Trance is a state of semi-consciousness in which a person is not self-aware and is either altogether unresponsive to external stimuli (but nevertheless capable of pursuing and realizing an aim) or is selectively responsive in following the directions of the person (if any) who has induced the trance. Trance states may be induced by various means or occur involuntarily and unbidden.
The trance state may be associated with hypnosis, meditation, channeling, prayer, and altered states of consciousness. The person may experience healing, or in cases of religious ecstasy they may have visions of spirits and receive revelations. Generally, while the trance state may be a challenging experience, it has positive impact on the life of the person experiencing it and often on the lives of others. Still, there is potential for harm, given that during the trance state various cognitive functions are disabled, usually including volition.
The word "trance" derives from an earlier meaning of "state of extreme dread or suspense," or "a half-conscious or insensible condition, state of insensibility to mundane things," via the Old French transe "fear of coming evil," from transir "be numb with fear," originally "die, pass on," from Latin transire "cross over, go over, pass over, hasten over, pass away."
Trance states have been recorded in numerous cultures throughout history, with a variety of interpretations.
Sleep temples in Ancient Greece were called Asclepieions, built in honor of Asclepios the Greek god of medicine. Pilgrims visited such temples for healing. Seekers of healing would be received by a priest who would welcome and bless them. The Greek treatment was referred to as incubation, and focused on prayers to Asclepios for healing. The sleep chambers were filled with snakes, the symbol of the rod of Asclepios, the serpent-entwined rod that symbolizes medicine to this day.
In Egypt, sleep temples (also known as dream temples) functioned as hospitals, healing a variety of ailments, perhaps many of them psychological in nature. Patients were taken to an unlit chamber to sleep and be treated for their specific ailment.The treatment involved chanting, placing the patient into a trance-like, and analyzing their dreams in order to determine treatment. Meditation, fasting, baths, and sacrifices to the patron deity or other spirits were often involved as well.
Divination is a cultural universal, present in many religions and cultures in all ages up to the present day. Divination may be defined as a mechanism for fortune-telling by ascertaining information by interpretation of omens or an alleged supernatural agency. Divination often entails ritual, and is often facilitated by trance.
The Pythia was the priestess presiding over the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, located on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. The Pythia was widely credited with giving prophecies inspired by Apollo, giving her a prominence unusual for a woman in male-dominated ancient Greece. The Delphic oracle was established in the eighth century B.C.E. The last recorded response was given in 393 C.E., when the emperor Theodosius I ordered pagan temples to cease operation. During this period the Delphic Oracle was the most prestigious and authoritative oracle in the Greek world.
In Tibet, oracles have played, and continue to play, an important part in revelation, religion, doctrine, and prophecy. Oracles have also played principal roles assisting governmental decision-making and providing intelligence on pressing matters of state. The word oracle is used by Tibetans to refer to the spirit, deity, or entity that enters those men and women who act as media between the natural and the spiritual realms. The media are, therefore, known as kuten, which literally means, "the physical basis."
The tulku of the institution of the Dalai Lama consults the oracle known as the Nechung Oracle, which is considered the Official State Oracle of the government of Tibet. The fourteenth Dalai Lama gives a complete description of the process of trance and possession in his book, Freedom in Exile.
In the 1860s and 1870s in America, trance mediums were very popular. Spiritualism generally attracted female adherents, many who had strong interests in social justice. In the typical deep trance, the medium may not have clear recall of all the messages conveyed while in an altered state; such people generally work with an assistant. That person selectively wrote down or otherwise recorded the medium's words. Rarely did the assistant record the responding words of the sitter and other attendants. An example of this kind of relationship can be found in the early twentieth century collaboration between the trance medium Mrs. Cook of the William T. Stead Memorial Center in Chicago and the journalist Lloyd Kenyon Jones. The latter was a non-medium Spiritualist who transcribed Cook's messages in shorthand and transcribed and published them in 1919.
Another example of a medium who did not recall what was said during his trance state is Edgar Cayce (March 18, 1877 – January 3, 1945), an American psychic who could channel answers to questions on many spiritual topics, including history, astrology, and health. Much of his work consisted of diagnosing and prescribing cures for individuals with physical ailments. These readings, which he performed while in a self-induced trance state, involved many alternative health concepts and practices. When he awoke from his trance, he remembered nothing, and thus, he is commonly referred to as "The Sleeping Prophet."
