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Trance and Trauma

I had a conversation about the dangers of trancework to those who have unresolved trauma with dpaxson and lwood a few weeks ago. The context was a book about trancework. Having done trancework while dealing with unresolved trauma, my point of view was different from theirs. They had, on the other hand, taught trancework to people who had unresolved trauma and witnessed the fall-out. An important point they made, was that witnessing the fall-out can be very distressing to the teacher and other group members.

The person with the unresolved trauma may appear strangely untouched by the experience, though. That is because these people are often used to lurching from crisis to crisis and because they are often not really in touch with their feelings. In fact they may feel uneasy if things go too smoothly. People with unresolved trauma are often very bad at accepting happiness and healing.

In some books and other media with guided meditations, pathworkings and material like that, there are warnings to the practitioner. In my experience, those warnings don't work. They scare off those who might benefit from the practices but they rarely stop people who shouldn't dabble with their own psyches.

I'd like to compare these warnings to a software error message. Using that analogy, we can draw on Nielsen's three rules for error messages:
1. Be polite
2. Don't blame the user
3. Tell the user how to resolve the situation

Based on these heuristics, below is a draft of what a set of warnings could look like.

To the student
Trancework can rip away the denial from our lives. This makes it very useful for those of us who have issues, major or minor, we want to work on. To make the most of trancework as a tool for personal transformation, it's important to practice the basics before diving in at the deep end.

Many students have issues resulting from unresolved trauma in their lives and not all of us are aware of it. Trauma can be a result of e.g. childhood abuse and deprivation, living with addicts, repeated violations of one's boundaries, living in a war zone or disaster area etc. We may be in denial about the experiences and the effects they have had on us. If that is the case, trancework may remove our denial.

Getting rid of denial makes it easier to work on issues but if we progress too quickly or without adequate support, we can retraumatise ourselves and end up making our lives harder, rather than easier. Here are some points to consider before taking up trancework:

Make sure you are learning trancework in a safe and supportive environment. For an environment to be safe, you need the informed consent of your teacher and other group members. This means bringing up any issues you are aware of before you set out on your first journey. It is particularly important to mention if you are a survivor of childhood abuse, as it is one of the hardest wounds to heal.

If you have had problems with depression, anxiety or psychosis in the past, make sure you have access to professional mental health practitioners. Ideally these will be sympathetic to your religious exploration and support you in using it to aid your healing. Untrained friends and family will not do.

A good way to get a feel for how you react to trancework is to start with simple, gentle self hypnosis audio, e.g. for helping with insomnia or inner-child work. These are available in any good bookstore. If you enjoy the experience, trancework is likely to be beneficent to you.

To the teacher
When you are teaching trancework to others, you take on some of the responsibility for their experience. Because this can be a heavy burden to carry, you may find it better to steer some potential students to safer waters first. The skill will still be there for them to learn when they have more mastery over their lives.

The Group
The group as a whole needs to be aware that trancework can be very beneficent because it can bring up things we would rather not look at. There is no need to be spooked about this. Mostly it's "just another *&^% growth opportunity."

If a specific student has more problems than others, it's important for the group as a whole that they are not allowed to disrupt the proceedings too much. Unless the group consents, meetings should be about trancework, not about solving one member's personal problems. This needs to be handled delicately, though, because there is a risk of re-traumatising the student. It's a matter of setting boundaries and enforcing them firmly but fairly without judging.

As a teacher you need to take responsibility for your own mental health and wellbeing. Be aware that you are modelling these skills for your students. Model healthy skills by ensuring that you are well supported by your peers and elders well before anything blows up. This is particularly important if you are a trauma survivor yourself.
This could obviously be a lot more polished but I think the basic concepts are there. Feedback would be welcome.


I would say that some trance states can involve a degree of dissociation, which for some trauma survivors is relatively easy to slip into. For some, it may not be so easy to come out of that, especially if they end up triggered in that state. Others, as you say, may appear untouched. I think for some people that can be because dissociation is already a familiar part of how they have adapted to trauma. I know how to take care of myself when dissociated for instance, and it isn't always good that I do so. Sometimes it may be more important for someone who is dissociating to take in support or make more contact at the time, rather than continuing to manage as they know how to.

So I'd say there's no hard and fast rule for everyone, because different trauma survivors are different, and have adapted differently. For some people, the work may be useful. For others less so. When Babette Rothschild teaches about trauma, for instance, she notes that some therapists tend to think all survivors should be taught relaxation techiques to manage anxiety. However, for some clients those techniques are counterproductive, because loosening muscles actually reduces the feeling of containment clients need in their bodies, in order to retain a sense of their boundaries when triggered. For others, relaxation is great, and they may need to relax their boundaries. Therapists shouldn't prescribe any one technique as if it will work for everyone, because individuals can vary so much.

I think that's probably true of this kind of work as well.