Read an Excerpt
Learning to Navigate the Inner World
By DIANA L. PAXSON
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2008 Diana L. Paxson
All rights reserved.
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 roadblocks or detours 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" (1881). 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 traveler does not dash out the door with no more than a pocket handkerchief. Before you can range freely through all the worlds, you must have at least a basic understanding of the geography. As you set out to explore, you must have a realistic understanding of your resources and abilities.
To make progress, you will need to work through all the chapters and exercises of this book in order. Even, or especially, if you already have a given skill, you must practice it regularly—several times a week—for about a month, or until you feel ready to go on. Those with more experience may actually find some of the early lessons harder, as they may have old habits to unlearn. However, you will find that these skills, once mastered, are useful in themselves and may provide a foundation that can support the practice of more esoteric skills like oracular and possessory work.
As you work your way through the exercises, you will be offered options. Most occult and spiritual traditions require those they train to master their own methods for meditation and trance work. The approach to trance work presented here requires a systematic mastery of skills, but leaves the means by which you accomplish this up to you. No single approach works for everybody. The motto of Mills College, where I spent four very happy years, is Una destinatio, viae diversae— "One destination, many roads." This has always seemed to me to be good advice for the spiritual, as well as the physical, traveler.
As anyone who has taken music lessons knows, there are sequences of fingering that seem difficult at first, but are necessary if you want to get past the easy pieces. Continual practice helps you develop a sequence of responses that automatically come into play when needed. Learning this sequence is like learning to shift gears on a car. At first, you need to look at the diagram; but with practice, you automatically move the knob in the correct pattern while your conscious mind focuses on avoiding the accident that has just occurred up the road.
Dion Fortune described magic as "the art of causing changes in consciousness at will" (Butler, 1952). On his Web site, Isaac Bonewits expands on this by calling magic "a general term for arts, sciences, philosophies and technologies concerned with (a) 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 (b) the uses and abuses of those psychic talents to change interior and/or exterior realities...."
What do we mean by "consciousness"? The word ordinarily refers to a 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 medical setting indicates the moment when a 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 this activity involves thought; some may not. In sleep, for instance, we dream in the REM state. 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 a dream 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 became a professional writer, I found myself editing my own dreams. Some people simply train themselves to remember their dreams by articulating a firm intention to do so before falling asleep, and keeping a notebook or recording device handy to capture their memories when they wake.
The kinds of consciousness experienced at various stages of sleep are well known and considered 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 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 may come when the work stops feeling like pulling teeth and becomes an exhilarating and rewarding ride in which the story carries you along. In its more extreme forms, the compulsion to hyper-focus can become a master rather than a servant, and may be a result of Asperger's syndrome. People with this tendency 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 has been in an altered state. In these instances, your conscious mind is concerned with its own affairs while some other part directs your body. When you are absorbed in a movie or a good book, time passes without your awareness. You exist in the world of your imagination, and the demands of your body are suppressed. Only when you finish the book, or when some stimulus jerks you back to "reality," do you realize that your neck hurts or that 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 them over the ground. Training for other sports induces its own kind of trance state, 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. In this state, our awareness is outward-directed; 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 we think of as the simplest and most accessible state of consciousness. As Ned Block puts it: "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?" (Block, 2003).
Neuroscience continues to explore what goes on in the brain when we act, think, and feel, without conclusively answering this question. It is more practical, perhaps, 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 be aware of that awareness. In this state, you not only can go about your daily activities; you can contemplate aspects of yourself perceptible to others, like your appearance, and those that are purely personal, like your feelings. "Meta-self-awareness" is the state in which you not only have a feeling, but know that you are feeling it (Norin, 2004). From the literature, it is apparent that even what Michael Harner calls "consensus reality" is capable of extensive subdivision and analysis.
The limitation of consciousness, powerful focus, and the liberation of the unconscious are all 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 in areas such as music and psychology as well. Historically, however, the context in which people are most likely to seek an alternative 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 Asia 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 that 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 intentionally alter 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" 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 here.
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 you know you are aware, you may, on any given day, experience a variety of levels involving the limitation of consciousness through focus on other things—reading, working on a computer, running, or driving a car. When you are enthralled by a book or a movie, you feel the emotions and thoughts of the characters rather than your own. Many activities require a mental focus so complete that you lose awareness of yourself and your body as well.
We perceive all these activities as ordinary. Everyone engages in them. Dreaming, for instance, is an altered state that we all experience spontaneously. For some people, the boundaries between the waking world and the inner realities are thin. Others have difficulty remembering even those visions that occur while they are sleeping. But everyone dreams, whether or not they remember it. I contend that anyone who can enter the world of dreams can, with training, access altered states at will and exercise control over what happens while they are in them.
When our minds are anchored in our bodies, physical factors play a role in how they behave. Any traveler contemplating a strenuous journey will take his or her physical condition into account when planning. Factors like blood sugar, hormones, sleep, biorhythms, and general physical condition can affect your ability to go into (or stay out of) trance. However, we must remember that, although we are all the same in many ways, we each have distinct characteristics that affect how we 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 judgment regarding your ability.
Who goes into trance? Everybody. As we have seen above, 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 that 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 or a singer is easy. With the right kind of training, however, almost anyone can learn to draw or sing.
We find the same range of abilities 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. Some call those for whom trance is so easy as to sometimes become a problem "trance sluts" and those who are so firmly grounded they feel stuck to the floor "cement heads." We find "open-heads" and "closed-heads" a more friendly way to indicate the ends of this continuum. In fact, most people fall somewhere in the middle, depending on a variety of factors—including everything from body mass to psychological history, and such physical variations as blood-sugar levels, physical condition, and biological cycles. Age may also have an influence—children are often more open than those who are older.
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.
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 the Muggle and Wizard cultures is something that most of us have experienced. We must accept the fact that many 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.
Don't let these messages from the dominant culture deter you, but rather use them as a signal for healthy self-examination. A runner pays attention to odd twinges that may signal a problem; you should do the same. You must distinguish the problems caused by psychic work from those stemming from physiology or personal history. "Mind over matter" does not mean that matter can be ignored. The purpose of self-evaluation is to make you aware of the kinds of things that can have an effect on spiritual work. "Know thyself" is not only the goal of philosophy; it is also the foundation of magic.
Given that caveat, we'll take a practical approach to psychic experience. Rather than asking whether something is "real," let's ask whether it is useful. The bottom line in distinguishing a functional from a dysfunctional experience is to learn whether it helps you 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? Does this mean that you've just found one of your psychological "buttons"? Or did you forget to eat lunch today? Even a traumatic experience can be helpful if it is caused by a "thwop" of the Divine "clue-by-four." As you explore the practices in this book, you will be remodeling your mind. As is common in such projects, the process may make a bigger mess than you expect before you begin to see improvement. Keep a record of your progress and your process. When in doubt, get regular "reality checks" from people who know you well and wish you well, and whose judgment you respect.
The key to controlling trance work is to use cues and conditioning. When you are conditioned to go into trance in response to a certain stimulus, you move into that state only when that cue is given. Conditioning helps you control your state of consciousness. It also gives an inexperienced or blocked individual the sense of security needed to "let go." Because our minds manifest through our 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.
Excerpted from Trance-Portation by DIANA L. PAXSON. Copyright © 2008 Diana L. Paxson. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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