Mysticism and religious ecstasy
Mysticism provides meaning for mystical and visionary experiences, and related experiences like trances: "Mysticism is the practice of religious ecstasies (religious experiences during alternate states of consciousness), together with whatever ideologies, ethics, rites, myths, legends, and magic may be related to them."
Religious ecstasy is a type of altered state of consciousness characterized by greatly reduced external awareness and expanded interior mental and spiritual awareness, frequently accompanied by visions and emotional (and sometimes physical) euphoria. Such experiences are known in all faiths, however they may also happen in a spontaneous and natural way, to people who are not committed to any religious tradition. Although the experience is usually brief in time, there are records of such experiences lasting several days or even more, and of recurring experiences of ecstasy during one's lifetime.
In Sufism, it is referred to as wajad and is induced by dhikr, a form of Islamic meditation in which phrases or prayers are repeatedly chanted in order to remember God. As described by the Indian spiritual teacher Meher Baba, God-intoxicated souls known in Sufism as masts experience a unique type of spiritual ecstasy:
[M]asts are desperately in love with God – or consumed by their love for God. Masts do not suffer from what may be called a disease. They are in a state of mental disorder because their minds are overcome by such intense spiritual energies that are far too much for them, forcing them to lose contact with the world, shed normal human habits and customs, and civilized society and live in a state of spiritual splendor but physical squalor. They are overcome by an agonizing love for God and are drowned in their ecstasy. Only the divine love embodied in a Perfect Master can reach them.
Within Hinduism, Bhakti denotes devotion to a particular deity or form of God. Within Vaishnavism bhakti is only used in conjunction with Vishnu or one of his associated incarnations, it is likewise used towards Shiva by followers of Shaivism. Saints in these traditions exhibit different trance states or ecstasy.
In Buddhism, especially in the Pali Canon, there are eight states of trance also called absorption. The first four states are Rupa or, materially-oriented. The next four are Arupa or non-material. These eight states are preliminary trances which lead up to final saturation. In Visuddhimagga, great effort and years of sustained meditation are practiced to reach the first absorption, and not all individuals are able to accomplish it.
In the Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece, initiates used intoxicants, ecstatic dance, and music to remove inhibitions and social constraints.
Shamanism involves a practitioner reaching an altered state of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with spirits, and channel transcendental energies into this world. The shaman typically enters into a trance state and practices divination and healing. Shamanism can be regarded as a "technique of religious ecstasy."
Australian aborigines shamans have long been held in high regard for their ability to connect with spirits:
The supernormal, super sensory powers of Aboriginal wise woman and men of high degree, by their own accounts, comes directly from initiations administered by the ancestral sky heroes themselves and by the totemic spirits. Those who have gone through these initiations alone, in a deep trance that makes them lose their personal identities and confront manifestations of the ancestral powers, are held in the highest regard.
In the monotheistic tradition, ecstasy is usually associated with communion and oneness with God. However, such experiences can also be personal mystical experiences with no significance to anyone but the person experiencing them. Some charismatic Christians practice ecstatic states (such as "being slain in the Spirit") and interpret these as given by the Holy Spirit. The firewalkers of Greece dance themselves into a state of ecstasy at the annual Anastenaria, when they believe themselves under the influence of Saint Constantine.
Many Catholic mystics and saints are documented as having experiences that may be considered as cognate with trance, including Hildegard of Bingen, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, and Francis of Assisi. The Catholic Church defines religious ecstasy (called "supernatural ecstasy") as having two elements:
the one, interior and invisible, when the mind rivets its attention on a religious subject;
the other, corporeal and visible, when the activity of the senses is suspended, so that not only are external sensations incapable of influencing the soul, but considerable difficulty is experienced in awakening such sensation, and this whether the ecstatic himself desires to do so, or others attempt to quicken the organs into action.
Historically, large groups of individuals have experienced religious ecstasies during periods of Christian revivals, to the point of causing controversy as to the origin and nature of these experiences. In response to claims that all emotional expressions of religious ecstasy were attacks on order and theological soundness from the Devil, Jonathan Edwards published his influential Treatise on Religious Affections in which he argued that religious ecstasy could come from oneself, the Devil, or God, and it was only by observing the fruit, or changes in inner thought and behavior, that one could determine if the religious ecstasy had come from God.
