Most people would answer that question: Of course not! I am in full possession of my faculties. I know who I am, where I am, what I am doing, and why I am doing it. I could not possibly be in a trance.
Nevertheless, I believe we all live our lives going in and out of trances; that trances are behind what is the very best and very worst in human beings; and that it is possible to become aware of our trances and gain greater control of our lives.
To illustrate, let me ask you a question. At this moment are you Ain full possession of your faculties? If you are really concentrating on this question, you are probably already slipping into a trance. As you continue to read this page you become less aware of the sounds and sights around you and you generally lose touch with your environment. If you are really focussed here, you lose track for the moment of the other roles or identities of your life--the fact that you are a "teacher," "salesman," "lover," "friend," "mother," etc. Also, if you began reading with a slight headache or some other minor discomfort, the pain may disappear as you concentrate. All in all, through the experience of reading and becoming immersed in what you are reading, you lose touch with who you are and where you are. You find it hard to gauge the passage of time. You don't notice your body. You lose track of your relationships and your surroundings. These are typical features of the state called "trance."
This "reading trance" is so commonplace it escapes notice. Yet it can be a truly engulfing experience. As you become progressively more absorbed in reading, your trance could become so profound that you would fail to notice important things--such as the fact that you have reached your subway stop or that the pot is boiling on the stove.
But if something suddenly shocks you back to "reality"--if the subway lurches unexpectedly or you spill coffee on your lap, you snap out of your trance. Your attention again broadens to include a wider spectrum of impressions. You are once more aware of the place, the time, your body, the environment. You are awake from your reading trance.
This "reading trance" is just an example of a multitude of trances. Taken together, the trances of everyday life form the fabric of human existence. Their effects are important. They can enhance our experiences, but they can also rob us of freedom and fulfilment.
I noticed the couple as I entered the restaurant. They were engaged in a quiet but intense conversation as I passed their table. The suppressed passion of their dialogue continued to draw my attention as I looked over the menu. There was obviously some trouble between them, some disagreement, and their attempts to subdue the outward expression of what they were feeling paradoxically made them more obvious.
As I looked more closely, I realized there was something familiar about this situation. Each was totally focussed on the other. They noticed nothing around them. A stack of dishes could have fallen off the counter a few feet away and they would have barely heard. For them time had no meaning. An hour would be like a minute. Their usual involvement with the world was for the moment suspended. They were in a world of their own, one very different from that of their fellow diners, a place populated with powerful feelings and images, memories of the situations they were arguing about. Their reality was not the furniture, food, and people of this restaurant, it was the world of their emotional involvement and the images that accompanied it. Yet their reality was every bit as vivid to them as his meal was to the man beginning to eat at the next table. The couple's reality was their highly charged relationship, and at the moment they were immersed in one of the most common and most overpowering kinds of trance that human beings experience: the relational trance.
Trance is as old as the human race. Even its most recently devised version, hypnotic trance, has been with us for more than two hundred years. Although there has always been controversy about what trance is, you probably will not find a better definition than that given by Webster's dictionary: "a state of profound abstraction or absorption." With a slight modification, this definition is perfect. Let us call trance Aa state of profound abstraction and absorption. When we define trance this way, we can see that all of the things that have been called trance over the ages are included. In the old days the ecstatic condition of the seer or sibyl was recognized as a trance. So was the profound absorption of the monk in meditation. Trance was identified in the comatose state of the mesmerized surgical patient, about to undergo a painless operation. In everyday life, trance is used to characterize the fixed attention of fascination and the glazed absence of the daydreamer. Stage magicians induce a suggestible state for purposes of entertainment, and medical experimenters speak of trance in regard to their hypnotized subjects. These and many more instances of trance can be grouped under the definition of trance I am proposing. In fact, with this simple description, for the first time we have a unified theory of trance. In what follows, I will spell out how trance, understood in this way, can be found everywhere in life.
What about the couple in the restaurant? It is easy to see that they qualify. They are profoundly abstracted or cut off from what is going on around them, and just as profoundly absorbed in each other. Using this couple as a starting point, we can call trance a state in which a person is absorbed in one thing and oblivious to everything else.
There are some striking features that characterize trance. One is seeing things that are not there--positive hallucination. Another is not seeing things that are there--negative hallucination. Also a person in trance can have a distorted experience of time. Time can stretch out so that minutes seem like hours. Or it can speed up so that hours seem like minutes. All of these things appeared to be happening to the couple in their trance. They were unable to see (or hear) things that were right in front of them. Their reality was populated by vivid impressions of situations and people at the basis of their disagreement, and no one around them could see those images. And I am quite certain that if someone were to ask them to judge the passage of time at the end of their argument, they would have failed miserably.
There are other features that go along with trance, and I will get to them later. For now I would like to say something about the expression "relational trance." I believe there are a number of different kinds of trance. One of them involves being absorbed in one's feelings and thoughts about another person. That kind of absorption, with its accompanying abstraction from everything else, is what I call relational trance. Other kinds of trance are equally common in our lives. Let me give an example.
Dan is a painter. He always paints in the same place: a studio he has designed for the purpose. When he enters his studio and begins to prepare his painting materials, he finds himself becoming very meditative. He forgets about whatever he had been involved in before and his mind fills up with thoughts about the painting he is currently working on. Even before he puts his brush to the canvas, he is imagining himself mixing a colour, choosing a brush, applying the paint. With each step, he becomes more and more lost in the process of planning and doing the painting.
