Chanting, Trancing, and Ecstatic Techniques for Aspecting Part 2

shutterstock_78222514This is part 2 of my post on using singing, toning, chanting, and other ecstatic techniques for aspecting and trance possession in ritual. You’re really going to want to read Part 1, and you’ll also likely want to read this post on the theology/function of aspecting and trance possession.

Toning and Singing

Toning is one of the best ways to get people singing. It’s very safe. And, there are instruments you can use to support and cradle the sound. It’s hard to get a big/enveloping sound with only 3 people in a small group. It’s even hard with 10, unless you’re all really committed to singing and making sound. You can use a singing bowl or a Shruti box or something else that makes a droning/toning sound and sing along with that.

There are two major types of chanting/breathwork–there’s chanting that slows your breathing (like toning) and there’s chanting that speeds up your breathing. One slows your heartbeat, one speeds it up. They do different things to your brainwaves too; the science on that is just a bit beyond my pay grade, but try it some time, you’ll feel the difference.

The type of chanting you use depends on what you want to happen. With trance possession in the style of Vodou, you’re looking at heavy drumming, dancing, and chanting in a faster way that makes your breathing staccato. Whereas if you have seen a roomful of Tibetan monks chanting steadily and slowly, that affects your consciousness differently.

Both are effective chanting techniques, but the question is, effective at what?


Toning and slower chants (like the Tibetan monks, or just singing OM) is an easier place to start. It’s safer, and it will build up people’s strength in their voices and their confidence.

I have a few of songs that I sing along to when I drive (here’s my start-up song) so I’m basically singing, toning, and harmonizing long drones for as long as I can sustain my breath. Here are all the reasons I do this:

  • Personal spiritual practice
  • Keeping my voice warmed up
  • Continually build my capacity to hold more air and control that air so I can sing for longer without needing to take a breath

I can hold a note for 20 seconds with no problem. Sometimes 30 or more if my voice is really in shape. That’s important for the way breathing shifts your body and your heart rate and your brainwaves; you’re using toning as a form of breathwork, and you’re using it to shift your consciousness in a very particular way, so the more control you have over when you take a breath will impact the kind of spiritual work you can do.

It’s also important as a facilitator. If you want to build your capacity to lead chants; you need to be able to control where you breathe. One of the biggest problems facilitators run into when leading a chant is that, when they take a breath, the group stops singing. When I chant with a group, I don’t breathe in the places you’d expect so that the chant just keeps going. I breathe when the group is singing strongly, not in the “expected” breathing spaces between the lines.

Faster/Rhythmic Chanting

Eventually, you might want to try something with more staccato breathing, and bring in drumming. It’s easier to do more complicated chants once your group is feeling stronger about singing and they’re used to it, and when there’s more safety/intimacy as a group.

These could be chants with more words, and chants that are intended to speed up as you go along. More words tends to force breathing more quickly, particularly if you are also moving or dancing, or even just rocking back and forth more and more quickly.

With larger groups, I tend to caution people away from using canned music (ie, playing a CD or MP3) but with a small group, it might work well if you use it a lot and are used to it. Really depends on the song. Pre-recorded music doesn’t allow for the energy to shift in the moment, however, it can be a place to start to help get people more comfortable.

For more physical trancework, think dancing to techno or heavy drumming, bellydance, or firespinning, and singing along with that. The movement plus the chanting will put you into a different kind of altered state than the calmer toning/droning.

Here’s a video that shows two different chants. The first is a slower chant used to hold space while we journeyed to the Sacred Well one at a time. The second chant is faster and speeds up leading to an energy peak. The audio’s not the best but you can at least see the progression.

Trance Possession

If you’re trying to effect a trance possession of one ritualist, then it becomes almost the opposite of what I do when I lead a chant. When I lead a chant for a group ritual, I’m anchoring the chant and working to get the group more comfortable, helping them sing it until it “takes off” on its own and then I guide it, shape it.

With a trance possession, the group encircles the Vessel, and works to get the Vessel possessed by shaping the energy, building it higher. There can still be a facilitator guiding the speed/energy, but the Vessel is giving over to the group energy and letting that shape the experience. The group is using their own energy to help the Vessel “get there.” So the Vessel may be dancing, but the group is singing, dancing, moving as well to help build that energy and help the Vessel get possessed/draw down. It’s a collaborative effort.

