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  • Ryan Smith

Experiencing the Ecstatic State

Trance work is a topic that comes up frequently in Heathen, Pagan, and other adjacent occult spaces. For Heathens it is a more infrequent topic that depends entirely on each particular community’s relationship with mystical practice though it usually is associated with rigorous, selective training. It also has frequent, though often inaccurate or misleading, portrayals in popular culture as something associated either with drugs or some kind of mysterious, unattainable state of wisdom. In my experience, ecstatic trance is far more accessible than these broader assumptions would imply. Attaining it is a repeatable, teachable skill that anyone can learn.


“But I can’t trance!” might be your reaction after reading all of this and you would not be alone. Modern society often depicts mystical practices of any kind as strange and unusual, making practical knowledge difficult to find when it isn’t clouded by a veil of misinformation, exotification, and otherization. This is also fed by a general tendency in popular culture to treat mystics of all kinds as possessing some inherent quality which sets them aside from the common herd. Psychedelic culture has helped rock this boat somewhat but the illegality and risks associated with entheogenic substances also present significant barriers to entry. The result is a lot of information suggesting that trancework and mystical practice are simply not something that most people will ever experience for one reason or another.


These general assumptions do not represent the real truth of the matter. Contrary to popular assumptions, trance and ecstatic state practices are extremely common throughout the world on both the individual and mass level. For Heathens there are many examples of pre-conversion ecstatic and trance practices like the famous berserkers, völva seeresses channeling the voices of the dead, and lawspeakers and mystics seeking answers by going “under the cloak”. Within Christianity there are accounts of nuns and monks experiencing moments of revelation during deep prayer, preachers leading congregations in speaking in tongues, and even a medieval Italian sect called the Benandanti, or Good Walkers, who battled nightly with demons through astral travel. Further examples of individual and mass trance practices include Muslim Sufi mystics whose whirling dances are said to bring them into oneness with God, the rites of Dionysian cults of the Mediterranean world, and the sacred music of Voudon ceremonies.


Further supporting a more expansive, open-access view of mysticism is a whole field of scholarship known as neurotheology, the study of how the human brain responds to religious and spiritual experiences. These studies are, admittedly, somewhat limited due to the physical constraints imposed by bulky MRI scanning machines. The unfortunate self-selection effect of this is only practices such as Catholic nuns saying the rosary or Buddhist monks in meditation could be effectively studied. Even so, the results are quite striking. In the case of each subject, the human brain re-oriented how it processed information and showed signs of interacting with physical reality in ways that were significantly different than normal brain functions regardless of the specific practice. Though this research is far from conclusive in many ways, it does strongly suggest that trance and ecstatic practices can somewhat reliably shift human consciousness.


You may have already experienced something close to a trance state in very mundane, ordinary ways. People in ecstatic states of all kinds often describe experiencing a sense time passing more slowly, greater clarity, and one-ness with the world around them. Perhaps there was a moment when you were working on a creative project where you felt yourself slipping into such a space where thoughts flowed seamlessly into creation as time seemed to stand still. You may have also been in an isolated place where you were enthralled by natural beauty that you felt like you could lose yourself inside the space. It could even be something as small as a feeling of peace and contentment that came to you while stirring sugar into your morning coffee. Such small instances are times when you, unknowingly, slipped close to a trance state.


When viewed from this perspective, attaining the ecstatic state is less of a gift bestowed on the lucky few and more of a specific skill based on using our brains in ways to shift their consciousness at will. Two critical concepts for understanding how to develop this skill are triggers and processes. Triggers are specific actions like dances or gestures, images, or sensory inputs like chants or smells that you associate with entering a trance state. Processes are specific rituals, steps, and preparations you make to prepare yourself for entering a trance that be as simple as closing your bedroom door, turning off the lights, and taking three deep breaths. These tools are used to convince the logical, more materially-oriented parts of the brain to accept the shift in consciousness that comes with an ecstatic trance state. A good way to think of using triggers and processes is somewhat like an airline pilot conducting their pre-flight checks and preparations for takeoff. Each trigger and each step of a process eases your consciousness step by step into an ecstatic state in a safe, controlled, and repeatable way.


These tools can also be very useful for people who may find themselves easily slipping into and out of trance. Such experiences are not uncommon, with anecdotal accounts suggesting some kind of relationship between neurodivergence and natural talent for trance states, and can be quite frightening for people who are not prepared for such experiences. If this is the case for you, then triggers and processes help create guardrails and guidelines for the trance experience. They train your mind to associate specific forms of trance, such as deeper journey or possessory work, with very specific processes and triggers which helps prevent you from accidentally sliding down the rabbit hole just as the lunch rush kicks off.


This information provides enough for beginning trance practitioners to develop your own regular practice. A core part of this is determining what kind of triggers and processes you use. What matters most is to use methods that work best for you. Practically speaking, I think it is best to start out with methods like meditation, visualization, and chants as regular triggers and processes because these are techniques that do not depend on specific material objects or conditions. This makes it much easier to both do these actions in a wide range of circumstances and to incorporate other elements that may add to your practice. You will, inevitably, develop your own spin on both these tools and cultivating your own way into ecstatic trance is a perfectly normal part of deepening your personal spirituality.


In closing, ecstatic trance is a very normal part of the human experience that requires no special gifts to access. It is a repeatable, learnable skill that works based on proven, consistent methods. Though there is a wide range of expression and possibility in how you engage with ecstatic trance, there is no question this capacity exists in everyone. How you develop your relationship with ecstatic trance is up to what works best for you more than anything else.

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