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8. What methods of inducing altered states of conscious does your tradition have?
I consider myself a mystic in part because altered consciousness is a core component of my spiritual practice. I have written about this many times, both here, and in older, more personal blogs over the years. Answering this question with a single post now seems daunting. I can’t even answer it with a single book recommendation. Diana Paxson has a series of three books to cover the subject (the third is coming out next spring, I understand) all of which are directly relevant to my personal practices, because that’s where I started for most of this. Raven Kaldera has a whole other series, and again, that’s just addressing the Northern side of my personal practices. I am so not going to try and unpack the techniques of Umbanda and those of its various influences here.
So where does that leave me, aside from overwhelmed at the scope of the question?
I suppose I’ll go over what I, personally, do, and expand from there:
The first and for me oldest way I induce altered consciousness is so obvious it’s often overlooked: I go to sleep. The ability to work within dreams, the ability to retain what happened, are trance skills.
For waking methods, there are some repeating patterns. My learning style is visual-spatial/musical, so my methods tend to involve visualization and/or music. When searching for trance induction methods that will work for you, I highly recommend starting by gaining an understanding of how your own mind works, what your aptitudes and learning styles tend to be. Which back door key to your brain will work best depends on what kind of brain you have.
For me, the most basic form of waking trance is sitting meditation, which basically involves sitting still, letting my body relax to some degree, and then willfully focusing my mind on something. Which something depends on which kind of sitting meditation I’m doing. Measured breathing is also helpful.
For moving meditation, music may be involved, but the movement itself is the main key.
For personal Journey work, sitting meditation techniques are the beginning of the process, followed by very thorough visualization.
For guided meditation, voice is the main tool, frequently with help from a drum. Oracular trance is induced much the same way as Journey trance, but I strongly prefer to have a guide, and arguably require one in order to fully surrender to the required trance state. So part of the trance induction in that case is trust. [Edit] Ooh, I almost forgot that one of the keys to oracular trance in the manner I’ve been trained is a specific invocation – that is, poetry.
Possession Trance is where we break out all the stops. The really deep trance states that allow possession to be as full as I’m able to accept tend to involve many layers: Singing is the big one, for me, and for the groups I’ve worked in. Drumming is strongly preferred. Dancing or other repetitive movement. Somatic and sensory cues including putting on certain garments (“regalia”), tasting certain foods, smelling certain scents, holding certain objects. And yes, again, internal visualizations, and the movement of energy to make room within myself. On very, very rare occasions, I will take small doses of psychoactive chemicals other than alcohol (I rarely take in enough alcohol for the chemical to be a more significant effect than the taste of the drink).
And then there’s sex.
The key is that whatever the cues are, they’re unusual enough to not occur in those combinations in unrelated environments. Whatever all I’m doing to induce a particular trance state, I ONLY do when I’m inducing that particular trance state. So every time I do it again, it works just a little bit better than it did last time (all other factors being equal, that is, which is never actually the case).
There are methods that work for people other than me that I personally don’t use. The most obvious of these is pain. The contexts I practice in have some established patterns, and some allowance for whatever works for the individuals involved. How much of which depends on which context I’m in, of course. The Umbanda House I was in strongly disapproved of pain-based cues, especially if the induction of pain presented any risk of injury or infection. I don’t allow them in my trance rituals either, but if a congregant expressed a need for such, I would do my best to connect them with someone who has the requisite skill set to help them do so in a relatively sane, informed, risk-aware manner (sound familiar? [NSFW]). I’m not opposed to dramatic methods under special circumstances, I just require that the circumstances be appropriately tailored to the needs of the method.
Ultimately, my personal inclination is this: IF it works, AND it causes no harm, THEN I see no reason not to use it. Discussions of what causes harm can get pretty interesting, of course, but this is an area where tradition is less important to me than function.
Lon’s answer: Shifting Frames