Here are some videos that show chanting and drumming used by a very skilled ritual/musical group. This group has practiced together for quite some time and they have a very specific tradition, though I’m unfamiliar with it or its roots. You can see how the group works to use music to build up the energy focusing on the person who is doing the trance dancing, and how they speed up/get more into it as they give over to the music. (There are a lot of videos of this group on the channel, but I’ll just post a few here)

You can get a sense of the kind of vulnerability of the vessel, which is why I so frequently emphasize that the sense of safety is crucial to practices like this in ritual. I’m able to get large groups there because there’s a sort of anonymity in a group larger than 50.

In a group smaller than 10, you need to trust each and every person in that group to be able to go into the kind of deep trance state for invocation/aspecting/trance possession. In our culture, we’re so often wired to laugh at the person who sings and dances if it’s not performance quality, and in ritual work like this, your ability to look “good” dancing isn’t what’s required. It isn’t even required to be a good singer, though being able to stay on the melody or harmonize does help. It’s required that you do it, that you give yourself over to it, that you sing and move your body and go into the rhythm.

It’s required that you participate, that you engage, that you are present, that you are bringing your energy through your voice and body. If you sing quietly or limit yourself to small, tight movements, because you’re nervous that you’ll be judged by the group, because you’re worried someone’s going to see your fat jiggling or any other perceived physical flaw, you won’t be able to go into the depths.

Thus–using these ecstatic techniques goes far beyond just singing and toning during ritual work. All of this weaves together.

Working This Into Group Practice

What I’d suggest more than anything if you want to weave ecstatic techniques, particularly singing, is teaching the techniques themselves and why you are using them. Teach your group the singing and chanting techniques. Encourage them to practice singing as a personal spiritual practice so that they get more comfortable singing alone and as a group together.

Pro tip: I warm my voice up for about an hour before leading a workshop or ritual. I don’t wake up in the morning with a ready-to-go voice, I need to work out the gravelly sound and warm up the muscles. Your voice is a muscle, and you’re more likely to be able to sing and stay on key if you 1. warm up your voice muscles by singing and 2. regularly sing the chants you’ll be singing in ritual.

I wish every ritual participant bothered to warm their voices up before a ritual so that they are ready to jump in and participate!

I learned the hard way that I have to keep my voice warmed up. I had been singing and leading chants in rituals for a couple of years, and then I ran a weekend-long class on Raising Energy in Ritual. The morning the class started, I led the group with the first chant I’d chosen. I’d sung it so many times I was surprised to hear my voice straining to reach some of the notes, and my voice sounding a little wavery, not strong at all. I realized that I hadn’t been singing in weeks. Your voice is a muscle and you lose muscle tone fast. And let’s face it, many of us wake up and cough, there’s phlegm, our voice is deeper and maybe a little hoarse. Not the most pleasant topic, but it’s important if you’re looking to sing in ritual.

It can take me a half hour to an hour to be ready to hit the notes and sustain them for group chanting, particularly if there are difficult acoustics (like I’m chanting in an open field with no tree cover or next to a soccer game). This is part of your work as a ritualist, as a leader, as a professional. Leading rituals is work, and singing in ritual takes dedication and practice just as it does for a professional musician.

Experimenting With Techniques

I also strongly suggest being willing to experiment. You might start out with the toning/droning kind of singing, since it’s a bit more accessible. But then you can switch it up.

There’s a trance technique I use, I call it the Trance Hammer where I have the whole group singing a note/tone, and then I sing something more complicated over that. (That article also now contains a video of the technique.) In that scenario, you only need one strong singer to handle the melody, the rest can handle the tone. This adds texture, and it’s also a trance technique called “confusion technique.” It works because your brain is trying to process two separate things–the toning, and the other song–and it sends you into a deeper subconscious state.

Once your group is comfortable with the idea of singing in ritual and willing to do that, you can try more complicated chants, or add in drumming. And sometimes it’ll work and sometimes you’ll fumble, but that’s the advantage of working with a smaller group; you get to try things out without screwing up a big public ritual.

Advanced Personal/Professional Practice

As part of my own personal practice that crosses over into professional-ritualist-practice, here’s something I do regularly. I practice singing songs/melodies that I’m going to use for sung trances like the cantillation/Trance Hammer technique I mention above. Here’s how I do it.

I’ll play a song that has a melody in harmony with what I’m singing, but with different words. (Here’s the song I use for this most frequently.) I practice singing over that and not getting distracted by the other words; in fact, I try to keep an ear open for the song that’s playing so that I can sing certain words at the same time, or certain notes at the same time. And, I do all that while I’m doing a third task that requires me to pay attention to basic logistics. It could be anything like folding paper or looking up directions on Google maps, just something kinesthetic that takes my attention. In my case, I might practice this technique while painting gold borderwork on one of my art pieces or gluing tissue paper to cardboard.

