The surrealist experimentations of Colombian musician Lucrecia Dalt draw from a vast range of artistic and philosophical influences, with ongoing explorations in any number of creative fields highlighted in her recurring Pli show on RBMA Radio. In the latest edition of Pli, Dalt spoke with Sam Ashley, a composer and singer who has devoted his life to the development of an experimental, non-religious mysticism. In addition to performing solo and as a principal vocalist in Robert Ashley’s opera company, Ashley has relentlessly pursued the ideal of authentic mysticism as a creative process. His pieces explore luck, hallucination and coincidence, but the unifying thread throughout is the concept of trance. In this excerpt from a conversation between Dalt and Ashley, the pair discuss Ashley’s lifelong commitment to investigating trance and hypnagogic states, as well as the beauty to be found in vulnerability.
What is your definition of trance?
I usually say it like this: Do nothing and then do less, basically. I think that’s fundamental. There are a lot of people who ask me things like “What do you mean by ‘meditation,’” and I think meditation and trance are synonyms. I used to have this problem where I imagined that meditation meant manipulating some kind of energy. I still do practice that in some ways, but it’s much more subtle now. In the past I actually believed chakras and this kind of thing, but now I think that’s totally bullshit. There are no chakras. This is really idiotic. The feeling that people are discovering when they’re looking for their chakras is the sense of self interfacing with non-self. No matter where they look in their body, they’ll experience that relationship and they’ll define it as a chakra, but I think that it’s actually unhealthy to believe in chakras, because people who believe in chakras basically are subjecting their body to a kind of stress.
It’s like the search that was happening in Europe in the Middle Ages where people were looking for the seat of the soul. It’s exactly the same thing. People who believe that the heart chakra is the most fundamental one, they usually die of a heart attack. The people who believe that their belly chakra is the most important, they get stomach cancer or liver cancer or this kind of stuff. The problem with the idea is that it puts too much stress on that part of the body. It’s better to just open the whole thing up and to not have any of those beliefs. I still practice one kind of manipulation... There’s a feeling of a flow of energy. That feeling is actually sort of useful, but it’s also, in a way, an illusion, because I think what’s really happening is that in trance there’s a direct creation of things. The feeling of the flow of energy is a symptom – it’s a side effect of that. Because it’s a side effect of that, it can actually be used, so I don’t think it’s necessarily so bad. It’s very important to open up, to get rid of all those beliefs and actually just deal directly with what one can perceive intuitively.
By now, for me, trance is simply nothing. People do these guided meditations – they imagine a golden ball of light or whatever and then they do something with that – and I think that’s a mistake. I think that doesn’t really reveal so much. The only advantage to that kind of thing is that it’s a way of practicing how to focus one’s will and to strengthen one’s intentions.
Did you study to do it this way?
A long time ago. When I became interested in trance, yoga wasn’t imported into the West yet. I’ve been doing trance for 50 years, so it’s really a long time. The only thing I had ever heard was that trance was hypnosis, so I started with this self-hypnosis. Hypnosis is basically so absurd that I stopped after about a month of that. I just started doing this other kind of research – it’s called hypnagogic states, where it’s like halfway between sleeping and being awake. This is very interesting stuff because it’s very visionary, and I think it’s much more profound. It’s more useful as a study, because it opens up more doors and I think it’s therefore more valuable. I think that’s really true trance, to get into these lucid states. I think that hypnagogic stuff is more interesting than hypnosis, definitely. The hypnagogic states are really going into the direction of real trance.
I think that, ideally, the thing is to try and live in heaven.
When you talk about trance – I don’t know if it has transformed throughout the years – but are you referring to something that you do in a specific frame of time, or is it something that you feel constantly?
By now it’s something that’s constant. In a way, I’m in two worlds at the same time, always. It took a long time for this to be the case. Now there’s always a kind of double existence. In some ways, I’m working in this spirit world all the time, even if I’m also talking and blah, blah, blah, this kind of stuff. It’s a strange feeling and I like that, because I think it’s much more interesting that there’s always the possibility to do things in the spirit world. The basic idea is that the things that happen in the spirit world then manifest in the real world. That’s the basic plan. To try and take action in the spirit world to achieve something or to make something possible, the idea is that then will reflect in the real world. That for me is the ultimate experiment. It’s really the most interesting thing to explore. It took a long time for that to be the case, but I think it’s now true that I’m in both worlds at the same time.
What are the things in life that make you totally disconnected or put you in less of a trance?
