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Trance: A Natural History of Altered States of Mind   Trance: A Natural History of Altered States of Mind
Brian Inglis

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This survey of evidence about trance, from the earliest times to the present day, shows how the different varieties stem from a common evolutionary source. The author contends that this arose initially in the animal world for purposes of protection, but it has developed to provide us with a link between our subliminimal minds, with its vast but only partially tapped resources, and our conscious selves. He suggests that if we can come to understand the function of the trance we will find in it an ally capable of transforming our lives. The book examines hysteria, mass hysteria, hypnotism, auto-suggestion, mesmeric trance, automatism, mediumship, sleep and mystical states.

This popular history of how trance has been perceived begins with a historical overview of its types and components. There follows a chapter on trance in shamanism and its presence in early Christianity, where it was seen as a sign of grace until, following St. Augustine, it became associated with the devil and still later, with hysteria. Next, he deals with trance in animal magnetism, hypnotism, and spiritism. During the materialistic years of the first half of the 20th century, trance was considered as co-consciousness. It surfaced in cases of shell shock in World War I. In the last half of this century scholars in many disciplines became interested in trance.

Inglis presents the views of psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, anthropologists, parapsychologists, and physicians. In a chapter entitled “Two Mysteries,” he discusses trance incombustibility and fire-walking, spontaneous human combustion, and the experience of ecstasy, wherein humans appear to contact “mind-at-large.” In the last chapter, he concludes that trance has been prevented from being studied and valued because of scientism. He presents reasons why “trance needs rehabilitation in practice, as well as in restoring it to its rightful position in science”

“A robust presentation of the positive potential of trance states”
~ Times Literary Supplement

‘A lucid and elegant book with more than a touch of acid and a real pleasure to read’
~ Anthony Clare, Irish Independent

Key words: DMT, Ayahuasca, LSD, Psychedelics, OBE, out of body experience, NDE, Psilocybin, shamanism, magick.

About the author

Brian Inglis (31 July 1916 – 11 February 1993) was an Irish journalist, historian and television presenter. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, and retained an interest in Irish history and politics. He was best known to people in Britain as the presenter of “All Our Yesterdays”, a television review of events exactly 25 years previously, as seen in newsreels, newspaper articles etc. He also presented the weekly review of newspapers known as “What the Papers Say”. He joined the staff of The Spectator in 1954, and became editor in 1959, soon afterwards hiring the young Bernard Levin to write for the magazine. He continued as editor until 1962. He also had interests in the paranormal, and alternatives to institutionalised medicine. Inglis’ friend and colleague Bill Grundy died on 9 February 1993. Inglis had just finished writing Grundy’s obituary when he, too, died.

Sample chapter


The burning fiery furnace

I warned in the introduction that trance is inextricably linked throughout history with phenomena whose existence orthodox science still declines to accept; and I have included reports of some of them. But I have kept ‘boggle threshold’ in mind. Most of us, to judge from opinion polls, ignore the sceptics on the subject of, say, extra-sensory perception; but people who accept ESP do not necessarily agree that mind can influence matter. And some of the phenomena that have been recorded in connection with trance seem unbelievable - yet cannot be rejected out of hand, in view of the strength of the evidence about them.
It is difficult enough, for example, for members of an audience who have never seen a professional hypnotist going through his repertoire before, to believe him when he claims that he can hold a lighted match under the forefinger of hypnotized subjects, and not only will the subjects feel no pain, they will show no signs of blistering afterwards.

Nevertheless hypnotists are giving such demonstrations of human incombustibility week in, week out, wherever they have an audience to entertain.
Trance incombustibility, as it happens, has a long history. When somebody was observed in a trance, lamblichus noted in his commentary on divination in the second century AD, it seemed as if ‘sensation and life had been suspended’; he has ceased to feel pain, and ‘has not felt the application of fire’. In our own century, once in his life- only once- Joseph Chilton Pearce had the same experience. ‘As a young Two Mysteries man I once found myself in a certain somnambulistic, trance-like state of mind,’ he has recalled. ‘With upwards of a dozen witnesses I held the glowing tips of cigarettes against my palms, cheeks, eyelids, grinding them out on those sensitive areas.’ To his friends’ astonishment there were no after-effects, and no blisters.

