Meditation And Trance: East vs. West

So…meditation and trance states. I have a certain amount of experience with the latter and a little with the former. Or do I? The problem is really the term ‘trance state’ and also the percieved intention behind ‘meditation’, yes I know I’m over-using the rabbit ears, bear with me do.

Eastern and Western ways of thinking really do differ on how to use both… technologies is the word I’m grasping for I guess. Mostly the modern Western ways of thinking seem to be understandings of Eastern philosophies filtered by the Theosophists back in the nineteenth century and that’s if you’re a New Age hippy chick, a Jan Fries afficianado or any sort of Heathen engaging in seidr.

Ok, lets start with how I’m defining trance state. It’s a bit difficult to define as purely scientifically a trance ‘state’ distinguishable from ordinary conciousness does not exist. Meditative states however, do exist…sort of. As far as I can understand its all about patterns of brainwaves. There are four provable types of brainwave which operate on different electrical frequencies and a possible fifth:
alpha – Between 8 and 13 hz
beta – Between 14 and 20 hz
delta – Between 4 and 7 hz
theta – Between .5 and 3 hz

gamma – Between 20 and 40 hz (maybe)

I should point out that there are definately measurable brainwaves which exist between 20 and 40hz but they don’t seem to fit into a nice pattern like the others so whether they’re going to be defined by terms which are more accurate (ie. 20-30, 30-40, x happens in y state, z happens in q state) or not remains to be seen, so for now they’re gamma as far as I’m concerned since brainwaves between 20-40hz occur infrequently and I think distinctively from beta brainwaves though some researchers say that beta extends from 14 – 40 hz.

Ok, so all the time our brain is producing these electrical impulses/brainwaves in combination with each other to produce different states of mind. Reasonably provable states, up until the edges anyway. It’s all to do with which type of brainwave is predominant.
Beta waves predominating show that you’re awake and participating in this thing called life, if beta waves are in the majority then you’re in what most of us non-scientists would call a ‘normal state of mind’.
Alpha waves are seen in the majority when you’re in light meditation or daydreaming, if you close your eyes even in a normal state of mind then they increase. (My personal theory is that the way I will myself to sleep is basically just me increasing my level of alpha waves, but that’s by the by.)
If delta waves are in the majority then you’re asleep or in a very deep meditative state.
If theta waves are in the majority then anyone watching a readout of your brainwaves would want to see if it happened in short sharp bursts or over a sustained period, if a sustained period then you’d be in reasonably deep meditation and if sharp bursts you’d be engaged in something creative.
Gamma brainwaves occur if you wake up during REM sleep but they also occur during problem solving activities and there may be a brief period of time during problem solving when these brainwaves are in the majority over beta brainwaves.
So then, you’ve probably only got a choice of four states of mind at this current level of technology; awake and interacting with the world, awake and not interacting with the world, asleep or meditating… of course since you can move between these states then the edges become a bit fuzzy and we’ve no really useful description of what’s going on when gamma waves are happening (asumming they are distinct from beta).

Unfortunately because we don’t think entirely in alpha or entirely in beta etc. etc. and there’s no neat labels saying x amount of beta plus y amount of alpha equals z state hard scientists won’t thank me for using the word state. But I’m not a hard scientist and I think that the word ‘state’ can be a useful communicative tool, though what it denotes is a fuzzy thing rather than a hard thing. So I think I will use the term anyway, though I think that there is more going on in the mind than these four ‘states’.

In anycase back to my thoughts on meditation and trance and the like. The intention of most Eastern Meditation is to reach a meditative state of total calm, a deeper awareness of self or a transcendance of self. Any scientist watching would note that the brainwaves should progress from majority beta, through majority alpha to majority theta and possibly to majority delta (although a scientist would have to say that they couldn’t distinguish this from sleep), I’d be happy with talking about this as a form of trance in everyday conversation. But, from personal experience, I don’t think this seat of self is the goal of most Western meditative excercises. In a society, like most Eastern ones where the everyday beta waves are focused on the wa or harmony of the group then to focus on self may only be done in such a ritualised and specific way. In Western meditative excercises the focus of attention (and this is really what I think we mean by ‘state of mind’) in the beta and alpha waves is usually on self. Theta waves are not sought in a solid calm state but by allowing beta and alpha to recede and play with themselves in the background, this is because in the west meditation is not about finding yourself but about attempting a trance state which remains connected to whichever thing external to self we wish to explore.

