The term trance comes from the Latin transire, which means “to go over” or to move from one state to another. Although this word is often popularly associated with unusual or altered states of consciousness, its implied conditions play a vital role for all human beings and extend in all areas of life, from shamanic journeys, meditation, dreaming, day-dreaming to watching television, reading a newspaper or doing housework.
The term “shamanism” comes from saman, the Russian transliteration of a word used in Siberia, which means “somebody who sees in the darkness”. In recent decades the term “shaman” has been almost universally adopted by anthropologists and mainstream culture to identify people who were previously referred to with other names, such as “medicine man, witch, wizard, magician”, and hundreds of other synonyms.
A shaman is a human being who, out of his will, is able to enter into an altered state of consciousness to relate with realities that are alien to ordinary human beings and use this connection to get wisdom, ecstasy, power, or for healing purposes. In engaging in their activities shamans move between a so called ordinary state of consciousness and a non-ordinary, or shamanic state of consciousness.
In those states the distractions of ordinary reality lessen their pressure on consciousness, making it possible for shamans to focus on the aspects essential to their healing work and reach a condition of spiritual ecstasy or enlightenment. Yet, differing from mystics or other advanced beings on the spiritual path, shamans do not aim at enlightenment for its own sake. Their main purpose is that of moving into other realms and then coming back to help and heal their community.
To experience a state of trance or enter a shamanic state of consciousness means to achieve an ecstatic awareness and perception that extends beyond the ordinary physical senses and conventional functioning of the mind. What we perceive in everyday life is merely the result of what we have decided to see in accordance both to the consensus reality (agreed by our social environment) and our specific role in that context. We have conditioned ourselves to see the world through the development of defined programmes, but when we shift our awareness beyond the ordinary mind, which keeps repeating those programmes, then we perceive the world in a different way.
In shamanism there is no separation and everything is perceived as part of the same unity. The chief trait of shamans is their clear perception of that unity. They are very familiar with states of consciousness that allow visions and explorations of the dimensions that exist beyond the conventional reality. In order to travel to these spaces, shamans use various tools and receive the support of Spirit Guides (also called guardian spirits, power animals, spirit allies, angels, etc.).
The relationship with these beings is one of the main characteristics of shamanic culture. Shamanic wisdom includes information on the geography of non-ordinary realities that allow movement in those areas knowing where to find Spirit Guides, allies, power, grievances, blocks, etc.
One of the basic experiential assumptions of shamanism is that I am not a separated physical being: I am an energy field or I am part of the whole. Actually, from a more genuine shamanic perspective, the entire notion of I, seen as separate from you and them, does not make any sense at all. In bygone ages, human beings lost connection with this awareness and have since confined themselves almost exclusively to identification with the physical body and the idea of being a fragmented unit (no matter whether I call it ego, personality, self or soul). Shamanic experience is one way in which it is possible to perceive others, the world and ourselves in their original united forms again.
Trance and shamanic states of consciousness are part of the genetic structure of mankind. Each one of us has an inner biological need for ecstatic experience. The problem is that such experiences, as is emphasised by the terms used to define them (altered or non-ordinary states of consciousness, hallucinations, trance, etc.), are often regarded as abnormal or dangerous. In the majority of contemporary human cultures they do not find space in the official educational or scientific context and tend to be socially unacceptable. As a consequence, this unmet need often ends up being expressed through harmful manifestations such as alcoholism, drug addictions, perversion, sex addiction, criminality, etc.
Shamanic states of consciousness represent the major taboo for the ordinary perception of the world as they cause its deceptive structure to vanish and expose to the secrets of our origin, that is where we truly come from and how and why we got to be here.
A large portion of humanity seems to live in a state of ecstasy deprivation, as the anthropologist Felicitas Goodman, author of Where the Spirits Ride the Wind calls it, yet the ecstatic experience is a fundamental need. The contact with the source of this need is disturbed or blocked by something that occurred in a distant past and that extends far beyond official historical documentation.
According to various researches, ecstatic experiences and the relationship with non-ordinary dimensions constituted a daily routine for the people who once inhabited our planet. These were nomad hunter-gatherers that later gradually abandoned their customs and moved to horticulture and animals husbandry. As a result, human beings retreated into limited territories and began to lose the connection with the rest of nature and existence, which they once knew so well. In their spiritual practices, however, they continued to keep the link with the experiences of former cultures. Through the metamorphosis activated by trance states they could again enter into ecstatic states of consciousness and activate their relationship with other realms.
Shamanism developed as the attempt to preserve and access those connections. For this purpose various methods and tools were transmitted until, with the expansion of belief systems based on separation, shamanic states of consciousness became incompatible with the consensus reality that prevailed on most parts of our planet.
In recent societies, perceptions beyond the physical body have been generally ignored or disregarded. The forms we see with our physical eyes, identified with names and specific shapes, have been extracted from their original unity and transformed into fragmented pieces. They are seen as definite configurations and separated from each other by areas termed as nothing or void.
The acknowledgement of these separated units and the denial of the forms found in the empty spaces represents the basic assumption on which the current perception of most human beings is founded. We see and identify the physical spaces to which we have decided to attribute meaning, yet we do not see anything in the areas that exist between those spaces because we have decided that they do not have any meaning.
