SynchroBlog: Entranced Prayer

Ok. We SynchroBloggers have been blogging about alternate states of consciousness and here is where I lay it on the line. I actively explore trance states as part of my prayer life.

When I say I meditate, I am not merely talking about reflecting on art displays and other practices in vogue within the emerging church, I am talking deep shifts in consciousness. Trance, or ekstasis as the ancient Greeks called it.

Why do I do this? Same reason as I practice other spiritual disciplines – to grow in faith, hope and love. I use ritual trance as an aid to deeper worship in the knowledge that we become like that which we worship. I simply find that meditative trances are a powerful aid to opening my awareness to God’s presence.

You see, it’s not as if I do this for the same reason as Buddhists. I seek no nirvana here as I already have unity with God through Christ Jesus. What I do seek though is to raise my awareness of that unity which I already have.

Now, most Christians that admit to this usually justify it on the basis of Church tradition, especially the practices of mystics both ancient and contemporary. But I want to draw people’s attention to our deepest traditions, the Bible. Here are some verses to reflect on:

He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. (Acts 10:10)

“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was.” (Acts 11:5)

“When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance” (Acts 22:17)

Who are these heretical people, engaging in visionary trances? None other than the apostles Peter and Paul themselves. And where does this occur in the Biblical story? At pivotal turning points; as through these experiences the gospel is opened up to the gentiles.

It’s as though Christians read over these words. For few register their import even though they are popular stories within the Bible. It suggests that very effective filters are in operation. So much so that even few Christian mystics make the connection back to these examples of listening prayer in scripture. There are even more verses on meditation for those who care to look. So here is what I say – ecstatic trance is not incompatable with evangelicalism – for the word itself affirms it’s value and efficacy.

I will repeat what I said in my earlier comments – God created all of our mind, God called all of it good, none of us are perfect, but nothing God created in us is irredeemable. That includes our unconscious and transconscious capabilities. We are called to worship God with all of our mind, with all of our bodies, with all that we are. So be wary of uncritically accepting something is demonic which everything in scripture affirms God created for good.

When Christians critique Buddhist or Yogic or Tantric or Pagan or Secular forms of meditation, the onus on us is to, not run away, but to teach a better way.

16 thoughts on “SynchroBlog: Entranced Prayer

  1. I guess one of the questions one would have to answer is what it means by “fell into a trance”. Was it something the individual sought and brought upon himself, or was it just something that happened?

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  2. Consider how you fall asleep each evening. Do you normally go up to a room associated with sleep? Do you put on comfortable clothes? Do you assume a posture that makes it easy to sleep – like lying down rather than sitting or standing up? Do you close your eyes and relax your breathing as you prepare yourself for sleep? Do you perform any personal rituals beforehand like reading a book to settle your mind? Would you answer yes to any of these questions?
    Now consider another question. Does any of this actually “make” you go to sleep? Can you bring on this altered state of consciousness we call sleep by will power alone? I would suggest the answer is no. In fact attempts to do so often have the opposite effect of keeping people awake. All you can really do is create the conditions that make it easier to fall asleep. That’s all. It’s the same for other alternate states of consciousness like trance. You can’t force it. You must “fall” into it, even when deliberate intention is involved.
    Now of course we must consider that altered states can come on people spontaneously without seeking it. Just as people sometimes fall asleep at the wheel without seeking it, sometimes people also fall into trance just driving along the road. We often call this “driving on autopilot” without recognizing what it really represents. Is that what happened to Paul and Peter? Possibly.
    But should also consider the possibility there was some intention involved. What would we expect to see? What sort of conditions would facilitate these shifts to trance consciousness? Well, focused attention is one of the main pre-requisites. How do you focus your attention? Prayer helps. So does hunger. So does secreting yourself away somewhere where you won’t be disturbed. All of these things are observable in the scripture passages cited above. Now I am not saying Peter and Paul actively sought this out. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Scripture doesn’t answer that question. But I do find the prevalence of visions in Acts and elsewhere and the value attached to them to be somewhat suggestive. It would seem the apostles weren’t exactly running away from this sort of experience.
    Another thing to consider is that people aren’t always aware that they’re creating the right conditions for trance even when they do. Some other things that help induce trance are: bright lights in a darkened rooms, repetitive music, repetitive speaking and expectations of amazing experiences. Now, am I talking about a rave concert or a Chatismatic worship service or about shamans drumming around a fire or about an evangelical revival meeting? We see this manifested in many contexts. Just because people are not always aware that they are creating the conditions for trance does not mean they aren’t seeking it out on some level. Cultural anthropology recognizes trance as common to religious experiences the world over. It occurs in Christianity too – even when Christians don’t always recognize it.
    So to go back to your original question, I don’t think we can conclusively say what Peter and Paul’s intentions were. But there is no evidence of them condemning it. And the only trance experiences spoken of in the New Testament were all spoken of favourably.

