Consciousness and Creative Trance
Trance is an altered state of consciousness which individuals can enter through a variety of techniques, including hypnotism, drugs, sound (particularly music, percussive drumming etc.), sensory deprivation, physical hardships (eg. flagellation, starvation, exhaustion) and vigorous exercise (particularly dance).
People can also use trance, particularly in the context of ‘ritual’ events, to learn new strategies of thinking or of relating to one another.
There are different types of learning: for example what Eric Jantsch calls ‘conscious learning’ is a transaction between consciousness, the environment and memory. Jantsch also identifies ‘superconscious learning’, which takes place with the addition of ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ ways of learning. These arise through the interaction of consciousness with transpersonal mass/collective consciousness (eg. Jung’s "collective unconscious").
The feedback link between consciousness and superconsciousness gives rise to inner experiential learning or tuning-in to the dynamics of meta-systems transcending man and his immediate environment. It may be enhanced by various techniques, mostly developed in connection with Eastern philosophies (Jantsch, 1976; p42).
There are other techniques which can be used for such ‘tuning in’, for example magical or shamanic practices such as visualisations, breathing techniques and ritual. Particular technologies can also be used to enhance such learning capacities, for example the ASCID (Altered States of Consciousness Induction Device) developed by Robert Masters and Jean Houston (1973). The modern electronic music dance party is one such ‘pscycho- technology’ because it is an information system, consisting of visual, auditory and sensual elements.
The sound dimension operates through the harmonics of the melodies as well as the physical impact of amplified sound waves. These elements combine to entrain the human organism within the ‘soundscape’ created by high volume sound systems, just as for example monks chanting together entrain themselves, body and mind, to the collective harmonic. Gilbert Rouget (1985) notes that the amplification of sound achieved by modern technologies resonates sound through the body to involve the listener in the musical field, vibrating the ‘internal erogenous zones of the abdomen’ as well as producing a ‘light hypnosis’, just as the music of archaic trance ceremonies aims to do. Music alters the ‘relation of the self to the world’, modifying the psyche both internally and in its relations to the external space/time environment.
Prolonged dancing is also a feature of the rave scene and this is often (though not always) associated with drug use, especially the empathogen MDMA (Methylene Dioxy Meth-Amphetamine) commonly known as Ecstasy. Taken in the right setting, Ecstasy like its popular hallucinogenic predecessor LSD, can bring creative insights into the self or the individual’s life situation which can precipitate a ‘life transforming experience’ (Saunders, 1992). When ingested in the rave setting, the drug-induced altered state of consciousness may be amplified through other mechanisms.
Through dancing in the multi-media soundscape of the rave and under the influence of chemicals such as Ecstasy and LSD, dancers can attain light trance states which are probably much like those obtained by people in archaic cultures using similar techniques. It is in this trance state that the individual in an altered state of consciousness can connect with the noumenal, which might be interpreted as access to a kind of group mind, or a spiritual/mystical experience.
Stewart Wavell suggested in 1966 that one day trances will become as accessible to us in western civilisation as the electric light, and that this will open ‘immense new possibilities’. He felt the consequences of this will be felt in diverse fields from space travel to pop music - a prophetic statement in view of what is currently occurring in the rave milieu. Wavell refers to trance as ‘a state of liberation’, freeing the trancers from the bounds of ordinary reality, from ‘the prison of the senses’, and he suggests that perhaps through trance it will be possible to transcend space and time. This could well be why there is a particular awareness in rave culture of ideas such as evolving consciousness and spirituality.
Accessing Trance States
Anthropologist Audrey Butt notes that there is a correspondence in many cultures between the breath and the spirit, and there may be a correlation here between specific breathing techniques used for inducing altered states of consciousness in which a connection is made with spirit, either that of the subject or some other occupying entity.
One of the most effective mechanisms for inducing trance however is dancing. In his examination of archaic societies such as the San, Wavell refers to the trance dance as ‘dance therapy’ to escape the everyday pressures of hunter-gatherer life. Those who experience trance report feeling a lightness, energy and power. The trance dance is often initiated by the tribal shaman, who uses it to enter into trance himself or to induce trance in others. The shaman is a healer who articulates a harmonising motivation in society, as well as being a performer who must woo his audience, ‘entrancing’ them through his dramatic skill as much as his magical ability. As Butt says,
Finally, his supreme achievement is to leave them at the end, peaceful and harmonious, yet elated - even inspired. Let us therefore consider the shaman as an artist and his seance performance as the product of his art (Butt, 1966; p185).The notion of art or creativity in relation to trance is significant. Nina Epton argues that trances are creative states, or ‘the key to most creative processes’. This involves the ‘extinction’ of the ego which allows for an altered state of consciousness, an inspirational state wherein the mind can achieve ‘a higher form of being with a deeper understanding of self,’ as well as communion with the divine.
Sound can play an important role in inducing trance, although as Rouget points out, music does not of itself induce trance; sometimes it triggers trance while at other times it has a calming effect. In archaic trance ceremonies, different sounds can send people into trance, from loud drums to soft rattles. People can go into trance while dancing or while lying still. There are different theories as to why music can induce trance, from its emotive power to conditioned reflex. Rouget feels that music is a socializing influence on the trance phenomenon, and that this depends on the ideological systems in which it occurs. He also considers trance as ‘a state of consciousness composed of two components, one psychophysiological, the other cultural’. The principal symptoms of trance in archaic societies are listed by Rouget as,
trembling, shuddering, horripilation, swooning, falling to the ground, yawning, lethargy, convulsions, foaming at the mouth, protruding eyes, large extrusions of the tongue, paralysis of a limb, thermal disturbances (icy hands despite tropical heat; being hot despite extreme circumambient cold), insensitivity to pain, tics, noisy breathing, fixed stare, and so on (Rouget, 1985; p13).
