Trance Dancing - The Rave

by Jason Keehn

Can trance-dancing save the planet

Can you imagine a crazier notion?

Thousands of bored youth pumping themselves up with drugs, going out to huge underground parties and dancing maniacally to electronic rhythms and psychedelic light-shows till dawn.

And this is supposed to help the world?

Shouldn't we be putting our time instead into ecological or political activism, or at least doing some kind of charity work? What about the serious spiritual disciplines that claim to offer the only true path to personal--and thereby social--transformation? What good does all our drug-taking and revelry do for the hundreds of millions of dispossessed, fucked over and starving around the world--not to mention all the untold species and eco-systems being destroyed?

Hard to answer. And yet some of us still have this inescapable feeling, maybe even faith, that what we are doing, confused, silly and commercialised as it often is, is at its core absolutely necessary. . . not just to us, but in the bigger picture, somehow. . .

Why is it that at the peak moments (admittedly rare) of the very best underground house/techno/rave parties, we get this miraculous sense of hope, of possibility, of transformation . . . a feeling that we're actually heading somewhere. . . together. . . towards a brighter future, one worth living in, one where we've returned to some kind of harmony with ourselves, with each other and with our planet as a whole?

Is it "just the drugs," a kind of consensus delusion, or might there be some basis in reality for these feelings, hard to justify as they may seem once we're back out in the normal world?

More dimly sensed than clearly expressed, the feeling for such a possibility permeates the entire global underground dance scene. Thousands of promoters exploit it to inflate their party invites with cheesy techno-spiritual imagery. It inspires and guides much of the music, and some small but key fraction of the hard-core partiers. The rest of the crowds who fill the floors at parties get off on it as a second or third-hand charge that sets the party apart from being just another club, without ever thinking about taking it seriously.

At moments, some hundreds, and maybe even thousands or tens of thousands, of "ravers" have probably found themselves sensing/feeling/wondering that what they were doing might be something really big, something that could really change things at a larger scale.

But of course only people who turn themselves inside out with large amounts of drugs would even conceive the question: Can trance-dancing save the planet?

A few of us, myself included, have made public fools of ourselves already by answering in the affirmative, and even giving some tentative reasons why. Here I want to try to introduce a new way of thinking that complements and deepens what already been proposed by people like Fraser Clarke and Terence McKenna. They see psychedelicized mass trance dances as the only quick, viable antidote to the egotism at the base of the western, techno-industrial mega-machine maniacally chomping away at the life-fabric of the planet.

This different line of thought is based on a simple but profound idea first expressed by the philosopher and teacher of temple dances G. I. Gurdjieff, who died in 1949. His idea is almost completely unknown, outside of his hard to read book All and Everything.

If true, it has staggering implications for ourselves, for our planet, even for our entire solar system. I don't expect anybody to automatically take it as Goddess's given truth, but its worthy of some serious attention.


As all "ravers" know, there is a mysterious something that makes a rave different from just another club or party-scene. We call this "the vibe"--a mixture of intangibles impossible to find anywhere else, except maybe at a dead show or a rainbow gathering. Roughly put, the vibe consists of: an attitude of openness, sharing, empathy and playfulness; intense, unselfconscious dancing; a collective altered state of consciousness, thanks to the combined effects of specific rhythms, lights and psychedelic drugs; and, at its height, a melding of group feeling and energy into an ecstatic, orgasmic release that feels nothing less than spiritual or religious--albeit in a form that has little resemblance to any type of spirituality or religion we are familiar with.

We all know that "energy" is somehow key to all of this. We know we raise and release energy through our dancing, our feelings, and our interaction on the dance-floor. Energy was one of the main buzzwords of the early English rave scene. The vibe is all about energy--vibration, after all.

But what is this energy? What does it consist of, where does it come from, where does it go? Are there different kinds of energies? Do they have different purposes?

Back around the turn of the century, Gurdjieff and a group of friends travelled back and forth across the Middle East and Central Asia investigating humanity's true history, the nature of the cosmos, and the possibilities for humans to evolve consciously, from their own efforts. In the process, "the seekers of truth," as the group called themselves, also encountered the Masters of Wisdom still alive in that part of the world (the Khwajagan). The Khwajagan were considered to be the bearers of some of the highest spiritual knowledge on the planet, handed down continuously for thousands of years.

