Most people slip in and out of various kinds of trance states hundreds of times during what is called the “normal waking state.” Gurdjieff taught that to become aware that you are asleep, is the first step in waking up. If you are interested in staying awake, it is quite helpful, now and then, to count your trances, just to make sure you haven’t slipped back into unconsciousness.
There are light trances, deep trances, short-term trances and life-long trances. There are pain relieving trances and pain producing trances. There are healing trances and pathological trances. I have been studying trance for the past 25 years and I want to explore with you just a few important areas where trances can be found: hypnosis, addictions, religions and work.
So what is a trance? To many psychologists a trance is a state of limited awareness. Some psychologists would also characterize trance as a form of sleep, or dreamlike awareness or a kind of altered state of consciousness. Certainly trance has long been associated with hypnotic states, and with the altered states of consciousness of dervishes, shamans and yogis. Meditation does produce strong trance states. However, in my opinion, trance states are much more common than is normally believed.
If the unusual trance state of a shaman or a yogi is desirable, then we might be tempted to believe that all trance states are desirable states.
The type of trance studied most has been the hypnotic trance. Milton Erickson, the great hypnotherapist/psychotherapist, had wonderful and nearly immediate psychological cures in a great many of his patients. His technique was called “Ericksonian hypnosis.” Many people tried to explain what it was that he did, because in many cases, his patients claimed that they were not hypnotized and they were not in any kind of trance at all. Erickson’s recorded dialogs were analyzed for years to try to find out what it was exactly that made his form of hypnotherapy so successful.
Richard Bandler, John Grinder and others were successful in finally analyzing and modelling Erickson’s techniques. They devised what they called “neuro-linguistic programming,” also known as NLP, which is based primarily on Erickson’s techniques. With NLP, it is relatively easy to hypnotize a person and to keep that person in a trance state without their being aware that they are in fact, in a trance. The technique of pacing and leading a subject from a rich or varied set of thoughts to a limited or impoverished set of thoughts is a technique used consciously by hypnotists, advertisers, sales people, preachers and politicians.
Many stage hypnotists use Ericksonian or NLP derived hypnotic techniques in order to induce trance. TV hypnotists on daytime television can induce a trance after only a few minutes of seemingly innocuous talk. During this time, the subject can be given post-hypnotic suggestions to alter behavior and perception in peculiar ways during the TV show.
Television advertisers and the designers of commercials are aware of the techniques of Bandler and Grinder and use them often in commercials. The trance-induction potential of television media is well-known and is often used for manipulating consumer tastes. However useful television is for commercial and social control reasons, it cannot be reasonably argued that promoting an impoverished reality is, in the end, really socially beneficial.
Salespersons, preachers and politicians are aware of NLP techniques and often consciously use Ericksonian techniques in order to promote their own agendas. As you talk with a salesperson or listen to a preacher or politician you might never admit that you were in a trance of any kind. Have you ever ‘spaced out’ listening to a preacher? Politicians? Computer software salespersons? Some professional sales training institutes unabashedly teach hypnotic techniques to their sales trainees. It is clear to them that if a buyer is put into a hypnotic trance then it is much easier to sell a product. Because the ethics of using such techniques on the unaware is questionable, some states have laws that give you the right to cancel a contract within 24 or 48 hours of signing. Supposedly, this gives you time to “wake up” from your unconscious state.
So how can you tell if you are in one of these ordinary, unconscious trances? You are in a trance when your attention is limited and there is a certain repetition of thoughts. In an extreme case, your attention is so limited that it feels like “tunnel vision.” The repetition of thoughts might be mantras, songs, repeating fantasies, or even the math calculations of balancing your checkbook. That song you can’t get out of your head indicates a trance. Concentration, when the mind is focused on a specific problem or thought, is also a form of trance. You could characterize trance cybernetically as an awareness loop, or a circular flow of consciousness.
Repetition of mantras, the whirling of dervishes, the chanting and drumming of shamans, the repetition of TV commercials all induce trance by limiting your attention and overloading your mind with repeated thoughts. The purposes may be different, the results may be different, but in my opinion the difference in trance is mainly of degree. Once your mind is flying around in a tight loop, at some point you become used to this tight loop. You can also say that you have learned the loop. At that point, you might have the feeling that you can think ordinary thoughts even though another part of your mind is still flying around in this tight loop. The part of you that is the conscious ‘you’ is the observer of the ‘you’ that is the automaton flying around in this endless loop. The conscious ‘you’ is actually in a trance even though you feel perfectly conscious. Here’s why….
Normally, you have certain cognitive abilities such as the ability to remember things accurately, the ability to make judgements, you are generally aware of your body if you put your mind to it, you are alert to your surroundings, and you generally are not observing yourself doing things, you are doing them.
