Blog #5 May 11, 2011
The Nature of Trance
by Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.
the other world
in this world
is to live in your
In previous blogs, I talked about how the Generative Self approach distinguishes two worlds: (1) the classical world of the conscious mind and (2) the quantum world of the creative unconscious mind. These worlds are complementary and mutually fulfilling—roughly speaking, the creative unconscious is the visionary, while the conscious mind is the manager. You need both to live a creative and fulfilling life.
Of course, you don’t need both at all times. For routine moments, when you just need to do what you’ve done in the past, you don’t really need the creative unconscious. When you go get a cup of coffee in the morning, for example, you don’t have to be in a highly creative state. But there are inevitably times in life when what you’ve done in the past won’t help you deal with the present challenge. At such times, you need to create something new—a new way of looking at things, a new way of understanding yourself, a new way of acting in the world. This is precisely where generative trance is a helpful state, as it allows you to think, experience, and act in new ways. This blog will explore this understanding of trance. Five basic ideas will be proposed:
(1) Trance as absorption in the creative unconscious.
(2) Not all trances are equal.
(3) Trance is naturalistic.
(4) Trance is psychobiologically necessary.
(5) Hypnosis is one psychosocial context for humanizing and shaping trance.
Trance as absorption in the creative unconscious
In general terms, trance can be defined straightforwardly as:
(1) A temporary suspension of the classical world of the conscious mind, and (2) an experiential absorption into the quantum world of the creative unconscious.
Most adults spend most of their time in the managerial world of the conscious mind. They are one step removed from direct experience, thinking about things, analyzing and worrying. The conscious mind is a world defined by, and held in place by, verbal descriptions and verbal rules. These include beliefs, expectations, ‘shoulds,’ and stories about who you are and why, and what you can expect to happen in your future. It is easy to get stuck in this ‘identity box’, succumbing to what Henry David Thoreau called ‘lives of quiet desperation.’
Trance is a way out of this, a reawakening into the quantum world of infinite possibility. When you go into trance, the constraints of the ego-box are temporarily suspended. You drop the analytical thinking and conditioned perceptions and immerse yourself in the ocean of primitive consciousness, a world of images, feelings, symbols, movements and energies. Like in dreams or at play, in trance you can go anywhere from anywhere; the normal classical reality gives way to a more subtle quantum field of creative possibility. All the ordinary structures of identity that are usually fixed—time, meanings, embodiment, memory, logic, brain maps—become variable, free to generate new patterns and identities.
Not all trances are created equal
However, immersion in this new world does not guarantee the generation of new possibilities. Some trances are low quality – spacing out, television trances, numbing out – that may give you a break from active ego processing, but don’t do much to refresh or transform your consciousness. Other trances are downright negative – such as depression, anxiety, addiction, resentment, self-pity. We’ll see how what makes these trances negative is the human relationship with the unconscious, and how by changing this relationship to a positive one you can transform them into positive trances. Other trances are positive but non-transformative—you relax and get a genuine feeling of security, but it doesn’t really shift anything in your core patterns. They’re ‘nice’ experiences that don’t really make a lasting difference.
I studied with Milton Erickson, while at the same time doing my graduate work in psychology at Stanford University, which then had the largest hypnosis laboratory in the world, run by the great experimental psychologist, Ernest Hilgard. My graduate research used hypnosis, so I worked in this laboratory under Hilgard’s supervision. This is where the famous standardized hypnotizability tests were developed. So I had this interesting experience of running the standardized hypnotic inductions in the university lab, then visiting Erickson and experiencing a whole different type of trance. To me, they are apples and oranges: the trances developed by standardized suggestion produce a qualitatively different type of trance experience compared to what you can and should be developing in a therapeutic setting, where the unique aspects of each client are the main ingredients for the ‘trance soup.’
The standardized inductions completely ignore the unique elements of a person, and rightfully so: they are primarily concerned with developing a relatively uniform experiential state so that traditional research can be done. In therapy, of course, the goal is the opposite—you want to create a space where the unique strengths and dimensions of a client’s identity can be accessed and creatively worked with for transformation and healing. You want to develop a trance where a person can go beyond their previous limitations and create something entirely new in their life.
This is ‘generative trance’. It is an experiential state in which you’re deeply connected to the creative unconscious, but still have an intelligent conscious mind-presence to hold intention and creatively work with experiential patterning and re-patterning. Generative trance unites the unconscious mind and the conscious mind into a third ‘creative unconscious’ or ‘generative trance’ mind that has extraordinary properties and potentials.
Trance is naturalistic
Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?
While the soul, after all, is only a window,
and the opening of the window no more difficult
than the awakening from a little sleep.
