Generative Trance – Stephen Gilligan
The goal of all our living is to become transparent to the transcendent.
Karlfried Graf Durckheim
This is a book about how to live life as a great journey of consciousness. It emphasizes reality and identity as constructed, and trance as a major means to create new realities. This view of trance differs markedly from traditional ideas of a person losing control, instead focusing on its potential to elevate consciousness to higher levels of creativity.
My own experience with trance has been a long and winding road. I spent much of my childhood in trance. Part of it was in the wonderment of watching the many unspoken connections between people, most notably my family. I loved to absorb in the magical qualities that seemed to be everywhere – in my grandfather’s twinkling eyes, my mother’s loving stories, my dog’s blissful playfulness, even the
dancing dots that swirled in the darkness after my mother turned out the lights at bedtime. This happy world had its counterpart: another part of my childhood trance experiences was in the dissociational escape from family alcoholism and violence. I learned trance as a sanctuary, a safe place to get away from the dehumanizing parts of life, to be alone and not confused and lied to by words.
I entered adolescence in the late 1960s in San Francisco, where traditional consciousness was being shaken to the core by a myriad of movements: hippies, Black Panthers, gay pride, the women’s movement, and anti-war activism, to name a few. In my all-boys, Jesuit high school, a counselor introduced me to my first group therapy, where it was possible to talk about experiences I had previously only witnessed and silently experienced. I also found my way to meditation during this time, an important balance to the
sex, drugs and rock n’ roll ethos of the time.
At 19, I met the great psychiatrist healer, Milton Erickson, who changed my life forever. He showed me that trance could be used to come into the world, not just to leave it, and illuminated the uniqueness of each moment, each person, and each experience. It set me on my adult path as a psychotherapist using trance therapeutically to help others creatively deal with the many ego-disruptive challenges that touch each human life – births, deaths, traumas, marriages, divorces, and so on. The trance work was not just for my clients, but myself as well. I am grateful that Erickson modeled and emphasized the need for each person to continue to learn and develop and change throughout life.
All of this has taught me to appreciate the deep creative consciousness that lives within human beings, and how it may be tapped into through trance. I am continually amazed how trance can help people realize their dreams, heal wounds, transform problems, and live their life callings. Not artificial trance, not trance where somebody is manipulating somebody else, but a natural state where it is possible to take a step back from having to perform some fixed role and open a creative space where new reality may be created.
This is what I’d like to share with you in this book. How to develop higher states of consciousness that can help you live beyond fears, limits, and negative beliefs. I want to describe a type of trance that requires a cooperative relationship of mutual respect between the conscious and creative unconscious minds. In other words, you don’t go to sleep in generative trance, you awaken to a deeper type of creative consciousness.
This central emphasis on creative trance as a conversation between different levels of a person decouples it from the outdated assumptions of hypnosis. It sees trance as a natural experience arising whenever identity is destabilized, and hypnosis as but one of many possible social rituals for unfolding trance. Given that traditional hypnosis seeks to bypass or
knock out the conscious mind of a person, I believe it has limited value in promoting self-mastery and creative transformation. The work here is presented as an alternative method, whereby a person can experience an integrated self-wholeness that can guide and experience creative change.
I wrote the book for individuals who want to live life as a creative journey, as well as for people-helping professionals working with clients in such ventures. It needs to be emphasized that the work is not a substitute for essential medical or psychological care, nor should unqualified professionals use it to treat serious maladies. What it can do is help reawaken the wonderment of being alive, and allow realization of a happy, fulfilling life.
We live in challenging times. The longing for deep transformational change often clashes with rigid ideological
fundamentalisms, resulting in a
betwixt and between state, suspended between old realities that no longer work and new ones that have not fully ripened. Such times present great opportunities for growth and transformation. May this work help you to make creative use of each moment of your life, no matter who or where you are.
Let your mind start a journey through a strange new world. Leave all thoughts of the world you knew before. Let your soul take you where you long to be … Close your eyes, let your spirit start to soar, and you’ll live as you’ve never lived before.
The journey of life has infinite potential. At each step of the way possibilities open, each moment bringing a wholly new beginning. But to realize these possibilities, we must live in a way that is creative and meaningful. It is easy to go on unconsciously acting and reacting in predictable, tiresome ways. This book is about how to move into more creative states of consciousness using a process that I’ve developed called generative trance. Generative here means to create something new – a new future, a new state of health, a new relationship to self and the world. As we will see, generative trance is not a traditional hypnosis where one gives up control or consciousness, but a creative art in which conscious and unconscious minds are woven into a higher consciousness capable of creativity and transformation.