Like the couple in the restaurant, Dan fails to hear extraneous sounds. Nothing seems to penetrate his senses except what has to do with the painting. As images fill his mind and he becomes more and more engrossed in the painting process, he loses all track of time. A whole afternoon can go by without his noting. The only indication of passing time that registers is the change in the light as the afternoon grows late--and he is aware of that only because of its effect on what he is doing.
Dan tells me if he begins painting with a headache or if his bursitis is acting up, he loses awareness of the pain as he focuses on his work. He also speaks of another peculiarity--one having to do with memory. After he has finished for the day and is relaxing with a friend over a cup of coffee, he can remember very little of what he did while painting. If his friend inquires about the thought processes that led to this or that decision about his painting, or asks about the different alternatives he considered when choosing a paint, Dan is at a loss to reconstruct them. In treatises on trance this is usually called amnesia. Yet when Dan continues his work the next day, all his thoughts and decisions about painting return to him in vivid detail and he cannot imagine how he could have forgotten them.
Without realizing it, Dan is utilizing a trance state when he paints. Each day, in the familiar, well designed setting, he eases himself into a state of consciousness that allows him to work with an effective and creative concentration. Dan's "painting trance" immerses him in a well-defined project or situation and for that reason, I call it a situational trance.
Dan's situational trance shows a number of features identical to the restaurant couple's relational trance--and a few others besides. In addition to positive and negative hallucinations and time distortion, Dan also experiences another characteristic of trance--analgesia, or the inability to feel pain. This is a quality that some dentists use when they hypnotize people to bring about painless dental work. Analgesia is a much more common feature of daily-life experiences than most realize.
Trances are not always due to involvements outside ourselves. Sometimes a trance occurs when we turn inward and become completely absorbed in our own thoughts. This is what I call an inner-mind trance. Let me give you an example. One beautiful June day I had been working in my office and at lunchtime decided to walk the six blocks to a restaurant. I was delighted to get out into the sunny weather, and it was my full intention to enjoy the beautiful landscape as I strolled.
But then I started thinking, "How am I going to begin this book on trances in daily life that I have been planning?" My mind began to delve into my ideas for the book, turning them over like shovels full of earth in a spring garden. I walked, but I did not think about it and hardly knew where I was going. I saw nothing of the beauty around me. I barely heard the traffic rushing by me and other pedestrians made no impression on me at all.
Suddenly I realized that I had walked two blocks and had taken in nothing of my surroundings, so immersed was I in my inner environment. I mentally shook myself back to the present and reproached myself for losing the opportunity to enjoy the day. With new resolution, I moved on, feeling the breeze, seeing the sights. But in less than a minute it was all gone again. I was once more walking the inner landscape of my thoughts about the book, while my body, little more than a robot, trudged through the outer.
After another two blocks I stopped. I could hardly believe it--I had done it again. By now it was becoming amusing. Despite my best efforts I could not stop myself from sliding into my inner landscape. I recognized the irony in the situation. I was thinking about issues concerning trance in everyday life, and in the process was repeatedly and contrary to my wishes falling into just one of those trances. I was the helpless captive of my own inner-mind trance.
By now it had become clear to me that I would have to include this experience in the book, so when I arrived at the restaurant, I began to write it all down. Also, the whole thing was becoming something of an experiment that I could both experience and at the same time observe. Sitting in the restaurant and writing, I noticed that the world around me dissolved and reconstituted as I turned my attention to writing and withdrew it again. This building, these people, faded in and out as my reality shifted from the outer to the inner world and back. The experience I describe here is certainly not an unusual one. Most people will be able to think of similar occurrences in their own lives. But usually the experience is not identified as a trance.
American psychologist Boris Sidis wrote of a striking instance of a trance that was not limited to one person, but affected a whole group. He cited the memoirs of Russian writer and journalist Ivan Ivanovich Panaev, describing the riots of military colonists in Russia in 1831. Panaev recounted that in the course of some of the hardest fighting, he came across a corporal lying in the street, crying bitterly. When Panaev asked why he was crying, the young soldier said it was because down the street, a mob was trying to kill his beloved commander, Sokolov. Panaev suggested that the corporal stop crying and go to his leader's aid. A little later, when Panaev himself brought soldiers to help Sokolov, he was astonished to see that the corporal had joined the mob and was beating Sokolov with a club. When Panaev asked what on earth he was doing, the young man replied: AEveryone else is doing it. Why shouldn't I?
Immersed in the energy of the mob, the corporal had totally given up his own individuality and control of his own mind. His normal perception of reality had disappeared, and he was locked into the thinking and reality of the mob. The mob possessed a corporate mind that overwhelmed the personal views of all who came under its sway. The "group mind" of the rioters was so strong that even the soldier, who was sincerely devoted to his commander, could not resist it. He was plunged into a group-mind trance in which he was absorbed in the thought and emotion of the group and out of touch with reality as he normally knew it.
Group-mind trance does not occur only in highly charged temporary gatherings, such as riots or lynch mobs. Group-mind trance is a part of the everyday life of each one of us. We belong to various kinds of groups--families, work groups, churches, and other organizations. Each has its own group mind that entrances us, perhaps more subtly than a lynch mob, but every bit as effectively. And in the group-mind trance, we experience all the features of other trance states.
Group-mind trances give us a basis for understanding the macrotrance of culture. We could think of group-mind trances as existing on a spectrum from the family on one end to culture on the other. Culture is the group-mind trance of a whole people, and because it is so pervasive, it remains largely invisible to those who are held in its sway.