Accounts such as this make it easier to understand trial by ordeal, which often consisted of allowing suspects to prove their innocence by holding a red-hot bar, or plunging a hand into boiling water, for a prescribed time; they were deemed innocent if they came through the trial unscathed. It is hardly conceivable that the method would have continued in use - as it has done to this day, in some tribes - if the verdict was, invariably, ‘guilty’. Even Eusebe Salverte, the first systematic explainer-away of the miraculous events recorded in history, had to admit that the men who conducted such trials were unlikely to permit such deception; and ‘in the case of the red-hot iron, it is not easy to conceive fraud.’ But there are more striking accounts of incombustibility, and some of them are particularly difficult to reject, as David Hume noted in connection with the eye-witness accounts of the hysteria outbreak at the tomb of Francois de Paris. These included, among other reports, the testimonies to the fact that while in a trance Marie Souet, la Salamandre, had remained suspended in a sheet above a raging fire for over half an hour; neither she, nor the sheet, were scorched, though the flames were lapping around it. This was one of the ‘miracles’ of St Medard which, as Hume admitted, had been ‘proved upon the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age’.

Can we seriously be expected to believe that trance can confer protection on cloth? Yet this has been claimed from earliest times - when Shadrach, Mesliach and Abednego were let out of Nebuchadc nezzar’s burning fiery furnace, they were not even singed, ‘nor were their coats changed’ - and is still quite frequently reported by witnesses of the most familiar demonstration of incombustibility, fire-walking.

By the eighteenth century the accounts of fire-walking from classical times, describing how priests and their followers, thanks to the protection of their gods, could walk over red-hot coals without feeling pain or suffering burns, had come to be relegated to the status of legends; but the rediscovery of fire-walking by explorers and missionaries compelled positivists to offer ‘natural’ explanations. Of these, initially the most popular was Salverte’s; in Les Sciences Occultes (1829) he claimed that ‘a saturated solution of alum preserves any part strongly impregnated with it from the action of fire.’ This did not satisfy W. B. Carpenter. He argued in 1871 that it was sweat which provided the protection: ‘you can see it every day in the falling-off of drops of fluid from a heated iron, in the application of the familiar test by which the laundress judges the suitability of the temperature.’ In the 1900 edition of The Golden Bough, James Frazer settled for a simpler explanation. ‘Inured from infancy to walking barefoot, peasants can step with impunity over glowing charcoal,’ he asserted; ‘usage has so hardened their soles that the skin is converted into a sort of leathery or corny substance which is almost callous to heat. ’ Frazer was himself breezily callous to facts, whenever they failed to fit his soon to be discredited theories. As it happened, investigators of fire -walks in the Pacific islands had found that the fire-walkers did not have leathery soles. Nor, for that matter, did they rub their soles with alum, or anything else; in 1898 one investigator, Dr T. M. Hocken, actually applied his tongue to their soles, to satisfy himself that there was no deception. A further possibility - that the coals, or volcanic ash, or whatever material was being used, were not really hot - also had to be abandoned, because the immunity evidently did not extend to all the walkers; a few suffered severe burns. And Carpenter’s hypothesis was ruled out by the fact that it was clear, from many of the accounts, that the walkers remained on the coals too long for sweat glands to provide them with protection.

Nevertheless similar explanations have continued to appear. After experiments in Florida, Dr Mayne Reid Coe claimed in 1958 he had tested Carpenter’s hypothesis, by letting drops of water fall on a heated frying pan; they did not at once turn to steam, but skipped around for a time. Anybody who has inadvertently put a hand on a .hot frying pan will also have done some skipping around, but not of the kind which would lend credibility to the ludicrous theory. In 1961 two American anthropologists echoed Frazer, even stating that the epidermis on the soles of fire-walkers’ feet ‘is reported to us as being 1 / 8 to/ 9 inch in thickness’.
Such continuing imperviousness to fact can readily be explained.