One of the focuses of Gurdjieff's research was the transformation of substances and energies--both chemical and subtle--in the human organism. He also learned a large number of temple dances, which he understood as databases in movement intended to preserve ancient knowledge.

Eventually, Gurdjieff returned to the West and presented his synthesis of these searches as a "system of ideas" and a practical method for self-transformation.

Feeding the Moon

Gurdjieff's quest was guided by the basic question, "what is the sense and significance of human life on earth?"

His conclusion, expressed in writing only towards the end of his life, was that humanity does not exist for itself, but to supply the planet, the moon, and the solar system with a particular gradation of energy which they need to thrive and grow. At times he called this principle, "feeding the Moon," though it is not clear whether he meant this literally or merely as a handy symbol.

He believed that the entire universe is in some sense alive and in a process of continuously evolving (and if not evolving, actively devolving). In what could be compared to a cosmic fractal, the universe is in a process of unfolding and giving birth to itself, each birth at a new level mirroring in its unique way that of other levels (known nowadays as the principle of self-similarity). In what Gurdjieff called "the ray of creation," "God" or the Absolute gives birth to universes; universes give birth to stars, which give birth to planets, which give birth to organic life (viruses, bacteria, plants and animals) and to moons. Eventually a planet may become a star, its moon may become a planet in its turn, and "give birth" to its own moon, and so on, ad infinitum.

Just as all plants and animals need a variety of nutrients to exist, grow and reproduce, so our world and its siblings need a very specialised type of substance to fuel their processes--their planetary metabolisms, if you will. Supposedly, this special energetic substance can be produced only by human beings.

Reciprocal Maintenance

Gurdjieff's answer fits into what he called "the doctrine of reciprocal maintenance", the idea that every thing exists only insofar as it supports or "feeds" something else. Everything is part of a vast, interconnected and mutually reinforcing web of life. Or, "everything is something else's lunch," as ecologists like to say. This idea anticipated the science of ecology by at least half a century.

Examples: Bees don't just exist for themselves, they live to pollinate flowers. Algae exists to turn sunlight into more complex molecules, and feed other small creatures, such as plankton and krill. Krill feeds other slightly larger creatures, and even whales. Plants exist to turn sunlight and raw matter into organic compounds, and to feed animals. Worms exist to loosen soil for plants. Bacteria recycle waste into useable raw matter. Predators help to increase the strength and fitness of the herds they prey on by eliminating the weak and sick. Etc. etc.

In the scheme of things, humanity's essential role is that of a transformer of energy.

Human beings, according to this view, exist to serve the cosmic evolutionary process--and not the opposite, as the Bible would have it: that all of creation is merely a resource for us to use and abuse as we see fit.

Our possibilities as human beings are dependent on the degree to which we fulfil this function, a kind of "obligation" which nature imposes on us.

By Gurdjieff's view, this special energy could be produced two different ways: either involuntarily, at the moment of death, when a small "packet" is released into the atmosphere, or voluntarily, in greater or lesser amounts, through spiritual work.

Since Mother Nature, or Gaia, needs a definite quota of this energy from us, she will do whatever is necessary to make sure she gets it. If we don't provide the required intensities while alive, the total number of deaths will have to be increased in such a proportion as to yield the needed amount.


Gurdjieff further believed that rather than progressing, the overall quality of human being (as opposed to externalizations like technology, culture, institutions, etc.) has actually been deteriorating over the last umpteen thousands of years, especially in "civilised" societies such as our own. He believed that in the very distant past, before the earliest recorded history, human beings had a much greater presence and power; in a sense, they were bigger, spiritually and existentially, than the vast majority of us today. He also believed that people once had a much greater life-span.

They were energy-pumps.

Gurdjieff had his speculations about what caused this decline in the quality of human being in the very remote past, perhaps even before the destruction of Atlantis (his theory of the "kundabuffer," explored at length in All and Everything). The upshot, though, is that humanity as a whole has "forgotten" how to perform its ecological function in the world--or simply no longer has the necessary juice to do it, which pretty much amounts to the same thing.

So if this is in fact the case--that we human beings generally no longer have the knowledge or ability to "pump" this energy intentionally--Gaia will be forced to increase the total quantity of human death to meet her needs.

