Trance, Dance, and Ecstasy
  - A Planetary Rite of Passage
Steve Harkless

trance dancers photo

All over the world, the 'rave' scene is manifest; a whole culture has emerged from a central theme of dj's mixing records for the dancing crowds. This movement towards radical self-expression, freedom, and conscious experimentation has blossomed, grown, and evolved in all corners of the globe. Some aspects of the 'rave' experience have become cliché and are the subject of judgment from the outside. Yet beneath the chemical haze and the basic desire for a good party, there is a deeper and more profound purpose to the rave phenomenon and its underground roots.

For millennia humans have been dancing in the wilderness in ritual and in ceremonial rites of passage. In many cultures such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari, we can find techniques of trance dancing, which elevate them into ecstatic, altered states of consciousness. When the Bushmen enter this state, it is reported that such an incredible rush of energy surges through their bodies that they cannot help but fall to the ground. This has been compared to the kundalini rising- the dormant energy at the base of the spine that can be awakened through certain yogic techniques.

The word ecstasy has its roots in Greek, ec stasis- to be outside of oneself. In ancient Greece there were temples in which the rites of attaining ecstasy were performed, often with the help of the Soma. The term Soma is found in the writings of many ancient peoples from Greece to India; the ingredients are mysterious yet it was apparently some kind of psychoactive tea, possibly mushroom tea.

Currently, the most popular rave drug is 'ecstasy,' what used to be pharmaceutical MDMA. It can have the effects of heightening fleshy sensations, energizing dance movement and conversation. In this case, the individual has not left his/her body as in some ecstatic rites, rather, the body has become a more pleasurable place to be, charged with serotonin. What is interesting, however, is that ecstasy can urge people to connect through speech or touch, to almost go inside the other person. The ec stasis may be to become a part of somebody else, even a complete stranger. Perhaps the ego is still at play, yet the usual barriers of separation begin to dissolve. A sense of love and acceptance can arise in a large group of people.  The dangers of using too much ecstasy, of course, is that the serotonin function burns out and is lost.

The urge to dance and to enter altered states of consciousness is in fact part of a natural process. From the dawning of human culture, there have existed the 'rites of passage'. These rites are imprinted in the human psyche and contain psychic energy patterns, that is to say in Jungian terms -the archetypes of the collective unconscious. These archetypal rites of passage represent an important and sacred time, the coming into adulthood of an adolescent boy or girl. The primary and essential pattern is threefold.

The first rite is a separation from the mother and from all childhood associations.  It is a symbolic death of the childhood self. Sometimes a child is isolated in a cave for a duration of time, or he is sent to wander alone through the desert. In other instances, all of the boys or girls are taken as a group to one or more sacred sites, accompanied by the elders. It is there that rituals take place that are specific to each gender.

The second rite is an expansion of consciousness into the realm of the cosmos. At this time, special cave paintings and detailed ancestral knowledge might be revealed to the initiate. All night dances may also occur at these sites. And in some cultures, the use of psychoactive substances has a key function- to open the psyche to the greater cosmos and to enter the realm of spirit. Other methods employed include body mutilation, tattooing, scaring, and circumcision. Essentially, the experience leaves its mark on the psyche. For the young adult, it will not be forgotten.

The third and final rite is a return and reintegration into society, a symbolic rebirth. In one African tribe, the death rite is taken so seriously that the men pretend to have forgotten how to walk and must be taught again by the elders. In all cases, the new initiates must return to their village, or tribe, to integrate the special knowledge and experience into their lives. Their new identity now includes the greater cosmos. However it may be carried out, the coming of age rites are necessary to be considered an adult in any traditional culture. With such deep-rooted history, it is the necessary psychological step into adulthood.

Through time and the advent of civilization, these powerful rites of separation/expansion/rebirth have been lost. Still we see bar mitzvahs, or confirmation into the Catholic Church, yet material rewards are often an extra motivating factor. The cosmos is to be learned about in science class and the rite of graduation must propel the adolescent into the world to fend for himself. Upon turning 21, we can look forward to initiation by drinking ourselves into an ill stupor, remembering nothing on the following day. The rites have become secular in nature and do not fulfill the essential pattern that lies in the collective unconscious. The consequence is a form of neurosis, and a selfish, adolescent mentality, which drives much of our world. It is an egoic struggle resulting from a loss of human identity and a sense of disconnection from others and the planetary eco-system. Sadly, this neurosis, combined with the relentless institution of competing religions and racism, indeed characterizes the current human crisis. The hope is in the youth.

The rites of passage have been reinitiated; they break through the unconscious by their need to be fulfilled. Most 'ravers' seem to be in the age group of 14 - 20. This is appropriate considering that it is also the natural time to enter into adulthood. The stages of separation, expansion, and rebirth come to the surface and manifest themselves. They may be carried out successfully. The dj fills the role of the shaman/guide; yet because there are no traditional elders to guide the youth through the experience, the first stage may be an obstacle.