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  3. I appreciate the effort that you put into answering my question. Honestly I see this whole topic as an example of religious rabbit-trailing at its worst. Sure, the church, in some sectors, has been overly cerebral as it relates to the human conscious. Ecstatic experiences have been looked down upon and maligned by many. This has not been right.
    The fact that many unanswered questions remain, however, in regards to what the ‘trances’ etc. in the Bible were, does not, therefore, open up a full realm of legitimate possibilities as to what we would like it to mean. All we know from the Scriptures is that trances happened. Contrary to what you say about the trances ben spoken of favourably, it would rather seem from reading the text that they were spoken of dispassionately. For us to speculate beyond that and establish them as a common mode of worship is sure to end in error.
    What it smacks of to me is parched desert wanderers clamouring their way through the sand in pursuit of another mirage. Honestly, I have tried to be spiritually open minded, but I really think we are crossing the line when it comes to a number of these latest synchro-blogs.

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  4. Most broadly put, Matt, your topic is about what ails the Church in general right now: the limits of spiritual experience that so many complain about.
    To wonder about the ‘trances’ that Peter and Paul went into, the mechanics of it, shows how few people have actually experienced it in the contemporary Church. Why? Why are there so few avenues to spiritual experience outside of the three allowable ones: coincidences showing a prayer has been answered; answers that pop into your head; and the Bible. Anything else sends most Christians into an academic/theological whirlwind. That is how limited spiritual experience is in the Church. You get it through Christ, and you see God only in other humans, made in the image of God. It is thought as exceptional as the life of Jesus Himself.
    We must envy the early Christians. They lived in a time when spiritual experiences and knowledge had not been wiped out by the medieval Church. So there was a lingua franca, an obviousness that has been lost as the last Albegensian and Cathar heretics went to the stake.
    Our limited understanding of spiritual experiences is a product of Church’s historical dialectic.
    So Matt’s efforts to introduce the suppressed spiritual reality to the religion is a really tough sell. But it is critical if the Church is to survive into the future. Modern humans are used to science expanding knowledge of reality as inert matter, and they expect religion to expand their knowledge of spiritual experience the same way, with an open and exploring mind, not held back through self-referencing theology and tradition.
    The Church has a number of key concepts that block modern Christianity from understanding its limitations spiritually. They automatically pop-up when the topic comes up, that helps it to avoid from simple stark ignorance of spiritual reality. It is a classic taboo. Christianity is not interested in it. It only wants civilized humans to get Saved and get to heaven. Everything else is irrelevant. This is increasingly making the Church irrelevant.
    I commend you, Matt, for your explorations. My experiences have been a little different. I was a cynical, secular manager in big business, when out-of-the-blue, the Creator started doing the Peter and Paul thing to me. There is nothing more exhausting than when the Creator gets that close.
    That journey, began on the first day of the first spring of the new millennium, opened my eyes to the shocking lack of spiritual understanding in all religions, despite the mountains of what the civilized mind has actually figured out.
    Christianity needs to know itself from outside of its box, and that is a bitter pill to swallow when you believe you actually contain the box. The Church only controls its own meaning of Christ. Modern humans want to know what is in the darkness that the Light is standing in. Can the Church begin to learn, so that it can help guide this quest for the Dawn? Or will it sit and wonder why the civilized still haven’t accepted Christ after 2000 years, and created heaven-on-earth, when it seems so obvious?
    [btw, Matt, just getting the book off to you now. Being without a job, I’ve been having a hard time keeping up with the orders. I hope you enjoy it when you get it… thanks!]

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  5. I agree that this is an important issue for Christians to come to grips with. When so many bypassing Christianity on the its perceived ‘unspirituality’ it puts a big onus on Christians to critically examine what passes for spirituality in their churches in light of their pluralistic context. Agree thoroughly.
    A couple of points of contention though.
    Firstly, I will keep disagreeing with you that Christians only see God though other humans. It is true of many Christians, granted, and particularly true of noisy Christians, granted, but not true of all Christians everywhere. I for one have always found solace in connecting with God through bush walks. And one can hardly read the story of St Francis with out appreciating his deep affinity with the Spirit of God in creation. I know you will continue to disagree with me so it would appear we are at a standstill on this but I would suggest that you consider whether your own personal experience of Christianity in your youth was universally representative.
    My other point of disagreement is the necessity of invoking the Albegensian and Cathar heretics to speak of spiritual experiences within Christianity. Leaving aside why they were considered heresies for the moment, my point is what is sitting there staring at us out of the Bible itself has never been lost, its only been forgotten about by various branches of Christianity, some more so than others, NeoCalvanist Christianity most particularly. The Bible itself challenges us to a more expansive understanding of spirituality.

