What's missing in modern life (and most modern western religion) that sends people in search of everything from Peruvian ayahuasca rituals to Native American sweatlodges and peyote ceremonies? Ecstasy.

No, I don't mean the street drug, but the state of consciousness that takes us out of the ordinary and transports us closer to the numinous, the divine. A while back I wrote about how most of the modern world is ecstasy deprived. We're so steeped in the post-Enlightenment materialist mindset that we forget to look beyond the physical to see what else is around us. We also forget that each of us is more than just physical, that we have amazing abilities to transcend our "daily grind" state of consciousness.

The Minoans knew all about altered states of consciousness. They used opium, alcohol (mead/wine/beer), and probably ergot as well in addition to rhythmic sound and movement (drumming, rattling, dancing) to step out of the ordinary and into the sublime.

At the top of this post you can see my line drawing of a Minoan seal ring from the Isopata cemetery near Knossos. On this ring, four women are dancing in ecstatic states in some kind of ritual. They have bells attached to their skirts to add to the rhythmic sound, and the goddess (the tiny floating female figure) is descending to them. The wriggling snakes give us another clue that this is an ecstatic trance activity: Serpent-like shapes are the single most commonly reported visual effect of hallucinogens.

Ecstatic trance states were common in rituals throughout the ancient world and may go back millennia to Paleolithic times, but what about us modern folks? How are we supposed to fill in the gap that so many of us feel? No, I don't recommend breaking the law with any kind of hallucinogens. There might be some things worth going to jail for (social justice activism comes to mind) but not this.

You could spend a lot of money to travel somewhere that sort of thing is legal, but there are quite a few indigenous medicine people who really don't like us First World-ers showing up at their doorstep for ayahuasca ceremonies. And there's always the danger that whoever is serving the ayahuasca doesn't really know what they're doing; the almighty dollar is a powerful incentive to make stuff up as you go along.

So what's a modern Pagan to do? We actually have quite a few options, each of which will work pretty well by itself. But if you combine two or more of them, you'll get a much deeper experience.

To start, you might try rhythmic sound. You could play a drum or rattle yourself, join a drumming circle, or listen to a recording (there are plenty of good ones out there). Drumming entrains your brain activity and puts you in a mild trance state without your having to do anything except listen. I find I can solve problems that I'm "stuck" on if I allow my thoughts to wander during this kind of state.

You could use ecstatic postures. I've written about them here. This is an ancient practice (chaos magicians would call it a kind of "tech") that uses specific body positions to bring about altered states of consciousness. Ancient people depicted these postures in their sacred art, particularly in figurines, and we can use these to make our own journeys into the numinous. If you're interested in this technique, I recommend Belinda Gore's excellent book Ecstatic Body Postures: An Alternate Reality Workbook. This method does take some practice; you need to be able to reach a meditative state before assuming the posture. Ms. Gore recommends simple breathing techniques and drumming, which have worked well for me.

What if you want to reach some kind of ecstatic or trance state in ritual, to commune with your gods or find healing and purpose? Again, rhythmic sound and movement are excellent methods. Your favorite drumming album plus a simple circle dance would be a great way to provide gentle trance entrainment for the participants in a ritual. But remember, this isn't for recreation. You should always have a purpose defined ahead of time for this sort of activity. Are you seeking communion with a deity? Looking for the answer to a question? Hoping to find a new spirit helper? Decide ahead of time where you're going, so to speak, and you'll have a more fulfilling experience all round.

You can add certain (perfectly legal) herbs and resins to these activities to enhance the experience. Frankincense has a mild hallucinogenic effect, as do bay leaves, European sage, and mugwort. Burn any of these as incense to amplify the trance state (though obviously, not if you're allergic to any of them - please use common sense).

The Minoans, like many ancient people, had a long-practiced, codified set of methods for achieving deep trance states. Their priestesses and priests appear to have practiced trance possession, in which the god or goddess comes into the body of the clergy and speaks through them. This is a much more difficult activity than simply allowing yourself to slip into a mild ecstatic state. It requires patience, hard work, and more than a little self-discipline, and isn't something you can do alone. If you're interested in working toward this kind of activity, I recommend two excellent books to get you started: Trance-Portation: Learning to Navigate the Inner World by Diana Paxson and Lifting the Veil: A Witches' Guide to Trance-Prophesy, Drawing Down the Moon, and Ecstatic Ritual by Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone.

So there you have it. There are ways to remedy our ecstasy deprivation, the lack of the numinous in the modern mundane world. I do them all on a regular basis (yes, even trance possession, but believe me when I say it isn't for the faint of heart). So pick up your rattle or put on your favorite drumming album and let yourself be transported. You'll feel better for it, I promise.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.