I don’t think there is any situation that makes me less in trance, not anymore. There was maybe in the past, if I was distracted by whatever, life things, but now I think it’s not really so much. I like to really try and push it far, see if I can take it farther and farther and farther. I think that, ideally, the thing is to try and live in heaven. The idea that heaven comes after you die is basically a myth, and I think that’s a sales tactic to get people to sign up for whatever. I think that the problem is complacency. To be complacent and to not try and aim for transcendence is actually a problem in life. That’s the way I see it.
Beliefs are a problem. To have any kind of beliefs is a burden.
When somebody is complacent, they’re basically going about their life without trying to go any farther... I think that’s a problem. For me, it’s a problem, it’s an illusion. Then people will go about their life satisfied and satisfied until they die. What the fuck? All the sudden, they’re facing death, and when people are facing death, it’s the one place where they realize the vulnerability of themselves, which is where all the magic is. The vulnerability of life is where the magic is.
It’s too bad that people go through their life without seeing that and without living it, the magic. To have it be miraculous all the time seems to me to be much more interesting and much more fun. I think that vulnerability is fundamental to life. I think that’s the real definition of life: mortality. The fact of mortality is actually where life is magical and life becomes miraculous. Things can happen in a way that make no sense but that can happen by coincidence, and that’s much more profound than just acting by method, by cause and effect. In fact, coincidences are always happening and those coincidences are generally miraculous. They happen in everybody’s life, but people discount that. Most people believe that that shouldn’t be happening, that it’s somehow an accident, but I think that’s basically bullshit. I think it’s much more interesting to explore that and to see how far one can go into that, and what can come out of that.
What is your relationship with your own body? What does it mean, especially thinking about materiality?
I think it’s important to feel one’s body fully, to try and experience it without tension. This is sometimes difficult to achieve because it’s easy to carry around a lot of tension, just from the experiences of life that are hard. That’s another thing that I think that trance is actually valuable for, is to try and release those tensions and to experience one’s material existence in a way that’s without any kind of encumbrance. I don’t know if I have ever achieved that perfectly. Maybe I never have and maybe I never will, but I think that it’s a good thing to aim for. I think that comes down to the question of, what is material? What is this material world? I’m not sure that that material world is any different from any other kind of experience. I think that it could be said that the feeling of substance or the sense of material substance is just more experience, and it’s possible that it’s just part of the same creative process that makes experience of any kind.
I know that probably in the Western world, in the modern world now, people have the idea that perception or experience is all happening in their brain. I’m not convinced that that’s really necessarily so. I think that experience has more to do with the relationship between self and non-self. It’s part of this definition. I think that probably material substance is one more expression of that. To transcend something isn’t necessarily to eliminate something. To transcend something can also be to incorporate it or to live it without any kind of encumbrance or without rejection. I guess that’s what the idea of tantra is all about, to treat the world and one’s life as the only thing that’s there for us to work with spiritually. I think that this tantric idea is actually right. It’s the best. It’s saying, “This is what we’ve got, so we have to use what we have,” which includes everything. The material, the sense of materiality and all of that.
I think that the vulnerability of living creatures is actually the most interesting feature of life.
I’ve always lived pretty simply. I think I spent a lot of years renouncing things, renouncing everything. That’s valuable, but I think that the way I try and see it now is much more connected to this idea of, “I have to relate and I have to experience what is and simply work with that, whatever that is.” Anyway, beliefs are a problem. To have any kind of beliefs is a burden, I think. To have any kind of beliefs is already limiting what the possibilities are. I would rather dispense with all that stuff and give all that up. It comes back to what is trance: It’s to do nothing and then do less.
Exactly. I’ve been interested in reading about philosophies that challenge the traditional notions of phenomenology. But then it's interesting, because once you’re dead or your body stops functioning, we don’t know. We don’t know what out consciousness, or whatever is within this body, what’s gonna happen. Is it gonna be somewhere as an entity, still observing things from this world?
I think that’s a little bit of what I was talking about before about vulnerability. I think that the vulnerability of living creatures is actually the most interesting feature of life. The mortality of life is actually what defines life, the fact that we can die. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it’s the place where the door opens to things that are magical or that are miraculous.
When the body is dead, does it continue to experience? Who knows? This is a really good question. I’m not proposing that trance is to explore death, necessarily, but I think there’s a certain relationship between trance and death. Not a morbid relationship, some kind of terrifying relationship, but a relationship between trance and death in the sense that the idea is to open up that world, open up the perception of the world to that magical quality that is only possible when all of the, let’s say limitations, are not there.
Basically, the problem is that we all go through life in the real world with a lot of limitations. The question is how to go beyond those limitations. I think that’s more interesting than complacency. Complacency, I would define as being satisfied with those limitations and not trying to push it farther and see if it’s possible to give that stuff up. It’s difficult to do, but I think it's the only thing that’s worth doing. It’s the only thing that’s actually worth doing. Everything else, so what?