Conscious awareness, as we understand it, is seen as the crowning jewel of animal evolution. It developed in the human species as our brains generated the kind of complexity needed to support such a capacity. As men devised elaborate hunting strategies and women taught themselves how to find and cultivate plants for food, tens of thousands of years ago, people first created art on walls and deep inside caves. At the same time, a curious trick was also discovered – the ability to switch off the conscious state in favour of an altered state.
The last surviving indigenous tribespeople, from places around the world such as the Amazon rainforests and the Southern African plains, have taught us that it is a natural primal need for humans to be routinely relieved of the burden of conscious thought. These people have regular social gatherings, weekly and sometimes several times a week depending on the season, where everyone in the community participates in the playing of music, drumming and dancing. The purpose of this activity is to attempt to enter into a state of trance.
Trance is an altered state of consciousness where a person becomes unaware of their physical body and sometimes unaware of their surroundings or time passing. This temporary deactivation of the mind is an important part of the lives of the tribespeople. It offers respite from the stress and hardship of living in danger of animal attack, from the grief of lost loved ones and the constant search for food in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
These same hardships are still present in humans living a modern lifestyle, albeit in different forms, and so also is the primal need to enter into a state of trance or to switch off the conscious mind. This is why we go out at the weekend to drink, dance and get ‘out of our minds’ and ‘off our heads’. People need relief from running in the hamster wheel of thoughts and worries.
The only problem with this is the side effects that come with using alcohol and drugs. Overuse can result in exhaustion, depression, addiction and ill health. In addition to the mental and physical risks, when we come back to sobriety, all the problems are still there and we have less energy in ourselves to deal with them. So what can we do to get out of our heads, as we all regularly need to do, without damaging ourselves or falling prey to addiction?
If we look to our tribal contemporaries we find that they are not only looking to turn off conscious thought during ritual ceremonies. They are also seeking to recover from illnesses. This process is mediated by someone in the community who is skilled in the art of inducing trance, a shaman or traditional healer. This person is believed to be capable of communicating between living people and those in the spirit realm. In Europe, we handed this role over to Christian priests who use tools such as frankincense to deepen the breath and ritual chant to bring the congregation into a meditative state.
For most people in Western world today, the ritual ceremonies of the Church are a thing of the past and shamanic trance belongs to another cultural landscape . Fortunately, there are many other ways to access the kind of conscious states that stimulate healing of the mind and regeneration of the body. Meditation for instance is a practice that trains a person to slow the racing of the mind, which in turn slows the heart and breathing to reset the body’s functioning.
Starting and maintaining a regular meditation or other relaxation practice like yoga or tai chi can be a big stumbling block for people. We know it will benefit us but we’re too wound up or distracted to actually do it. We need help and guidance. What is useful in this situation is to go to a practitioner or an event where you can be guided or worked on passively.
Acupuncture is an excellent way to enter into a deep meditative state, passively and effortlessly. You may arrive agitated and wound up but leave in a profoundly relaxed frame of mind. Small needles stimulate points on the body to access the brain in such a way that your internal stores of opiates are released and deep rest and relaxation is experienced.
Another passive process is a gong bath where Tibetan singing bowls and Chinese gongs are played to the attendants lying on the floor. Repetitive sound is what brings about trance-like deactivation of the mind, similar to what happens during repetitive drumming and dancing in tribal ceremonies. There is also hypnosis. This therapy, carried out by a psychotherapeutic counselor, is an immensely beneficial, effortless way to enter into trance where we can safely communicate with our secret selves.
Something that is very important to discover though, is a practice that you personally find brings you out of your mind. It is through the process of creative expression that we can really leave our thoughts behind and enter into a state of connection with ourselves. Every person has a different medium through which they can express themselves creatively. It might be painting or drawing, writing fiction or songs, wood carving, flower arranging, computer programming, photography, dance, whatever it is, this is what allows our inner selves to flow out of us, pushing aside the mind, filling us with energy to heal all the broken parts of ourselves both physical and mental.
It’s great to get ‘out of our heads’ at the weekend and very important to socialise and form bonds with people. But as well as distraction we all need connection, to each other but most of all, to ourselves. Creative and meditative practices, in whatever form we choose, are what release us from the cage of the mind.
Clare Foley is a biophysicist and a licenced naturopathic acupuncturist. She advises on healthcare that integrates the best of all evidence-based techniques. In her practice, Clare looks into what actually causes disease and what really works to get her clients back on track. You can find more about her work at Transformative Pathways.