Chapter One


Trance-Portation: Learning to Navigate the Inner
World


Chapter One: Travel Planning


A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

We are about to begin a journey. Some parts of it will be easy, filled with
the delight of discovery. You will speed along and wonder why you never found
this road before. At other times you may hit a road block or a detour and
wonder if you will ever get where you want to go. Do not lose heart. As Robert
Louis Stevenson once put it, To travel hopefully is a better thing than to
arrive, and the true success is to labor”. With time and patience, you will
find that the road itself is as interesting as its end, and the things that you
learn along the way are as rewarding as those you hoped to gain when you
began.

The Road may lead ever on and on, but unlike Bilbo, a sensible traveller
does not dash out the door with no more than a pocket handkerchief. Before we
can range freely through all the worlds we need at least a basic understanding
of the geography, and as we set out to explore it, a realistic understanding of
our resources and abilities.

To make progress, you will need to work through all the chapters and
exercises in order. Even, or especially, if you already have a given skill, you
will need to practice it regularly–several times a week–for about a month, or
until you are ready to go on. Those with more experience may actually find
some of the early lessons harder, as they will have old habits to unlearn.
However you will find that these skills, once mastered, are not only useful in
themselves, but may provide a foundation that will support the practice of more
esoteric skills such as oracular and possessory work.

As you work your way through the exercises, you will notice that you are
being offered multiple options. Most occult and spiritual traditions have
developed their own methods for meditation and trance work, which those they
train are required to master. The approach to trance work presented in this
book requires a systematic mastery of skills, but the means by which you
accomplish this is up to you. No single approach will work for everybody. The
motto of Mills College, where I spent four very happy years, is Una
destinatio, viæ diversæ
–“One destination, many roads”. It
has always seemed to me that this is good advice for the spiritual as well as
the physical traveller.

As anyone who has taken music lessons knows, there are sequences of
fingering, etc. that seem hard at first, but are necessary if one is to get
past the easy pieces. The goal is to develop a sequence of responses that have
been practiced to the point where they will automatically come into play when
needed. Learning the sequence is like learning to shift gears on a car. At
first you need to look at the diagram, but with practice, you will
automatically move the knob in the correct pattern while your conscious mind is
focused on avoiding the accident that has just occurred up the road.

Consciousness

Dion Fortune described magic as “the art of causing changes in consciousness
at will,” (Butler, Magic, its Ritual, Power and Purpose, 1952). In
Isaac Bonewits’s Pagan
Glossary
, he expands on this by defining magic thus:

  1. A general term for arts, sciences, philosophies and
    technologies concerned with

    1. understanding and using various
      altered states of consciousness within which it is possible to have access to
      and control over one’s psychic talents, and
    2. the uses and abuses of
      those psychic talents to change interior and/or exterior
      realities…”

But what do we mean by “consciousness”? As the word is ordinarily used, it
refers to that particular level of brain activity at which we can intentionally
respond to stimuli, communicate, and understand what is going on around us.
“He’s regaining consciousness–” in a hospital soap opera indicates that moment
when the patient opens his eyes and rejoins the world.

But neurologists chart many different kinds of brain activity. Clearly, the
mind is doing something even when it is not communicating. Some of these
involve thought; others may not. In sleep, for instance, it is the REM state in
which we dream. For most people, dreams come and go at their own will, and if
we are lucky (or in some cases unlucky), we remember them. However some people
have developed skill in “lucid dreaming”–moving into that state while
retaining some awareness that they are doing so, and exercising some control
over the experience. I realized the connection between that ability and those
we can use while awake when some years after I had become a professional
writer, I found myself editing my own dreams. Others simply train themselves to
remember their dreams by articulating a firm intention to do so before falling
asleep, and keeping a notebook or tape recorder handy to record their memories
when they wake.