The influence of group-mind trances cannot be overestimated. I will be talking about this in greater detail in a later chapter. In the meantime, let me summarize what I have been saying about trance.
There are four main ways that we can be absorbed in something and oblivious to everything else--four main kinds of trance. We experience these four trances every day of our lives. For the sake of convenience, I have given the four trances a name and a number (see Figure 1).
In the relational trance (Trance 1) one person is absorbed in another and oblivious to other matters. Trance 1 operates in everything from concern for a friend to sickening worry about a loved one, from annoyance with a co-worker to loathing for a sadistic abuser, from flirtation to lovemaking, from interest to obsession.
Situational trance (Trance 2) involves immersion in an activity, project, work, or enterprise to the exclusion of other interests. As a rule, the more engrossed you are in the situation, the better you do. People who are successful with their projects tend to be those who are capable of deep situational trance. Examples of situational trance are typing a letter, threading a needle, watching a play, addressing a staff meeting, performing a dance, and writing a book.
Inner-mind trance (Trance 3) occurs when attention is withdrawn from the concerns of the external world and focussed on images of the inner mind (the internal world). Hypnosis and meditation are examples of inner-mind trance, but they are not the ones most commonly experienced. Dreaming is an inner-mind trance that occurs every day, although we may not always remember that we have dreamed. In dreaming, the external world is totally blotted out and images of the inner mind dominate completely. For that reason it is the most profound inner-mind trance that we can have. Other examples of common inner-mind trances include driving while preoccupied, being "lost in thought," and daydreaming.
The trance that is least recognized but very significant in our lives is group-mind trance (Trance 4). Here the individual becomes a carrier of the values and drives that characterize the group as a whole. While immersed in the group mind, people may think and act in ways that are totally out of character with how they are when separate. Group-mind trance can occur in connection with such groups as one's family, church, or club; at sports events, rock concerts, tenants' meetings, and political conventions; or when involved with the staff at work or friends at a gathering. Group-mind trance forms a bridge to cultural trance, which may be thought of as a group-mind trance on the level of a whole people.
Trance involves focus on one thing and a corresponding withdrawal of attention from another. For that reason, trance admits of degrees. A person may focus so intently on something that he or she has virtually no awareness of anything else. That is a deep trance. On the other hand, someone may be occupied with one thing but maintain a moderate degree of awareness of other things. That is a light trance. Between these two extremes there is every possible degree of absorption/abstraction--every degree of trance.
Absorption, immersion, focussing, being occupied with--these are ways of describing how our attention can fix itself on something. Being able to concentrate intently is a gift, a natural ability that has many benefits. It allows us to take in a lecture or engage in deep conversation. We need it to be aware of an infant's subtle communication. Absorption is crucial when climbing a rock face and allows an athlete to win a game of tennis..
Abstraction, obliviousness, unawareness--these expressions show the other side of the coin of trance. They describe a withdrawal of attention, a loosening of mental connection with something. The ability to be unaware is also a gift. If we were aware of everything in our experience or our environment all at once, life would become intolerable. If, as I walked down the street, I were aware of the meanings of the expressions on every face, paid attention to every sound, and examined every aspect of my body's movements, I would quickly reach overload. If I were to conjure up all my worries, ponder all my obligations, think about all my relationships, recall all of my memories, survey all my knowledge--if I were engaged simultaneously in all these awarenesses, I would be overwhelmed and paralysed. It is important to be able to block out, to censor, to limit my awareness, to not think about things, and we do it all the time.
Both of these aspects of trance, absorption and abstraction, go together very nicely, for the greater my absorption in one thing, the greater my abstraction from the rest. As my absorption/abstraction increases and my trance becomes more profound, some peculiar things happen--things that deeply affect my experience.
Here are certain features that often accompany trance states. These features have been discussed at some length in books about hypnosis, but in fact they apply to all types of trance. They may not all be present in every trance we experience, but they occur more frequently than we might expect.
Positive and Negative Hallucinations
One of the most striking aspects of trance is the creation of hallucinations. A hallucination is anything that is perceived by the entranced person but not by other people. If, for example, I see a dog lying in the middle of the living room floor but nobody else in the room sees it, it is a hallucination.
But many hallucinations are not so obvious. That is because we have come to take the experience of hallucinations for granted in our everyday lives. For instance, if I am preoccupied with a particular person, I may mistakenly believe I see that person in a crowd as I walk down the street. Then when I "look closer," I see that I was "only imagining it." This is a hallucination, but because it is such a common experience, it does not upset me to have it.
There are two kinds of hallucinations, positive and negative. These labels have nothing to do with good and bad. A positive hallucination is the perception of something that is not there. A negative hallucination means not seeing something that is there.
Hallucinations can involve any of the senses. I can hallucinate seeing something, hearing something, smelling something, feeling something, etc. These kinds of things happen to us all the time. If I smell smoke when there is none, that's a positive hallucination. The same is true if I hear an imaginary prowler in the house or feel a non-existent insect is crawling down my arm. On the other hand, I am subject to a negative hallucinations when I cannot see the jar of mustard when it is right in front of me in the refrigerator, or when I do not hearing my name called when I am engrossed in a book.
The last example clearly involves a trance, as I described it in the introduction to this book. The trances of everyday life involve all kinds of hallucinations, positive and negative. The couple in the restaurant experienced both. They could not hear the conversations and noises around them (negative hallucinations) and they were engrossed in private mental images that were highly charged emotionally (positive hallucinations). The painter, Dan, could clearly envision his completed work (positive hallucination), but was oblivious to neighbourhood noises (negative hallucination).