Trance is fundamental to the nature of consciousness. It is a state that humans must drop into periodically in order to renew, protect, re-create, and transform their identities.
This idea, central to Erickson’s work, is radically different from the traditional view, which defines trance as an experience that comes from something called ‘hypnosis.’ It’s thought to be a very artificial thing, an artifact of hypnotic technique or suggestion. In other words, it is generally assumed that trance happens because a hypnotist says ‘Booga-booga-booga’ and because of these magical incantations, some strange exotic state begins to develop. This state, in this way of thinking, is caused by, and controlled by an external person, the hypnotist.
Therapy is supposed to be a process of learning a greater sense of your own control and skills, of being able to take back projections, to claim responsibility for one’s way, of finding one’s own voice. The traditional idea of hypnosis is totally incongruent with that; it is another example of someone else defining your life or telling you what to do. So it is not surprising that many people, if you mention hypnosis to them, will be at least a little bit afraid, thinking, ‘I’ve already experienced what it’s like to be controlled by somebody else. That’s the problem, not the solution. I’m here to get beyond that, not to do more of it.’
This is why I generally no longer use the word hypnosis: it carries too many connotations of one person’s conscious mind controlling another person’s unconscious mind. We are looking instead to open a creative, mutually respectful relationship between the conscious mind and creative unconscious, both between and within people.
In English, we have two different words for learning. The first is ‘instruction,’ which means ‘to pack in.’ The second is ‘education’, which means ‘to draw out that which is already there.’ Generative trance, continuing Erickson’s tradition, orients to this second view. So rather than seeing trance as some strange artificial state, we become curious about the many trance-like experiences that a person already has. For example, it can be helpful to ask:
When you need to really connect with yourself, what are some of things that you do?
When were times when you lost track of time and all your worries?
Can you remember times when you felt a sense of wonderment?
For most people, the answers are not surprising: they include relatively low-cost, ordinary activities like reading, walking in nature, cooking, meditating, listening to or playing music, and so forth. Each of these activities is an aesthetic practice for letting go of the control structures of the conscious mind and opening to the experiential absorption in something beyond your ego, namely, the intelligence of the creative unconscious. That’s what we’re doing in trance work. We attune to natural experiences and create a safe and resonant unified field that allows all parts of a systemic identity to be safely present. We then add other ingredients—for example, resources and other positive experiences–and then stir the soup to discover how these different experiential patterns can blend together to make nourishing and transformational food for the soul.
Erickson’s understanding of trance did not come primarily from intellectual or conceptual awareness, it came from his own experience. It came from his immense curiosity and from his having to deal with the unusual set of challenges he faced in his life. He decided that the best way to deal with his challenges was to accept them deeply, in a way that allowed him to become affectionate and curious about how each of these unique patterns could be gifts rather than curses; how they could really be positive aspects of his life rather than negative.
For example, when he developed polio, the doctors told him he would never move again. He thought that was an interesting ‘suggestion’, and began a series of deep inner explorations. He was 17, he knew nothing formally about ‘hypnosis’ or ‘trance’, but he knew how to use his imagination. So he would go into these deep states of inner absorption and become curious about what he could learn. He would find himself attuning to long-forgotten pleasurable experiences—for example, a memory of throwing a ball with his brothers when he was a child. He didn’t know why he was remembering that, but some inner resonance seemed to encourage him to deeply immerse in that memory. After weeks, sometimes months of doing so, something amazing would begin to happen: the muscles involved in that childhood memory began to reactivate in his present body. In other words, the natural memory of throwing a ball became a central resource and reference structure for re-activating the same pattern in his present life. His trance was developed from simple, unforced experiences, and natural memories became the basis for a new learning.
Trance and other non-rational processes are psychobiologically necessary
I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
Rainer Maria Rilke
In generative trance work, we are assuming that symptoms and all so-called pathologies are not only potentially positive, they are necessary for meaningful growth. They are what in Gaelic is called anam cara, or ‘friends of the soul.’ The brain needs to go into non-rational states; a person needs to lose control at least occasionally. Each life is an unfolding spiral of death and rebirth cycles. Empires rise, empires fall; ego identity is stable, ego identity becomes unstable; you are in control, you are not in control. When ego identity destablilizes, trance occurs spontaneously. The main question is whether this happens in a positive or negative way. In generative trance work we see how this can be done positively, including how seemingly negative trances can be turned into positive ones.