Looking back on what I’ve written I become convinced that meditation when integrated with ‘normal’ life should be focused on self and on balance, but within wholly western traditions meditation and magic have become intertwined and unless you’re doing magic for yourself you don’t focus down you focus out.

7 thoughts on “Meditation And Trance: East vs. West

  1. Thinking about my (albeit somewhat limited) experience of Christian meditation, I wonder whether it comes under your definition of eastern or western meditation. The intent can sometimes be inward focussed, by is also focussed on God. Now from a more evangelical point of view, focussing inward can also mean focussing on God, from a more Catholic one such focussing would be external. I’m not sure whether this is a dichotomy of description or one of practice. Or whether I’ve completely misunderstood what you’re talking about…

  2. No I think you’re getting what I’m trying in a limited fashion to express.

    Western meditation seems to focus externally or to have as it’s goal an understanding of something external, it’s assumed that the inward understanding is innate or at anyrate unimportant to the ultimate understanding. I think this is born of an individualist culture. Eastern cultures tend to be more focussed on the group and so true understanding (as opposed to everyday understanding) is found within.

    I was beginning to wonder if the idea I had that it was external was based on magic, but I wonder if it is in fact a purely cultural thing.

  3. Rather than cultural I’d say philosophical – while it’s always been facile to draw that East/West boundary, there are certain key oppositions, and it’s logical to presume that they impose on meditation different directions.

    I’m not sure I agree with the individualist/group divide there, though – could you elaborate?

  4. In terms of I don’t know, religious? spriritual? terms of progress I think that there is a distinct difference. That difference being what is perceived to be the path to ‘enlightenment’.

    I guess what I’m saying about the individualist/ group thing is that culturally in Europe and America we are brought up to achieve our own goals and set our own terms for living. In Asia people are brought up to do what is best for the group (not one single group here but rather whatever group people happen to find themselves in). When I meditate/go into trance I am almost always not seeking a sense of self or a centre point but rather some sort of link to something external from myself. When someone from a Buddhist or Yogic tradition meditates it is to find the centre of self.

  5. It’s all so hard to define isn’t it? This is when I start to get a bit goggle-eyed.

    I’m partial to the individualist vs collective identity as opposed to the eastern/western divide. I teach a lot of Asian students in Australia and we spend a lot of time talking through this. Many of them are as envious of our self-determinism as they are horrified at our selfishness and alienation.

    In terms of how this effects meditation or trance I’ve never discussed it with them, but it’s an interesting question.

    A staunch catholic once had a discussion with me where they criticized the new age interest in buddhism, saying it was all about the self. I suspect they had a strange understanding of all three traditions.

    I find it really hard to talk about ‘self’ in traditions like Catholicism. Devout Catholics are often very loving, giving and communally minded – but the God that they focus on is individualized. Most lay christians don’t seem to have access to a lot of tools to develop in meditation..beyond contemplation and prayer….which seems to be more about calming and comforting. The charismatics do some interesting things….(so ironic isn’t it), but I’m not sure that I understand it all. I had a friend who spontaneously spoke in tongues when around a group like that so maybe it’s an energy they have with them…???

    Parts of the New Age tradition definitely seems to be focused on the individual self don’t they?….often, with a very external focus e.g. how to get a new car aka ‘The Secret’, or, how to pander to your ego’s (manipulated) desires…

    …but, in many cases this seems to be just an entryway…the carrot that leads to further development beyond the self to connect it with more and grow it beyond…

    My own experience as a buddhist meditator (which, unlike my Catholic friend, I don’t consider to be in any way new age) is that I went in to it with a focus on the center of my own self, and after a while, with that center soothed, the focus grew in to a connection with/merging with the wider cosmos.