Hallucinations can involve more than a simple sensation. They can include complexities of feeling and value judgments that influence the way the hallucination is experienced. The psychotically obsessed fan perceives the movie star as being madly in love with him. The guilty child sees reproach in his mother's face, although she does not yet realize that he has broken the vase. The mother of the incested child does not see the telltale bruises and hopeless eyes of her daughter. The loyal parishioner does not see the staggering steps of his inebriated priest. These examples reveal that relational trances are particularly riddled with complex hallucinations.
When we leave a trance state we can experience "amnesia" afterward for what had occurred in the trance. This lack of memory is quite common. The painter, Dan, remarked that when he was relaxing after a day of painting, he often could not recall thoughts he'd had while painting. He also noted that when he returned to painting the next day, he could remember the previous day's thoughts very well. Why does trance amnesia occur? And why does it disappear when the person is once again entranced?
About thirty years ago, a fascinating discovery was made about how we remember: if you learn a piece of information while in a particular state of consciousness, you can best recall that information when you return to the same state of consciousness. This means, for example, that if someone were given a telephone number while drinking at a party but cannot remember it the next day, he is likely to be able to recall the number if he again has a few drinks. The memory of the number is keyed to the intoxicated state. This is called "state-related learning," producing "state-related memory."
But this does not just apply to chemically altered states of consciousness. It applies equally to the various states of consciousness we go through in ordinary daily life. Let me give you an example.
I am a psychotherapist and I see clients in a quiet, comfortable office. In the course of my work with a person, he or she will give me a great deal of information. I find that when sitting in a session with a client, I can easily recall details that they mentioned six months, a year, or even several years before. The reason is that each time I begin a session I go into a particular state of consciousness--let's call it my psychotherapy state. That state is defined by the familiar, comfortable surroundings, the readiness to listen to the person I am with, the expectation that I will have responses that will be therapeutically useful, and so forth. Each time I go into that state, it is quite easy to recall things that a person had told me when I was in that state before--even long before. That is because remembering is "state-related."
But suppose I saw a client, "Jim," for a session in the morning and then in the afternoon, had a chance encounter with him in a nearby coffee shop. And suppose he were to sit down at my table and ask me about something that occurred in the morning session--let us say, why I made a certain comment about a situation he described. The truth is that I am likely to be at a loss for an answer. I might find it impossible to recall the situation he had described or my comment about it, even though all this had occurred a scant few hours before. Now this memory lapse is not due to dying brain cells or simple stupidity. It occurs because in the coffee shop, I am in a state of consciousness so different from my psychotherapy state that I cannot retrieve the information. My state-related learning will only return if I can get myself back into my psychotherapy state.
Now maybe I can actually do that. Maybe I can somehow bring back my psychotherapy state on the spot and regain the information I need. I believe that we often do exactly that. Without realizing what we are doing, we use subtle tricks to bring back the "mood" of the situation in which we first absorbed the information. In this case, I try to reconnect with my psychotherapy state of the morning by picturing where Jim was sitting in my office, recalling how I felt as he spoke, reconstructing Jim's emotional state at the time, and so on. Then it comes back to me. The memory of the session reconstitutes itself, and I can respond to his question.
Difficulties with memory are often simply difficulties in returning to the state in which the information was received. Students are sometimes stymied by this problem, concluding wrongly that their memory is no good. What they usually need is not to learn new and improved methods of memorization, but rather methods for regaining the appropriate state of consciousness.
It is now quite clear why trance amnesia occurs. Each trance constitutes a separate state of consciousness. When I leave a particular trance, I will have problems retrieving what happened during that trance. When I return to that trance, the retrieval problem disappears. Trance amnesia is simply a demonstration of state-related memory.
When Dan was painting, he would lose all track of time. Several hours could go by without his noticing it. People engaged in intense conversations (e.g., the couple in the restaurant) similarly experience a kind of "compressing" of time. This time compression is a common characteristic of trance. The opposite experience--time expansion--can also occur. A dream that takes less than a minute of real time can lead the dreamer through a complex series of experiences that seem to last several years. Those who use meditation for problem solving may explore the facets of a problem, considering alternate solutions, and arriving at a decision in a subjective time that seems like hours, but in fact lasts only a few minutes.
Time compression and time expansion in trance states are simply special instances of the relativity of time in human life. An enjoyable party is over before you know it. On the other hand, parents on a car trip with children are well aware of how long a very few minutes can seem when they are trying to find a rest room for an urgent youngster.
Trance can affect the body in many ways. Some have to do with sensation--particularly pain. Dan said if he began painting with some kind of pain (headache, bursitis) it would fade away as he got more and more deeply absorbed in what he was doing. The reduction or removal of pain during a trance can be quite startling. A person can begin a session of lovemaking (one of the most powerful relational trances) with a rather severe pain (e.g., headache, stomach ache) and lose all awareness of that pain as the lovemaking proceeds, only to find it returns immediately and in full force after orgasm. With trance it is also possible to temporarily lose all feeling in the body, or, on the other hand, to develop a heightened sensitivity to sensation. Strength too can be affected, and entranced people have been known to lift weights far beyond their normal capacity. Trance can also affect basic functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure. There is even evidence that the immune system can be enhanced by trance.
In order to make sense of the world we live in, we are constantly projecting a unity and meaning onto it. We pick and choose among the impressions reaching us, and we make our choices largely according to past experience. This is particularly true with cultural trance. Our culture teaches us what to see and how to see it. Our culture at once focuses our attention and censors our perception. Other factors also affect how we perceive the world. These derive from group-mind influences in our lives and the unique experiences we have as individuals.