The experience of generative trance is grounded in the notion of life as a journey of consciousness. This idea was formalized by the mythologist Joseph Campbell (1949), who noted how every culture features myths about a hero living life as a great path of transformation. (Interestingly, the Star Wars movies were directly based on Campbell’s work.) Such a life is not primarily about fame or fortune, but about bringing a greater healing and wholeness into the world. This might be done through any of a number of domains – art, science, social justice, family, business, and so on. Most important, especially in these challenging times, is the awareness that each of us can live such a life. This book is an exploration of how to help yourself and others to do so.
There are many examples of living life as a great journey. One of my main inspirations was Milton Erickson, the renowned psychiatrist who revolutionized ideas about how trance could be used for creative healing and transformation. I studied with Erickson during the last six years of his life. He was a classic Yoda-like character by then, a wizened old healer with twinkling eyes and amazing skills. His skills in no small part arose from his personal journey, as life gave him so many significant challenges. He was tone deaf, dyslexic (including not knowing the dictionary was alphabetized until he was an adolescent!), and color blind (purple was the only color he could
enjoy). He was severely paralyzed with polio at 17, and suffered a related setback at mid-life. He met each challenge in courageous, creative ways, and then helped his psychiatric patients to do the same. This book looks to honor and extend that work in various ways.
To live life as a journey, we must consciously choose to do so. There are, of course, other possibilities. Campbell suggests three available paths: (1) the village life, where we play out the routines of the ego ideal; (2) the wasteland, where we sink into the shadow world of cynicism and despair; and (3) the journey, where we live life as a great call to adventure.
The village life
This is the conventional path of the ego ideal, where you live a
normal life within the roles and social strictures of mainstream society. Here
the good life moves through a clear sequence. For example, in the
American dream (if it still exists), you are born into a happy family, obey your parents, do well at school, graduate and get a job, marry and have kids, buy a house and make a lot of money, then retire and die. This is the village life, and as Campbell points out, there is nothing wrong with it. For some people it is their main path.
Others, however, cannot or will not live in the village. Membership may be denied by virtue of having the
wrong skin color, sexual orientation, religion, gender, or socioeconomic status. You may be exiled by something like a trauma, which shatters the
ego trance and drags a person into the underworld. Or you may voluntarily leave the village, unwilling or unable to work within its orthodoxies or hypocrisies. Whatever the case, it raises the question of what lies outside the village.
The dark alternative to the ego ideal is the shadow world of what T. S. Eliot called the wasteland. Its inhabitants reject (or are rejected by) the shallow
happy face of the village. Based on negation, the predominant experiences are cynicism, apathy, and destructiveness. You drop out of the mainstream and live alone or with some isolated subculture. The wasteland could be the despair of depression, the numbed glaze of television, the hatred of gossip and prejudice, or the toxic worlds of drugs, alcohol, and other addictions. Self-awareness and human dignity disappear, and consciousness descends into disconnected despair.
When people seek help, they are typically mired in the wasteland, unwilling or unable to participate in normal village life. Often the request, explicitly or implicitly, is to get them back to the village, so they can just be
normal. It is important to realize that this may or may not be possible. In generative trance, we see that the experiences that led to the
village exile may be a
soul signal that some deep transformation is needed – that a person can no longer continue in the restrictive role assigned to them. Luckily, a third alternative exists.
The (hero’s) journey of consciousness
The ego ideal of the village and the shadow world of the wasteland are polar opposites, each containing what the other rejects. The journey of consciousness is a third path that integrates and transcends these dualities. Here you are neither blindly following the established rules and roles, nor cynically rejecting them. Instead, you
go where no man (or woman) has gone before, in the words of the old Star Trek series. On the journey, life is a great mystery unfolding daily deeper into greater awareness and possibilities. Many great people have spoken about this living of life as a great adventure:
Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.
George Bernard Shaw
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Seek out that particular mental attribute which makes you feel most deeply and vitally alive, along with which comes the inner voice which says,
This is the real me, and when you have found that attitude, follow it.
The journey is often initiated by what Campbell termed
the call. Something touches a deep place in your soul. A sense of magic or amazement awakens, and an awareness dawns of what you are in the world to do. When I first met Milton Erickson at the ripe age of 19, a fire ignited in my soul, and a quiet voice said,
This is why you are here. I often ask clients if they can remember similar moments of
soul awakening or magical mystery in their lives, especially as children. Interestingly, most initially say no, but as we continue they begin recalling such moments. Maybe it was when reading poetry, or playing with animals, or drawing or painting, or becoming absorbed in science and technology, or feeling deep connections flowing between people.