The kinds of consciousness experienced at various stages of sleep are well
known and considered to be normal. Also within the “normal” range are a variety
of states in which we focus on one activity to the exclusion of other
awareness. This kind of hyper-focus is particularly familiar to people with a
talent for skills such as working with computers–“programmer’s trance” has
enabled many a programmer to transcend normal needs for sleep and food in order
to meet a deadline. For a novelist, the moment when the work stops feeling like
pulling teeth and becomes an exhilarating ride in which the story carries you
along is one of the rewards of writing. In its more exteme forms, the
compulsion to hyper-focus is diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome and can become a
master rather than a servant. People with such tendencies may have an easier
time with some aspects of trance-work, but may have difficulty developing
flexibility and control.

Anyone who has driven from one point to another
without any memory of the journey in between has been in an altered state, in
which the conscious mind is concerned with its own affairs while some other
part directs the body to run the car and find the way. When you are absorbed in
a movie or a good book, time passes without your awareness. You live in a world
of the imagination, and the demands of the body are suppressed. It is only when
the book is finished, or some stimulus jerks you back to “reality”, that you
realize that your neck hurts, or a visit to the bathroom is long overdue.
Runners strive for their own kind of altered state, in which there is no
reality but the smooth flex of muscle that carries you over the ground.
Training for other sports induces its own kinds of trance states, in which
action and being are one.

In ordinary conversation, the word “consciousness” is used to mean the beta
wave state in which we spend much of our waking hours, the state in which our
awareness is outward-directed, in which we react, communicate, and understand
what is going on in the physical world. Psychology and philosophy, on the other
hand, do a pretty good job of complicating what one would think of as the
simplest and most accessible state of consciousness. As Ned Block puts it in
his article “Consciousness”:

The Hard Problem of consciousness is how to explain a phenomenon in
terms of its neurological basis. If neural state N is the basis of the
sensation of red, why is N the basis of that sensation rather than some other
experience or none at all?

Neuroscience continues to explore what goes on in the brain when we are
acting, thinking, and feeling, without conclusively answering this question. A
more practical view is to define ordinary consciousness as the state in which
we not only process external stimuli, but are sufficiently aware of our own
bodies to respond to our environment and are also aware of that awareness. In
that state, we can not only go about our daily activities, but are able to
contemplate aspects of ourselves perceptible to others, such as our appearance,
and those that are purely personal, such as our feelings.
“Meta-self-awareness” is the state in which you not only have a feeling, but
know that you are feeling it (Norin, “Levels of Consciousness and
Self-Awareness”
, 2004). From the literature, it is apparent that even what
Michael Harner calls “consensus reality” is capable of extensive subdivision
and analysis.

Trance

The limitation of consciousness, powerful focus, or liberation of the
unconscious, are part of normal human experience. How, then, do we define the
altered states that we call trance? We encounter this term not only in
discussions of religion or magic but also in areas such as music and
psychology. But historically, the context in which people are most likely to
seek another way of experiencing reality is spiritual–what my friend Ember has
dubbed “altared” consciousness. The literature of all religions includes
techniques for prayer and meditation whose purpose is to bring peace or put
people in contact with their gods. The training methods developed in the Orient
for yoga and the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola are two examples of
highly developed spiritual training systems. In magical practice, trance states
are used for a variety of purposes, from enabling people to perceive beings or
energies which are not noticed (as opposed to not present) in ordinary
consciousness, to creating or journeying in “inner” worlds, to setting the
human personality aside and allowing another to move in.

When we engage in trance-work, we are intentionally altering the way we
experience the world.

Fortunately or unfortunately, what we will be referring to in this book as
“trance” includes a variety of states of consciousness about which science has
had relatively little to say. The phrase “altered state of consciousness” or
ASC, used by Charles Tart for those mental states in which people feel that the
quality of the way in which they experience the world is different from
ordinary awareness, comes closest to describing what I mean.

Altered states of consciousness include a wide variety of experiences, many
of which most readers will already have encountered without seeing any
necessity to give them a name. In addition to the state of mind in which we
know we are aware, in any given day we may experience a variety of levels
involving the limitation of consciousness through focus on other things, such
as reading, working on a computer, running, or driving a car. When we are
enthralled by a book or a movie, we are feeling the emotions and thoughts of
the characters rather than our own. Many activities require a mental focus so
complete that we are not only not aware of ourselves, we lose awareness of our
bodies as well.

