Spiritfire part 2 (with bonus disclaimers)


This is going to sound to some of those reading this entirely commonplace and normal (not least because you were, um, there), and to others this’ll sound like totally freaky hippie-dippie woowoo stuff. Fair warning.

To the first group, apologies if this all reads like I’m belaboring the point; this is just how I’m processing it (and trying to ensure that I’ll remember it). To the second group, well, yeah, ok, there it is. Hi.

It’s really tempting to just not talk about this, or to only talk about it to the people who already understand it, but I’m reaching a point in my life where I’m tired of compartmentalizing.

So hey was that enough disclaimers for everyone? I’ve been writing and unwriting this for three days now; can you tell?

Here goes: on the third night of the fire circle I briefly and accidentally fell into what I’m going to label as an ecstatic trance state. The following night, after some instruction, I was able to repeat the experience, sustain it, deepen it, and with practice enter it more or less at will.

(For the record, I was not on drugs: the idea seems, at best, redundant. I have not joined a cult or found religion: it’s certainly possible, almost expected, to interpret this stuff through a spiritual framework, and I’m sure that that enriches and deepens the experience. But I don’t think it’s a prerequisite; you could just as well interpret it from a purely biological point of view, as a consequence of (mild) sleep deprivation and endorphins, or a self-induced seizure or something like that. That seems awfully reductive now that I see it in print though.)

I ought to define my terms here. It’s not easy to define “ecstatic trance state”. If you’ve seen it you know what it looks like. If you haven’t… I’m going to try to start by describing how it happened for me and see if that gets me anywhere. If nothing else it’ll help me remember what it was like, which is the main reason I’m writing this down in the first place.

The first, accidental, time was hours into the night. The drums still had a lot of energy — we hadn’t reached the 4 am slowdown, but we weren’t yet in the pre-dawn ramp-up either. There were a fair number of people dancing, and there were lots of different sounds shifting in and out as I moved around the circle: the drums at their end, a bell over here, a rattle over there, across from the drums one or two voices quietly interleaving a chant in their little zone. I had been dancing for a long time, long enough that I was no longer caring what people might think of what I looked like, no longer cared about the sweat dripping down my face, I was just moving because it felt good to move in that way through those sounds. I had my glasses off because they kept slipping down in the sweat, and because I kept being distracted by eye contact (to which removing the ability to see other peoples’ eyes is a tidy solution).

At one point I felt a small involuntary shiver in one leg as I put my foot down. Rather than suppressing that feeling, I decided to try encouraging it. The sensation spread up my leg and pretty soon my whole body was shaking. Not out of control, I was in no danger of falling down and could still navigate around the circle, but most of the motions my body was making were definitely involuntary. The closest analogue would be the kind of shivering you get during hypothermia or a very bad fever. There was a very specific physical sensation associated with it that I’m finding it impossible to describe, and I suspect it would be too personal to be useful to anyone else anyway.

It felt really good. I know that sounds strange. But it felt really quite amazingly good.

It lasted just long enough for a short train of thought, a combination of “holy crap I think I just fell into a trance state” and then realizing that I had a big sloppy grin on my face and starting to wonder what I must look like and that of course snapped me out of it almost immediately, with a tiny afterthought of “No, don’t go…!” I straightened up and opened my eyes and discovered that there was someone right there waiting for me, who had spotted what I was experiencing and stepped up to be there in case I needed help. At the time I was in no state to recognize faces, I had no idea who it was (I spent a good part of the next day asking around so I could find and thank her), all I could feel (and still feel) was a huge wave of gratitude, that someone had seen and recognized and understood. It would have been very very lonely to come out of that state and feel alone in the crowd. Instead I felt safe and warm and loved and protected.

The next afternoon Lillith Avalon held a sort-of-impromptu workshop on trance (someone had asked about it during the homecoming meeting, Lillith had some answers, Brighid talked her into turning it into a workshop, and there you go.) Lillith had a lot of very good, very specific advice — I won’t even attempt to describe it all but if anyone’s interested I can try to summarize the parts that worked for me… Anyway, armed with that knowledge, I set out the next night to try again, to see if I could repeat the experience or if it had just been a fluke.

It wasn’t a fluke.

I’m skipping past the part where I overslept and missed the opening ceremony but Kate came and woke me — thank you, Kate — and so I arrived a little rushed and discombobulated and with my shirt on inside-out, which fact I failed to notice until sunrise (which itself is a darn good clue to how uncharacteristically relaxed I was about my self-presentation here), and ended up spending the first few hours trying to find my way into the circle but sort of gently bouncing off of it: picking up my drum and then putting it down again, walking the circle but feeling it as more of a trudge, trying to dance but not finding my groove. So that happened for a while. Fine.