Some hear the call and don’t look back, their lives coalescing around it. Campbell called this
following your bliss. While often misunderstood as an irresponsible encouragement of hedonism and debauchery, he was actually inviting people to notice when they are touched by wonderment or passion. This
bliss tells you what you’re in the world to do.
Others hear the call and turn away from it. You might be hypnotized by the suggestions that
it’s not realistic or
you should be doing something else, and then try to lead a village life to make others happy. Campbell observed that sometimes we climb the ladder all the way to the top, only to discover that we’ve placed it against the (wrong) wall of other people’s expectations. You can live away from your soul force and then die,
not with a bang, but a whimper.
But for many there comes a wake-up call: at some point (often in mid-life), symptoms begin to appear – health problems, relationship failures, depression or addiction, you name it. In generative trance work, we see such symptoms as
calls to return to soul resonance, to reconnect one’s outer self with the callings of the inner self. In this way, we see problems as openings to deep transformation, if met with positive and skillful human presence.
I start with these three life paths to emphasize generative trance as a tool for living the third path of life as a journey. It is not primarily to
fix abnormalities so one can live within a sanitized village world, nor to get
lost in trance. Rather, it is a set of practices for living life at its highest levels, replete with many creative possibilities: joy, transformation, great accomplishments, and good health.
The book explores the approach in two main parts. The first part overviews a framework for generative trance work. Chapter 1 presents the key premise that reality and identity are constructed (through reality filters) and may be deconstructed and reconstructed when needed. The principle of creative flow is central to this skill, while the process of neuromuscular lock prohibits it. Chapter 2 examines trance as a process of creative flow that is naturalistic, necessary, and capable of many forms and values (both positive and negative), depending on its context. We will touch upon generative trance as a high level state based on the creative interplay between the conscious and creative unconscious minds.
Chapter 3 outlines the basic model of generative trance. Three minds are distinguished: somatic, cognitive, and field – along with the three levels of consciousness at which they can operate: primitive, ego, and generative. The general goal of the work is to move each mind to a generative level, thereby awakening new dimensions of consciousness capable of significant creative transformation. Chapter 4 outlines how this can be done in four steps: (1) preparation (developing the generative state); (2) weaving the identity parts into a generative trance; (3) transformation and integration; and (4) the return into the ordinary world.
The second part of the book focuses on how to implement the model. Chapter 5 explores somatic methods for developing generative trance, emphasizing mind–body centering as the central principle, along with how to optimize the five somatic dimensions of a generative trance: relaxation, absorption, openness, (musical) flow, and groundedness. Chapter 6 explores generative fields as subtle spaces of mindfulness that can hold and transform their contents. For example, we will see how trance can be used to develop an
energy ball that contains and allows creative engagement with difficult experiences; or a
second skin that opens around the physical body; or an interpersonal relational field within which generative trance work can occur.
Chapter 7 identifies the creative acceptance of experiences and behaviors as a major way to develop trance and transformation. Chapter 8 explores the principle of complementarity, showing how holding opposites is one of the most succinct methods for popping the binds of the conscious mind and opening the gateways to the creative unconscious. Chapter 9 describes the principle of infinite possibilities, which holds that every experience and behavior can be experienced and expressed in many ways, as another major means for activating the creative unconscious.
Underlying the entire work is a two-level theory of experiential construction, which posits that (1) at the primary (quantum) level, experience has infinite possible forms and meanings, until (2) at the secondary (classical) level, an observing consciousness creates one actual form and meaning from all the potential possibilities. Integrating these two worlds of action and potential is at the heart of creative consciousness. Unfortunately, it is easy to get trapped within the fixed realities of the conscious mind, walled off from creative consciousness. This self-contained world is maintained by a state dependency effect that constructs reality to affirm its own position. Generative trance loosens these binds so consciousness can drop back into a generative field, then invites the conscious mind to move within this field with aesthetic intelligence. As we will see, musicality and resonance are primary languages of this creative consciousness, allowing the systemic parts to fluidly create ever changing mandalas of creative wholeness.
This great journey of uniting the two worlds was beautifully described by T. S. Eliot:
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint –
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
… you are the music
While the music lasts.
The Dry Salvages from Four Quartets
May the words on these pages help us to hear this music and find this intersection point.
The Framework of Generative Trance
Consciousness and the Construction of Reality
Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.
George Bernard Shaw
Mary¹ led a charmed life. She was smart, socially poised, and attractive. She had lived on the
fast track to success: drawing the praises of adults and excelling in school as a child, earning a doctoral degree in science from a major university, marrying a wonderful man, and giving birth to two wonderful daughters. She was a superstar at work, happy in her family, and secure economically. So when she received a major lifetime achievement award at mid-life, she was understandably bewildered to find herself depressed and unhappy. Something was missing from her life.