All of these activities are so normal as to be perceived as ordinary.
Everyone engages in them. It is also universal to spontaneously experience
altered states which are even less conscious, such as dreaming. For some
people, the boundaries between the waking world and the inner realities are
thin. We may call these, “open-heads”. Others, who we will call “closed-heads”,
have difficulty remembering even those visions that occur while they are
sleeping. But everyone dreams, whether or not they remember it, and it is my
contention that anyone who can enter the world of dream can, with training, not
only access altered states at will, but exercise control over what happens
while they are in them.

So long as our minds are anchored in bodies, physical factors will play a
role in how they behave. Any traveller contemplating a strenuous journey will
take his or her physical condition into account when planning. Factors such as
blood sugar, hormones, sleep, biorhythms and general physical condition can
affect our ability to go into (or stay out of) trance. However we must remember
that although in many ways we are all the same, each individual has distinct
characteristics that affect how he or she will respond to the exercises. In
other words, at any point in the lessons, your mileage may vary. This is to be
expected, and does not imply a value judgement regarding your ability.

Who goes into trance? As we have seen above–everybody. Everyone experiences
some altered states spontaneously. The ability to shift from one level of
consciousness to another is wired into the human brain. But if we define trance
as those states which are not part of most people’s experience, we
begin to find a broader spectrum of abilities. Virtually all humans can use
their hands to make marks with a pencil and their voices to make sounds. But
some have a “natural” ability to draw recognizable pictures or to sing on key.
For them, becoming an artist is easy. However with the right kind of training,
almost everyone can learn to draw or sing. The same range of abilities is found
in trance work. For some people, getting beyond what Michael Harner calls
“consensus reality” is very difficult, whereas others seem to have trouble
staying connected to the ordinary world. Those for whom trance is so easy as to
sometimes become a problem have the nickname of “trance sluts”, while “cement
heads” are those who are so firmly grounded they feel stuck to the floor. We
have found “open-” and “closed-head” a more friendly way to indicate the ends
of the continuum, and in fact most people fall somewhere in the middle,
depending on a variety of factors, including everything from body mass to
psychological history; or such physical variations as blood sugar levels,
physical condition and biological cycles.

Those who believe their heads are “closed” should not envy those whose heads
are naturally “open”, and the latter should not wish their feet were nailed to
the ground. Those whose dominant mode of perception is aural or kinesthetic
are no less talented than those who work primarily with visual imagery. With
experience, we learn to identify levels of consciousness and what we can do
with them. By developing those skills that do not come easily, we learn to
travel in all terrains and all weathers.

Crazy Wisdom

Those of us who feel the call to practice magic or walk a spiritual path are
moving out of the safe world of consensus reality. Although the curriculum at
Hogwarts bears little resemblance to any kind of real magic, the psychological
divide between Muggle and Wizard cultures is something that most of us have
experienced. We must accept the fact that many would consider those who
intentionally loosen their grip on ordinary reality crazed. For many years
ethnographers studying shamanic practice assumed that the shamans were crazy.
And sometimes they were right. A case in point is the story of the
anthropologist who went looking for a shaman and ended up interviewing the
village idiot.

Of course there are times when the idiot is the wisest man in the room.

We must not let these messages from the dominant culture press our panic
buttons, but rather use them as a signal for healthy self-examination. A runner
pays attention to odd twinges that could signal a problem, and we should do the
same. We need to distinguish the problems caused by psychic work from those
stemming from physiology or our personal history. “Mind over matter” does not
mean that matter can be ignored. The purpose of the self-evaluation is to make
you aware of the kinds of things that can have an effect on spiritual work.
“Know thyself” is the goal of philosophy, but it is the foundation of
magic.

