Thursday, May 7, 2009

Places of Trance and the Everyday

There are many places one can visit within the urban environment where spirituality can be explored and consciousness expanded. Over the history of human civilisation, various rituals and practices have been employed to reach altered states of being, in an effort to develop oneself, help improve society and even to connect with the divine. Indeed some form of trance or altered state is important to most religions and hence most societies. The pursuit of altered states of consciousness or ASC is a universal trend amongst human societies, and our own present day context certainly helps to support such a claim. Although the use of types of trance in the modern Western context may not be as obvious today as it has been in centuries past, within Australia there is great pursuit of this evident within the many sporting, environmental and religious activities available in suburban life. With the aid of multiculturalism and the vast wealth of knowledge it provides, plus the accessibility we now have to information, the types of activities available that can lead to higher states of being are almost endless.

When referring to trance and altered states of consciousness, we include a multitude of different types of experience. The major ways of inducing trance as stated by Winkelman (1997) include but are not limited to auditory driving (such as drumming), extensive motor behaviour(such as dancing), fasting, sensory deprivation and stimulation, sleep and dream states and meditation. Unfortunately in our society, there seems to be a negative connotation to terms such as trance, or altered states of consciousness, most probably due to the narrow minded thinking of a secular society, but also because of misinformation in its relation to drug culture. There are those who induce altered states through the use of various drugs such as opioids or hallucinogens, and our society deems such behaviour as deviant. While similar practices have been successfully used to induce trance across many cultures, in Australia they only account for a minority of trance like experiences, and will not be explored here. The greater majority of ASC are found in our daily lives, at work, in the home and in our various recreational activities.

One of the most prevalent theories that can be found to describe trance and the everyday is that of peak experiences presented by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1964). The peak experience is a transcendence commonly characterised by an ecstatic or euphoric state, and make up the especially joyous and most exciting moments of our lives (Maslow, 1964). These are the major realisations or epiphanies many of us can experience at various times in our lives, and can be inspired by, for example, the vast beauty of a natural landscape, or intense feelings of love such as those felt by the parent of a newborn child. They may also be purposefully induced, most commonly through the ongoing practice of meditation or contemplative prayer. Maslow (1964) states that the core and realisation of every world religion has been based upon such an epiphany experienced by the prophet and relayed to the people, which demonstrates the importance peak experiences hold. Similarly, Coxhead (1985) describes these altered states of consciousness as “blissful” mystical experiences that are a common goal of many religious or spiritual practices. She states:

Although the methods may have changed with the evolution of societies, the basic element of inducement remains: somehow or other to reach out beyond the confines of ordinary reality, from transience and the ephemeral to something which lies waiting in the unknown, in the whole order of things. (Coxhead, 1985, p.56)

Coxhead (1985) goes on to demonstrate the various ways mystical experiences can come about, citing as examples the mystical experience of a prisoner of war, a woman who overdosed on insulin and the bliss achieved by a Kundalini Yoga practitioner. While peak experience and mystical experience theories account for a lot of the religious epiphanies and more intense forms of trance, there are far more subtle forms of altered states that we may all experience at some point in our daily lives, without actively pursuing them. The concept of “Flow,” proposed by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), accounts for these more subtle forms of trance. Most commonly referred to as “being in the zone,” it is a mental state of higher awareness and deep concentration. Flow comes about when fully immersed in a task, and is a feeling of full involvement, being at one with things (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Also referred to as Optimal Experience, the author defines Flow as:

...the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake. In reviewing some of the activities that consistently produce flow-such as sports, games, arts, hobbies-it becomes easier to understand what makes people happy. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 6)

Most people would recognise such a state in some of the activities in their daily lives, and the altered states of consciousness found in places of trance may well be included as forms of optimal experience.

An exploration of places of trance is a useful way of investigating these theories. There are a multitude of these in any neighbourhood such as religious services, spiritual gatherings, sporting events and other outdoor activities. One of the most popular examples of a place of trance is the multitude of Yoga studios and classes offered in many neighbourhoods. The combination of exercise, relaxation and meditation makes Yoga a particularly relevant example. The Yoga in Daily Life centre in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, is a member of the international Fellowship of Yoga in Daily Life, which was founded by His Holiness Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda, affectionately referred to as Swamiji. A beginner’s yoga class was attended to gain further insight into yoga, and its use of altered states of consciousness.

The early morning class was mixed gender and made up of adults of various ages. The Yoga Instructor guided the students through the two hour long class, starting off with a brief introduction of the basic principles of Yoga, the plan for the exercises to be carried out by the class and what was to be expected from the experience. The class included physical exercises or asanas that are designed to increase flexibility and build strength. These exercises, the students were informed, were also designed to benefit the nervous system and internal organs as well as the energy centres or chakras and the mind. Relaxation techniques, including breathing exercises or pranayam are utilised in class, as well as meditation practices. The class started with a relaxing warm-up using pranayam, then some light asanas which gradually increased in difficulty. After the pranayam and asanas, the instructor guided a brief meditation which focused on an imaginary light on the top of each student's head.

Students of the class left with a feeling of inner peace, and were advised by the instructor at the conclusion of the lesson to carry this feeling with them throughout the day. They were told to practice these techniques in their own home as often as possible, and that further classes and practice would lead to greater benefits for their health and well-being. To most participants, this practice may make daily life more enjoyable if not more meaningful, which seems to be the intended function of the activity. The feeling of inner-peace brought about by the yoga class, this slightly altered state of consciousness, may not qualify as a peak experience, or even a mystical experience, but certainly it can be said to be an optimal experience which brings about flow. Not only does it start with Flow, but as the instructor stated, further practice leads to further benefit, and there have been many influential yogis that have attained such higher states as the peak experience described by Maslow through years of yogic practice.

In conclusion, this is just one example of a multitude of ways available to all of us of inducing altered states of consciousness in the urban neighbourhood. As long as religions and societies have existed, so have the practices and rituals that’s major function is to induce peak, mystical and optimal experiences. There are countless ways of inducing different types of trance, many of which can be found locally. Despite some of the negative connotations the term trance may possess in our society, we should all embrace the many benefits altered states of consciousness can provide.

Coxhead, Nona. Relevance of Bliss: A Contemporary Exploration of Mystic Experience, London, Wildwood House, 1985.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York, Harper Perennial, 1990.
Winkelman, Michael. Blazier, Stephen (ed.), Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour, Anthropology of religion, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997.
Maslow, Abraham. Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1964.

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