This can be accomplished, of course, by 1) increasing the number of human births, and eventually deaths, and 2) by shortening the life-span of existing individuals, or 3) a combination of the two. The net results: Population increase. . . disease, and war.

Following this line of thinking, our increasing inability to properly transform and pump energy means that we have to be treated (by the Gaian mind, if you like) the same way we treat plants and animals, as something to be farmed, bred and harvested. Not a very dignified state of affairs!

So as the qualitative level of human being goes down, the number of human beings, and thereby of human deaths, goes up to account for the difference in energy. And of course, since organisms grow at different rates, with different energy requirements depending on their activities, we can imagine that there might be major fluctuations in the needs for our energies.

The Terror of the Situation

This suggests a radical, and terrifying, view of contemporary history: that the population explosion, famines, plagues, wars and massacres might not be due just to accidental or sociological and political causes but may be induced by the needs of the solar "eco-system" as a whole, with human beings acting for the most part unwittingly to effectuate these needs.

Think about all the horror and insanity that has gone done in the twentieth century, even just in terms of cold numbers: millions killed in World War One, hundreds of thousands wiped out in seconds at Hiroshima and Nagasake alone, millions massacred one way or another in the Nazi concentration camps; supposedly as many as twenty million Russians dying in combat in World War Two, not to mention another twenty million who died in the same period as a result of Stalinist persecution and forced famine. Millions died in the Chinese civil war, six or seven million in Cambodia under Pol Pot. Don't even bother counting all the famines in Africa and South East Asia over the last few decades.

Why the incredible surge of violent death all over the world, paralleled by an equally incredible population explosion? What is up with those peculiar humanoid beings living on the surface of Sol-III?

I'm not going to try to argue the merits of this scheme against other theories. Just chew on it for a while and see how it fits.

And so the picture painted is one of a race of hapless, deluded slaves to some kind of a cosmic food-chain the existence of which we don't even recognise. This is definitely insulting to all our best images of ourselves. But then how do we reconcile all our great assets, our supposed free will, intelligence, and creativity with the dismal facts of what we've done to each other for all of recorded history?

Are we really anything more than automatons most of the time?

Gurdjieff had what might seem to many a horribly bleak, cynical view:

that our ideas of free-will and individuality are a delusion, an image of our potential mistaken for a general fact of our existence. Bluntly put, we are blind products of genetics, conditioning and external influence; on an energetic level, we are next to nothing. We are less, in that sense, than most mammals even.

We have become experts at consuming energy and resources, parasites.

As a civilisation, we no longer transform energy into higher gradients and radiate it back out to the world, we just circulate like little ants in our vast urban hives and manufacture stuff, endless quantities of stuff. We know how to suck energy, make objects, and how to kill. Even if we're not killing each other off at a given moment, we're decimating untold numbers of living beings without even being grateful for their existence.

Sure, for the most part we don't feel ourselves that way, but anybody who's tripped a few times in public places probably had disturbing glimpses--at least--along these lines. We don't see other people--or ourselves--that way, because it's just too hard a vision to live with.

The path of return

This perspective provides a definite way of understanding the connection between our amazingly fucked up global situation and "spirituality"--or the lack thereof. Seen this way, spirituality has less to do with living according to some moral doctrine, or accumulating "spiritual" experiences and states, than with being able to transform and radiate energy of a particular quality.

If it is true that we have been suffering a generalised decline over millennia, all our human institutions must participate in and reflect that decline. So everything we associate with religion, in all its multifarious forms, would generally be a product and mirror of a messed up situation; in other words, just another part of the problem.

At its best, the spiritual component of religious traditions points to a return to what should be our natural base-line of being, something so distant we can barely remember or taste it except at moments of "peak experience," or with the help of psychedelic drugs, or as a result of long, intensive discipline.

Our so-called "salvation" is really more a matter of somehow pulling ourselves back up out of a dysfunctional, disenabled, alienated state to something like a natural way of being--not transcendence or cosmic consciousness or union with God or whatever. We need to re-learn "how to be and to do."

According to Gurdjieff, the two key principles to following this "path of return," were intentional suffering and conscious labour. Through engaging in intentional sufferings and conscious labours we begin again to release the kinds of energies we were intended to give off.