Sounds complicated? It is. But, it has to be.

I’m training my brain to know that song even in the midst of chaos, in the midst of a really complicated task, and in the midst of competing music. I’m training myself to be able to not just memorize that song, but  memorize it in a way that distractions at a festival, or logistical issues with a ritual, won’t make me lose what I’m supposed to be singing. I’ve memorized the melodies and words in a way that I can sing it even when dealing simultaneously with complicated ritual logistics, or people whispering a question into my ear about their cue for the next ritual part. I can even communicate with others by nodding or offering hand signs while I’m still singing and not lose my place.

And the side benefit is that when I practice this technique at home, I get myself into a trance state and it’s part of my own personal spiritual work.


Filed under: Facilitation, Ritual Tagged: aspecting, chanting, dancing, drawing down, ecstasis, ecstatic ritual, invocation, Pagan, Paganism, possession, ritual, shruti box, singing, singing bowl, theology, trance possession, trance work, trancing

Chanting, Trancing, and Ecstatic Techniques for Aspecting Part 1

shutterstock_76776415Using ecstatic techniques of singing, dancing, and drumming to draw down deities or get possessed by spirits is both an old ritual technology and a new one. It’s been used for thousands of years and you see this in the tribal customs of many religions that have continued on to the present day.

It’s a technique that also has become used more and more in modern Pagan groups, though many Pagan groups have had to rediscover it since certain traditions didn’t seem to use any ecstatic processes for this ritual function. Thus, as these techniques are rediscovered, the old is new again. However, it means we have to re-look at these techniques and look at what will work for us in our own traditions and rituals, and what won’t. And it also serves to burrow down a bit into why it works.

I was specifically asked via my Facebook group on Ritual Facilitation Skills how one could use singing and chanting as part of drawing down, but the answer’s a little more complex than that. It’s worth pointing out the framework of the person asking; she’s forming a small group, so perhaps 3-4 people to start with, and she comes from an Alexandrian tradition.

The TL:DR on this post is, if you want to use singing and chanting techniques in ritual, you have to learn how to do it, and you have to teach your group to do them too. More, you have to get their buy-in, their willingness to do it without you having to pressure them. If you have a very small group and some of them are reluctant to sing and aren’t willing to engage whole-heartedly, these techniques may fall flat.

If you have a group of five people, but only two are willing to sing, it’s like two people trying to carry a 200 pound cauldron while the rest of the group stands there and watches: not going to work out well.

What Is Aspecting, and what is Ecstatic?

Let’s start with definitions of terms. Trance possession, drawing down, invocation, and aspecting are all terms for the same basic function, but they have different connotations, as I mentioned in my last post. Trance possession is typically done with a lot of ecstatic support.

When I say ecstatic, what I mean is physically embodied techniques that take us into a deep altered state. We’re talking drumming, singing, dancing. Now, some ecstatic techniques involve sensory overstimulation, and some could involve sensory deprivation (dancing with a blindfold, sensory deprivation water tanks, etc.) Sometimes alcohol or entheogenic substances are used.

You will commonly see ecstatic work used for trance possessions in African Diasporic traditions like Vodoun when people are ridden by the Loa, or in traditional tribal cultures where the whole community is singing and dancing together and the shaman/spiritworker (or other specific people) go into shaking trances. I’ll go ahead and use the word shamanic in the anthropological sense of how the word is commonly used; these techniques are common in shamanic traditions where the tribal spiritworker is supported in their work by the singing and dancing of the whole tribe.

There’s a great documentary, Dances of Ecstasy, that I often recommend as it offers up video of several different world traditions that use trance techniques. The DVD is available on Amazon or you can order it directly from the people who created it.

Working Within A Tradition

It’s worth pointing out that I have little experience with Alexandrian or British Traditional Witchcraft, and that’s the framework the original question comes from. I’m familiar with what I’d call the “standard Wiccan ritual” format that comes from BTW since I’ve attended plenty of them, so I’m using that as sort of a guideline here for the rest of my response.

However, if you’re in a similar tradition, one potential resource is Janet Farrar. Janet trained with Alex Sanders so she comes from those traditions, but her ritual work has evolved over the years. She gave a talk a few years ago and spoke very specifically about how they are doing a lot more ecstatic trance work in their rituals, and the way they do drawing down is closer to what’s usually referred to as trance possession.

So if you’re working with traditional witchcraft and Wicca, it’s possible that Janet Farrar herself might be a good resource for how to do this within the constraints of your own tradition. She may have written about this as well, but I’m not familiar with the content of her books. (Feel free to comment or message me if you are and can recommend one of her books that might go into her approach on this).