In modern Pentecostal, charismatic and spirit-filled Christianity, numerous examples of religious ecstasy have transpired, similar to historic revivals. Also, however, a number of new movements have reported controversial experiences, which some have called demonic in nature and more occult-like than Christian. Religious ecstasy in these movements has been witnessed in the form of squealing, shrieking, an inability to stand or sit, uttering apocalyptic prophecies, holy laughter, crying and barking. Some people have made dramatic claims of sighting "gold dust," "angel feathers," "holy clouds," or the spontaneous appearance of precious gemstones during ecstatic worship events.
Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) was an influential but discredited promoter of trance states and their curative powers. He discovered the curative powers of what he called magnétism animal (animal magnetism). Mesmer applied magnets to his patients’ bodies and produced remarkable results, especially in the case of a young woman suffering from hysteria. He did not attribute his cures to any power in the magnets themselves; instead, he argued that the body was analogous to a magnet and contained a fluid that ebbed and flowed according to the laws of magnetic attraction. Mesmer's ideas and practices, often called "Mesmerism," would later be developed by James Braid as modern hypnosis.
Hypnosis is normally preceded by a "hypnotic induction" technique. Traditionally, this was seen as a method of putting the subject into a "hypnotic trance," whereby critical thinking faculties of the human mind are bypassed and a type of selective thinking, attention, and perception is established. There is reduced peripheral awareness, and an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion, often interpreted as an altered state of consciousness or trance, marked by a level of awareness different from the ordinary state of consciousness.
Trance-like states can be deliberately induced using a variety of techniques, including prayer, religious rituals, meditation, pranayama (breathwork or breathing exercises), physical exercise, sexual intercourse, music, dancing, sweat lodge, fasting, and the consumption of psychotropic drugs such as peyote. The particular technique that an individual uses to induce the trance is usually one that is associated with their particular religious and cultural traditions. As a result, the experience is usually interpreted within the context of those traditions. These interpretations often include statements about contact with supernatural or spiritual beings and about receiving new information as a revelation.
Benevolent, neutral, and malevolent trances may be induced intentionally, spontaneously, and/or accidentally by different methods and through focus on different modalities:
- Auditory: through the sense of hearing by chanting, auditory story telling, mantra, overtone singing, drumming, music, etc.
- Disciplines: Yoga, Sufism, and meditation
- Gustatory: through the sense of taste and indigestion, including starvation, herbs, hallucinogens, and other drugs. As the intake of food and beverage entails intra-bodily chemical reactions through digestion, some infer that all food may be considered medicine or drugs and therefore contribute to the induction of discernible psycho-physical states . Trance states can be attained through the ingestion of psychoactive drugs
- Kinesthetic: through the sense of feeling and movement through ecstatic dance, mudra, embodying rituals, yoga, breathwork, oxygen deprivation, sexual stimulation etc.
- Miscellaneously: traumatic accident, sleep deprivation, nitrogen narcosis (deep diving), fever, by the use of a sensory deprivation tank or mind-control techniques, hypnosis, meditation, prayer
- Naturally occurring: dreams, lucid dreams, euphoria, ecstasy, psychosis as well as purported premonitions, out-of-body experiences, and channeling.
- Olfactory: via scent through the sense of smell by perfume, pheromones, incense, flowers, pollen, or any scent for which there is a strong association or memory
- Photic or Visual: through the sense of sight by yantra, mandala, cinema, theater, art, architecture, beauty, strobe lights, form constants, symmetry.
Theories and explanations
Trances and other mystical manifestations may be explained through neurological or psychological mechanisms as well as religious interpretations involving spiritual activity. Thus, research attempting to interpret the phenomena incorporate literature and case-studies from a number of disciplines, including chemistry, physics, psychology, radiology, and theology.
In the American Christian traditions, descriptions of religious ecstasy include a variety of terms which have developed over the years. Typical expressions include "the indwelling of the Spirit" (Jonathan Edwards), "the witness of the Spirit" (John Wesley), "the power of God" (early American Methodists), being "filled with the Spirit of the Lord" (early Adventists, "communing with spirits" (Spiritualists), "the Christ within" (New Thought), "streams of holy fire and power" (Methodist holiness), "a religion of the Spirit and Power" (the Emmanuel Movement), and "the baptism of the Holy Spirit" (early Pentecostals).