Of course by today's standards, this sounds like a bummer of a philosophy. Isn't life just supposed to be full of fun and games? On the other hand, if we're realistic we know that there's always going to be pain, struggle, suffering in life. If there weren't where would the joy and pleasure and flow be? So maybe rather than seek to escape suffering, or just submit to it blindly, it might make sense to choose your form of suffering and make something out of it.

Intentional suffering. Again, if it's true that we exist in a chronic low-energy state, one of inertia and stasis, it makes sense that in order to get back to a point of being able to consciously transform energy we would need to somehow exercise an enormous effort just to break out of our passivity. "Only super-efforts count." If you're physically weak from illness, it usually takes an extra effort to get to the point of being able to exercise on a regular basis, to return to your previous level of strength. Or as they say, no pain no gain.

This can apply on a lot of levels other than just the physical. Pain can take the form of a kind of moral or spiritual suffering deriving from, say, breaking habits, or confronting bad traits in one's character, or doing exactly that which you least like to do. Suffering in the form of sacrifice is necessary to be there for others, to truly love.

Conscious labour assumes that most of the "work" we do, of whatever nature, is not really conscious to begin with. We are driven by culturally programmed priorities, survival, automatic emotional needs, obsession, neurosis, ego. To work consciously assumes that one must first have become aware of how unconscious one is most of the time, of how automatic most of how our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and actions really are.

To even get to this point itself requires a lot of intentional suffering, because what could make us suffer more than waking up to how we really don't "own" ourselves?

Forms of work

This general process is what people who study Gurdjieff's ideas and methods generally call "work-on-oneself," or just "self-work."

No doubt for many orthodox "Gurdjieffians," this path of return can only occur in the framework of decades of commitment to the "work," in the manner it has been passed down to them.

Much of Gurdjieff's practical teaching consisted of dancing and physical exercises used in combination with meditation and concentration techniques. Some of the dances Gurdjieff himself invented, many were direct copies of the ancient temple dances he found during his travels. (These dances are a closely held secret of existing Gurdjieff groups, and rarely if ever performed in public.)

Other important components of his method were the techniques of "self-observation" and "self-remembering," designed to bring "essence" back into balance with "personality."

What is little known to the world at large, and almost completely suppressed within existing Gurdjieff groups, is that Gurdjieff was interested in and worked with drugs. The references to "active substances" other than alcohol, opium and cocaine in his writings are rare, and even then oblique (he tried to set up a "chemical laboratory" in Russia at one point--for synthesising what?); it is known, but little discussed, that Gurdjieff administered certain substances to some of his students.

The monks of the legendary Sarmoun Brotherhood, whom Gurdjieff spent time with, themselves cultivated and used a psychoactive plant they referred to as the "Herb of Enlightenment." Curiously, Oscar Ichazo, founder of Arica, a 70s psycho-spiritual organisation that also incorporated psychedelics and movement-work, claimed to have accessed the Sarmounis as well.*

Furthermore, we know from Gurdjieff himself that he considered his students "guinea pigs," his groups a laboratory in which he was conducting certain undefined experiments.

According to J. G. Bennett, one of his major students and better interpreters, Gurdjieff experimented continuously with his ideas, techniques and overall approach. While Gurdjieff always talked about his system, it was never fixed in a way that most of his followers seem to believe and dogmatically transmit it to others.

If everything Gurdjieff did was a kind of living laboratory, how does anybody know what were really the goals and working hypotheses and what was just part of the experiment? What if he kept certain pieces of his puzzle secret, knowing perhaps they were too explosive to make public at the time?

The new trance dance

Here is a radically new take on Gurdjieff's philosophy and mission, one that has a direct bearing on our neo-psychedelic-rave subculture:

Is it possible that trance-dancing is one of the most basic forms of intentional suffering and conscious labour?

Is it possible that such dancing, performed by the right people in the right way with the right intentions, is capable of producing exactly that same energy Gurdjieff believed Mother Nature needs from us? Could it be that the use of psychedelics in conjunction with intensive dancing to certain specific rhythms, by a new breed of individuals, may be a way to fill our cosmic obligation without the life-long spiritual training otherwise required?

My intuition is that this is indeed the case--unlikely as it may seem to all the "old school" esotericists and spiritualists.