These cognitive abilities draw on our energies. When we learn new things, learning means that we can do it more efficiently. That means, we don’t need to put all of our energy into maintaining what we have learned. At the same time, doing something by habit does take some cognitive energy, which leaves our conscious mind a bit short. Particular types of loops will absorb greater amounts of our energy, leaving our conscious minds relatively disabled.
When we let our mind go in a loop, and then allow ourselves to step away and observe, the observing part may actually not function at full capacity. That means, your memory might not work so well, you may not be able to make a judgement, you will probably be much more self-observing, you may not be aware of your body, you may not be aware of your surroundings so much because of fixed attention. You might even hallucinate. Some psychologists call this trance logic. What is interesting is that this dissociated or trance state is often combined with rewards. That is, we are generally encouraged to go into trance even though this state results in a somewhat disabled mental condition.
Whether you are passively watching TV football, or engaging in rational rigorously precise thoughts, or having an emotional jolt of religious fervor, or feeling patriotic passion, or if you are an addict of any kind, or if you have the compulsive mindset of a mass murderer…..you are in a trance. Why?
Because all these states encourage a fixed, narrow attention span and they all reward the repetition of an impoverished set of thoughts. Most of the above are pathological trances, that is, over the long term they will produce pathologies.
It is well-known that when you are in a trance your attention can be diverted effectively enough to produce anesthesia sufficient for dental work or some types of surgery. Lamaze natural childbirth breathing techniques uses the resulting narrowed span of attention to help reduce pain. This narrowing of attention, the concentration of the mind on maintaining the breathing patterns, diverts the attention from the physical pain sensations during childbirth with the result that the mother becomes less aware of any uncomfortable sensations. The power of a mind in a trance can do things which it ordinarily cannot do. Giving birth painlessly is only one example.
Trance can also be used to reduce psychological pain such as anxiety, fear, worry, as well as the universal Weltschmerz (sic). Instead of consciously addressing the causes of the pain, trance can successfully divert the attention so that one is aware of neither the pain nor the causes of pain.
Hypnotic trance is only one way to remove pain. Alcohol, drug, religion, work, consumption, and TV trance addictions can also be counted as other ways of removing pain. I believe addictions of all sorts are forms of pathological trance.
Pathological Trance States and Addictions
Addiction can be better understood if we think of it not merely as “substance abuse,” or performance addiction, but as a form of an impoverished reality that is maintained by a pathological trance. Limited awareness, tunnel vision, the special characteristic that identifies a dysfunctional, impoverished reality, also identifies a type of pathological trance state that may be also a characteristic of all addictions.
If you really want to get into a pathological trance and stay there, here’s a general recipe:
First, you must impoverish your reality by removing all distractions and limit your awareness to a single, or at most a very few objects of attention. This narrowing of attention can be helped along by the passions inspired by drugs, trauma, by joining some religious or political movements or by staying at home and watching a lot of television or computer screen. It would be a good idea to get rid of distractions like kids, magazines or books—especially books that give you options or make you think about other possibilities.
Second, you must convince yourself that all options—other than your chosen perfect ideal, of course—are “evil” and every attempt that your monkey mind makes to have variety must be crushed and that you must keep your mind “pure” and only allow thoughts about your chosen passion. This mental trick will serve to concentrate your attention firmly on the object.
Controlling Your Addictive Trances
Start at any place in your addictive trance. Addictive trances reward an impoverished thought-set. You can help reduce any addiction by rewarding the enrichment of your thoughts. This means to expand the variety of your thoughts without trying to remove the thoughts you think are the problem.
Continue expanding and enriching your thoughts with new and stimulating ideas, people and experiences. When the variety of your thoughts becomes robust, ideas will be self-generating and the addictive trance will naturally cease to exist by definition.
While pathological trances are not at all desirable, most people nearly all of the time are either in a pathological trance or are engaged in trying to get others into trance. It is precisely pathological trance, not the yogic trance, that permeates most of our waking reality. It seems to me that once we can identify these pathological trances on a personal level we can take steps to avoid them.
If trance is defined as fixated thinking, then nearly all human activities create some type of trance. The bounded circles of thinking that keep us in trances are countless. The entire “ordered universe” is a trance. But there is an escapist’s pleasure in remaining in trance and a deep human fear of the chaos which can result if there were no trance “order” to life.
Socialization itself is the process of putting a person into a long-term trance. You do not go to work naked because of socialization. The socialization process started by parents and continued by religious training, schools, universities and employment in different ways all create a multiplicity of long-term trance-states, the result of which puts you in a bounded circle of limited but socially acceptable activity. Without these long-term trances your life would be more chaotic and perhaps you would be more painfully aware of too many choices. Every choice we make limits our options and makes life seem more manageable. When we stick to our choices at all costs we are in a pathological trance.