Most mankind seems to live in a symbolic reality where only that which is conventionally accepted is acknowledged as real, whereas everything else disappears from sight and dwells in a dimension surrounded by fear and mystery.
I believe we have become estranged from something of which we were once aware, establishing a mythology of separation where unity and ecstasy are the most rooted taboos. As we consider ourselves individuals severed from other people and the environment, we tend to invest much energy to exploit our fellows and the Earth, acting as the “separated” cells of a cancer.
This causes enormous damage to our planet and ourselves. As we have split with the Earth, we have also disconnected with the dimension of the Sky. Through a blind adherence to religious and social conditionings, we have denied a natural and direct access to Spirit, resigning ourselves to the power of religious teachings or hierarchical structures to operate as mediators between us and God.
Through shamanic work each one can obtain visions and spiritual experiences without any mediation. This is not a question of mounting opposition to political and religious authorities; this is what we have been doing throughout history and it has resulted only in even more grievances and separation. To achieve ecstatic experiences and visions we need to give up being a victim. It is the attachment to this condition that prevents us from taking responsibility and pushes us into a frantic search for a well-being that will never come.
According to shamanism, as I see it, the true revolution consists of taking the courage to face the spiritual or inner world, for it is from this world that all that seems to be outside emanates. This does not mean that life should be limited to shamanic journey or shamanic states of consciousness. These experiences are important, yet we also need to take physical actions.
Often it is necessary to be simple and see the world with the ingenuity of a child. For example, you can go among the trees in nature, and take care of them or speak with them, both in the imagination and also by actually communicating. Trees will find a way to reply and to tell you something about yourself.
What is the difference between men and plants? Plants do not judge. We create complex problems with our judgements and the conviction that our problems are due to something that was done to us or that exists outside. When this happens, we create further separation and this contributes only to increasing our pain. Alternatively, we can relate to the ordinary activities of everyday life: working, washing, cooking, talking, playing, walking, driving from the perspective of their true but hidden and shamanic essence.
In the western world what counts is the goal. To reconnect with the Earth and the Sky what matters is the present, not the destination. Trance or shamanic states of consciousness have to do with the present and with getting out of the most dangerous trance: that of our conditioning and daily conventions.
The fact is that on the Earth we are always in some kind of trance and the actual work consists of learning to balance such states and of being aware that you cannot go into a new trance without moving out of the one you are already in. When there is unbalance we live in a state of hallucination where we perceive pain, anger and all kinds of grievances. When there is balance we choose consciously to open only to the trance states that bring love, ecstasy, peace and blessings to ourselves and others.
Opening up to shamanic states of conscience and non-ordinary realities means to truly say yes to life and to be fully responsible. It means to accept becoming a conscious part of the universe, choosing to trust a divine purpose, identifying with the maximum expressions of our being and moving further to project this potential on all that surrounds me. It is a process that requires our sole individual consent. After all, it is a choice between a state of total responsibility regarding our perception of the world and a condition of passive victim to events determined by others.
The process of taking responsibility develops gradually, through a progressive healing work that, through our attempts and experiences, releases blocks and grievances. It is a painful process because the ego’s inability to identify culprits outside itself prevents it from finding a refuge to preserve its hallucinations. At the same time, this process is an act of love aimed at carefully determining the access to one’s inexhaustible tools of power.
These tools have been kept hidden in the unexplored territories of the shamanic world. The only way to access them consists of moving beyond the trance of ordinary reality. This can occur spontaneously and without complex procedures. The precariousness and the illusion of conventional reality is such that anyone can access the perception of what exists beyond. In this regard it is a question of considering and developing a series of experiences to which no importance is usually given: for example, dreams, visions, fantasies, intuitions, shadows, spaces of void between one object and the other, etc.
A more operative method consists in employing shamanic techniques. Their task is to create gaps in the awareness and therefore facilitate access to new channels of communication.
The basic experience of shamanic states of consciousness is ecstatic and an important way to accomplish it consists of employing particular stimuli, able to produce alterations in physical perceptions. In this regard various possibilities have been transmitted according to traditions. Sometimes they are ferocious methods, of complex or difficult management, such as the employment of poisoning substances or hallucinogenic plants, intensive temperature conditions, sensory deprivation, painful practices of initiation, etc.
In other contexts non traumatic and playful tools are used, such as chant, dance, drumming or other auditory aids, massage, body postures, or other simple ritual practices. While the first methods expose us to the risk of dangerous repercussions on the physical or mental plane and generally require a complex preparation hardly accessible to contemporary man, the latter, besides being very efficient, are safe and within easy reach of anyone who honestly wishes to have a shamanic experience.
Once a shamanic state of conscience is achieved, the decisive element that determines the ecstatic experience is always represented by the will to receive it. The exercise of this will requires practice and patience as it often clashes with a wall of obstacles (doubts, fears, uncertainties, distrust, etc.) created by the ego’s defence system.
Despite the strong oppositions and conditioning of the consensus reality, shamanic states of consciousness are regularly experienced by all human beings. What is missed is solely the willingness to acknowledge them or consider them significant. For those who are available to open to this path, the answers arrive sooner or later. An ecstatic world defines itself in all its particulars and give a sense of indescribeable love and beauty. When this happens, the classical question that most people ask themselves is: “Did I make it all up by myself?”. The answer to this question is the secret key of shamanic work.
© 2002 Franco Santoro