Constraints and Intentions

One of the reasons I don’t work with what I call the “standard Wiccan ritual format” is in part because those traditions tend to offer too many limitations on the shape of the ritual. I could get into orthodoxy and orthopraxy, but the idea is that when you study in a particular tradition/religion and you’re told that the ritual must be done like this, otherwise it’s not correct, that becomes a limitation on what you can and can’t do in your ritual and still call it XYZ tradition.

I take a completely different approach. I’ve mentioned it in a few articles, but basically the way I do ritual is entirely geared toward engaging the group in a trance state. I build up layer and layer of participation to get people willing to sing, move, dance. I’m concerned with trance technique, not orthodoxy.

Some traditions have a set format for how things must be done, and sometimes those things make it hard to engage a group in participation. I talk about one ritual in my book Spiritual Scents where each person was expected to sage/smudge the person next to them, one at a time. With 60 people, that ended up taking 45 minutes, just for smudging. We were all bored to tears before the ritual even started.

The energy was flatlined.

Thus, I look at traditions and expectations around ritual and I may shift things a bit to make it more ecstatic. Cakes and Ale is one I have gone after in some of my articles too; in a larger group, Cakes and Ale is (in some traditions) supposed to be the Big Divine Communion Moment. And instead, it’s this long, annoying process of passing out styrofoam cups, juice with preservatives, cookies with preservatives…not very magical. People start having side conversations while they wait for their juice and cookie–the energy diffuses.

In my ritual work, I don’t do smudging or cakes and ale, and that’s for a few reasons but one is that if it’s going to take a long time and be boring for the group, that’s not going to make it easy to sing and build energy.

Thus, one of the pieces of advice I always offer up is, look at the intention of each piece of your ritual and what it’s supposed to achieve. If you’re told to do ABC format, and the intention is building communal energy, but the ABC format doesn’t do that…perhaps your tradition needs to be updated. Perhaps a different ritual technique would better serve that intention.

Take a look at each piece of your ritual and honestly explore whether or not the ritual techniques you’re taught to use actually effect that intention.

Ritual Logistics That Impact Ecstatic Work

It’s worth mentioning that my specialty is large group ritual; I’m not always the best at small group ritual. However, in large group ritual the challenge is getting a bunch of strangers to energetically connect and be willing to sing/dance/look like a dumbass in front of strangers. In a small group, you have the advantage of intimacy and connection. As the group’s connection builds, it can become easier to do the ecstatic work because you have that relationship and you’re not worried about looking stupid while you sing, dance, etc.

I mention all that because if you want to use singing and other ecstatic/embodied techniques, people need to feel comfortable enough to do them. In our culture, most people don’t feel comfortable singing. We’re taught that only “good” singers should sing.

I get away with it in large groups because, among other things, I’m loud enough to anchor the chant and keep the melody until the group starts to feel comfortable. Plus in a group of 50+ people there’s a certain amount of anonymity.

But the other reason I get away with it and get people singing that weren’t expecting to sing is that I’ve structured my whole ritual to build people up, to help them participate more and more until they feel safer. I don’t ask them to jump in and sing a complicated chant right away, I don’t ask them to jump in and dance in the middle. I ask for them to speak a word, or sing a tone, or to move their arms or maybe sway from side to side. And then a little later, I ask for more sound, more movement, more words.

I build it up layer by layer.

There’s an axiom of facilitation (workshops, rituals, etc) that what you do in the first five minutes sets the tone. That’s true, but it’s more complex than that. If I want the group to participate (not just watch) I do have to set that up in the first five minutes. But, I also have to layer that up through the ritual. I can’t expect someone to be comfortable anchoring a chant, or go into deep ecstasis, if they’ve been standing and watching me talk for 20 minutes. People go into “audience mode” and then getting them to do anything participatory is like stirring glue.

Now…as you can tell, this topic is deeper than just getting people to sing. I’m not explaining simple concepts, so this post has gone on pretty long and we haven’t even gotten to actual singing and chanting techniques. Part 2 will do just that, and you’ll really want to read it now that you have some background information. I also go into some of the chanting and music techniques I use as a personal practice and to train my voice. Sounds simple to say, but you can’t lead chants in ritual if you haven’t prepared yourself to sing.

Part 2 tomorrow!


Filed under: Facilitation, Ritual Tagged: aspecting, chanting, dancing, drawing down, ecstasis, ecstatic ritual, invocation, Pagan, Paganism, possession, ritual, shruti box, singing, singing bowl, theology, trance possession, trance work, trancing