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The most telling failure of the modern Euro-Pagan movement as a healthy subculture is that anyone even needs to discuss meditation techniques, ritual states of consciousness and trance.

Defining trance is a bit like asking the Supreme Court of the United States to define pornography: None of the judges can agree on an exact, all-inclusive definition, but they know it when they see it.

Trance, disappointingly enough, is usually not defined in the anthropological literature.


The 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.

Trance 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 changes.

Trance 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.

Now, 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 juice) follows.

I 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.

Tane 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.

Copyright Tane Bwca and Shadowplay 1999,2000. All rights reserved. 
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