Accounts of fire-walking were not published in scientific journals, and orthodox scientists did not read or pay any attention to the journals in which they were published. If they had, they would have found reports which demolished their explanations. A typical sober account of fire-walking appeared in Atlantic in 1959, from Leonard Feinberg, Professor of English at Iowa State College, who was spending a year as Fulbright Professor of American Literature at the University of Ceylon. As a fitting climax to a week of celebrations in honour of the Hindu god Kataragama, a pit had been dug twenty feet long and six feet wide, and filled with combustible material so hot that the crowd which had assembled to watch had to stand well away from it. Eighty people crossed the length of the pit; some skipped over it; one danced for a while in mid-crossing; most walked ‘slowly and serenely’ across.

But twelve were sufficiently badly burned to be taken to hospital, and one of them died.

Some of the reports have noted, usually with astonishment, that protection appeared to be given to what the walkers were wearing.

Basil Thomson, later to become head of the London CID, noted that anklets of tree-fern which Fiji walkers wore did not burn, though he could see the flames were licking up round their legs. V. S. Stowell of the Imperial Bank of India told Oliver Lodge that when he himself fire-walked, though the flames reached ankle level, to his surprise his white trousers were not scorched.

In the 1980s the controversy took a new twist when ‘coal strolls’, as they came to be called, became a popular pastime in California.

Hundreds of people found they could walk barefoot over coals or other combustible materials. All that was required - or at least all they received - was a kind of conference cool-down before the walk to calm their fears and to boost their auto-suggestive powers.

This presented sceptics with a problem which they resolved by falling back on the theory offered by Carpenter, and echoed by Coe, but giving it a scientific-sounding name, the ‘Leidenfrost Effect’, thanks to the rediscovery of the work of the eighteenth-century physician Johann Leidenfrost, who had presented it long before Carpenter, as the explanation for the ‘skipping’ of droplets on smooth heated surfaces: at a certain temperature a vapour barrier builds up round the droplets. ‘No special talent is required to do this stupid stunt,’ Bernard Leiken of the University College of Los Angeles explained in 1985; ‘the rules of physics, not one’s state of mind, allow anyone to tolerate a brief barefoot walk over coals.’ But this toleration was precisely what Leidenfrost himself ruled out.

By a fluke, the temperatures of coal in a pit might occasionally fall within the narrow range he postulated; but the surface of fire-walking pits is not smooth, and the sole of the human foot is not protected by droplets of sweat. It was yet another example of orthodoxy throwing at the public what might seem a plausible explanation, but which in fact was spurious.

Discussing fire-walking in his Shamanism, Eliade insisted that its genuineness was ‘beyond doubt’. He attributed the protection provided to the ability of shamans to confer it on themselves, the members of their tribe, and even outsiders; but the popularity of coal strolls suggests that some force related to the one associated with mass hysteria must also be involved. Whatever the explanation, the way in which trance can provide insulation against the effects of even extreme heat indicates how unfortunate it is that psychologists have given the evidence so little attention.

Again, the problem is that anybody who is tempted to undertake research soon finds himself up against the equivalent of the ‘higher phenomena’ which the mesmerists encountered. It is not too difficult for a sceptic to delude himself that the soles of the feet are protected in a fire -walk by sweat, if he shuts his mind to any report which rules out the possibility. But no such escape route presents itself in the case of reports of people ‘playing with fire’.

The ability of some entranced individuals to hold red-hot coals, juggle with them, and even impart their incombustibility to others is well-attested. Lord Adare described in 1868 how he had seen D. D. Home, in a trance, stir the embers of a fire; kneeling down beside it, ‘he placed his face right among the burning coals, moving it about as though bathing in water’ - an account confirmed by the barrister H. D. Jencken. The year the author Mrs S. C. Hall wrote to Adare’s father, Lord Dunraven, to report that she had been present when Home had not only carried round lumps of red-hot coal, but had placed one on her husband’s head- ‘I often wondered since why I was not frightened, but I was not.’ Nor, apparently, was her husband, Samuel Carter Hall. Home, who was ‘still in a trance’, smiled, and seemed quite pleased; and ‘then proceeded to draw up Mr Hall’s white hair over the red coal’.

Publisher: White Crow Books
Published June 2018
305 pages
ISBN 978-1-78677-050-9
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