The idea that altered states of consciousness are integral to growth and health is beautifully expressed by Michael Ventura, an American writer who spent a year teaching poetry to high school students. In recounting his experience, he talks about the central importance of art to human consciousness. (In the quote, I have inserted the words ‘symptoms’ and ‘trance’ in brackets, because they apply perfectly.) Here’s what he has to say:
“Why does art (and symptoms and trance) exist at all? In part at least art (and symptoms and trance) exists because normal daily life isn’t enough for anybody and it never has been. The student (like the client in the consulting room) isn’t wrong, isn’t a freak, to be frustrated with the limits of daily life. Everything that humanity is proud of, and many of the things that it has good reasons to be ashamed of, comes from testing and breaking those limits. Something in the world, something that human beings both express and shape and store in art (and symptoms and trance) is constantly communicating to us that there’s something more. And it doesn’t merely invite us to change, but tells us that we must. That’s the starting point, that’s the central point of art’s (and symptoms’ and trance’s) spiritual geography – that at any moment you can step out of the state that you’re into and do something more intense, even exalted. In this way, poetry (and trance) is a preventive medicine against the incredibly debilitating disease of the idealization of the normal. At the least poetry and art (and trance and symptoms) are teaching that it is normal for the normal to be fragile, to break apart at any moment into one or more of its many paradoxical elements. Poetry (and trance) teaches you always to be on the lookout for the extraordinary in the so-called ‘normal.’ And this indeed is a healing knowledge.” (words in italics added)
There is great wisdom in these words. Whenever the limitations of the conscious identity state are too strong, the creative unconscious will step forward to bring new experiences and resources. The specific form, meaning and value of the experience is determined by the human connection to it. One of the crucial ideas of generative trance is:
An experiential pattern from the creative unconscious can be positive or negative, depending on the human connection to it.
In other words, there is no innate meaning or value to any experience. To reiterate from an earlier blog, reality is constructed by an observing (human consciousness) interacting with the quantum world of the creative unconscious. More plainly stated the state you’re in when you connect with an experiential pattern determines its meaning, value, form, and subsequent folding.
If an experience seems to have no positive value, it reflects a relationship history in which the pattern was not positively valued.
For example, let’s consider sexuality, a core energy and pattern of each human being. At its core level, it is beyond “good” or “bad”, it just is. Let’s now imagine that sexual energy first awakening in a young boy, and it being witnessed by his family and social environment. If met with negative human presence (e.g., hostility, anxiety), that relational connection will create a negative experience of sexuality in the boy. That resulting identity image may be further reinforced, leading to a negative sexual identity that plays out in various ways as an adult. But the negative sexual behaviors as an adult doesn’t mean his sexuality is inherently bad, just that the previous human relational connections with it were negative.
This is where trance work can be helpful: it allows the previous psychological frames to be released (this is what an induction is for), and new frames to be developed, resulting in a more positive identity map to be experienced and expressing. This allows us to distinguish (1) the psychobiologically necessary experience of trance from (2) the psychosocial human relational context (such as hypnosis) used to shape it and give it value.
Hypnosis is a context for humanizing and shaping trance
At every moment a new species arises in the chest –
Now a demon, now an angel, now a wild animal.
There are also those in this amazing jungle
who can absorb you into their own surrender.
If you have to stalk and steal something,
steal from them.
Rumi, “A goat kneels”
Trance can be negative or positive, depending on the human presence connecting with it. It can take many forms: In Africa, trances often involve wild shaking; in Bali, they are expressed as sensual possession trances; in the West, trances most often involve an immobile or slumped body following the verbal commands of the outside expert (‘’hypnotist”).
This infinite variety of forms and functions of trance allows us to see clearly the difference between trance and hypnosis. Trance is the psychobiologically essential experience of human consciousness that occurs whenever ego identity is destabilized, while hypnosis is one of the psycho-social rituals that give human shape and form and meaning to the trance. Trance is the experience, hypnosis is the context. And of course as this context changes, the experiential form and meaning of trance changes.
Seeing that the quality of a trance experience is a function of the human context in which it is held, we can then see the “negative trance” of a symptom reflects the degraded state of consciousness in which the creative unconscious is being held. For example, if you are caught in the neuromuscular lock of “fight, flight, or freeze”, any experience that arises will tend to be experienced and expressed in a negative fashion. More important, if you can put primary emphasis on developing and then maintaining a high level generative state of “creative flow,” any experience that arises can be “invited to tea” and met with confidence, curiosity, resourcefulness, and transformational skill. This is the core underlying premise of Milton Erickson’s principle: that a negative experience can be transformed into a positive one by virtue of bringing it into a high state of consciousness—that is, a generative trance—where it is engaged with creative acceptance, skillful sponsorship, and genuine respect and curiosity. This is the promise of the work, and the beauty of the practice.
Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.
May 10, 2011
NOTE: Generative Trance is the primary topic of this year’s Trance Camp, held in July in San Diego. You can attend one, two, or all three weeks of this special intensive training. Click here for further information.