trance journey

Ritual Technique: Trance, Chant, and Cantillation

889785_xlI’ve been on the road for about two weeks, and I have about a dozen blog post ideas swirling in my brain, but I thought I’d ease in with a ritual technique, since this is something I use frequently when I teach and lead rituals and lots of people ask me about it. My pet name for the technique is the Trance Hammer, since I came up with it during a Brigid-themed event.

First, a bit of background. The word “Trance” in ritual is often used to mean different things. In Reclaiming (and related) rituals, “the trance” is what people call the guided meditation part of the ritual, usually in the middle of the rite. The word meditation isn’t used because Reclaiming, Diana’s Grove, and some other traditions use what’s called dual voice trance. I’ve also heard it called open language trance. The difference is primarily this:

  • A guided meditation tells you what you are thinking, seeing, and feeling
  • Open language trance asks you what you are thinking, seeing, feeling, experiencing, hearing, smelling, etc.


  • A guided meditation is usually one voice reciting a script
  • Dual voice trance often uses one or more voices layered over one another, plus rhythmic assistance like frame drumming, singing bowls, didgeridoo, etc.

Trance and Meditation
The word trance, and meditation, are both problematic when we are talking about ritual technique because of varying connotations and meanings. That’s why I typically use the word “trance” to refer specifically to “the trance state,” which is a state of consciousness, and I use the words “trance journey” to refer to a dual voice, open language trance. Trance journey/guided meditation fulfill the same function in a ritual insofar as giving someone a guided inner experience.

A trance journey sits between a shamanic journey and a meditation; some vocal guidance is offered, but the journey asks questions to help someone create their own experience vs. telling them what everything looks like and how they should feel about that. A shamanic journey typically is just drumming with no vocal guidance.

Meditation and trance are often used interchangeably as well. People refer to “meditating” when what they mean is “achieving the trance state.” I won’t get too much into the nerdery, but getting “into trance” usually means moving your brain from Beta waves (consciousness) to Alpha waves (daydream) and then Theta waves (deeper trance state).

The word meditation, used on its own, often has the connotation of stillness meditation, za zen, empty mind. A lot of people tell me, “I can’t meditate,” because they experience the hamsterwheeling/chattering brain. Here’s a secret: So do a lot of experienced meditators! However, there are a lot of different ways to meditate, including walking, art-making, singing. Rhythmic activities work well. What works for your teacher won’t always work for you. If you are really bouncy and leg jiggly, stillness meditation isn’t going to work so well, but dancing might.

Engaging the Trance State
Let’s get back to trance journeys and the trance state. There are many different ways to get into a trance state; stillness works for some, singing for others, moving, dancing, weaving, jewelry making, staring at a candle flame…lots of roads there. But overall, there are two paths to a trance state; ergotropic and trophotropic. Which are nerdy neuroscience terms for trance through sensory deprivation, and trance through over stimulation.

In my experience, most Americans tend to respond better to an over stimulation trance. Hence, my Trance Hammer technique.

I came up with this technique when I was asked to offer something during a book launch event at Life Force Arts Center. While I wasn’t one of the authors in the Brigit: Sun of Womanhood anthology, I was local to Chicago and Joan Forest Mage asked if I’d be interested in offering something to help round out their book launch’s program of presentations. I offered to read a devotional poem to Brigid, but I also offered to get people chanting and build up a little energy.

Brigid does like the creative fire of voices singing together!

However, I faced a challenge. I design rituals to engage people in a trance state right from the beginning, deepening it with every layer. With the book launch, there was going to be almost two hours of programming that wasn’t necessarily engaging the trance state. I was at the very end and by then, a lot of people would tired of sitting, some might possibly even be a little bored, and certainly the group wouldn’t not ready to engage with singing and raising energy.

It takes a lot of work to get a group to feel comfortable participating.

Dual Voice Without a Partner
I had come up with a modified way of offering dual-voiced trance for when I travel and teach. See, the dual voice technique works best when you have at least one skilled trance partner. You learn each other’s rhythms and you get used to speaking over one another. That’s crucial for that trance technique, that two voices are speaking at the same time. Or more voices; a dual voice trance could have three or five or six or however many voices are needed. For a ritual of 500 people you’ll want at least five voices, perhaps more.

