Spiritual Trance - Back to Stay? notes for a future Epistemology...

Tr6Abstract: La transe spirituelle recouvre un très vaste et important champ de réalité. Une expérience caractérisée par les conditions physiques éprouvantes qu’elle exige et dont se dégage des ressorts et des enjeux religieux. Les conditions matérielles d’entrée en transe, déterminées par une certaine mise en scène, ou au contraire volontairement indéfinies, inscrivent cette expérience dans l’espace du sacré. L’individu n’est pas nécessairement conscient des effets de la transe, et s’il ou elle l’est, c’est parce qu’un initié l’a décidé. Autrement la dimension sociale et hiérarchique va jusqu’à définir la transe, en tant que partie intégrante de l’ésotérisme qui la caractérise. L’héritage de cet ésotérisme participe activement de nos jours à faire de la transe une thérapie, ce qui constitue une de ses nouvelles fonctionnalités.


The word trance originates etymologically from the Latin word « transire » which means « crossing », « leaving », « going by », « passing », « flowing by ».

Georges Lapassade, the French philosopher and sociologist, provided a definition of trance: « Trance is an altered state of mind with psychological and social dimensions ».

Trance implies a splitting of the mind, an incorporation and the independent agency of a spirit, the experience of psychic and physical phenomena.

For years, during a long period which might now be dubbed “scientist”, “objectivist” or “neo-obscurantist”, trance was perceived as a form of madness, of demonic possession or even of witchcraft.

During this period of devotion to science and medical progress, trance was often seen as a form of mental illness or epilepsy.

Tr4Nowadays, people tend again to accept the positive value of trance, given that we live in a period where self-realization and personal accomplishment through spiritual elevation are promoted as desirable and even marketable products. The concept of trance has thus become far more politically, or even epistemologically, correct.

There are many different varieties of trance all over the world and even sometimes present in in our daily lives, such as:

shamanic trance ; convulsive trance ; possession trance ; vision trance ; divination trance ; astral journeys ; erotic trance ; ecstatic trance ; hypnotic trance ; meditative trance ; mediumnic trance ; birth trance ; dream trance ; orgasmic trance ; poetic trance ; psychedelic trance; sleep-walker’s trance ; near death trance ; hate trance, and probably many more.

In this note, we will be focusing on possession trance.

Possession trance can sometimes even come with an important physical transformation, and endow with new psychic and physical abilities.

In 1986, Tobie Nathan (French writer and specialist in ethno-psychiatry) defined two types of possession: controlled and uncontrolled possessions.

In 1993, Henri Ellenberger (a Canadian psychiatrist) listed three forms of possession:

- The altered person is aware of his Self and but feels the intrusive spirit and fights against the latter.

- The altered person is unconscious and becomes the voice of the intrusive spirit.

- Self-induced possession.

In 1999, Bertrand Hell (a French anthropologist, ethnologist and specialist on states of possession) repertoried two pairs of kinds of states of possession:

- The altered person loses his identity during the possession/the altered person is aware of himself during the possession.

- During an active possession, the altered person is the master of his own experience, and during a passive possession, the altered person endures the experience and is a marionette.

Now that we have caught a glimpse of the great diversity of the forms of trance, we shall focus on the essential points we want to highlight. Our goal is to begin to unravel the mystery of trance. What conditions are required to enter a state of trance? Is the latter organized or spontaneous? Is trance learnt or not? What is the role of trance?

I - Portrait of trance

          A - Let’s enter the trance

Tr5We can observe that to enter a trance is not something anyone can do just by clicking his fingers. Indeed an initiation is required; sometimes special stimuli are necessary, but first of all the environment seems to be essential.

Each kind of trance may demand a particular place, setting, atmosphere, entourage…

For example, the Candomble cult in South America takes place in a big room, embellished with an altar, celebrated by a group, with a supervisor.

In the case of Umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian cult, a chapel is needed, with an altar as well as a lot of statuettes of divinities. People need to be dressed in special symbolic clothes.

Such environments may sound like mere ritual details, but according to their testimonies, people don’t feel they are able to go into trance if they don’t have the special environment they are used to.

In the same way as the environment, these religious groups can require stimuli to help them enter into trance. Those stimuli may be of different kinds, for instance music, (deprivation of) sleep or food, incense, tobacco, alcohol and/or of course many kinds of drugs. The aim of such stimuli is the heightening of sensorial experience.