For Christians, this trance state is biblical: "Trances are not relegated to the realm of witches and warlocks, though these dark agents do use trances to enter into astral projection, a counterfeit of the biblical concept of being transported in the Spirit." The religious interpretation of the trance state is based on the understanding that it involves the spiritual realm where one may experience communication with spiritual beings, who may be benevolent or malevolent, and even God or Satan.
Thus, in Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, trance is defined as: “An ecstasy; a state in which the soul seems to have passed out of the body into celestial regions, or to be rapt into visions.” Similarly, it denotes the state of one who is "out of himself," in "a preternatural, absorbed state of mind preparing for the reception of the vision," such as the trances of Peter (Acts 10:10; 11:5) and Paul (Acts 22:17), who appeared to be asleep but with their eyes open.
Ekstatis from which "ecstasy" is derived, means: A throwing of the mind out of its normal state, alienation of mind, whether such as makes a lunatic or that of a man who by some sudden emotion is transported as it were out of himself, so that in this rapt condition, although he is awake, his mind is drawn off from all surrounding objects and wholly fixed on things divine that he sees nothing but the forms and images lying within, and thinks that he perceives with his bodily eyes and ears realities shown him by God.
This trance state is considered the highest spiritual experience, a challenging one which brings a great change to the person who experiences it. They may have visions of God or revelation of truth, and this is interpreted as initiated by God to one chosen to bear the message:
The ekstasis (i.e. trance) is the state in which a man has passed out of the usual order of his life, beyond the usual limits of consciousness and volition, being rapt in causes of this state are to be traced commonly to strong religious impressions. Whatever explanation may be given of it, it is true of many, if not of most, of those who have left the stamp of their own character on the religious history of mankind, that they have been liable to pass at times into this abnormal state. ... and is connected with "visions and revelations of the Lord." In some cases, indeed, it is the chosen channel for such revelations.
The trance state of altered consciousness has much in common with that of hypnosis, and thus one can look for a common explanation of the two. However, theories of hypnosis are divided between "state" "nonstate" explanations. The first recognizes the phenomenon as involving an involuntary abnormal psychological and/or physiological basis for the altered state of consciousness. Thus, a simple trance is defined as a state of mind being caused by cognitive loops where a cognitive object (a thought, an image, a sound, an intentional action) repeats long enough to result in various sets of disabled cognitive functions, usually including volition.
The second explanation views the phenomenon more as the result of deliberate action on the part of the person exhibiting the behavior. Such nonstate theorists reject the idea of hypnotic trance and interpret the phenomenon as due to a combination of multiple task-specific factors derived from normal cognitive, behavioral, and social psychology, such as social role-perception and favorable motivation, active imagination and positive cognitive set, response expectancy, and the active use of task-specific subjective strategies:
Hypnotic behavior is meaningful, goal-directed striving, its most general goal being to behave like a hypnotized person as this is continuously defined by the operator and understood by the client.
Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who helped found the school of transpersonal psychology, suggested that people who have reached self-actualization will sometimes experience a state he referred to as "transcendence" or "peak experience" in which they become aware of not only their own fullest potential, but the fullest potential of human beings at large. Those who reached such extra-personal and ecstatic states, particularly ones tinged with themes of unification, harmonization, and interconnectedness, characterized their experiences, and the revelations imparted therein, as possessing an ineffably mystical (or overtly religious) quality or essence.
Scientific advancement and new technologies, such as computerized EEG, positron emission tomography, regional cerebral blood flow, and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging, are providing measurable tools to assist in understanding trance phenomena. Studies utilizing such neuroimaging techniques have helped elucidate the neurobiological mechanisms associated with spiritual practices. Some coherence of findings has been observed, with the frontal lobes, parietal lobes, thalamus, and limbic system frequently related in a network associated with such practices. However, different practices also yield distinct brain function patterns. For example, meditation practices often demonstrate increased frontal lobe function while trance practices often demonstrate decreased frontal lobe function.