When we perceive the world in our limited ways, we create a reality for ourselves. This subjectively formed reality, for good or ill, gives cohesion to our experience. To avoid a useless debate about what is reality or what is "real", let me say that the trance always creates a "meaningful reality" for the entranced individual. In the consciousness of those involved, only certain things are charged with meaning. Everything else lacks significance and for all practical purposes fades from existence.
Meaningful reality is determined by the individual and the situation. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that we are all living in much the same meaningful reality. Two friends sitting side by side at a party can be living in two entirely different meaningful realities. Matt is happy, relaxed, optimistic. He has just come from work where he closed a deal that is going to net him a lot of prestige and a considerable amount of money. He views his friends at the party through an aura of good feeling. They are interesting, stimulating, a delight. He engages them with enthusiasm and is energetically involved with each one, as his excess of good humour carries him through the evening.
Next to him is Peggy whose marriage is breaking up. She and her husband have just had another one of their "talks," full of bitterness about their past and pessimism about their future. To Peggy the world looks dull and grey. She talks with her friends without energy. She doesn't see humour in their jokes; she has no real interest in what they are saying. Each smiling face makes her feel oddly sad. Each happy couple is a reminder of her misery and increases her depression. Matt and Peggy do not inhabit the same meaningful reality at all. And for one of them to bridge to that of the other would be very difficult indeed.
It is natural that our meaningful reality shift as our trances shift. Since trances are an integral part of ordinary living, we can expect a lot of reality shifting in the course of a day. Most of us have come to accept this and are not alarmed when it occurs, even if we may not be too happy about the state we have shifted to. It seems to me that having a flexible attitude about meaningful reality in this sense is a sign of mental health.
It has long been known that human beings are suggestible creatures. A child is going to sleep in the darkness. He sees a bogey man there across the room, looking at him, waiting to pounce. The rest of that child's world shrinks to nothing. He calls out in terror. When his mother arrives and turns on the light, he sees there is nothing there but a shirt draped over a chair. The meaningful reality that had dominated his existence for a few minutes is suddenly gone.
We tend to think of suggestibility as belonging to children or attached to hypnosis; but the truth is that it is an intrinsic part of daily human life. From birth we are told how the world is and how we should feel about it. Those suggestions have become a part of our being. We cannot easily isolate them and see how we are being influenced, so we mistakenly believe that we have some objective view of the world, garnered from some unsullied perspective.
We live our lives in the context of a meaningful reality that is reality-as-we-see-it, not absolute reality. We have no way of knowing a world of absolute reality. We give our world its meanings, its value, its shapes, its colour, its life. If it is alive for us--as the shirt was alive for the boy in his bedroom--then for all practical purposes it is alive.
How do we determine what is real? It all depends on our point of view. When the mother turned on the light, the boy made a correction to his reality. But did he then end up with the absolutely "true" view of reality? Is there such a thing as an absolutely Atrue view of reality? I don't think so. When looking at the experiences of Matt and Peggy at the party, it was striking how different their meaningful realities were. Was one Atrue and the other Afalse? No, just different.
Every meaningful reality is conditioned by our individual experiences and the group and cultural influences that impinge on us. If, as in the case of Matt and Peggy, the differences can be so great from person to person within the same culture, think of how different must be the meaningful realities of people who are living in different ethnic contexts, who come from different cultural traditions, or who inhabit deeply contrasting socio-economic strata in the same society. Here the meaningful realities can be so divergent that individuals may not understand each other at all. I'll say more about this in the chapter on cultural trance.
Groups form their own meaningful reality. Each family, for instance, has its own way of looking at things--with its perceptual clarity and its distortions--and its own sense of what is important. All of this contributes to a unique meaningful reality. The same is true of other groups. What is real will vary greatly from group to group according to the combination of experiential factors that have gone into the creation of that group.
The meaningful reality of the group comes out of the group-mind trance that focuses its members on a particular set of experiences, to the exclusion of others. One group's meaningful reality may seem very strange to the members of another group. This does not necessarily mean that one reality is right and the other wrong--although there is a strong temptation to see it that way.
The meaningful reality of a group maintains itself through the members continually reinforcing the group perception for each other. They encourage each other to think the same way and cement their solidarity in a variety of ways--conscious and unconscious. The result is consensus reality, an implicit agreement about what is real. A group's meaningful reality is consensus reality.
Consensus reality makes communication possible, for we can only communicate to the extent that we possess common images. We badly need consensus reality to create a serviceable common background against which the tension of diverse meaningful realities on the individual reality can exist without creating chaos. We develop a comfortable feeling of inhabiting the same world with our fellow group members. We can take it for granted that we share with each other the same basic practical principles for daily living.
Consensus reality provides a sense of security. This is accomplished at a certain cost. Claiming to have an exclusive proprietorship over what is real and true, the culture offers little opportunity to explore what is unfamiliar. Those who introduce novel ideas into the culture tend to be pushed to the periphery. In this way, the culture's consensus reality changes very slowly.
Trances are central in our experience of everyday life and help make our lives more effective in many ways. The problem is that trances can also impede our functioning or block our enjoyment of life. This is because trances involve both abstraction and absorption.
