Years ago I had a cello student whom I’ll call Susanne. She was a beginner in her early fifties, and she had had a tough, mean, incompetent cello teacher before me. In some ways she was worse off than a total beginner. At the cello, she had multiple bad habits and handicaps, musical as well as psychological. She was uncoordinated and reactive; the least bit of information from me sent her into a tizzy of fear. She was afraid of not understanding the exercise, not knowing what to do, not pleasing the teacher, and so on. I’d ask her to do a simple thing—play a C-major scale in two octaves, two notes per bow—and she’d freak out. Her eyes froze, her breathing went shallow. When she entered that state, she essentially left my presence. I could strip to my underwear and she wouldn’t have noticed it.
Susanne called that state of hers “thinking.” She’d swear she was thinking about the cello, about music, about the C-major scale. She believed she was trying to calculate what fingerings to use, where to place the bow. But the truth is that she had fallen into temporary insanity: she was paralyzed by fear, by the traumas of the past, by her suppositions about herself and the cello. Her thoughts were overcome by a swarm of negative emotions, all of which we could simply name “judgment & punishment.”
I’d try to catch her attention. I’d wave my hand in front of her face. I’d clap my hands, make faces, whistle. The only thing that worked was to actually remove the cello from her hands. As I did that, I’d say to her, “Stop thinking.”
It was a joke, of course, because she wasn’t thinking.
After a while we got it so that, every time she fell into her frazzled panic, I’d say “Stop thinking!” and she’d break out of it with a smile. The smile indicated that her mind was clear, and then we’d be able to start working on actual cello playing.
When we think that we’re thinking, we’re actually doing any number of other things: feeling, sensing, reacting, freaking out, and above all judging. When we stop judging, proper thinking becomes so unobstructed that we become clairvoyant; we see and understand everything. This proper thinking includes a non-intellectual dimension that we might call “intuition” or “creativity.”
Our minds work in complex ways, and we don’t have good words to describe states of the brain. Even “states of the brain” is a misnomer, since there isn’t and there can’t be a separation between the body and the mind, between the mental and physical. Every state of the brain is a whole-person state And I believe that states of the brain tend not to be easily categorized, as if you were either this or that: either in the left brain or right brain, either rational or irrational, either analytical or intuitive, either bread or cheese. I think our minds tend to be like minestrone. Its ingredients have been simmering in the pot for a good while, and you can’t un-cook the tomatoes and separate them from the beans.
My student’s agitation, which she called “thinking,” was a problem. But the solution turned out to be a version of the problem, as it were; a sort of Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hide’s problem. It, too, is called “thinking.”
I believe Susanne entered a trance at the cello. That was the problem. And I believe she learned to enter a different type of trance at the cello. That was the solution.
My Mac OS desktop dictionary defines trance as “a half-conscious state characterized by an absence of response to external stimuli, typically as induced by hypnosis or entered by a medium; a state of abstraction.”
My word-processing dictionary says it is “a state in which somebody is dazed or stunned or in some other way unaware of the environment and unable to respond to stimuli; a hypnotic or cataleptic state; a state of rapture or exaltation in which somebody loses consciousness; the state of apparent semi-unconsciousness that a spiritual medium enters into, allegedly in an attempt to communicate with the dead.”
A state of abstraction! Catalepsy! Allegations! Communicating with the dead! You can see trance is sensational.
And impossible to define.
A voodoo priestess, communing with the spirits of the dead after a frenzied ceremony, is in trance. But a three-year-old watching a cartoon on TV is also in trance. When you’re at the supermarket trying to remember what your wife told you to pick up, you enter a trance. Your mind goes zip zoop zap, you free-associate, you hallucinate a little, and—yes! Toilet paper!
Let’s just say trance is many things, including a portal to knowledge and insight belonging to either your inner processes, or—allegedly! sensationally!—to unfathomable sources outside yourself. Alive or dead, those sources are fundamental to your wellbeing. It behooves you to tap them.
States of trance are so common, so ordinary, so habitual for all of us that we might deem them inevitable, an integral part of the human experience, like breathing, circulation, and digestion. In a trance you might isolate yourself from the people around you, at a time when they need you, or when you need them. You might not notice that the house is burning down, because listening to Abba on your iPod has put you into a cataleptic trance. On the other hand, in a trance you might be able to access hidden riches, reserves of talent, intuition, information; you might be able to overcome a physical or psychological block; you might be able to learn something quickly and thoroughly; you might be able to tap into your unconscious, and, beyond it, the energies of the whole interconnected universe.
So, there are many types and degrees of trance, and merits and demerits to all these states. But suppose you decide you want to be in a trance for constructive purposes, to learn, to create, to find solace, to heal. How can you enter a trance?
Both extreme agitation (Frank Sinatra about to enter the stage! Bobbysockers fainting left and right!) and extreme calm (a long meditative session in the dark…) can trigger trance states. Sounds, sights, movement, smells can all trigger trances. The smell of incense burning might put you in a light trance. But so might the smells of coffee brewing and cookies baking. Or a favorite perfume that your nose detects on a pretty woman who walks by.
Locomotion is trance-inducing. Walk around the square or plaza, or walk around the block, or just pace your living room. If you do it for long enough, with a certain pace and rhythm, you’ll enter a trance. If you dance, alone or with a partner, in public or in private, to music or even to silence, you’ll enter a trance. If you ride a bicycle, stationery or mobile, you’ll enter a trance. A regular rhythm is part of it. Body and breath, mind and eyes, they all submit to the rhythmic pattern and re-organize themselves.
Looking fixedly at a point or image might put you into a trance. Looking at a moving image might put you into a trance. Sitting in a dark movie theater might put you into a trance, even in the absence of an actual movie being shown. Wave a finger back and cross in front of your eyes. Look at the moving finger, and you might enter a trance. Look at whatever lies beyond your finger—a wall, passing cars, the TV—and you might enter a trance.
It seems illogical, but in fact it makes perfect sense. Psychophysical states are most often a paradoxical combination of opposing forces, such as reason and unreason, consciousness and the subconscious, left brain and right brain. It’s therefore logical that contradictory stimuli—sound and silence, agitation and meditation, locomotion and rest—might put the mind into a trance. The trance is a paradox; the trigger of the trance is a paradox, too.
For a period of three years I wrote a very short story every day. Most often I did it at night, sitting at home. But I wrote stories while riding the subway, while waiting for my wife while she tried on clothes at a store, on airplanes and trains. To start the story, I needed to enter some sort of trance; not a voodoo frenzy but a light-hearted dreamy space. Sometimes I sat on the couch nibbling at the plastic cap of my pen. Sometimes I looked at my bookshelves, not singling out volumes and titles, but just running my eyes slowly back and forth and up and down, taking in the irregular patterns of books.
On occasion it took me forty minutes of sitting and waiting until the brain was good and ready. Once I passed through the portal, though, the story would practically write itself. A character would enter the page and say something I couldn’t have imagined just a second before. A tone of voice emerged, and the story unfolded in a style I had never before used. A secondary character would come in and take over, start a fight, or say something so absurd that I’d have to stop writing and just laugh until I cried.
I think Susanne learned to exit the Mr. Hyde trance and enter the Dr. Jekyll trance. Life’s traumas triggered her Hyde trance at the cello. The Jekyll trance was triggered by a guy taking something away from her—the actual, physical cello—while speaking soothing words with a bedside manner: “Stop thinking. Stop thinking. Stop thinking, my friend. Ah, thank you. You look so sweet when you aren’t thinking! Here, I have a cello for you.” And the world of music was hers to explore.
©2016, Pedro de Alcantara