In these extreme trance states, Rouget considers the individual to be ‘bewildered’, ie. he is in a state which totally envelops his normal consciousness and he cannot return to it unless there is some external intervention. The subject does not engage with the world through his senses; he is ‘senseless’ to normal reality. There are a variety of behavioural signs, depending on the culture of the subject; but generally they ‘symbolize the intensification of some particular faculty by means of an action endowed with certain extraordinary or astonishing aspects’, e.g. walking on burning coals, piercing one’s flesh, bending swords and metal bars, curing diseases, precognition, embodying a divinity, contacting the dead, etc. These phenomena are a transcendence of the normal self, or an ‘exaltation’ of the self.
The individual in a trance state is thus recognizable by the fact that (1) he is not in his usual state; (2) his relationship to the world around him is disturbed; (3) he can fall prey to certain neurophysiological disturbances; (4) his abilities are increased (either in reality or otherwise); (5) this increased ability is manifested by actions or behaviour observable by others (Rouget, 1985; p14).
It is clear from the above description that participants in modern Raves, Trance Parties or similar music or ritual events do not as a rule enter into such deep states of trance; nevertheless this is not to say that ‘echoes’ of deep trance states may be found in the above-mentioned altered states of consciousness, or that we cannot use modern environments to attain deep trance states.
Trance, Spirit and ConsciousnessI also have not heard of anyone who has encountered a specific ‘entity’ while trance-dancing in the rave milieu; however there is a particular emphasis within this milieu on the Other (perhaps what Terrence McKenna (1993) calls the "Wholly Other") in the form of aliens (extraterrestrials) and dolphins, which might be the modern equivalents of the demons, angels, spirits etc. of other cultures. In order to invoke other entities, an awareness of them is possibly also required, and conscious steps taken for such invocation to take place. This is what happens in the various possession cults of traditional archaic societies, where participants invite certain spirits to occupy their bodies. It may nevertheless be useful for people even in the modern context, to use protection rituals to shield themselves from negative energies at rave events.
In certain rave sub-cultures, there is also a strong emphasis on connecting to the ‘Earth Spirit’ which is perhaps equivalent to what the Native American chief Standing Bear refers to as the ‘spirit of the land’. It is this type of connection which McKenna advocates as central to the ‘archaic revival’, a concept which seeks to resuscitate the knowledge of archaic societies into the postmodern world, aiming to overcome the reductionist modality of scientific rationalism. This means reconnecting with the holistic world of nature, where mind, body and spirit are one. Rouget excavates the meaning of an archaic way of living or experiencing:
in societies having preserved an archaic way of life, which are precisely those in which possession cults are frequently found, the individual lives in constant sensorial contact with nature. He lives in perpetual intimacy with the elements, plants, animals. For him, the frontier between the animate and inanimate worlds is extremely vague. Men, beasts, plants, and things all have souls or are the receptacles of souls. Every phenomenon is interpreted as resulting from the action or presence of a soul. The visible is constantly animated by the invisible (Rouget, 1985; p123).
As the above arguments concerning the attainment of liminal and trance states indicate, it is often an advantage to utilize the whole body in order to achieve them - in other words, consciousness is a function of the body as a whole neuronal and bio-chemical energy system. Consciousness involves both sensory feedback mechanisms and imaginative practices based in fields of signification which are culturally determined. Significant mental effects can be obtained when the entire physical organism is utilised, for example through devices such as Masters and Houston’s ASCID. This apparatus consists of
a metal swing or pendulum in which the research subject stands upright, supported by broad bands of canvas and wearing blindfold goggles. This pendulum, hanging from a metallic frame, carries the subject and moves in forward and backward, side to side, and rotating motions generated by involuntary movements of the body of the subject. Frequently, then, a trance state ensues within two to twenty minutes, and may deepen as the spontaneous or directed experiencing of a subjective reality continues to unfold. (Masters and Houston, 1973; p89-90)Through using this device to induce altered states of consciousness, the subject can experience various ‘subjective realities’ or dreamlike visions, including mythical, science fiction, religious and mystic experiences. These experiences can have a positive and lasting effect on the subject. Masters and Houston have coined the phrase ‘Visionary Anthropology’ to describe a process whereby subjects are invited to explore a world in their imaginations, and to experience and describe elements of it such as its art, customs, music etc.
The ASCID seems to enable a creative visualisation process, which aids artistic practices. Auditory musical imagery (or hallucinations) can also be experienced, especially by musicians. Such imagery can be described as ‘automatic’ or ‘self-creating’ works of art. Another phenomenon which can occur with the ASCID is ‘accelerated mental process’ (AMP), which is a form of subjective ‘time distortion’. In this state, the subject experiences a volume of thoughts or images far greater than that experienced in normal time.
Despite the advances in such psycho-technologies, relatively little research has been undertaken in the use of Raves for directed consciousness alteration. Generally speaking, raves are hedonistic events which are only gradually evolving from a society fascinated with spectacle and mindless escape from ‘reality’, or the pressures of everyday existence. The question which confronts us is how to use the rave psycho- technology in a more conscious fashion to achieve specific goals or to engineer social or psychological change.