The absorption part of the absorption/abstraction duality of trance has many advantages. In situational trances, absorption allows the kind of focus that is needed to make things happen. The more a baseball player concentrates on the game, the more effective he will be. Many pitchers, for instance, are at their very best when they are so focussed on the catcher and the next pitch that nothing else intrudes on their attention. These pitchers go through a series of ritualized movements before each pitch (e.g., pull down the brim of the cap, rub the glove on the right shoulder, and kick the dirt with the left foot) to induce this profound situational trance. And it is evident in the fixed and semiglazed appearance of their eyes and cataleptic (pliantly rigid) state of their muscles when they are about to pitch. If something interrupts that state (if, for instance, the umpire calls time out just before the pitch), the trance is broken, the muscles loosen, the eyes once more move about at random, and the pitcher must again go through the ritual actions that will reinduce the trance.
Relational trances also profit from absorption. The mother's deep immersion in the care of her infant produces all kinds of benefits. An involved mother reads the meanings of different kinds of crying and responds appropriately. She can tell what each facial expression means and read the message in the different postures the child assumes. Her concentration helps her understand how to convey things to the child and allows her to grasp his or her own early attempts to communicate.
Absorption in thoughts or images of the inner world, the very essence of inner-mind trances, can be very valuable. A skilled therapist can help a hypnotized person recover powerful repressed memories. Totally uninvolved with the external world, the hypnotized person explores the emotions, images, and sensations of another time. In deep hypnotic trance, immersion in that inner reality can be so complete that everything else fades. The remembered event becomes so real that the individual experiences the memory as though it were happening right now. All the original sensations and emotions return with full force. Memory recovery of this kind can have immense therapeutic benefit.
Other inner-mind trances occur spontaneously and without planning. A person may go into an abstracted or "absent-minded" state when there is some vexing problem that has to be solved. While in that state, the person's awareness of what is going on around him dims considerably. When the problem is solved, the person returns to normal awareness.
Group-mind trances can also have beneficial effects. Wrapped up in the group-mind trance of the spectators at a basketball game, the fan enjoys the elation of good play and the satisfaction of victory. A volunteer fund raiser for the Red Cross partakes of the prestige of that organization when speaking to prospective donors. With group-mind trances in general, the individual participates in the character and energy of the group with which he or she is connected. When that character is positive and constructive, it confers that quality on the member.
From this it is clear that in all four trances, absorption can benefit the entranced person. However, there is also a negative aspect of the absorption/abstraction duality of trance: a person may be so deeply absorbed in something that he or she loses touch with an important aspect of reality.
Someone who becomes obsessed with another person suffers from this kind of imbalance. The obsessed person's awareness narrows perilously, so that he or she cannot see the object of the obsession in the context of broader reality. Common sense goes by the boards and the obsessed person may behave bizarrely. The object of the obsession is invested with extreme qualities (extremely good or extremely bad), and no amount of persuasion can change this view. In a failed relationship, for example, a man who does not want the separation may become obsessed with his former partner, calling her and confronting her at every opportunity. All other considerations disappear and he spends every moment thinking about her and planning ways to get her back. A dangerous relational trance of this kind may last for weeks, months, or even years. Families sometimes experience the dark side of situational trances. A father may become so involved in his work that he does not notice his children and their needs. Even when at home, he may remain in his work trance to such an extent that the children eventually give up expecting anything from him.
A manager may become so involved in financial worries that he cannot see the dissatisfaction developing among his staff. His excessive focus on the mechanics of the business makes him blind to his crucial personnel problems.
An inner-mind trance, too, can pull a person away from involvement with other important aspects of life. A student who spends time daydreaming rather than studying sabotages his own educational goals. His inner-mind trances are very enticing because he populates them with pleasant images of his own making, but in the trance he loses touch with his broader goals.
My "book-plotting" trance illustrates both advantages and disadvantages of inner-mind trances. It helped me in the process of putting the book together, but it took me away from what I really wanted to do at that moment: enjoy my walk.
The isolated and inturned life of the cult is a good example of an unbalanced group-mind trance. The individual is totally engaged in the thinking and concerns of the group and sees outside views as threatening. The more powerful the cult's group-mind trance, the more possible it becomes for the cult to misuse its members. Members give themselves over to the thinking of the group without question and so retain little ability to resist abusive treatment.
Life is a web of trances, ranging from the light to the deep. Often they are layered or nested one within the other. The devotee in love with the cult leader is lost in a powerful relational trance while enmeshed in the group-mind trance of the cult. The abused child is likewise caught in the family group mind while living in a relational trance of fear of his father and periodically escaping into the inner-mind trance of fantasy. The therapist is absorbed in the situational trance of the psychotherapy session, while at the same time he is in a relational trance with his client.
It is my contention that we are constantly going in and out of trances of various kinds, that human life itself is a tapestry of trances. In the course of every day, our concentration switches from this person to that project to this group situation to that inner preoccupation. These trances guarantee a certain narrowness of life. Our mental focus continually narrows and widens again as we move through these trances. Shifting from one focus to another, we dismiss what we have just seen in order to take in what is next. As a result, most of the time we are very limited in our mental perspectives.
We constantly experience the phenomena of trance--the amnesias, the hallucinations, the time distortions. We create our peculiar meaningful realities and then naively assume that we each live in the same world. All of this is built into ordinary experience, and precisely because it is so much a part of life, we do not have the ability to recognize it for what it is.
When you get to know how trances work in our lives, one painful fact becomes clear: we live our lives piecemeal. At any moment we only have part of the story--the limited view of the entranced mind. There doesn't seem to be any way around this, so it would be easy to come to a pessimistic conclusion about our ability to ever solve the important problems of life. Surely solutions to the great questions of our existence depend on being able gain the widest possible perspective on things. But if we are so mired in our multitude of microtrances, and trapped in the blindness of our cultural macrotrance, how can that ever be achieved?