Mary began a series of deep life explorations using trance work. She found tears and fears, as well as amazing and delightful awakenings of consciousness. Most important, she realized that she had been living away from her soul dreams. She hadn’t even realized she had soul dreams, longings deeper than external achievement or social pleasantries. She discovered a desire for spiritual development, as well as for mentoring young female scientists in her high-stress professional world. In addition, she and her husband began a series of interesting journeys through different psycho-spiritual processes.
In all of this, her old world wasn’t abandoned, just deepened to allow a more complete and fulfilling life. She was especially delighted to realize that she was responsible for, and capable of, creating her own life. The journey that became her life was a joy to behold.
The longing to live a deeply meaningful life is, of course, quite common. Many people feel a calling to go beyond the village life, to allow their light to shine brightly and uniquely into the world. If such callings are accepted and supported, beautiful miracles can happen. Generative trance is a great process for supporting such a journey.
The experience of generative trance begins with the appreciation that reality is constructed, and that each of us is responsible for creating our own lives in a meaningful way. To navigate such a journey, it is helpful to have some sense of this creative process. So in this first chapter, I want to offer a general map by which reality construction occurs, so that you can support yourself and others in such a venture.
I start by noting three different worlds that creative consciousness moves through: (1) a
pure consciousness world of creative love and light; (2) a
quantum world of the creative unconscious, with infinite possibilities and pure imagination; and (3) the classical world of the conscious mind, with its consciousness of time-space, matter, and other
reality elements. Creativity requires flow between these three worlds of creative light, infinite imagination, and practical realities.
Accordingly, I next focus on how information/energy moves between these worlds. I suggest that there are
consciousness filters that transduce one world into another. These gateways are akin to stained glass windows through which coherent light flows, creating a patterned world on the other side. A crucial idea for the entire book concerns whether these filters are open (in creative flow) or closed (in neuromuscular lock). Neuromuscular lock traps consciousness in a fixed and disconnected reality, giving rise to tremendous suffering and problems. Generative trance activates the creative flow that allows transformation, healing, and a great journey.
The three worlds of consciousness
How do you create a life that has purpose and growth? When your life isn’t working, how do you let go in order to reconnect with wholeness and peace? And from that place of wholeness, how do you create new realities that heal brokenness and generate new possibilities? These are core questions regarding generative trance, and to answer them we distinguish three worlds:
1. Consciousness itself (
2. Quantum world (
3. Classical world (
original mind of pure consciousness
Now, all the medical rituals we have been examining aim at return to origins. We get the impression that for archaic societies life cannot be repaired, it can only be re-created by a return to sources. And the
source of sources is the prodigious outpouring of energy, life, and fecundity that occurred at the Creation of the World.
Mircea Elaide, Myth and Reality
Be a light unto yourself.
We start our creative journey in
the middle of nowhere. Milton Erickson used to playfully use this term when inviting people in trance to experience a safe place where one could detach from all content. This trance field served as a sort of transitional space where old identities could be released and new realities born.
The Buddhists use the term original mind to refer to this empty space of pure consciousness from which everything comes and goes. Experientially, it is a non-dual awareness, empty of all forms and qualities, but luminescent. In other words, consciousness at its source is pure creative light.
Lest this sound too far-fetched, note the metaphors used across different cultures and languages to describe creative consciousness. New ideas flash from out of nowhere or out of the blue. A person is brilliant, beaming, shining, light-hearted, radiant, or enlightened. The light went on, and it was like being hit by lightning. Heightened awareness may be free of thought, unclouded, or wide open. Taken together, these common expressions intuitively point to a consciousness before and beyond form that carries wisdom and bliss.
The practical relevance is that when we are connected to this creative consciousness, we are at our best – happy, healthy, healing, and helpful to others. Countless poems, songs, and stories sing its praises. Philosophical traditions give it different names: spirit, élan vital, life force, shakti, chi, divine consciousness, and prajna. It appears at moments of great success, or beholding aesthetic beauty, or in the presence of deep love. Suddenly an indescribable space opens beyond all thought and form, and a euphoric bliss fills you, if only for a few lovely moments.
For consciousness to be creative, connection to this first realm is vital. Without it, we feel disconnected and trapped in compulsive doing and thinking. Ironically, it is at such times that we are often most afraid of letting go, fearing a drop into an abyss of no return. Thus, one of the first goals in generative trance is to become comfortable with letting go of all content, surrendering to the creative source. T. S. Eliot spoke to this beautifully in writing:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
East Coker from Four Quartets