States of Trance and so-called possession form the core of many experiences which seem spiritual, mysterious and Supernatural. All through history men have thought that in trance contact could be made with an order of reality lying behind the everyday world, an order of reality with which we are not in touch in our everyday condition of mind and body.'
A dictionary definition of the word trance is “a morbid sleep, differing from natural repose in duration, in profound sensibility, etc., - the concomitant or symptom of diseases of the nervous system, particularly hysteria: catalepsy”. This definition points us straight to the connection between the 'morbid sleep' of trance in which contact with supernatural truth is thought to be made, and disorders of the human mental and physical system.
In many trance states the subject is mentally absorbed apparently unaware of the external world around him, perhaps in a condition of exultation or ecstasy; but he may continue to talk and behave in ways which make sense, though after wards he cannot remember what he said and did. It is this combination of a frightening and abnormal state of mind with comprehensible speech and behaviour that has impressed men with the notion that someone in trance is the mouthpiece of the Gods.
The same thing can happen to someone who is kicked on the head while playing football or who suffers from loss of memory after a violent shock. Some drugs, hashish, L.S.D., mescaline and the like, induce a trance state, or ecstatic state not necessarily involving loss of memory. Trance states can also occur as a result of tumours of the brain or other brain injuries.
But there are also trances which are not induced by a sudden blow or shock, and although it is perfectly possible to fake a trance and people have done so, there is no doubt that genuine trance states of this sort do occur. They occur III the ecstasies of mystics or magicians, when the mind is concentrated on a powerful idea or image, of a god perhaps, and the link between the mind and the normal world seems to snap. They occur in clairvoyants and fortune tellers. And quite frequently in mediums.
Speaking In Tongues
There is also the phenomenon called possession, in which a god or spirit, which may be good or evil, is thought to have taken control of the person in trance, to speak through his mouth and act through his limbs; the person afterwards remembering nothing of what happened during the trance. The words and actions of someone possessed by a god or a spirit naturally carry considerable weight with an audience which believes them to be the words and actions of the god or spirit itself.
All over the world and at all times, including the present day, trances have served to inculcate or fortify a variety of beliefs. In
before the coming of the Communists, important decisions of policy were
generally taken by the Dalai Lama and his advisers only after they had
consulted the state oracle. The oracle was a young man who went into a trance
and spoke strange words, which the priests interpreted. Hundreds of years
before, the oracle of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was
a woman who went into trance. Through her mouth, it was believed, the god
himself answered the questions put to him. Although the answers were famous for
being riddling, obscure and frequently misleading, many important decisions
were made by Greek politicians only after consulting the oracle and in an
attempt to follow its advice.
Some of the early Christians, including
experienced ecstatic trance states and the Church festival of Pentecost
(Whitsun) still commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost to the apostles.
There was the sound of great rushing wind, they saw what appeared to be cloven
tongues of fire and they began to speak in foreign languages which they had
never learned. This 'speaking in tongues' is a valued experience today among
some groups of Christians who believe that it is a sign of contact with God.
Trance states are seen very commonly in
Africa. During initiation
ceremonies at puberty, states of trance are induced in boys and girls who
experience a collapse or 'little death' after being exposed to rhythmic drumming,
exhausting dancing, the pain of circumcision and the display to them of masks
of the supposed tribal spirits. These spirits may talk to them through the
mouths of witch-doctors who are themselves in states of trance and who wear
the grotesque and frightening masks of the spirits they represent.
Real Healing Value
It is an old belief, still prevalent in some parts of the world that illness is caused by possession. Either the disease is itself an evil spirit which has seized the unfortunate patient in its grip, or it has been brought by an evil being which has taken hold of him. To cure him, the evil spirit must be cast out. The patient if often put into a trance, again through rhythmic dancing and singing, and the healer may also go into trance. Unknown to the patient, the evil spirit talks through his mouth telling the medicine-man why it has possessed the patient - perhaps because of some moral lapse on his part or as the result of a spell which an enemy has put on him. The medicine man then tries' to expel the spirit from the patient and, If he is successful, the patient emerges from his ~ mentally or physically healed.
Cures of this type do work in practice. From a psychiatrist's point of view, what happens is that in trance the patient is able to confess his sins and pour out his anxieties and problems in the same way as a patient on a Western psychotherapist's couch, though because he is in trance the African patient is not conscious of what he is saying and does not remember it afterwards. This process has real value for a variety of reasons, one of which is the patient's responding to suggestion and fully believing that the spirit which possessed him has been driven out.
Most of us in the West do not experience full-scale trance or possession at firsthand but we sometimes come close to it. Many people who went to hear Hitler speak - the effects of his hypnotic ranting reinforced by music, ceremonial, the response of a great crowd - were carried out of themselves into an uncritical state of mind in which they felt that he was almost a divine being. Enthusiastic listeners to the Beatles have been known to go into states akin to trance, with or without temporary loss of consciousness, when the music seems to take on a richness of significance of which the listener is powerfully aware though he cannot describe it in words. Lovers of classical music are not immune from the same effect. The state which we commonly call' being 'entranced', held in the grip of an experience of immeasurable beauty, immeasurable meaning, induced by works of art or by splendours of landscape, is the nearest approach to the true trance state which most of us ever make.
The Validity of Trance
There will always be arguments about trance. Some people believe that the medium in trance, the person possessed by a spirit, the speaker in tongues, the mystic in ecstasy, the art-lover entranced, may be truly in touch with a reality beyond the normal world, Others believe that trance is a splitting of the field of consciousness and . that the subject is not in touch with any mysterious or greater reality but is expressing beliefs, ideas, hopes or fears which he himself unconsciously holds or which are part of the general currency of his society.
The person in trance generally retains some vague awareness of his surroundings. He rarely falls and hurts himself and he generally talks of things which he knows about. He may in fact exhibit a sharper perception and awareness of what is going on around him than in his normal conscious state, so that in trance he gives the impression of having an enhanced power to read other men's minds, to anaylse their present actions and prophesy their future ones. Strange tongues are spoken in trance but there is no completely proven instance of a language being spoken in trance by someone who was totally unacquainted with it before-hand. Subconscious forgotten memories can rise to the surface in trance: facts once known and languages once learned can be brought back by an individual who has little or no recollection of them in his normal state.
I do not myself believe that in states of trance gods ever speak to men. Trance is usually a state of self- hypnosis, through which all sorts of dubious beliefs can be implanted and maintained. Fortunes are not made because the subject of a trance is able to predict something readily checkable and profitable, the movements of prices on the Stock Exchange or the winners of horse-races. But trance states have been used through the ages, and will continue to be used, to prop up belief in a great variety of gods, spirits, ghosts and the rest. Those who have experienced trance themselves can rarely be convinced that something supernatural has not happened to them, because autosuggestibility tends to become so greatly enhanced in the
We shall know much more about trance when we know better how the human brain really works. Readers of this encyclopedia will find states of trance mentioned in connection with gods' demons, ghosts, telepathy, witches, spirit possessions, and supernatural powers of all sorts. The reader is best left to his own final judgement as to whether man is deceived or elevated to high realms of the spirit by this fascinating but complicated mechanism of the human mind.