Cleansing the Doors of Perception
In Plato’s Phaidros Sokrates is made to say that “our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness.” The madness that he is speaking of is telestic, initiatory and prophetic madness, where one is lifted out of their normal self and filled with something higher, diviner. The Greeks had a number of words to describe these states. Ekstasis meant literally to be taken out of one’s self, a state similar to ekphron meaning “out of one’s senses.” Katokoche was their word for possession, a concept closely allied with enthousiasmos, which meant to be filled with a god, or literally “a god is within.” When someone is theoleptos, they are “seized by a god,” which can also be described as being mainomenos, or enmaddened, a title shared by Dionysos and his worshipers alike. All of this could also be called simply epipnoia or inspiration.
A helpful way to understand this is to imagine yourself as a pool of water. Usually the water is murky and dark so that all you can see within is the grime and detritus that has floated up to the surface. But at other times the water clears and upon its crystal surface one can see the wonders of heaven revealed – or mysterious things peering up from the depths. The murkiness of the water is caused by our ego-consciousness, our fears and anxieties, our wants and needs, the trivial concerns of our daily lives such as what we’re going to fix for dinner tonight or anger at the asshole who cut us off on the way into work this morning, our societal conditioning, the expectations that both we and others have for us – the white noise that’s constantly going on in the back of our heads. For the average person this is what constitutes their self, the face which they present to the world and the part of their being which takes up so much of their time that they may not even be aware that there is anything more. But Dionysos teaches us otherwise, shows us the immensity of our spirits and offers us a path to reconnection with those hidden, shadowy parts of ourselves. To do so, we must simply let go – stop associating ourselves with that ego-consciousness and come into contact with a more vital, authentic, and powerful level of being, transforming ourselves into a vessel through which beautiful visions can flow.
These visions can come from one of two directions. In the first instance they can come from within, or to return to our original metaphor of the pool, from below. Such things consist of symbols, dreams, fantasies, other aspects of our personalities and even our higher selves, our Agathos Daimon in Greek thought. Each of us has a complex internal world woven of images, memories, desires, dreams, etc. When we have access to this dark, nourishing realm of the imagination we find ourselves creative, whole and vital individuals. But this world can be uncomfortable for many, and society does its best to close off access to it by telling us that it is frightening, dirty, violent, irrational and impractical. All of which it most certainly can be. But it is a part of us and if we are to become whole people we must not be afraid to walk within this world, to give voice to that part of ourselves, to manifest the numinous within our lives, to heed what messages it may have for us – regardless of how “crazy” this may make us appear in the eyes of outsiders.
But the phenomena that we’re discussing are not simply internal and psychological. In such states we can open ourselves to influences that lay outside of ourselves, to beings that are normally quite distinct from us such as spirits, natural forces, daimones, gods, etc., all of which can influence, merge with, speak to and through us. There are varying levels of contact and communion with these external beings during trance states – the lowest, perhaps being inspiration, wherein one experiences themselves in conversation with the being but is still in full possession of their faculties and conscious self. At the other end of the spectrum the conscious self is fully submerged and the spirit or god takes complete possession of one’s body, compelling its movement and speaking through one like an actor wearing a mask. Between these two poles are a whole range of phenomena, with varying degrees of awareness and bodily control.
Now, while it is convenient to draw a distinction between these two types of trance – the inner and outer – there are also times when they seem to overlap, when the lines blur and we cannot tell if a dream might have originated outside of ourselves, or if a spirit may be speaking from somewhere deep within us. Mystics from many traditions would have us believe that such a distinction serves only a limited, pragmatic purpose anyway, and that upper and lower worlds penetrate and bleed through each other until all is united in the harmony of creation. But you know how untrustworthy those mystics can be.
The ancient Greeks recognized a number of different methods for triggering and achieving these altered states of consciousness, all of which relate in some way to the world of Dionysos. Perhaps the most characteristically Dionysian of these was through dance and music. In the Ion Plato informs us that the mainades had special dances and responded only to particular types of music: “they have a sharp ear for one tune only, the one which belongs to the god by whom they are possessed, and to that tune they respond freely in gesture and speech, while they ignore all others.” What information we have about this special mainadic type of dance indicates that it is very similar to the dances performed by modern-day Vodouisants – wild, rhythmic, with a strong backward tossing of the head. Euripides in The Bakchai describes them as dancing “with head tossed high to the dewy air,” and has Pentheus say, “I was tossing my head up and down like a Bacchic dancer.” Of Dionysos it is said that he will “bring his whirling mainades, with dancing and with feasts.” We have evidence of this particular type of dancing not just from literature but depicted on a great number of vase paintings. Always the mainad is shown with a strong backward bend to her head. Whipping one’s head about like this can cause disorientation in the inner ear and vertigo-like dizziness. It can also lead to a powerful shift in consciousness and possession by the god.