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  6. Where the major thrust in 20th century Christianity, in Canada at least, was on social justice for humans going through the trauma of developing capitalism, it appears the focus of 21st century Christianity needs to be a reconnection with Creation itself.
    The core issue within modern civilization is its human-centeredness. There is nothing that Christianity misses as a whole on any issue. Any point can be brought up and the Church has a theology on the bookshelf somewhere. It is usually astonishingly correct.
    Creation theology is making a resurgence. Polls show conservative denominations in the United States are suddenly becoming ‘green’ because that is attractive to their parishoners.
    Theologians are currently mining the Bible for its support of environmentalism. My dad, the most intellectual Christian I know, was always ‘at one’ with God’s Creation through his garden, eschewing consumerism to the extreme, and clearing the woods around our cottage. It has always been there, and always will.
    The major problem is the state of the average Western human, who has little or no daily contact with the life of Nature. Life is lived within perfect, manufactured objects and processed food.
    When they do come into contact with Nature, the modern psychic structure perceives reality as first concept, and then apply those concepts to their understanding. Spirit must go through the filter of the mind first. So Creation is seen from a Christo-scientific approach to reality.
    By-passing our dominant mind’s filter is currently a learned skill. It is difficult to do, both in relation to other humans, and even more so to Creation. The tree suddenly has ‘value’ as part of God’s Creation. Then we see the finite life in it, an expression of the beauty of God. So, for God’s sake, we must hold it in reverence.
    Why don’t we, as humans, have a direct connection with that tree? What holds us back from the spirit of that tree, that can only be interpreted through the consciousness of God? It is hard enough to convince people of the existence of an invisible God, and our modern assumptions prevent us from seeing God in everything, because we live in man-made objects in cities. We have to work hard at it, re-building an experiential level using concepts as the gateway.
    But it runs into roadblocks. As much as Christianity has something for everyone, as a whole, the dominant orthodoxy is to separate Creation between God, humans and inert matter. This promotes humans’ special place in the hierarchy of Creation, keeping us human-centered, while giving us cursory appreciation of the full-parameters of spirit-consciousness in the life of Nature, as separate consciousnesses but still a part of God, like humans are. We believe Creation was Given for us to manage.
    This ‘other’ kind of spiritual appreciation by-passes the qualities of the dominant mind of the civilized. You just have to be silent to hear the wisdom of the hawk, trees and rivers. They speak, one with God’s wisdom, but not fallen like humans, into the quagmire of Adam’s choice of living from knowledge over wisdom. A tree is in heaven right now. It does not have the veil of the mind deciding what is reality and what is not.
    All civilized religions are concerned with the human relationship with the Godhead first. Appreciating Creation comes second. Understanding Creation as superior to the civilized, because it does not exist in the limits of time and space, is barely on the map.
    Bridging this gap in perception requires first, recognizing the qualities of the dominant mind and how it limits our perception. And two, asking for a broadened spiritual experience that circumvents our minds. It means letting go of our security that the mind provides for us right now, and are habituated in.
    True Christians know how frightening it is to accept Christ and let go. Jesus and the Bible then become the tether of our security. We will consciously act as Christ said and watch for the invisible blessing to manifest. But it is a trial, calling on massive courage and pain to go through that transformation.
    Christ was all about human relations living in the hierarchical structure of civilization. The curse of Adam was not lifted. The Church exists to bring together the dominant mind of civilization with the pure confusion of Christ, demanding we choose the meaning of contradictory wisdom. That is the path the Church focused on, as part of the civilized story.
    Today we reap the rewards of billions of books in thousands of libraries on the meaning of Christ. Everything must go through that theology, and conform to Christ as Savior. It remains human-centered. Creation is finite and below the eternal human soul. This perception is wrong, and has contributed to the limiting of spiritual awareness for the civilized. Bulk Christianity is about getting souls matured and into heaven. Trees with consciousness makes no sense. The spiritual sensibility has been lost in the conquest over non-Christian spirituality, and the misinterpretation of the Commandment to have no other God but God. The Creator didn’t say there were no other spirits, just don’t worship them as God. This has developed over time to mean, in our focused spirituality, that the God-human pipeline is the only spirituality. Everything outside of that pipe is to be ignored. Thus our spiritual sensibility is severely limited.