But eventually I got to the point where I was ready, and the environment felt right, and so I followed Lillith’s instructions for a while and then tried mimicking the physical sensation I’d felt the night before and with honestly very little fuss I was in it again, it was happening to me, and since I was expecting it this time I didn’t immediately shock myself out of it again. I tried — I want to be less vague but there just aren’t words — I tried going a little deeper into it and instead ended up going much much much deeper. I could still stay upright on my own, was still moving around the circle, was still dimly aware of where I was in relation to the fire and the drums and the people around me, but the voluntary motions were at this point vastly outnumbered by the involuntary ones. Someone — I still don’t know who — gently took my left hand. A rattle started gently shaking in front of me. With those two anchors I felt safe enough to go deeper still, let my body take further control of itself, and we kept going around. I remember trying to express my gratitude to the people helping me: that emerged as a sort of vague flapping of my free hand from my forehead to my chest. I have no idea whether that gesture was intelligible or not. We kept going. Someone took my other hand; I was supported on all sides. We kept going.

I really have no clue how to explain this part. There was a lot of paradox. I wasn’t controlling my body, really, except that I could still keep moving in the direction I wanted to go (my guides were supporting me, not carrying me). It was a totally inward-directed experience, except that I was still responding directly and viscerally to the sounds and movements around me. I knew if I started thinking or analyzing it it would evaporate, but I could still think to the extent of wanting to express gratitude to those helping me, or notice how various parts of the music were expressing themselves in my body. It was all-consuming but at the same time I knew I could end it at any time, just stand up straight and walk out of it.

Eventually — I have no sense of how long this lasted — I found myself at the edge of the circle (Did I go there? Was I brought there? I do not know) and decided to sit down, and then decided to lie down on my back. (I love the way Amy later described this to me: “You were going around… you were going around… you were going around… aaaaand you went down.”) Someone rested a hand gently on my chest, and that became a fulcrum point around which the rest of my body still moved — I was still very much in it, but it was calmer, quieter now. I could easily have just drifted off to sleep right there.

Here I want to applaud the skill and efficiency and gentleness and grace with which the Spiritfire people take care of each other. At exactly the right time and in exactly the right way Jeanette came over and checked in with me, made sure I was not in any kind of pain or trouble. (Again, I love the way she put it afterwards: “You came up, like,” [two thumbs up gesture] “and I knew you were good”). Gwen and Noah led me to the well to recover, brought me water, suggested I go eat something, and a little while later Gwen followed to make sure I’d made it to the food table safely. Later in the night Wheeler checked my pulse and checked my pupils, made sure I wasn’t tripping out or having a heart attack or whatever, and generally handled what could in lesser hands have been an awkward or even confrontational moment with dignity and respect and true seva. Thank you. Thank all of you. That safety net is essential.

I spent the rest of the night basically playing with trance as if it were a shiny new toy — sometimes just momentarily dipping a metaphorical toe into it, checking to see if it was still accessible; other times going a little deeper or a little longer, or seeing how long I could ride right on the edge, feeling it but not entering it… Can I do it standing in one spot? Yes. Can I do it sitting? Yes, that too. (That turned out to be really powerful: I was sitting crosslegged, my spine vibrating up and down, my arms rose by themselves into a spread, prayerful gesture. I don’t think I’d be able to start out that way — lots of movement and shifting sounds seem to be the easiest way in, for me — but as a variation it was really quite incredible.)

It turns out that once you have the knack it is not complicated or difficult at all. At one point I was at the food table comparing notes with another trance person — I feel like I’ve suddenly discovered a whole new set of connections to a different subset of the people there: I kind of knew most of the drummers, the people who focus on dance are hard to miss, etc., but now here’s this less visible trancer clique coming out of the woodwork to answer and to ask questions — anyway, we’re sitting there munching on trail mix and talking about it, and I say something like “so I did this” and demonstrated by arching my back a little bit the way it had felt during the trance and realized that I’d accidentally started to trigger the real thing.

Just as surprising was how easy it is to move out of it. There was no grogginess or disorientation or other lingering aftereffects; no period of having to put yourself back together again: I could trance for a while, pause for a drink of water, trance some more, then go play something complicated on the djembe for a while, then go back out and trance again. There was absolutely no “crash” or hangover the next day; at end of circle I went to sleep and woke up naturally about three hours later feeling just fine, not even wanting my morning hit of caffeine: I ate an egg, had a peanut butter sandwich, helped empty the drum storage tent for breakdown, went to go break down my own camp, all in a fine, easy, relaxed mood. Not even the muscle soreness or exhaustion you’d expect in someone of my age and lack of regular exercise who’d spent a good part of the night alternately dancing like mad, drumming hard, and flopping around like a fish.

So there it is. Daniel’s Very First Trance Experience. I don’t really have a concluding paragraph here, and I’m tempted to start sinking back into disclaimers and apologies (everyone seems to do it differently, you see some people in trance bawling their eyes out while mine seemed to go to a very happy place; I’m a newbie, a novice, I don’t really know what I’m talking about; past performance not a guarantee of future results; YMMV, HTH, HAND.) It’s also tempting to now reinterpret everything about the structure of the fire circle as a tool for generating this kind of mental state, which I think is both true and not true: it is that — I think I could list every aspect of the physical layout of the circle and describe how it contributes to that — but it’s not just that — no more than it’s just a drum cirle, or just a dance, or just an all-night party, or just a gathering of like-minded friends… or just whatever new aspect I haven’t yet discovered.

But that’s for next year.