There is a way. It depends on attaining what I call Trance Zero. Trance Zero is a state of being in touch with our inner guidance. Like the other four trances, Trance Zero involves absorption and abstraction--with a difference. In Trance Zero we are absorbed--absorbed in what is most appropriate at the moment. In Trance Zero we are also abstracted--abstracted from everything else--but in such a way as to be able instantly to get in touch with any new concern, should the need arise.
It's clear that our ordinary trance states cannot yield the wisdom required. Our fluctuating, limited awarenesses contain neither the information nor the perspective we need to unify our lives. Through abstraction, these states cut off our normal consciousness from the information that is essential to such a unification. No trance state can serve as the environment for dealing with the great issues.
To make this clearer, I would like to talk about our two minds--the outer mind and inner mind. The outer mind was formed to deal with life in the world. Because its orientation is practical, the outer mind focuses on the present moment with its immediacy and urgency. It is aware almost exclusively of its own concerns and tends to consider itself the totality of the individual.
The inner mind concentrates on our inner world. It is aware of a whole range of inner experiences and feels at home with them. It can take us out of the moment and immerse us in the past or project us into the future. It can put us in contact with the inner processes of the body, the labyrinths of the psyche, and the world of dreams. It is our window on the transcendent. It can give us glimpses of other dimensions and other lives. It can put us in touch with esoteric knowledge, and it can provide a pathway to what I call the Ultimate Self.
In this life the outer mind must necessarily dominate. If we are to deal effectively with the affairs of this world, we must be able to concentrate on the relevant matters at hand. If we were to be in touch with the global awareness available to the inner mind, we would be both distracted and overwhelmed. We could not carry on with the tasks, pursuits, and relationships that make up the fabric of life. The concerns of daily life must be uppermost if we are to navigate successfully in the world.
But although the outer mind must dominate, the awarenesses of the inner mind do not need to be completely excluded. They too have their place. One might even say that the task of our existence is to integrate the life of the outer mind with that of the inner. This integration must be a gradual process, for the primacy of the outer mind must not be lost.
The concept of Trance Zero assumes that we can be in touch with the world in other ways than through the conscious, thinking mind--the outer mind. Trance Zero derives from contact with the inner mind. It assumes that there exists there a dynamic source of wisdom that goes beyond anything that could be accumulated by the outer mind. It presupposes the existence of an Ultimate Self whose perception and thought transcends our ordinary awareness. Because this Ultimate Self is always active, it can monitor our lives and guide us through our everyday trances in a most creative way and can accomplish the integration of inner and outer lives.
I believe that by exploring trances and their place in human life, a door will open that leads to a more dynamic understanding of those mysterious aspects of human existence that derive from living in two worlds. We can move toward Trance Zero by introducing certain awarenesses and practising certain techniques, but most importantly, we progress toward Trance Zero by any step that we take to explore the mystery of what and who we are.
I suppose the ideal state of being would be to transcend trance completely--to be able to be absorbed in everything and abstracted from nothing, somehow to be immersed in reality in its totality. That is beyond what can be attained in this existence, for we live in a world that requires a division between the outer and the inner mind. Because we live and grow within this limitation, the next best thing is Trance Zero.
Trance Zero presupposes a tremendous faith in a reliable inner source of wisdom. It involves taking what may appear to be a huge gamble. Can I really believe that such wisdom can be found in me? Can I really trust in this hidden faculty so completely that I can deliver my life and future up to it, allowing it to guide me even when I cannot see where it is taking me?
Faith in this guidance from within is, in the last analysis, faith in something that I call the Ultimate Self. This is the self that lies beyond all my all my changing states and all my limitations. It is an ultimate presence beyond direct access. We stumble across this presence every time we say "I." Our roles, our mental states, even our personalities change, but within each of them, we say "I." And each time we say "I", we acknowledge a continuity, an agent that persists through every change. This is the final doer of all our actions, the final subject of all our verbs, and the essence of who we are. This is the Ultimate Self.
The Ultimate Self is the point at which the divine manifests in the world. As a manifestation of the divine, each human being is in touch with an infinite wisdom which is the basis for believing our inner guidance. If there is such a thing as a meaning for our lives, a sense of purpose that derives from within us, then the Ultimate Self is the author of that meaning and originates the planning involved in working toward the realization of that purpose.
In psychotherapy trance states may be used to help people explore their inner minds. The trance used is a special kind of inner mind trance. To understand the therapeutic trance, let's look more closely at the inner-mind trance.
If you close your eyes and think about something that really interests you, you are using your "inner mind." The inner mind is concerned with the inner world, the world of thought and imagination.
In ordinary daily life we deal with the outer world. This is the world of our physical and social environment. When at home, at work, or when involved with recreational activities, we are engaged with the outer world and are using the "outer mind."
But at night, when we close our eyes in sleep and dream, all of that changes. The outer world is gone completely. We have no awareness of the physical realities around us, nor of the people who may be close by. We are totally engaged in the inner world--the world of the dream. The images that populate that world are our whole reality, nothing else exists. The events that occur there can be utterly engaging. It is possible while dreaming to experience the most consuming fits of rage, the most overwhelming feelings of fear, the most uninhibited surges of lust or the most profound feelings of love. In dreams you can burn in the desert sun or shiver on a frozen lake. Dreams can display breathtaking landscapes for you or involve you in complicated plots and heartrending dramas. The dream is the most complete experience we have of the trance of the inner mind: abstraction from the outer world and absorption in the inner world.