Research has also been conducted into the trance induction of altered states of consciousness (possibly engendering higher consciousness) resulting from neuron firing entrainment with polyharmonics and multiphonics, as well as percussive polyrhythms. The timbre of traditional singing bowls and their polyrhythms and multiphonics are known to be calming and induce a meditative trance-like state. The harmony inducing effects of this tool to potentially alter consciousness are also being explored by scientists, medical professionals, and therapists.
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- Kay Hoffman, The Trance Workbook: Understanding & Using The Power Of Altered States (Sterling, 1999, ISBN 978-0806917658).
- Catherine Morgan, Athletes and Oracles: The Transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the Eighth Century B.C.E. (Cambridge University Press, 2007, ISBN 978-0521035682).
- Dalai Lama, Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of The Dalai Lama (HarperPerennial, 2008, ISBN 978-0060987015).
- Ann Braude, Radical Spirits, Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0253215024).
- Ellen A. Pennan Cook and Lloyd Kenyon Jones (ed.), God's World V1: A Treatise On Spiritualism Founded On Transcripts Of Shorthand Notes Taken Down, Over A Period Of Five Years (1919) (Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010, ISBN 978-1165454396).
- Dan Merkur, Mystical Moments and Unitive Thinking (State University of New York Press, 1999, ISBN 978-0791440643).
- Marghanita Laski, Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experience (J. P. Tarcher, 1990, ISBN 978-0874775747).
- Bhau Kalchuri, Lord Meher Prabhu: The Biography of the Avatar of the Age Meher Baba (Manifestation, Inc., 1986).
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ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Braude, Ann. Radical Spirits, Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0253215024
- Bulbulia, Joseph,Richard Sosis, Erica Harris, Russell Genet, Cheryl Genet, and Karen Wyman (eds.). Evolution of Religion: Studies, Theories, and Critiques. Santa Margarita, CA: Collins Foundation Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0978844110
- Chauncy, Charles. Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England. HardPress Publishing, 2013 (original 1743). ISBN 978-1314371710
- Cook, Ellen A. Pennan, and Lloyd Kenyon Jones (ed.). God's World V1: A Treatise On Spiritualism Founded On Transcripts Of Shorthand Notes Taken Down, Over A Period Of Five Years (1919). Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010. ISBN 978-1165454396
- Dalai Lama. Freedom in Exile: The Autobiography of The Dalai Lama. HarperPerennial, 2008. ISBN 978-0060987015
- Edwards, Jonathan. Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival in New England and the Way it Ought to be Acknowledged and Promoted. Legare Street Press, 2021 (original 1742). ISBN 978-1014879776
- Edwards, Jonathan. A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2010 (original 1746). ISBN 978-1169321397
- Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press, 2020. ISBN 978-0691210667
- Hoffman, Kay. The Trance Workbook: Understanding & Using The Power Of Altered States. Sterling, 1999. ISBN 978-0806917658
- Horgan, John. Rational Mysticism: Spirituality Meets Science in the Search for Enlightenment. HarperOne, 2004. ISBN 978-0618446636
- Laski, Marghanita. Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experience. J. P. Tarcher, 1990. ISBN 978-0874775747
- Lawlor, Robert. Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Inner Traditions, 1991. ISBN 978-0892813551
- Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Penguin, 1994 (original 1971). ISBN 978-0140194708
- Merkur, Dan. Mystical Moments and Unitive Thinking. State University of New York Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0791440643
- Morgan, Catherine. Athletes and Oracles: The Transformation of Olympia and Delphi in the Eighth Century B.C.E.. Cambridge University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0521035682
- Sarbacker, Stuart Ray. Samadhi: The Numinous and Cessative in Indo-Tibetan Yoga. State University of New York Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0791465547
- Taves, Ann. Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing religion and explaining experience from Wesley to James. Princeton University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0691010243
- Wier, Dennis R. Trance: From magic to technology. Trans Media Inc, 1996. ISBN 978-1888428384
All links retrieved May 1, 2023.
- Trance State Meditation Khris Krepcik, The Hooded Sage.
- The Emergence of Novel Information during Trance by Lee Humphries, Thinking Applied.
- A Gentle Introduction to Trance Theory by Dennis R Wier, Positive Health Online.
- Entering the Trance Realm by Jennifer LeClaire, Destiny Image.
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