Not having a trance partner when I travel and offer workshops, or when I lead rituals at festivals, I had to adapt. I borrowed from a teaching exercise that I first learned in Reclaiming classes where four people would be asked to stand back-to-back in the center of the circle. They were each asked to choose an element, to close their eyes, and begin to rhythmically speak wisdom from that element. This is a great intro to trance technique, and it’s low-risk for people who are afraid of public speaking because 1. there are multiple voices, and 2. you can close your eyes.

In fact, I recommend this exercise on its own for shy, emerging public speakers looking to take on ritual roles.

So what I had been doing when I traveled is getting three or four volunteers to stand back to back and do this. Sometimes I had them speak the wisdom of the elements, sometimes I’d pick a few rhythmic words based upon the theme of the ritual, sometimes I’d give them a theme to work with that wasn’t elemental. I might have one person do the common Tree of Life meditation (roots down into the earth, branches up to the sky) while another one spoke of Lammas and harvest, and yet another spoke of sacrifice, of what we let go of.

While those four in the center are speaking all at once, I would lead the “plot arc” of the trance journey. I’d tell the story and lead people to the place where we did the thing, whatever that thing was in that particular ritual. It didn’t really matter if people can’t hear all the voices, or if the voices aren’t speaking the exact “right” words. What the multiple voices are doing is engaging the deep subconscious.

Trance Hammer
For that first Trance Hammer, I enlisted four volunteers. Each one would speak to one of Brigid’s triple fires, and one to her sacred well. I gave them a few starter words and had them stand in the center. I had the lights dimmed, and I invited everyone to stand up in a circular shape around the four in the center, and I got them to sing a tone/rolling OM while the four in the center were speaking.

I then sang my Brigid poem in cantillation style over all of that.

Cantillation is basically the technique you hear in Catholic mass or Eastern Orthodox where the priest is sing-songing the liturgy. Or even more potent, the priest sings a phrase and a choir sings it back to them. It’s usually singing the words of a liturgy in a rhythmic way and with just two or three notes; this doesn’t require a complex melody that you have to memorize.

In this case, singing the poem took me maybe three minutes, but that’s all it took to get everyone into a light trance state. As someone told me later, “I was trying to listen to the four in the center, and I was trying to listen to what you were singing, but I was trying to keep singing the tone, and I went to this far out place.”

When I was finished singing the poem, I allowed my voice to fall to silence, and then I brought the four in the center to silence, and then the tone fell away. In that moment, I asked everyone to take a breath, I spoke a few words to give them a chance to catch their breath, and then I asked everyone to join me in a chant to connect to the energies of Brigid, whether they thought of her as a Goddess, a saint, or just a story.

Everyone joined willingly into that chant in a way they wouldn’t have if the lights had been bright and they’d just been sitting there listening to readings for two hours. Even really engaging readings will still put a group into passive/audience mode, vs. active/participant mode, so I had to help them switch gears.

Using This in Ritual
I now use this technique all the time in ritual. Typically I do it as the Center/World Tree invocation after people call the elements. It makes a perfect transition into the trance journey portion of the ritual.

This technique works through overstimulation. What you need to pull it off are:

  • Four people willing to stand in the center and speak loud enough to be heard over the toning
  • One or two people to anchor the toning
  • At least 10 people (15-20 is better) in the remaining group to keep the tone rolling
  • One strong singer with a voice strong enough to sing over what everyone else is doing

There are, of course, ways to modify the technique depending on what your group has. Things to note that have surprised me when I’ve facilitated this: If your group has a lot of smokers, you’ll need more people to anchor the rolling tone. I did this technique in a class of about fifteen people, many who were heavy smokers, and they had a hard time keeping the tone going. Yet, you also need to ensure that the tone isn’t at such a loud volume that you can’t sing over it or hear the four voices in the center.

Also, you’ll need to work with the people in the center so that they know what an appropriate volume is; sometimes they will speak in such a soft whisper nobody can hear them, which defeats the purpose of the technique.