Given that caveat, we need to take a practical approach to psychic
experience. Rather than asking whether something is “real”, we should ask
whether it is useful. The bottom line in distinguishing a functional
from a dysfunctional experience is whether it helps you to live and work
productively. A problem in the work is a signal for some serious consideration.
Is this a wake-up call? A symptom of spiritual emergence? Even a traumatic
experience can be helpful if it is caused by the thwop of the divine
clue-byfour. Does this mean that you’ve just found one of your psychological
“buttons”? Or did you forget to eat lunch today?

You will be remodeling your mind, and as is common in such projects, the
process may make a bigger mess before you begin to see an improvement. Keep a
record of your progress, and your process, and when in doubt, get regular
“reality checks” from people who know you well and wish you well and whose
judgement you respect.

Cumulative learning

The key to controlling trance work is the use of cues and conditioning.
Those who have been conditioned to go into trance in response to a certain
stimulus will move into that state only when that cue has been given.
Conditioning helps the sensitive person to control her state of consciousness.
It also gives the inexperienced or blocked individual the sense of security
needed to “let go”. Because our minds manifest through physical bodies, the
outside world provides us with stimuli and images that can be used in the world
within. The worlds of trance are a symbolic reality.

The goal of this book is to help you condition yourself to respond to
specific cues, so that you can reach a specific state of consciousness if and
when you wish to, and return. This is the equivalent of a physical
fitness program, in which specific muscle groups are developed in a certain
order so that they will respond correctly. A disciplined body can dance or
climb a mountain because the muscles obey the will. A disciplined mind can
travel between the worlds.

We understand the physical world pretty well, or at least we are
sufficiently accustomed to it to navigate it safely, but for most people, the
contents of the unconscious are a mystery. Carl Jung’s voluminous writings
describe his explorations of the collective unconscious–a treasure house of
symbols and patterns that are apparently part of the inherited human
“software”. Another level of content is provided by the culture and environment
in which we live.

But each individual also has a personal store of significant images. As Paul
Edwin Zimmer put it:

The womb in the head waxes and blooms,
Begotten by every
book bedded down by,
Dwelling in darkness, dreaming, swelling,
By some
stranger’s seed in the soul kindled…

We are the sum of all that we have met, and all that we are becomes
accessible to us, for good or for ill, when we journey into non-ordinary
reality.

To do this successfully, we must understand how to manipulate that reality.
We also have to understand the physical, psychological and social factors that
can affect our ability to do spiritual work. I call this “evaluating flight
status”. When we seek to safely dissociate from “ordinary consciousness”,
self-knowledge is as important as conditioning.

The first step in trip planning is to take stock of your resources by
filling out the self-evaluation form below. [Sorry, you’ll have to
buy the book for it! — Ed.]

Following the Way

In the first chapter of Apprenticed to Magic, William Butler
says,

You have asked me to train you in High Magic’s Way. Why do you wish
to be trained? What is your real motive? Do not make the mistake of thinking
that this can be answered without a good deal of careful thought…. There are,
of course, quite good motives for the study and practice of magic, quite apart
from the question of vocation. It is a worthy motive to search for truth,
if the results of that search are going to be used in service. “I
desire to know in order to serve,” is the motive which admits to the
Mysteries.

Half a century later, we are still exploring the worlds of the spirit and
learning to realize our own potential. If there is a difference between those
who first read Butler’s book and those who seek this knowledge today, it is
that altered states of consciousness are no longer relegated to the realm of
the “occult”. The emergence of a community of people who are comfortable with
alternative lifestyles and philosophies means that many not only believe that
these experiences are possible and desirable, but also have an immediate and
practical need to control and use them. People seek to learn trance-work for
many reasons. Some of my students have had awareness of the unseen thrust upon
them, while others were struggling to achieve it. Some found themselves
counseling or teaching others, and wanted a better “bag of tools”.

The goal of the mystic is to know, but the priest or priestess
seeks to serve God (or the Goddess, or the gods), and his or her community.
This work is healthiest and most productive when you seek “power to” realize
your full potential and help others to do the same.

As Lorrie Wood has observed, there are two conditions to this service that
you should keep in mind:

  1. Not to serve others at the expense of yourself.
  2. Not to
    serve yourself at the expense of others.

With these as our watchwords, let us begin.