    I’ve experiened moments of trance in deep meditation – visions, physical sensations etc…but generally, the experience is very different to those that I encounter with the spiritualists and I think of it in my head as meditation. It’s an exercise in intense focus. Whereas trance is more an exercise in letting go.

    As a result I’m afraid I still don’t really have a clear definition of the difference between the two. Meditation appears to be able to develop my insights, untie knots, free me from conditioning etc….then dissolve me.

    I suppose it is a personal development path in that case.


    As a spiritualist – my experience of ‘trance’ is very different – because distinct entities come in and talk with me, talk through me or other mediums etc…(the writing is more like chanelling than trance, of course). Trance involves a physical sensation (warm and flowing) and a side-step, letting go of self.

    Over the years being around that beautiful energy I’ve definitely felt my personality to be ‘enlightened’ in that I’ve become much softer and more sensitive and compassionate. This has not been a conscious process at all, more like a side-effect of drinking from the well of delight.

    Reflecting on the difference I suppose the ego that drives me heads to the buddhists to calm and clear and the spiritualists to fill and fly.

    The rest happens of its own accord.

    I’m not sure how that helps with the difference between meditation/trance/eastern/western..
    It’s a big topic – probably worthy of a book by someone.

    BTW – I was watching a documentary by a guy called Freddy Silva (‘stairways to heaven’) about stone circles and crop cirles etc….he suggests they’re all made to heighten frequencies that enable trance and increase fertility (including seed yields apparently) …he said e.g. in gothic cathedrals why do we walk through an ‘en..trance’ and what is it we wish to ‘alter’ at the focus of the service…interesting stuff…He also suggests that the crop circles are created by immense frequencies in water and are re-encoding our dna towards a more intuitive future…

    Hope so:) cheers

  6. I was trying my hardest to write this objectively, who knows why, when possibly it would just have been simpler for me to attack things from my own experiences and perspectives.

    I don’t know if East and West are helpful terms to be honest, Europe and Asia are a bit big to be honest. A lot of this is based on my observations of Japanese Shinto (and some Buddhist) practice and British/Northern European Wiccan and Heathen practice.

    From what I’ve seen of Christian practice it does seem to be concerned with relaxing into contemplation but there is supposed to be (in Protestant practices) some sort of communication with God. Perhaps Jo could correct me on this one? This I wonder whether you could equate with some of the deeper meditative practices of Buddhist tradition?

    The notion of ‘self’ is a bit difficult. I wouldn’t equate ‘self’ per se with the sort of desires for a new car etc.etc. that you talk about the New Ager trance states and meditative practices pandering to. I’m not entirely convinced that the self we take for granted in the West is an accurate reflection of our ‘selves’. But then I’m not exactly convinced that wa is always in harmony within enforced group actions either.

    When I spoke of western meditations focussing not on self but on group I wasn’t really thinking about how to get that new car but rather on meditations in the seidr tradition which usually involve a visualisation of communal pathways, or Wiccan style trances that involve outward communication with other people or in magical cases the invocation or evocation of spirits/gods etc.

    However I wouldn’t class these sort of trance states as being necessarily the goals of meditation. But meditation in the traditions which are from Europe seems to be to enter a trance state within which other things can come and talk to you rather than discovering the centre of yourself, which seems to be a more Yogic aim.

    Of course trance coming from the latin ‘transir’ meaning travelling (I think, I am rusty) suggests that the trance state, which is mutable (and travelling?) according to science is not the goal but a part of it? I guess the latin is why it’s an entrance (place you to travel into?). I’m not sure about Altar/alter though, alter comes from alio ,meaning ‘other’ but altar is from altare which is ‘raised up’. Fun to play with words but I prefer playing with ones from the same roots.

    I like the ideas of crop circles and stone circles heightening frequencies though.

  7. I suppose as far as Christian meditation goes it might make sense to consider prayer to be communication, i.e. a conversation, meditation is listening. I’ve heard some people draw the distinction between eastern and Christian meditation that in Christian meditation you do not aim to empty yourself (their rationale was that emptying oneself allowed possible entry to the devil, not sure I buy that one but there you go).

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