I realize that writing about this technique without the ability to demonstrate it might make this seem a little tricky, however, if you have a group of at least 15-20, you can try it out as a practice session and see how it goes. If you have a group of 10, you can try it with two doing the back-to-back in the center. That leaves 7 to hold the tone, and one to sing over it.

You can also do the basics of this technique with only 2 of the three parts. You can have the whole group toning (or adding harmony to the tone) while one person sings a poem/piece of liturgy/song over that, or you can have the four people in the center speaking while one person speaks (vs. sings) the trance journey.

Pro tip: This works better indoors or in a place with good acoustics. Outside with no tree cover, the sound will disappear fast. This also works well when you have dimmed lighting and a (smokeless) fire in the center to draw people’s gaze. Fire adds an additional layer to the trance and the over stimulation since it’s adding visual and kinesthetic layers.

Comments? Questions? Let me know if you’re interested in trying this out, or if you’ve tried it out and need help with fine tuning.

Filed under: Facilitation, Ritual Tagged: meditation, Pagan, Pagan community, ritual, ritual technique, trance, trance journey

Excerpt from A Mantle of Stars

MantleOfStarsA Mantle of Stars: A Devotional for the Queen of Heaven

I’m very excited to announce the publication of an anthology featuring one of my essays. I’ve included a few brief excerpts from my essay, and I’m really excited to read all of the other pieces. The anthology is edited by Jen McConnel and published by Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

About the Book:
Peel back the layers that comprise the Queen of Heaven. She is Mother Mary weeping at the cross, and Hathor dancing in the sky. She is Freyja with her wild eyes, and Frigg with her open arms. She is Yemaya, keeper of the sea; compassionate Kuan Yin; and she is winged Isis. Her starry body stretches across the sky in the guise of Nut, and she is Saraswati’s gentle song. She is Juno, and Hera, and Tanit, and a thousand forgotten names, and she is Inanna, descending to the underworld to be reborn.

The voices in this anthology are as diverse as the different goddesses who have claimed the title Queen of Heaven, but each sparkles like the stars in Our Lady’s mantle.

Excerpt from A Mantle of Stars:
Below are a number of short excerpts taken from my longer essay. Think of them as stones skipping on a pond; little glimpses in a basically linear flow.

My Path to the Lady in the Blue Light
–Shauna Aura Knight

“I didn’t know her name. I started talking to her at night, talking to that huge bright moon, to the glittering stars. I think I was twelve when I started pouring out my sorrows to her. I was young enough that everything was emotionally overwhelming. Old enough to understand that people were cruel, that my classmates were cruel, and that they were never, ever going to stop teasing me. I think it was around that age that I started wondering, every once in a while, if life was worth living if every day meant verbal, emotional, and sometimes physical torture at the hands of my peers.

Somehow, at night when I looked up at the moon, I felt that she was with me. Angel, goddess, I didn’t know….Feeling her close made me feel like I was worth something, like maybe life was worth surviving….”


“In my twenties, the dreams changed. The visions were harder to connect to, further and farther between. I began to dream less of the angel/goddess directly, and more of something I first called the Water Chapel, later, the Water Temple. In this Temple of the Goddess of moonlight and water, there were spiral grooves carved into the floor, sometimes carvings of water shapes and grails almost in the way the ramps up to the Forbidden City in China are carved in relief. There was always a fountain in the center, water falling down, or a grail overflowing.”


“When I joined the leadership program at Diana’s Grove, my intention was to learn the skills to help serve Pagan community, but also to be a better leader in order to accomplish some of the larger creative projects I had in mind, some of those being projects like building standing stones, temples, or something more mundane like art installations. I knew I had been called to Pagan leadership, and I knew that Diana’s Grove was one of the very few places where I could actually get the training to do it.

But as I began doing that work of learning Pagan leadership and priestess skills, it felt like my Goddess was further and further away from me. Those moments of divine communion seemed a thousand miles out of reach.”


