Seekers and Guides: Trance and the Brain (Book Excerpt)

Seekers and Guides: Trance and the Brain (Book Excerpt) August 18, 2015

Bright Idea by Zaldy Incaonapo (public domain image).
Bright Idea by Zaldy Incaonapo (public domain image).

Our brains function through waves of activity.  These patterns, measured in cycles per second (hertz) have different characteristics.  Anyone can enter these different consciousness levels; we do it all the time.  The trick is to do so voluntarily.

During “normal” waking consciousness we function at the beta level.  This indicates that we are awake and alert, doing our daily work, learning or interacting with people.    This is the level of consciousness that deals with math, figures, and the “left-brain” world of logic.  It’s the hallmark of a highly-engaged mind.  We tend to exalt this state of consciousness in our culture as being of greater importance than the other states.  People with high levels of beta activity have more positive thoughts and generate ideas more quickly than those with lower levels.  Beta waves are at about 12-20 hertz.  14 hertz is a commonly-used frequency for study and concentration.

When referring to meditation and magick, most people are referring to the alpha state, about 8-14 hertz.  It is described as being relaxed but aware, and the most common state of alpha consciousness is when we daydream or zone out on the TV without watching it.  Accelerated learning, increased memory, intuition and psychic ability are accessed here.  Since it doesn’t feel much different from the beta state, people sometimes wonder if they have achieved it.  Fortunately it’s not hard!  We do this accidentally all the time when daydreaming.

Theta waves, at 4-8 hertz, take you to deeper meditation or what people typically think of as a “trance” state.  You enter this level during sleep, and this is the level at which trance channeling or “Drawing Down the Moon” takes place.  This is the level of deep connection to the Divine, religious ecstasy and deep insight.  Sometimes we reach this state accidently when driving or performing other rote tasks, and we realize we don’t remember driving the last 10 km, or putting the dishes away.  Some people have difficulty learning to enter this state because they fall asleep!  Generally this is a warning sign that the only time you are ever relaxed is when you fall asleep (far too common in our culture.)  “Shamanic consciousness” takes place at a theta wave of 4.5 to 6 Hz, on the periphery of theta and delta.

The lowest level of brain functioning, delta waves, cycle at 4 or less hertz.  This is the state of deep sleep, deep trance (when the channel, Witch, hypnosis subject or shaman does not remember what she said or did), and coma.  Mystics who practice biofeedback can place their bodies in this state but remain conscious.  People who do not get sufficient levels of delta wave sleep suffer from all the symptoms of sleep deprivation, whether they have slept or not.  This is a common problem for people with chronic pain.  If you do suffer from chronic pain, you may therefore find deep trance states difficult to achieve.

There are also states above beta that are intriguing.  They are known as gamma waves, or high beta waves, ranging anywhere from 20 to on occasion, 250 hertz.  Increasing levels of gamma waves are linked to improving mood, concentration, and athletic performance.  Gamma waves can be further classified into high beta, and super-high beta waves.

High beta, 16-30 hertz, is a state of hyper-alertness, “battlefield consciousness.”  This level of activity is often reached in moments of extreme stress or anxiety, or moments of peak athletic performance.  When time seems to slow down during an accident, or during that moment when an athlete breaks a personal record and feels completely “in the zone,” are good examples of what you feel like when you reach that state.

Above that, at 30-150 hertz are super-high beta or “gamma” waves.  Expansive and somewhat uncontrollable spiritual experiences, such as eureka moments, divine inspiration, satori, kundalini risings, and extreme out of body experiences occur at this much-desired level.  Most of the time our brains cannot sustain these high-level bursts for lengthy periods, which is likely why these moments of divine contact and inspiration are often so brief.  I’ve also found that this state is what I call “being in my Muse;” when I am driven by something beyond myself in creative projects, and the writing or the music is pouring from me like water without any conscious effort on my part.  Later, I might go back and read what I wrote in this state with awe, hardly recalling the writing of it and amazed that something like this could come out of me.  There is a reason that Druids linked bardic creative inspiration and divine inspiration as one state.  They called it “awen” or “fire in the head.”  Perhaps they understood states of consciousness better than we do!  40 Hz is considered to be ideal for these experiences, but use caution, because high levels of “gamma spikes” have been linked to autism in children.

Some newer schools of thought acknowledge the existence of lambda waves (extremely high level brainwaves) above gamma waves, and epsilon waves (extremely low level waves below delta,) which are low-voltage waves not noticed by the typical EEG.  For that reason, there is considerable debate among scholars about the purpose of these waves, originally believed to be present only in psychotic (lambda) or brain-damaged (epsilon) individuals, but now thought to be uncommon, but normally-occurring brain waves.  One website[1] I looked at even suggested that lambda waves “seem to ride on a very low frequency epsilon wave,” but I couldn’t find any scholarly research to substantiate this.  However, the possibility is intriguing if it is accurate, since it suggests that Witchcraft’s assertion, based in Jungian psychology, that the way to the superego (higher consciousness or “higher self”) is through the subconscious, or id, has support in our biology!

The art of changing consciousness is the only real ability of the mystic, psychic, or Witch, and anyone can learn to do it!

— An edited version of this passage appeared in The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power by Sable Aradia (Weiser / Red Wheel, 2014)


[1] “The Meditation Solution – Learn to Meditate Easily,” which is a commercial site for brainwave sleep and entertainment products, so I doubt its research and neutrality.

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