chinese
discovered effective anesthetics thousands of years ago, but not
surgery, as the culture was horrified by the notion of dissection.
Conversely, western medicine has made little or no use of folk medicine
or herbalism. A pattern recognition "filter" that is obvious
in one culture, may require the right circumstances and controlled
trance to be seen by an observer not in that culture.Our culture
has suppressed recognition and overt utilization of trance states,
criminalized many effective chemical or other triggers, and defined
persons who attain and publicly manifest trance states as ill, or
at least different. At the same time, modern Euro-Pagan culture
has greater access to a vast number of mood-altering drugs than
any other society in history, and a per capita consumption high
enough to place a South American curandera into coma. Technology
provides an assortment of toys, appropriately enough labeled "mind-numbing,"
that consume many waking hours and resources. Walk into any video
arcade and look at the glazed, intense hard-core players standing
in front of their machines @#151; they are as intent on their goal
as any Balinese trance dancer or Korean mu dong performing a healing.
The drugs and multi-media show can emulate the endorphin rush, but
without a purpose or result.
Other cultures resolve crises as a groups whether as families, clans
or villages. Social ritual and its accompanying trances are the
mechanism of choice for healing conflicts, and overcoming obstacles.
Euro-Americans handle it differently. Males get drunk, usually in
very small groups or in private; women seem to either get drunk
in private or tranquilized into oblivion by valium or some other
socially sanctioned drug prescribed by a physician or psychiatrist.
. The communal Pagan model for treating illness involves the patient,
family, and neighbors, and has millennia of accumulated experience
in finding solutions through ritual, trance and music. In either
the Pagan village or in modern America, the same chemical state
is attained. The difference is that our mechanism is destructive
and can create little or nothing new, Edgar Alan Poe notwithstanding.The
use of alcohol or other pharmacological mood-altering substances
on a frequent non-sacral basis is new to the human physiology. In
my observation, extensive use of mood-altering chemicals can impair
the capacity for trance. Seattle is justly famous for its espresso
carts on every corner in the downtown area. A mere thousand years
ago, some sects of Islam were using coffee of the same strength
as a ritual, mood-altering beverage that was sacramental. For this
reason, the import and export of coffee or its associated paraphernalia
was a crime in many Islamic countries. Judging by the espresso consumption
in my office, there is nothing particularly sacramental or visionary
in a double tall mocha with whipped cream. We have taken a sacramental
drug and devalued it, down to $2.75 a hit.
Contemporary Pagan cultures in Africa, Asia and the Americas teach
meditation and ritual states by immersion in it from birth. Whether
the experience is in large or small groups, a member of any other
contemporary Pagan culture has had thousands of hours of experience
in trance and ritual states before reaching puberty. Culturally
appropriate responses and behavioral parameters for "non-ordinary"
reality can be observed and modeled. The complex symbolism, spiritual
ecology, gestural, acoustic and chemical triggers for ecstatic,
trance and other states are learned over many years and incorporated
into (usually) healthy personalities that are capable of assuming
appropriate mental states as needed. I suspect that the "self"
that participates in trance differs from the ordinary consciousness,
and learns in stages akin to those described by Piaget. Contrast
this with the experience of a modern Euro-Pagan neophyte, who has
had an intense, ineffable experience, read The Spiral Dance and
started a coven, where the 45 minute once a month ritual full moon
occurs and the three minute drawing-down-and-cookies-and-milk (er...grape
am not trying to devalue anyone@#146;s ineffable experience. I am
suggesting that it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of individual
and group trance experiences to work effectively in altered states
of consciousness. As a sub-culture we lack a cohesive or common
body of symbols, myths and stories that can be used to frame these
experiences. The signal to noise ratio is fairly low, and it takes
time to increase the signal and reduce the noise. Many EuroPagans
confuse the euphoria that accompanies trance with useful work of
a magickal or mystic nature. Our "tuning" doesn@#146;t
happen by itself. We must practice trance in order to become as
good at it as a five year old in an older Pagan culture.The second
obstacle to effective working in trance is the attempt to reframe
the experience in terms of ordinary reality, including, (for example),
my ten year study of Qabala and Hittite ritual practices. The game
rules differ radically between trance and ordinary cognition states.
My attempt to explain my perceptions of last year@#146;s Samhain
ritual trance makes about as much sense as trying to explain Australian
Rules Football according to the syntax of the Pascal programming
language as interpreted by the Microsoft Japanese division.
That said, there are several things that could raise the level of
community ritual work and deepen understandings of trance. Most
festivals offer some discussion of sexually transmitted diseases
and provide condoms to participants. Ritual and meditation are,
hopefully, as important to Pagans as safe sex. Why not offer information
on the physiology of trance states, mood altering drugs, and induction
techniques? The distinction between new information acquired in
trance and our attempts to describe the feel of trance should be
discussed and explored via experiential workshops in trance. Safe,
monitored space for trance can allow participants to explore ritual
states of consciousness without fear or expectations.
Bwca is a Social and Human Services professional in the State of
Washington. In his copious spare time, he and his wife Erynn Darkstar
research and practice Celtic Mysticism and write books on Insular
Celtic Religions. He sometimes teaches Shaolin martial arts in Seattle
parks or searches for obscure B Grade movies.He is an N.E.C.T.W.
Elder of 17 years training, an English Traditionalist initiate,
and has been a frequent community ritualist in the Pagan Northwest.