Perhaps, in fact, we are not really now at the point of being able to do this--being "youthful" as we are, and prone to all the naiveté and follies of youth. But this may be what a certain number of us are instinctively moving toward. Maybe this is just that mysterious something we cross over into as we're peaking and pulsing together on the dance-floor.

Think about tribal trance dances. What better description could you think of for endurance dancing to the point of fainting in the service of the gods than intentional suffering and conscious labour?

Under different names, tribal peoples seem to commonly believe that their dances are essential to the gods, a form of offering, sacrifice, or service. Something necessary to keep the balance, to keep the rain falling, to keep the sun coming up, to keep things moving. That's why they're sacred dances. And so maybe it's not just the form of the dance that's sacred, or even what the dancers experience, it's in what they do: the energy they collectively release.

Isn't it odd that just when most of the cultures that still do this are either being destroyed or forgetting their own traditions, just at that same moment a whole tribalistic, "neo-shamanic" dance craze develops among western youth?

Consider: How does someone behave who has a deep instinct, but in whom that instinct has been muffled by hundreds or thousands of years of habitual suppression and invalidation? Perhaps every now and then the instinct manifests itself in a crude, awkward outburst, only to be quickly silenced by the embarrassed ego and the lack of any proper name or place for it in surrounding society.

In some of Bennett's writings on this whole theme, there is a tendency to paint the "feeding the Moon" scenario in extremes: either one is energetically inert and useless; or else one sacrifices one's life to spiritual work and helps to make up for everyone else's lack.

But must it be such a dichotomy? Maybe that's how it tends to be nowadays, but maybe it wasn't always if people used to "be more" than they are today. Maybe once upon a time (and still in some remaining aboriginal cultures), you didn't have to be a spiritual athlete, a specialist (monk, shaman, priest/priestess, etc.), to return your two or three "cents" to Nature.

Maybe even now, everyone can return some energy, given the right circumstances and maybe the right "assisting factors" too.

And what about the effect of psycho-active substances? If there is anything we know about psychedelics for sure, it is that they act as catalysts. They temporarily shift our system's mode of functioning, our rate of vibration, and enable transformations that are otherwise difficult to achieve--again passing. But what if that transformation, in tandem with the right kind of dancing and mindset, is just enough to enable the release of some special energy?

Does it matter that much whether we're in that state all the time, or just that we have regular access to it and can use it to do what we need to do?

Sure, we have no tradition of sacred dance, and few ravers dance till they drop, few dance with conscious devotional feeling or intent. What we do have, or at least aspire to, is a basic attitude that sets the tone when we come together for our celebrations: Peace-Love-Unity-Respect. Not bad for a point of departure.

And yet, just how conscious do you have to be of your intent if your instinct IS your intent? Maybe as we get high and move together our intent resurfaces into consciousness, and for those few sweet timeless moments we actually DO it, . . . and then we drift back down into consensus reality where there is no name for it, and the veils gradually cover it all up and soon we once again think we were there for nothing more than a good time and some cool music.

But the taste and scent of that ineffable "juice" still lingers, and it keeps us going in the days ahead, going back to more parties, wearing the clothes we associate with it, compulsively getting high and listening to mix tapes round the clock, searching for that rare synchronicity of time, place, people and music where it might magically happen again.

In some of his late writings, Bennett speculated that recent decades are seeing the birth of a new kind of person, maybe even a new race of sorts, with spiritual capacities different from the rest of society.

Could that be us?

And just what is that "juice," that energy, that special nutrient so needed for all things to live and grow in harmony? That erotic radiant mix of thankfulness, joy, and compassion that just wants to fuck the entire cosmos? Could it be . . . L-O-V-E?

OK, admittedly there are a lot of big ifs here. To try to prove that

a) human beings do give off energy when they die;
b) that some can give off an equivalent kind of energy intentionally while still alive;
c) that most of us don't or can't do this anymore;
d) that people could once upon a time do it better;
e) that the planet or the moon or the solar system requires this energy;
f) that if they don't get it human birth and death will automatically be increased with no say on our side;
g) that this energy can be produced through trance dancing among tribal peoples; and
h) that this energy can also be produced by teenagers dancing at parties with the help of drugs. . .

To try to prove, or even argue, all of that would be at least another article in itself. . . or more realistically, the basis for a life-time of research.