For example, in Umbanda cult, people use drum beats, dance and song, to enter into trance. As for the Candomble cult, every participant questioned relates that is through the music that they are able to enter their dance, and to « enter the Saint », in other words to enter into trance.

Concerning drugs, a lot of psychotropic plants are used, but it’s very difficult to access the details, trance-oriented communities are very reserved, especially concerning drug use.

We know that Cannabis is used in some Hindu communities during prayers to Shiva. We also knows that Cannabis was used in China in many Taoist rituals or old traditional cults by magicians or shamans.

Entheogen, a chemical substance derived from psychedelic mushrooms, is also used in many shamanic experiences.

Finally, a testimony by Corine Sombrun, a French writer, describes how she was initiated to shamanism in Mongolia.

During a trip to Mongolia in 2001, she lost the control of her body while listening to the drum beats at a shamanic trance ceremony. This violent reaction was the sign of her Shamanic abilities. So she started a special training to be initiated: for 8 years, she spent a few months a year near the Siberian border with a Shaman, in order to be initiated and to obtain the official status of Shaman.

Indeed, the initiation is more or less long according to cultures. The initiation is secret. For instance, in Brazil the initiation to Candomblé lasts 3 months, including a first three weeks of seclusion, during which one already starts entering semi-trances. Sometimes, the initiation period may be much longer. In some rituals, the initiate can be maintained under drugs to keep him/her docile. Once one has been initiated, one cannot go back: this is a unique experience which definitively changes the person. We might qualify it as a kind of vocation: the experience of trance is said to go on developing throughout a person’s life.

B - Trance perceived from the inside

During trance, our self-consciousness temporarily changes. But we cannot lose consciousness at one go: there is a gradation, which starts with palpitations, pains, tremors, ringing in the ears, sweating, or a feeling of anxiety. Then these feelings can gradually become intensified: then comes the inability to fight against what's happening: violent tremors, an irrepressible desire to laugh...

The altered person feel dissociated into two parts: one that lives the trance from the inside, and another that looks at the trance from the outside; he/she feels he/she is in a different reality from everyday life; he/she accepts some ideas that he/she would normally reject; he/she analyzes events in a different way.

For example, we can quote Amelie's experience of trance, during an Umbanda ritual, in Brazil in 1996: she states « I saw a white horse and I believed I started to gallop. Then I felt like I was a horse. Actually I felt like I was galloping. I felt like I was flying, but really, like a bird. I felt like I became a weasel. There I saw the animal in front of me and it was strange because I was the weasel, but it had its own personality. After a few seconds, I felt I was flying and I was really reaching nirvana ».

When somebody goes into trance, he/she becomes less sensitive to the real world, and may feel transported out of him/herself. Generally, during the trance, the subject forgets himself, he breaks out of the surrounding world, and his active consciousness disappears. However, like in hypnosis, part of his/her consciousness can still react to the surrounding world; to what the shaman says (this is not a state of sleep).

When people can let go and stay aware, they experience trance like a dream, but precisely enough to be able to recount it when they wake up.

But when the subject is lucid enough, he may remember it afterwards. Indeed, if the mind is confused, if the trance is deep, when the altered person awakes, there would be a black hole, he would not remember what had happened.

For instance, among the Gnawa of Essaouira (Marocco): there was a woman who acted like a “lioness” during her trance, and when she woke up, she felt good, a bit tired, but she did not remember that she had roared all night. By the way, to prevent such post-trance amnesia, often people watch from the outside and check what is said during the trance.

The degree of unconsciousness is controversial among researchers: the trance can be more or less a waking phenomenon according to cultures and people. So some people, especially those endowed with Cartesian minds, may wonder if trance is not the result of a dramatization, a sort of theatre: we may wonder if trance is not sometimes stage-managed, if the persons in trance do not really control what they're doing...