When attempting to induce a trance state it is important to pay attention to your surroundings. These can play a very important role, either making it a lot easier or stopping it outright. For instance a setting which is away from the city in some wild place like a desert or forested mountain – under the open night sky, with a crackling bonfire, the scent of pine and incense strong in the air, the droning sound of cicadas surrounding you – is going to make entering a trance very easy. Sitting on the couch in your overly hot living room while your husband watches wrestling and your daughter slams her juice cup repeatedly into the wall will make trancing very difficult. Not impossible, of course – sometimes trance-states can come upon us spontaneously, regardless of our surroundings or what we’re doing – but it’s certainly not conducive to such states. Another important aid would be austerities – sleep deprivation, fasting, physical exertion, etc which all help loosen the rational mind’s control and assists our souls in attaining ekstasis. Additionally, alcohol and drugs, particularly entheogens, have a longstanding history with ecstatic trance states.
One tool that is very helpful in attaining a trance state and has few, if any, negative side-effects, is meditation and visualization. Meditation may seem like a practice that is completely antithetical to the Dionysian bios. It probably conjures images of New Age hippies doing strange things with crystals as they chant meaningless syllables or Buddhist monks in rigid zazen postures, quietly contemplating the nothingness that lies behind their navels. And yeah, that doesn’t really fit in with the realm of the wild and rapturous god of life who is hailed by the dancing, singing, maddened crowd passionately crying “Euoi!” – or what he teaches about how we must be engaged in life, active, fiercely claiming our joy from the world. And yet, we must not forget that Dionysos is always a paradox and that stillness is as much characteristic of him as motion. Remember, Dionysos’ supreme symbol is the mask which hangs serenely from the pillar, peering out onto the world around him. Before Dionysos manifests in the riot of colorful new growth he is the empty vine branch, pruned almost to the point of death, slumbering in the world below. He is the calmness at the center of the storm and the silence between notes in a song. He is also Zagreus, the Great Hunter, which requires action to catch his prey – but also great concentration and focus. And so meditation can indeed play an important role in your relationship with the god, serving as a way to quiet your raging emotions, to connect you with his somber, still, quiet vegetative aspects, to give you focus generally, to ground you and bring about awareness of the moment and of our bodies and as a means of opening the doors within us.
There is no one right way to meditate. The important thing is to bring about calmness within yourself and a growing awareness of things, both internally and in the world around you. If you are so caught up in how you’re meditating that you can never find this serenity you’re just wasting your time. But here are some tips that I’ve found personally helpful.
First I recommend finding a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. Sit in a relaxing posture – don’t even try yoga postures unless this is something that you’ve been working on – and start to breathe deeply and rhythmically. Focus on your breathing, how your breath circulates through your body and the effect this has on you. Direct your thoughts to a specific end so that they don’t chase themselves around in your head or add to the cluttered white noise of your mind. This may be contemplation of one of Dionysos’ names or myths, a particular idea, image, color, scent, etc., music you have playing in the background, or just stillness and emptiness if you wish. Stay like this for as long as you feel necessary, alternating focused thoughts with free-flowing mental tangents. Play around in your head. Try directing your thoughts, creating scenarios and images, thinking of only one thing – and absolutely nothing else – for as long as you can and then stretching that time further and further until you are completely absorbed by that single thought for 24 hours or longer. (Aleister Crowley had difficulty with this, so don’t get discouraged if you fail at it, as there are benefits to even attempting this practice.) Try not thinking at all, but just being, soaking in the sensations around you. Anything and everything, as long as you’re not ruminating over your problems for the millionth time that day or contemplating what color you want to paint the kitchen come spring.
Regular meditation will make it easier to enter trance states and expand your consciousness, just as it’s easier to navigate through a forest when you’ve been there plenty of times before. There is, of course, one thing that we haven’t really discussed so far: and that’s why trance and meditation are important. And it’s definitely not for shits and giggles, to see pretty lights and bullshit with the spirits, or because you’re looking for some kind of badge of honor for doing it, as if you are somehow a better mainad than your sisters because it’s easier for you to enter trance than it is for them. Simply put, not everyone can do it. Some people’s psyches aren’t elastic enough, they’re too grounded in the material world or something in the past caused them so much trauma that they aren’t able to relinquish control. That doesn’t mean that they love Dionysos any less, that they lack devotion in the performance of their religious duties or that they haven’t fully integrated the Dionysian philosophy into their lives. It simply means that they can’t trance. So, if these aren’t the reasons that we should do it – what are?
Simply put, Dionysian trance brings healing, wholeness, integration, and revitalization. The ancients were most emphatic about this. Plato describes the bacchants as ekphrones, out of their senses, and says that it is the combined action of music and dance that restores them to their senses so that they are emphrones. In other words, Dionysian trance heals the mainades, taking them from a dangerous madness to a gentler, divine madness. It allows us to access those parts of ourselves that are normally submerged, hidden, and repressed, so that we can access the vital, creative, ecstatic energy that lies at our center, burning bright as the stars in heaven. When we cannot access our internal world, when the ideas, images, and fantasies that make up that world lay dormant, untouched and repressed they stagnate, grow hard and dead, and bleed through into our waking world in the form of unhealthy psychoses, destructive drives, violent madness. But when we immerse ourselves in them, learn to manipulate them, listen to their wisdom, we transform them, transform ourselves – and find wholeness through them. We also – and this is important – become a means through which the divine can act in our world, giving voice to that which has no voice, form to that which is formless.