    I imagine my experience is a rare thing. The Creator came, not as the Christian God of my culture, but as the Native’s Great Spirit. Why? What is wrong with civilization? What do the Natives know that we cannot approach, outside of concept?
    So I had to let go, and it was a very frightening experience. I challenged God on everything, and He beat me. My jaw dropped at what He showed me. What are the implications of being civilized? We rush to ‘contextualization’ to contain it intellectually. But God pulled that rug out from underneath me repeatedly. Reality is not what civilization believes it to be. Everyone has bits of the puzzle, but it is scattered throughout the globe.
    We criticize reincarnation, without understanding our own limitations clinging to the ‘zero-sum theory of life:’ the soul is born in the womb, one life to live, one chance to get into heaven. How could we get that wrong? Why would Jesus not tell us, even duped us onto the wrong path with the Resurrection?
    God cannot create inert matter. It is impossible. Everything He Creates is spirit. Spirit is, by definition, conscious. How can God have limits? Creation is much more than just God’s specific consciousness in everything. Perhaps that is why we are so lonely, and cling to Christ as our only hope in this desert of inert matter?
    Adam chose to live by knowledge over wisdom. God granted his wish, and made this Creation of time-and-space for us to decide what reality is. It is only the human mind that is stricken with this perception. And the mind has evolved to realize that time-and-space do not exist. It is only a measurement for the mind to have structure.
    For those who wanted relief from the growth of knowledge over wisdom, the progress of civilization, God sent Jesus, so our souls could have some relief from the condition.
    The Church chose, and we are still living with the meaning it created for Jesus. It is our paradigm, our choice supported by the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
    But pure wisdom drives one nuts. It has infinite, contradictory meaning. We must choose, as fallen humans, what meaning we want and go with it. The Church has done a pretty good job with what it had. And it worked well up until this point. But it needs some clarity. It has severe limitations, spiritually, and will defend those limitations with the brilliance it always has.
    But modern humans don’t care. Its too mentally complex, and are just going elsewhere. What is a genius to do if no one wants to listen?
    We are entering the most spiritually creative time since the Axial Age. The benefits of the civilized mind can be harnessed by the heart if we have the courage to recognize its limits and let go. Buddhism meshes well with the relativism of science. Hinduism offers an enhanced spiritual reality evolved unbroken from pre-civilized times. Islam offers the best way of living in civilization ever created. And Christianity has the lightning of Christ.
    But all are divorced from Nature, the Earth, Creation because they exist in civilization, where humans shifted their primary relationship with natural reality to the hierarchical organization of human relations, a consequence of using knowledge over wisdom, love and truth.
    The only thing missing is what the non-civilized know, human life that is centered in the heart, connected to the spirituality of Nature and the Creator as one, uncompromised by the division and analysis dominant and necessary to negotiate civilized life and survival. Their minds reference wisdom within the spiritual reality of Creator/Creation before acting. Wisdom remains dominant, reality remains whole, the natural human as part of Creation, not the master, remains. They have not lost the sensibility to connect with this. And civilization has never been further removed from it than in our pure mind culture.
    If you anchor yourself in God and Christ, the journey can be made. First white men were freed, then the slaves, and then women. It is now time to free Creation from the childishness of civilization. Humans are not the center of God’s conscious universe, but the children of Creation. As our parents, they have coddled us because we did not know better. But that time is up. And if we are the mature Christians we think we are, then we are spiritually mature and courageous enough to trust God on this, and ask Him if there is anything to this. Do Christians just know about human spirituality living in this finite Creation, the dust? Or can they go one step further in their trust, let go into what seems like an abyss, and let Spirit carry them to the other side? Here, now?
    It is quite the ride when it all starts to unravel. They won’t teach it in Divinity School. It’s not textbook. It’s an experience.
    Everyone may wince at ‘the Age of Aquarius,’ the time of the water bearer, carrying the fish that is oblivious to what it is being carried in.
    Not to worry. The Creator has His own description.
    It is called the ‘Time of One.’

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  7. Thanks for the tip Geoff. Hadn’t heard of ‘soaking’ before. Seems like there might be some level of crossover so I’ll check it out. I am currently doing a paper on meditation and contemplative prayer for Lausanne in 2008 and this could be worth including something on.

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