Although the dream is the most totally encompassing and commonly experienced inner-mind trance, there are many other kinds that are familiar. Meditation, day dreaming, worrying--these are all examples of inner-mind trance. Another example of an inner-mind trance is hypnosis.
On a warm May evening in 1784, a French aristocrat name Puységur went on a stroll through his estate to try out his newly learned healing technique on the peasants. Puységur had recently returned from Paris where he had attended a series of training seminars in "animal magnetism," a healing approach taught by the German-born Franz Anton Mesmer. Anyone who practices some form of "energy healing" today would have felt quite at home in these seminars, because Mesmer instructed his students in using the hands to unblock and augment the natural healing energy of the body.
Puységur, anxious to test his healing ability, found ready subjects among his tenants. He first cured the toothaches of two women and then was called upon to try to help a man named Victor Race who was suffering from lung congestion. Puységur made the usual "passes" or sweeping hand movements over the man's body, but as he worked, something unusual happened. Victor fell into a state in which he seemed to be asleep and yet awake. Puységur dubbed this sleep-waking state "magnetic sleep." Sixty years later, it would be labelled hypnotism.
It was quickly noted that there was a special connection or "rapport" (a kind of relational trance discussing in Chapter 2) between the hypnotizer and hypnotized. The hypnotic subject was very aware of the hypnotizer and often could hear only his voice--it was even believed that through rapport the subject could read the hypnotizer's thoughts and feel his sensations. By means of rapport, the hypnotizer could set the tone of the hypnotic session and introduce ideas that would become powerful suggestions to the hypnotized subject. For instance, Victor, while hypnotized, showed himself to be extremely suggestible, and Puységur could tell him that he was at a dance or shooting in a contest and Victor would believe he was there.
Rapport should not be equated with what psychodynamic psychotherapists call transference. Rapport is a very special kind of relationship in which the hypnotizer is seen as a guide and source of security. The subject's awareness of the hypnotizer may not be particularly personal, for apart from a feeling of trust (that must be there from the beginning), the subject may not be particularly aware of the hypnotizer as a personality--with his particular dispositions. During the hypnotic trance, the hypnotizer is mainly responded to as a benevolent, helpful guide.
By contrast, transference feelings involve very specific responses to the personal characteristics of the therapist. The therapist is seen as an important person from the subject's past (e.g., mother or father), and the client's transference feelings can range from love and idealization to loathing. Transference involves some degree of unreality, since the therapist is placed in the position of that past person, despite the fact that the therapist may have little or nothing in common with that person. Transference needs to be Aworked through--seen for the distorted view that it is. Rapport does not need to be analysed or worked through.
The idea of self-hypnosis (auto-hypnosis) deserves some attention. If hypnosis is an inner-mind trance characterized by rapport, what is self-hypnosis? Self-hypnosis involves the private induction of an inner-mind trance with some element of rapport present. Some people learn self-hypnosis in their regular hypnotic sessions, and when they apply it by themselves, they have their hypnotizer or his voice in their minds, and thereby reinstate rapport. Others learn self-hypnosis from tapes. Here the hypnotizer is whoever recorded the tape and a certain amount of rapport is established with that absent person. If someone self-induces an inner-mind trance with no vestige of rapport, it should not be called hypnosis at all. It would be more accurate to consider it a type of meditation.
Although relaxation of the body often accompanies the hypnotic state, it is by no means necessary for producing it. A person can go into a very profound state of hypnosis and still experience a great deal of muscular tension. Also, a person can be very relaxed without being in an inner-mind trance. The mistaken equating of hypnosis with relaxation has led to the equally mistaken notion that hypnotic trance inductions should aim at getting the subject to relax.
Over the past one hundred and fifty years, certain phenomena have been attributed to hypnosis. Amnesia, analgesia (lack of pain), suggestibility, time distortion, hallucinations--all of these and more have been listed as characteristic of the hypnotic state. There is not doubt that these phenomena do occur, but it is a mistake to identify them too closely with hypnosis. As we have seen, the very same phenomena occur as a part of our everyday experience, when we are definitely not in the kind of inner mind state we have been talking about. Also, the phenomena are unpredictable and be lacking in any particular inner mind trance. There are those who argue that although the phenomena may occur elsewhere, they are more powerfully present in the hypnotic state than in ordinary states. They sight studies that show that suggestibility, for example, or analgesia occur more often and in a more pronounced form when hypnotized. The problem is that against those studies, one can muster an impressive array of other studies that show that there is no appreciable difference in the occurrence of the phenomena in hypnosis as compared to the Awaking state.
The fact is, there is no way to prove that the Aphenomena of hypnosis characterize the hypnotic state as opposed to any other state. Rather than seeing them as belonging to inner mind trances, we should consider that they belong to all trance states and to ordinary human experience: the phenomena of hypnosis are really the phenomena of trance in the sense that I have defined it in this book.
The fact that these phenomena can occur just as powerfully in other states also means that they cannot be used as defining characteristics of hypnosis. This takes us to the problem of the very definition of hypnosis.
I have been using the term Ahypnosis rather liberally here, and one might get the impression that everyone agrees about what the word means. This is far from the case. Although hypnotism as a systematized technique was discovered more than two hundred years ago, there is still a great deal of debate about what it is and what it can do. For my part, I simply propose that hypnotism can simply be defined as an inner-mind trance characterized by rapport.