Meditation: med·i·ta·tion noun \ˌme-də-ˈtā-shən\
Meditation is a process of thinking, but with a practiced attention to a specific methodology or process in the way of thinking that is calm, but not necessarily detached. In certain Eastern Traditions and Philosophies, it is a process of training the mind to a calm and empty state in which one may affect an altered state of consciousness by focusing on a single object or thing. However, it can also be loosely applied to any form of devotional contemplation, to include prayer.
It fair to say, then, that you can meditate on the implications of world peace, just as easily as you can meditate on your impending piano recital. Philosophically, we can objectively evaluate the morality of deep topics and search the depths of our being for the values that tell us how we truly feel and why, or we can dispassionately evaluate the pros and cons of serving fish tonight for dinner. Entering a trance state (Altered state of Consciousness, ASC for short) is not required.
Trance: noun \ˈtran(t)s\
It’s probably fair to say that the word trance, once a technical or scientific term, has entered common language when the eight year old boy next door gets sent home from school for three days for trying to put the girls at school in a ‘hypnotic trance’ for… nefarious reasons.
From the Latin Transire “To Pass Across”, it means anything from a stupor or daze (daydream like) to a sleeplike state demonstrating a complete or partial suspension of conscious activity as seen in hypnosis, catalepsy, and ecstatic trance states. A trance implicitly involves the loss of connection with external reality to some degree, greater or lesser, as exemplified by fathers all over America during the Superbowl who can ignore the sound of their name or even an air horn in their ears during the game.
The current ‘appropriate’ term for scientific or technical use, as any word in common usage is subject to a change of meaning, is Altered State of Consciousness (ASC for short).
Altered State of Consciousness (ASC)
The simplest explanation of an altered state of consciousness, is any deviation in brain activity from the normal beta state (or, between 12hz and 30hz).
I’m probably getting ahead of myself here but, consciousness (or our perception of it) is a hierarchical integration of ever increasing levels of complex neural traits (centrally located in the Frontal Cortex of the Brain, most notable the Pre-Frontal Cortex) which is believed to have evolved as a direct result of survival pressure in early hominids.
What does that mean? Okay… try this on.
The brain is made up of several independent agencies (think offices in a building if you prefer), each with its own agenda. Where the ‘interests’ or ‘agendas’ of these offices overlap, is where the self (ego) comes in and Consciousness becomes something more akin to an ongoing story we tell ourselves than the previous models suggested of a ‘Cartesian theatre’ where we are the audience watching a play.
At various times, with and without conscious initiation, the average person will fall out of ‘normal’ beta state awareness. When typing on the computer and listening to music, the outside world diminishes as we sink into our own thoughts. While driving, we “daze” our to reside in thoughtful repose on the day or what might come in the evening so that pulling into the driveway at home we do not even remember the drive, not to be confused with Road Daze where we become mesmerized by the sounds and constancy of the road and the mind literally falls asleep with the eyes open. Pretty much any repetitive motion or rhythm can induce a dazed trance like state that alters our conscious interaction with the world around us.
Ecstatic Trance AKA Arctic Trance
Ecstatic trance references a specific type of trance featuring a demonstrably diminished perception of the physical world. It is sometimes referred to as religious ecstasy, spiritual ecstasy, and arctic trance (Eliade), and frequently includes hallucinations and euphoria.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re looking at the term ‘ecstatic’ (ecstasy) and your mind wanders to a completely different kind of religious experience. Ecstasy, from the Gk. ec stasis “to be outside ones self” (which suddenly makes a lot more sense in both uses), and Trance, which we discussed earlier, L. Transire “to pass across”. This makes the definition something like: “to pass across to be outside ones self”.
The common perception is that an Ecstatic Trance is one that increases awareness outside the self (the ego or self is diminished to a point of near non-existence) into a state or ‘journey’ into “non-ordinary reality”.
States of Consciousness:
According to researches, there are four (4) documented and definable states of consciousness, identified by wave frequencies. Beta, or waking, moving consciousness extends anywhere from 12hz to 60hz depending on who you ask. Alpha, from around 6hz to 13hz (depending on who you ask), is typified by suggestibility and a sense of well being and contentment that is the hallmark of hypnotic states. Theta, from roughly 3hz to 7hz, signifies a light sleep and dreams with heightened receptivity, inspiration, and dream visions. Delta, last but not least as anywhere between 0.1hz and 4hz, is deep sleep, completely unconscious, no dreams, practically dead.
It is interesting to note, Neurologists credit the Alpha state with significant increases in beta-endorphins, noro-epinephrine, and dopamine, all linked to feelings of well being and acute mental clarity. The beat frequency for most “shamanic” drumming (and coincidentally or not) Tibetan chanting averages out to four and a half (4.5) beats per second, or the same rhythm as theta state.
To summarize the most recent thoughts of what altered states of consciousness are, remember the model where the brain is made up of different offices all contributing, to form a whole image of the self and now send one or more of those offices home for the day. In hypnotic states, there is a reported loss of cognitive flexibility and willed action, where in the meditative state the sense of self diminishes and cognitive function is perceived to increase. This has been referred to in “phenomenological subtraction”.
Why bother with the specifics of explaining all this? Most of the people who bother to muddle through it will key off the magic number 4.5 beats per second and trip over their own feet in the haste to see if it works. Good luck with that. There’s a reason this is a commonly asked question, and that there are classes on this. If it were that easy, we could just drop in a copy of Gregorian Chants and drift along the celestial currents in our very own Neverland from day one.
Since, however, this is the real world and we (western rationalists) have been raised skeptics who question anything that isn’t material, we tend to disavow the more subjective elements of perception and consciousness (when we aren’t sabotaging own efforts with ego, control issues, lingering emotional vapors of the day).
To give yourself to the altered state is to give up the self (by all accounts) and that’s something that our culture does not prepare us to do. We are individualists, raised to be free thinking leaders and arrogant individualists with fierce attitudes of independence, and so giving up the self, letting it dissolve and evaporate into the aethyr and surrender to the whim of chance and the universe, goes against the grain. We have to push ourselves beyond that, into a place where we feel comfortable enough to relax into it in stages, usually with someone else around (metaphorically speaking) to tell us when we do something right and to cheer lead us like a physical therapist pushing us past our pain threshold.