Boundaries are in place for reasons that range from organization to protection. Generally, we live within them and find they make our lives comfortable and safe. Boundaries are frequently a good thing. Any psychotherapist worth their salt will tell you that emotional boundaries are necessary. Any landscaper will tell you that physical boundaries are aesthetically vital.
There are times, however, where boundaries must be crossed. Growth frequently comes from pushing ourselves past self-imposed limitations of outmoded images of ourselves. The boundaries of the spiritual world must be crossed in some sense to accomplish any sort of magical work. Shamanistic efforts regularly consist of crossing boundaries in the spiritual aspects of world. Laurie Cabot, a prominent Wiccan author, at one point described a witch as someone who regularly moves between the mundane and the spiritual world1.
The boundary between the physical aspect of the world and the numinous spiritual one that is peopled by wights, the dead, and everything in between is described by some as The Veil. In the spiritual landscape of the Norse mythos and the Celtic mythos, it is something that is overlaid upon the mundane world and the barrier between is one of perception. Accessing that spiritual landscape that exists alongside and within the physical world we move within on a daily basis comes from an altered state of consciousness wherein we cross boundaries within our mental states and our abilities of perception.
It can be accomplished through many means. Intoxication is one that has been used since antiquity via various substances. Ritual trance immersion is another that has been applied for a very, very long time. The use of divination tools to achieve a limited 'view' of this element of reality is another method that has been in use since antiquity. What, one may ask, is the objective of using these techniques and what are the hallmarks of having accomplished them?
The goal of these different methods is to alter our ability to be aware of the world so that we become more attuned with the subtler information available to us. When one is in a state of mindful trance, they find themselves more aware of what their inner eye can perceive. They find themselves able to access details about the world that their regular consciousness filters out in its daily efforts to assess the vital information in the world about them. From this awareness comes the ability to perceive the spiritual elements of the world.
A state of ecstatic awareness is often part of the desired mental state. Mental clarity and increased sensitivity to physical stimuli are frequently reported in this state as well. Most of all, there comes a deep, intuitive sense that one has entered into territory that is separate from their own mental projections. The ability to achieve this state is not one that is commonly found amongst the majority of the population. The ability to enter into this state with out the assistance of an induction process (be it chemical, mental, or physical) is even more rare.
In the modern world, ritual trance induction and divination tools are the most common techniques used. Intoxication is generally out of favor because the technical skill required to safely enter into that mental state is not known to the vast majority of the people who engage in this practice and there are legal restrictions on what kind of substances can be used. The different processes of ritual trance induction fall in two major divisions. One is trance induction via physical stimulus. This can range from ordeal workings to repetitive motions. Physical stimulus works to overwhelm the conscious mind with sensation thereby freeing one to experience the spiritual aspects with out the distraction of the mundane.
The other process of trance induction is mental focus. This is combined with physical stimulus to a limited extent with things such as guided meditations because of the auditory component. Mental focus disregards the mundane aspects of ones situation until a desired state of trance is reached. Of the two practices, trance induction via mental focus is the more challenging. In either case, the goal is to change one's main focus of perception from the external stimulus to the more internal ones of the psychic senses.
The reasons for engaging in trance work can be virtually limitless. Communication with spiritual beings, the dead, or deities is a common reason for this practice. The application of spiritual healing for psychic wounds and sickness is also another common reason. Some enter into this practice for the sake of the sensations and to explore this aspect of reality. Whatever reason one may choose to engage in trance work, safety precautions must be taken on both the physical and spiritual levels.
Deep trance work requires one to be in a location where they are physically safe. It is often done with an assistant who keeps an eye upon the person who is entranced and maintains a conducive environment for the working. Spiritual safety includes things such as having a clear focus on 'where' one wishes to go in the spiritual realms, invoking of one's deities and spiritual allies to keep them safe from harm, and the establishment of a safe 'base of operations' where one journeys out from and returns to. Usually, that safe space is the spiritual version of where one is physically located but it can also be a place within one's own being.
Successful trance work is not something that comes overnight. It takes a great deal of study and discipline for one to reach the state of trance required to journey out of themselves and go to different locations in the spirit world with out a guide. It also requires one to be intimately familiar with their personal spiritual and mental landscape. The ability to filter out that which is true spiritual input from what we create within our minds and what arises from external stimuli is quite challenging. Someone who wishes to learn to do trance work is well advised to start with building their knowledge of what the nature of their own spirit is like and recognizing their internal voice.
1. The description is provided in greater detail in her book The Power of the Witch. Sadly, my copy has gone missing so I can not provide the exact quote and what page it is located on.