Note: This article involves an ongoing investigation. Identifying details are removed or obscured, and names are changed.
“Just observe,” said Keith, the leader. “The first time, we just ask you to soak it in.”
The chanting swirled around me like palpable energy, seeming to fill the air with a dense warmth. Or maybe that was the incense; I’m not sure.
About half an hour passed this way before I joined in. My lips quivered as they met the words around me. It didn’t feel like a conscious decision. I didn’t tell my mouth to start moving. It was coaxed by the moment. The chant existed to connect humanity to the rest of the living world, and it was working. It was connecting these strangers to me.
It wasn’t the first time I had chanted. My first chanting session was in meditation class during college. Yes, meditation class. I also took a class called “Dreams and Interpretations,” in which my not-so-psychic instructor guessed that my in-the-closet male best friend and I were in love. That instructor used chants to help us clear our minds and envision the spiritual world around us. The chants usually lasted anywhere from five to ten minutes—nothing like the two hour session I was in for tonight. But this was a new group, and I was investigating it alone. In a room full of believers, I was the only one who didn’t yet buy what they were selling. The woman next to me leaned in and whispered.
“Is this your first time here? I’m Ethel.”
“Yes, hi, I’m Carrie.”
“Turn your hands further up, like this,” she said, holding her hands up to her chest, out-turned in the universal symbol for halt. “That will help the energy flow better.”
I did. I brought my hands closer to my chest, draining the blood out of them. I closed my eyes and let the chants flow through me, trying not to judge them or think about them but just to experience what this room full of believers was experiencing. I stayed that way for about half an hour, listening to the chants and incantations. They were full of energy, nothing like the dull repetitive prayers of a middle-America church service.
And then something unexpected happened.
At first, it was just a lightheadedness. Then I felt like I was out of my body, floating above it. I couldn’t tell if my hands were near my face or far, far away. I wasn’t sure if my eyes were open or closed. I heard sounds no one else appeared to hear and saw vague, distant images: a pink diamond, a rooster with a pyramid for legs, an elderly woman in a revealing gown. At one point I snapped to attention and found that my upper body had been rhythmically swaying in a semi-circle. I wasn’t awake, and I wasn’t asleep. I was in a trance.
For over half an hour, I stayed in this state between wake and slumber. It felt much like the few moments before drifting into sleep except that it never progressed to actual sleep, nor threatened to. It was like being in a place where my rational mind could not reach me, and even thinking about it didn’t snap me out of it.
When the chanting stopped, my body jerked to attention, and my eyes flew open. I was back in the room with everyone else. Those who were standing shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. They had been holding their hands up by their chests for over an hour and were getting tired. When we broke for a short intermission, I stood up slowly, not sure my body would follow me. I joined the other attendees at the water cooler where everyone quaffed several cups. The chanting had given them all dry mouth.
“You’re new here,” said a young woman in an orange, silky robe.
“Yes,” I said, “I’m Carrie.”
“Ahh!” she said, looking around her knowingly. Then she slipped back into the service. I stood alone with my paper cup, wondering if she had heard of me before, and if so, from whom. Maybe my energy shot over to her while it swirled around in warm waves above my head? Or maybe Keith had mentioned me. Both seemed plausible at the moment.
We returned to the worship space, ready to chant. I found my seat where I could watch the robed devotees stand in their formation: four rows of chanters, all confidently standing in their prearranged foot positions and staring straight ahead, almost as if saluting a flag or being called to attention by a drill sergeant. Quickly, the group fell back into the pattern: chanting, holding their palms toward the center of the room, monotonously calling out the mantras that would connect them to our creator, our earth, and to the aliens with whom we share our universe.
I wanted to leave my body. I couldn’t wait to see that rooster again. My heartbeat sped up, and the back of my hands tingled with excitement for the trance. If I could do this at will, I would never be bored again! Public lectures, DMV appointments, long business meetings—as long as no one ever looked at me, I would be golden. Saved through the power of euphoric trance.
But it never came. The trance didn’t return, possibly because I was so excited to have it back. It was like an honored guest at a party who didn’t want to be there at all. The college freshman invited to their older relatives’ dinner party, asked incessantly about their plans for the future. That trance wanted nothing to do with me anymore.
For the rest of the service, I listened to the chanting and considered what I might have been experienced earlier. It certainly felt a lot like falling asleep—that process of drifting into unconsciousness, able to snap to at any moment. Psychologists call this hypnagogia, and it is the state in which some people experience lucid dreaming and even disturbing experiences like Old Hag Syndrome.
After the service, I told Ethel about my experience.
“It felt like a trance,” I said. “I felt like I left my body and couldn’t feel where my hands were. My upper body started circling from my waist, and I had no control over it. It was euphoric. Do you think that was a trance?”
She looked at me with a sympathetic cock of her head, politely smiling with the corner of her mouth.
“Maybe it was a mini-trance,” she said, “but I think you might be overthinking it.”
Then she hung up her robe and left.