Trance, Transcendence, and the Underworld
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Article by Anonymous Contributer
For centuries, Yogis, Shamans, Mystics, and Religious Devotees have directly experienced a powerful and unique level of consciousness that has commonly been referred to as “the altered state”. Miraculous abilities belonging to these men and women have been attributed to this unique altered state of awareness. Despite similarities in our cultures, the practices and rituals used to achieve this state vary greatly from one tradition to the next. Through scientific analysis, is it possible to uncover a physiological similarity between these diverse practices? What, if any, is the unifying scientific thread between the ancient practices found throughout the world?
There are as many names for this altered state as there are traditions that encompass it. Some refer to it as the Underworld, while others describe it as the Trance state or Transcendence. Thanks to the efforts of western science, the modern human is beginning to form a unified picture of how this mystical state may be accessed without the associated superstition or dogma.
In this article we will examine a number of compelling peer-reviewed research papers, sourced from respected scientific journals, such as the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine. Incredibly, these articles seem to suggest a common thread between the various methodologies employed for achieving the altered state.
In a fascinating research paper titled, “A Physiological Evaluation of Meditation, Hypnosis, and Relaxation”(1), Subjects were extensively monitored while wide awake, during meditation (Transcendental Meditation and simple word type), during hypnosis (relaxation and task-type), and during regular relaxation. Subjects gave a verbal comparative evaluation of each state. The verbal results clearly marked a preference for the relaxation states (relaxation, relaxation-hypnosis, meditation) compared to the regular alert state. Interestingly, there were no significant differences between the relaxation states except for the measured “muscle activity” in which meditation was superior than the other relaxation states. Overall, there were significant differences between task-hypnosis and relaxation-hypnosis. Interestingly, no significant differences were found between Transcendental Meditation and simple word meditation. For the subjective measures, relaxation-hypnosis and meditation were significantly better than relaxation, yet no significant differences were found between meditation and relaxation-hypnosis. (1)
This initial study may hint at a similar underlying mechanism between structured relaxation techniques, such as hypnosis, and word-type meditation, such as Transcendental Meditation. If this is accurate, there must be some form of physiological evidence to support this hypothesis.
Thanks to research published in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology(JPSP), researchers have discovered a direct relationship between our ability to relax and the beneficial effects of meditation. For four successive days, ten experienced meditators were asked to relax for five minutes, meditate for twenty minutes, and then relax for five minutes. In contrast, ten other subjects who had no training or experience with meditation were asked to relax for five minutes, rest for twenty minutes, and then relax for five minutes again. Physiological arousal and subjective arousal (cognitive, somatic, relaxation) were measured throughout the experiment. The results of this study indicated that meditation was associated with generally reduced arousal, although, while meditating, meditators did not evidence lower levels of arousal than non-meditators did while resting.(2) The results of this study reveal that an individual’s ability to relax plays an important role in achieving this altered state. But is the altered state only achieved through relaxation? What does this evidence mean for more dynamic forms of altered states such as dance or hypnosis?
In a peer-reviewed study conducted in 1975, researchers uncovered an interesting connection between passive techniques for achieving altered states, such as meditation, and dynamic techniques, such as hypnosis.(3) The study compared electroencephalogram (EEG) readings of subjects engaged in transcendental meditation and a second group engaged in self-hypnosis. Incredibly, the EEG results of the long-term meditators and those experienced with self-hypnosis were strikingly similar. Both groups (TM and self-hypnosis) displayed a significant increase in theta waves, with marked decrease in beta brainwaves. Despite the difference in ideologies, it would seem that there is a common physiological manifestation of achieving the altered state despite the variance in gross technique.
There is still much to discover concerning the nuances of the elusive altered state. Despite the variance in protocol, the unique physiological markers discovered through these opposing techniques is strikingly similar.(4) Perhaps further research of this nature will assist in providing a standardized western clinical practice for achieving the altered state, free of religious ideology or cultural stigma.
(1) A physiological and subjective evaluation of meditation, hypnosis, and relaxation. Morse DR, Martin JS, Furst ML, Dubin LL Psychosom Med 1977 Sep-Oct;39(5):304-24
(2) Effect of Transcendental Meditation versus resting on physiological and subjective arousal. Holmes DS, Solomon S, Cappo BM, Greenberg JL J Pers Soc Psychol 1983 Jun;44(6):1245-52
(3) A controlled study of the EEG during transcendental meditation: comparison with hypnosis. Tebecis AK Folia Psychiatr Neurol Jpn 1975;29(4):305-13
(4) A comparison of somatic relaxation and EEG activity in classical progressive relaxation and transcendental meditation. Warrenburg S, Pagano RR, Woods M, Hlastala M J Behav Med 1980 Mar;3(1):73-93