“I’ve been reading about sacred geometry, ancient temples, and ancient legends for a while, but it seemed like suddenly the synchronicities were coming faster. Michael and Gabriel, sword and chalice. There also seemed to frequently be a connection between the Grail and the cosmic mountain or Omphalos—world navel—and at times, a connection to the dome of the heavens, the zodiac.”


“Archaeoastronomy is still considered fringe science to some, although I personally find the evidence fairly compelling that our ancient ancestors built computers in the form of stone megaliths and temples to track the movement of the stars and the heavens. As a kid I had those dreams about Stonehenge all the time, and for a while I thought about just building stone circles, but it wasn’t until I learned more about the actual solar and stellar alignments of some of the megaliths that it began to make sense why our ancestors might have done that kind of work. And perhaps, why I myself might have become obsessed with the idea without even knowing why.”


“I believe that our ancient ancestors understood the sky. And for whatever reason, they knew that it was essential to chart the stars, to record their observations in stone. It’s relatively easy to track the solstices and equinoxes, which would be essential for tracking the seasons. But some of these sites seem to have tracked incredibly complicated stellar phenomena. Eclipses, the 8-year and 40-year cycle of Venus. Even the 25,800 -year cycle of axial precession caused by the slight wobble of the Earth’s rotation on its axis.”


“Queen of Heaven, Venus, and Astronomical Megaliths
With a dozen wooden posts and a flat field, our priest-astronomer-megalith builders could have tracked the simple seasonal cycles. One post goes in the center as a sightline. You start at the Equinox, and put a post on one half of the circle for sunrise, one for sunset. Over the next months, you track the sun as it moves north, putting another post in to mark the sightline for the solstice. Solstice means “sun is standing still,” so you mark the northernmost sunrise of the summer solstice, and the northernmost sunset on the other side of your circle. Same thing for the latter half of the year, marking out the sunset. That calendar takes just one year to build and is fairly tolerant of error.”


“The truth is, I think a great deal of the “magic” of our ancient ancestors can be found in a modern cell phone: calendars, moon phases, a compass. Imagine the power that the shaman-priests had by being able to tell when the solstices and equinoxes fell. By knowing when the warm rains would come, when the snows would come, when it was time to plant. This knowledge was carried in the language of stone, in the language of myth.”


“My search began with the dreams, with visions of an unnamed goddess. Later, dreams of megaliths, dreams of temples filled with water and with images of a Grail, temples filled with spiral grooves, temples where water was always flowing, and where I felt connected to that goddess of the nighttime sky. In those dreams and visions, I felt completely connected to her, transcendent.

And yet, in my quest to follow the path I saw to spiritual leadership, and the path to learn more about labyrinths and temples, I seemed to have lost her….When I began leading public rituals, I thought surely I would find that place of communion, and it eluded me over and over. 

….For years, I felt a bitterness. How unfair was it that I finally understood some of the messages from my dreams, even if they were vague, and I couldn’t actually directly commune with this goddess that had inspired me and kept me from harming myself in my youth?”


“In my vision, I felt myself become a part of the entire universe. The universe was an ocean of love; I was laying on a bed that was the waters of the ocean that was the mother that loves us all and that is all of us, that we are not separate from. It was my goddess, but warmer, larger, more encompassing.

I felt the golden honey-light of the heartbreak of the universe breaking open on my skin in that moment, I felt the cradling rocking loving. That I was not separate from the divine. That indeed, I was not separate from anyone, that we were like water in the ocean, that the skin that separates us is an illusion. That it was all bliss and agony and love together—that the separation the universe must endure from us is agony, but only with that grief and loss can we truly recognize how potent it is to come home again….”

Table of Contents and more information at:

Edited by: Jen McConnel
Published by: Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Price: $14.99
Publication Date: 20 December 2013
ISBN: 978-1494357948 / 1494357941
Pages: 302 pp

Purchase at:


Filed under: Dreamwork, Personal Growth Tagged: A Mantle of Stars, archaeoastronomy, Archangel Gabriel, Arthur, Gabriel, Goddess, king arthur, megaliths, Personal growth, personal transformation, Quest for the Grail, stonehenge, Sword in the Stone, the Grail, trance journey, transformation