ASC, altered states of consciousness, sit at the heart of what occult and pagan practices teach today. From the light trance like states of spell work to the deeper states allowing astral projection and lucid dreaming, ASC is a key element in, if not an essential mechanism behind nearly all the mysteries of modern practices.
From the internalist, who sees the power and processes as internal and the tools as nothing more than props to prompt the imagination with useful symbols, to the externalist, who believes the forces are external to him/her self, the power of the altered state opens channels of communication for deeper meaning and understanding. The internalist sees this as knowing the self better, delving the inner depths of the psyche to discover and root out the demons and bogarts lurking in the recesses of the human heart. The externalist see the reality of opening doorways to other worlds with strange and wonderful (sometime terrifying) hosts of new beings with whom to interact.
Regardless of your perspective, the ASC is a tool of great personal power and potential for personal growth and awareness, a necessary tool for daily life and those little moments of inconvenience that crop up from time to time. Even if you don’t believe in the power of traveling to other perceptional realities that in some way mirror this one, it is still useful in focusing your attention and efforts on tasks at hand, dispelling the extraneous static of daily emotional residues, and gaining a measure of control over the self. Learning to control your states of awareness is an essential tool to the modern occultist or practicing pagan, even if you don’t practice the mystical or magical elements of your faith.
So, where to begin?
That, I’m afraid, is the big question. There is a reason this is a commonly asked question on forums and that meditation and ASC seminars are a million dollar a year business. I personally believe it has a lot to do with the fact Western Culture runs cross grained to the idea of “surrendering the ego” as suggested in the definition of Ecstatic Trance.
Whether we are control freaks with authority issues or subjected persons with persecution complexes, the Western Euro-centric Culture celebrates the individual and promotes personal power, individual responsibility, and self awareness. It is a hedonistic orgy of selfishness and self promotion that glories in seeking attention and approval, or validation.
Where does that leave us when seeking the altered perceptional awareness of ecstatic trance states so jealously sought by modern ‘shamanic’ practitioners? With a lot of obstacles to surmount.
In traditional societies (read: indigenous cultures before western influences and ideas) a practitioner often served an apprenticeship. The length of the apprenticeship and the things studied would necessarily be culture and tradition specific, so that the Ojibwa Medicine man would learn to appropriately treat with his Geebawug allies in the spirit world, while witchcraft apprentices might spend more time learning the art of flying in spirit form (astral projection).
You could expect to see a series of dangerous challenges, some including toxic poisons, others trials of courage and survival that teach self confidence. These tests and trials were designed to push the apprentice beyond the safe and comfortable zones of control into the realms of the unknown and the uncertain where s/he must face his inner turmoil and either surrender or emerge victorious.
We, in the Western World, tend to over romanticize this. Being lost in a cave with no food and a couple gallons of water for a week would be considered extremely traumatic by modern standards, not only for the duress on the mind being without stimulation in isolation that long, but the stress on the body as well. What about being left at sea for a month, fending for the self, at the mercy of the elements?
Today, we have programs like recapitulation, re-birthing, and sensory deprivation therapies that assist us in bypassing the hurdles in our way to surrendering, which only leaves the ‘watcher in the dark’ to trick as you fall into a new awareness.