Perhaps the most important aspect of pathological trance is that it creates an unawareness or a “sleeping state”. When your thoughts are limited in variety and your attention becomes fixed, the fixation alters perceptions, can create dream states, visions and hallucinations. In this sleeping state you are unaware of new information. Entranced by the street magician, you are unaware the pickpocket has removed your wallet. The pathological trance state can create illusions which do not exist and cause the failure to perceive what does exist. On the other hand, the trance state of a yogi can be a tool to illuminate what is not normally perceived.
There are religious healers who, by means of their special meditative trances, can perform healings in others. Such healers may certainly be envied for these powers. Yet, unfortunately, even meditative trance states can become pathological trances if they become an end in themselves. By knowing how
to identify pathological trances it may be possible to avoid them.
Like any other trance, religious states of ecstasy can be created by narrowing ones perception to the religious object. Second, every attraction that would draw you away from the adored and worshiped object must be seen as an impediment in some sense. Third, all rational and ordinary thought can stop. When this is accomplished, the only content left in the mind are the artifacts of the religious object, and this, and the resulting perceptions, is what the supplicant may appreciate as “religious ecstasy.” So long as the ecstasy does not become an end in itself these trance states may be very valuable.
Proselytizing religions often use methods that will induce trance. Peer pressure, confessional types of testimonials, sense deprivation, lack of contradicting testimony, hysteria, hyper-emotionalism all contribute to constrain awareness and to increase suggestibility. Suggestibility continued over time will give rise to hallucinatory trance states. When combined with the rewards of stress release, the trances become pathological and addictive.
Religious fervor, as a state which feeds upon itself without end, is also quite definitely an addiction or a pathological trance state. The concentrative force of trance can also block out any sense of compassion for humans, and can be itself the basis for unimaginable cruelties. Religious addiction often carries with it an intransigence and intolerance of different points of view that can be as dangerous as a drug addict with a loaded gun. When religious fervor is combined with the rule of law and armed with deadly force, religious addicts effectively stop the evolution of a better type of human being.
Trance in the Workplace
The person who can put long, continuous hours at a difficult job may only be capable to doing this if in a trance. The pleasures of an engaging job can produce feelings of timeless states. Repetitive jobs narrow the attention to only the work at hand. Part of the mind is engaged in the job, but another part of the mind is free to dream. The dream-state produced is exactly characteristic of trance. In this dream-state, the work is being performed, but the worker is not necessarily aware of working. He may be visualizing a beach, having sexual or power fantasies or other hypnoidal and hypnotic dreams. The worker seems awake, but is really in a trance of reduced awareness.
Work addicts are almost revered for their devotion to the duty to work. Calvin and Zwingli have convinced entire societies that the person who works and makes money is closer to God and has most assuredly has an eternal lease in one of heaven’s plushier communities. Employers love work addicts because of this devotion which so enhances profit. Work addictions are not limited to any one particular industry. As a professional computer consultant, I have seen how some employers shamelessly exploit willing computer programmers who are addicted to computers.
Trance in the work place makes it easier to control information and employees. If an employee only does the job and knows neither what others are doing nor how they do it, that employee will never become a threat to the owners of the business. One presumes – falsely – that the owners of a
business would be the only ones who would be aware of what their business is really doing. Yet, owners are themselves in trance and many times keep their attentions on the “bottom line.” They, too, may not be aware of the social or environmental impacts of their business. Unfortunately, one of the disastrous side-effects of most trances is that they not only inhibit awareness but also they disable communication. One cannot communicate what one is not aware of.
The most serious social side effect of pathological trance is the reduced awareness and disabled communication. Communication of information is critical for any system to function. Human systems as well as computer systems, ecological, biological, political and social systems and more all require clear, accurate, timely communication of information in order to function. The lack of clear, accurate, or timely communication between individuals is the basis for misunderstandings, disappointments, hurt feelings, resentment, and violence. The human, economic, agricultural, industrial and social systems that rely on people who are in pathological trance has disastrous consequences.
Pathological trance is unfortunately almost universally encouraged within business organizations. The more an employee can with single-minded determination, execute the orders and policies of his organization, the more that employee is rewarded, promoted and respected. Single-mindedness, however, is a pathological trance. And trance always implies that there are areas where the employee is “asleep”, unaware.
When organizations encourage trance in their employees, and since trance disables communication, then there can be no wonder why there are so many system dysfunctions in the world. When, unlike a yogi, we do not choose our trances, and we are unaware of the types and nature of the pathological trances in our lives, then there are things we are unaware of. What we are unaware of causes more human suffering than the sometimes painful knowledge of the truth. One goal of a robust and magical life is to be as aware as possible of our options. When our unconscious pathological trances cripple our options the result is often disaster and tragedy in our personal lives, our society and in the environment.