At most raves, there is a real embracing of the child-self by carrying stuffed animals, plastic jewelry, trip toys, and lollipops. This seems to be a phase for the young ones; it ends when they are ready to stop identifying with the clichés. By this time there may be some sort of ego death, perhaps through the use of psychedelics. It is a relatively dangerous period because there are no elders to guide them through the rite of rebirth. For this reason, youths must help each other to come through the experience. Otherwise, the separation/death rite can lead to a loss of identity that is followed by a downward spiral of drug use. On the other hand, for those who dance under the stars, there may be a natural expansion into the greater cosmos.

To quickly illustrate this theory of unconscious bleed-through, I will relate an incredible healing that I once observed at a rave in Denver, Co. It took place at the Denver coliseum. As I walked down through the bleachers and onto the lower dance floor, I experienced some sort of shift in consciousness that was created by all the dancers and ravers. It was no doubt due to the wide spread use of ecstasy and other psychoactive drugs. It felt like a separate plane of consciousness. I simply wandered about to observe what this young urban culture was up to. The crowd included many youths between 13 and 17 years of age. My timing was perfect as I happened upon a tribal healing of sorts. Six individuals gathered around a seventh, a girl who laid down on the ground. In unison, they put their hands on her belly and started to rub her. They moved all together as one body, rubbing in a circular motion. Then all at once they stopped, lifted the girl into the air, held her there for a moment, and then slowly let her down while moving her body from side to side. This motion enabled the girl to experience the cool air moving past her skin. These subtleties are enhanced by MDMA. What was truly incredible is that during this session, no one said a word as they all moved in perfect unison and timing. It was as if they were one mind, a mind that was recalling some sort of ancient healing ritual, something that you might see in Africa. When I asked one of the girls what they were doing she said, "I don't know." From this and the fact that nobody spoke a word during the ritual, I concluded that what I had witnessed was inspired in the moment and had no plan or forethought. The girl who experienced the healing came out of it most ecstatic.

The lesson that can be shown by using ecstasy, as we learn in much Eastern philosophy, is that we are not separate from one another or from the cosmos. The truth is that we do not need the pill to experience ecstasy. It is possible through music and dance alone, to open up to and receive the energies of one another, the earth and the cosmos. The love that is felt is always present; it does not come from the pill! Therefore it is up to us to access that energy, the experience of connection, and the dissolution of the ego. While still embracing individual expression, we may realize that we are all beautiful, individual expressions of the undivided whole. The dance is not a competition; it is a phenomenal reflection of the greater Self.

As individual self-consciousness and its ego-barriers dissolve on the dance floor, there is only one organism. A mass of bodies in movement - a collective mind. In more evolved times and places this could lead to full telepathic unification. Evolving to this level, we must find mental clarity and identity in the whole; it is not possible if we are lost in the drama and confusion of the illusive reality -the mind of separation and duality. Additionally, there is much to be gained by individual practice such as yoga and meditation. To go beyond psychoactive drugs is to learn how to integrate the experience into daily life. It is futile if we all love each other on Saturday night and then go back to the mundane world, only to be driven by fear and loathing. This is the third rite, and it is not easy -to integrate the experience into daily life.

The 'rave', along with its more mature underground scenes, is probably the most cohesive psychedelic movement; its implications reach further into society than that of the psychedelic 60's. All over the world these dances are occurring -a profound intermingling of different races, nationalities, and subcultures. In 2000, we had 'Earthdance' when people in 70 cities around the world were dancing all at the same time, listening to the same track- a prayer for global peace, while sending out their own prayers from each location. The 2001 Earthdance had over 150 cities and places that joined in unison. Most locations were being digitally recorded and streamed over the world wide web so that we could see each other dancing at the various sites. These events strengthen the grid of planetary consciousness as we are empowered by an expanded sense of purpose when we dance. However, there is still much work to be done. Therefore, it is essential right now for us to realize that the desire for peace and unification is not just a hippie thing, rather, it is necessary if we are to change the path of our grandfathers -the inevitable world wide war machine.

This rekindled form of initiation is an integral part of the process of transformation, a planetary rite passage. However, there are still a number of people that are closed to the experience because there is usually no live act, no band to hail praises, just dj's and electronic music. The rave scene indeed has its heroes, but it is no longer about who can play the best guitar lick or drum solo. Those who are still playing the rock star role have missed the point. This is for the masses; this is the music of the new tribes. Relentless bass kicks and harmonic tapestries reach into the past of the pow wow drum's heart beat, the jungly-intricate poly rhythms of Africa, or the spacey, filter sweep drone of the Australian didgeridoo. Organic sounds are often integrated which maintains balance. What is interesting is that with this new technology we can express regions of the cosmos that were not formerly expressed by most terrestrial instruments. We can now make our own music of the spheres, as in the mystic school of Pythagorous.

'Shamanic techniques' also come into play with genres such as psychedelic trance; the repetition of certain tones with increased beats-per-minute can induce a trance state. The various frequencies, aided by a powerful sound system, do resonate and open the energy centers of the body. The heartbeat of the bass kick keeps us grounded on Earth, while the higher frequencies open our crowns to the world of the sky.
As the veil of separation falls away then so to shall our hearts become open to one another in the realization of the brilliant undivided whole.    -I am another yourSelf.

Steve Harkless
Created: April 17, 2002
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Last modified: June 14, 2003