II – Understanding the experience of trance

A - Trance as a social phenomenon

                        1 - The religious meaning given to trance

First of all, trance represents a means to access some spiritual entity. It is a physical experience meant to allow the believer to get into contact with a spiritual entity, whether evil or good. The act in itself requires believing in its effects; it is, in a sense, a self-performing belief. Indeed, is the power of belief that induces such a state or does this secondary state reinforce one’s belief? In any case, many religions and spiritualities perceive trance as a way of connecting with a religious entity. The nature of the connection is very diverse.  One may be consciously or unconsciously inhabited by a spiritual entity: it is the people surrounding the person in trance that acknowledge the religious entity’s presence. This case applies for exorcism within the Christian Church. The individual that is supposedly inhabited by Satan is not aware of the latter’s presence nor is he/she conscious during the trance.  Both the state of trance and the presence of Satan are identified by people completely aware and in a “normal” state. Therefore they are the ones who will provide a religious interpretation for the state of trance, in the case of the Christian Church. When one goes deliberately into trance, one wishes to either connect with a spirituality, which will be perceived as an element separate from oneself, or choose to be “incarnated” by a spiritual entity for the benefit of the rest of the community.

In all cases, going into trance is building an immediate relationship with the spiritual entity. Trance is a unique experience where one is able to be in presence of a spiritual entity that has chosen to be amongst humans. In a way, that spiritual entity reveals itself and may even prove its existence. It becomes perceivable to the human senses, which may explain why trance is so extraordinary in a believer’s faith or spirituality. But the fact that some religions accept trance as a means for connecting with a spiritual entity also helps us characterize forms of religiosity. Some religions adhere to the idea that a spiritual entity is accessible through the human senses, making it belong to a physical and concrete world, and not only to a purely transcendent world.

                        2 - The social background of trance

The act of trance may seem quite paradoxical. Indeed, going into trance seems to be a very personal experience. Partially or completely unconscious, the person in trance is not aware of his/her environment and is concentrated, supposedly, on his or herself. However, in order for a religious trance to be recognized as such, it must be approved by an unspoken or expressed social validation. In other words, one cannot actually go into trance, if the surrounding others are not willing to accept it. To go intro trance is be taught moves, words or sounds and even, maybe, feelings. It is interesting to note that the people that go into a specific trance do not make wild gestures or sounds but actually tend to reproduce what they may have seen from their peers. Once it is accepted that one is able to go into trance, a difficult task already, one has been accepted into a very closed circle. 

In some communities, especially within very “spiritual” tribal communities, trance goes as far as defining social hierarchy. The shaman is usually the most important and powerful individual of the community, because he directs and choreographs trances. He is the only person able to teach someone how to go into trance.

B - Trance as a therapy

Nowadays, trance is practiced for its therapeutic aspect: traditionally, it helps relieve tensions within a community on a collective basis, or to heal souls during the shaman’s trip on an individual basis. Several types of medicine have adopted these shamanic rituals to heal their patients. Indeed, trance appears to have significantly positive effects on the physical, psychological and nervous levels. Trance has become very popular in the West within the larger framework of the individual quest for well-being. At the end of the nineteenth century, scientists like Freud used hypnosis to heal. Today, psychoanalysis remains skeptical. However, it recognizes that trance is useful in gaining access to the deeper layers of the subconscious and digging up memories and traumas.        

Today, certain therapists use shamanic trance: for example, regularly adopting “trance postures” is deemed provoke a sensation of relaxation, ease, and even euphoria, i.e. pleasure. In the long term, practicing trance is said to improve the quality of your sleep, suppress depressive moods, help to concentrate, develop initiative, release creativity, be more optimistic, etc.

For example, a French man tells his story of a trance during a shamanic ritual in Peru in 2013. He also consumed ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic drug, at that time.

“I was living precise moments of my life again but as a spectator, I felt like I was able to solve all the problems I had had in life, like I could forgive myself for all my mistakes, like I could say everything I never dared to say.” “I felt like a baby in his mother’s arms discovering the world for the very first time with fresh eyes.” He speaks of a “deep connection with nature and [his] body”. 


To conclude this brief introductory exploration, trance is not as mysterious as it seemed to us initially. We have managed to analyze some of the ingredients of this esoteric practice: entering a trance implies training and special conditions; there are different levels of consciousness, according to cults and people; very few practices allow the devotee to build an immediate relationship with the spiritual entity.

The role of trance in fact transcends the religious dimension. That's why the West is increasingly interested in such practices. Trance is no longer restricted to traditional communities. After condemning trance, scholars have finally acknowledged its therapeutic virtues.

So we cannot say that trance is merely archaic, sectarian, irrational, and insane. Agnostics are already fascinated by trance; will trance perhaps have the potential to attract atheists tomorrow?

Beyond our religious differences, are you be prepared to enter trance?

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