Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Literature Reviews by Brent Cross

Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour

In this article Winkleman examines cross-cultural studies of the various altered states of consciousness (ASC) techniques of cultural groups and compares them to the western notion of the physiological processes of the brain. Winkleman (1997:393) states that while the procedures to enter an ASC differ dramatically between groups, the physiological effects these ASC techniques have on the brain are quite similar. This effect is described as a ‘state of parasympathetic dominance in which the frontal cortex is dominated by slow wave patterns’ (Winkleman 1997:397). From this it is argued that shamanic experiences and ASC are the origins of religious experience and thus religious behaviour. A shaman is described as charismatic political leader in hunter-gatherer societies, whose primary role is often that of conducting healing and divination (Winkleman 1997:394).

Winkleman (1997:396) states that ASC states are breaking down ‘natural’ functioning of the brain. For example ASC techniques may replicate the brain functions that occur during sleep however this state is induced by the practitioner whilst remaining awake. This state and many others can be induced through extensive motor behaviour, sensory deprivation and stimulation, hallucinogens and auditory driving. Winkleman (1997:404) also demonstrates how these ASC practices also have very positive effects for normal brain functioning such as memory, learning and attention.

This article provides a great overview of ASC practices and effectively demonstrates the physiological processes which occur during these states that allow people to access another state of mind different to the normal waking state. The paper also provides a point of reference for the beneficial effects ASC techniques can have on communities.

Winkelman M, 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’, in Glazier S, Ed. Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 393 - 428.

Stalking with Stories: Names, Places, and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache.

Stalking with Stories by Basco (1992), looks at Western Apache cultural structure and how placenames and the stories associated with these spaces serve to reinforce cultural expectations. The places names, unlike many western placenames, are non-arbitrary and are embodied with an enormous amount of meaning and significance to the Apache people. To an outsider these names and the information inside them may be not obvious or clear. However these stories and names to Apache people are powerful enough that they consider themselves to be ‘stalked’ by them (Basko 1996:100). By this, it is thought that once there are informed about the deeper meaning of places and their names, they are forever reminded of the lessons that are contained within the land.

Basco (1992:92) argues that placenames and the associated stories are primary to western Apache culture as story telling is a fundamental aspect of socialising. Stories are separated into various categories but those of historical tales are considered to be the most effective at reinforcing cultural expectation. This is done so through stories which are always directed at an individual and never told for the sake of telling. These stories essentially describe how an individual who did not act accordingly and respectfully as an Apache person, was punished either by a powerful being or by their own people. These stories, when recited to an individual, are considered to reveal the error of their ways and help guide them back on track They refer to this process of ‘shooting someone with a story’ which is then considered to stalk them for their remaining days to ensure they ‘stay good’(Basko 1996:100).

The Western Apache system of placenames and stories may seem rather confusing to westerners as often placenames used in the west contain little or no deeper meaning associated with them. Having said that, this system appears to be extremely useful in ensuring social stability and harmony. Through the stories embodied in the various sites and places people are reminded of their connection with, and responsibility to, their community. This cultural practice while not being a form of ASC, has very similar intentions and outcomes of those of ASC. That being the promotion of community ideals and expectations.

Basso KA, 1996, Stalking with Stories: Names, Places, and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache’, in Halpern, D and D Frank, Eds., The Nature Reader, Hopewell, NJ, The Ecco Press, 84-105.

Education for transcendence

Education for transcendence looks at the !Kung San people and their cultural practice of transcendence. Katz (1976:282) describes this transcendence as non-comparative to ordinary psychological states. There are many complex processes through which individuals are educated on how to bring about transcendence. This education begins at a very young age simply through children observing their community in the practice of !kia. !Kia is the name given to the altered state once achieves whereby n/um energy is cultivated in the pit of the stomach and then through ritual practice it rises to the base of the skull at which point the individual transcends the ‘ordinary’ state of being (Katz 1976:286).

The practice of !Kia is a large part of !Kung culture with over half of total adults males being masters and more than two thirds of adult females being masters (Katz 1976:285). The primary focus of !Kia is for the purpose of healing and fulfilling various religious functions.. This state is induced through a lengthy ordeal made up of singing and dancing. At the point in which an individual’s n/um begins to rise they may experience fear and pain. The teacher will aim to maintain the student in a state without fear and if intense fear is expressed the teacher is able to bring the student back to their body. One of the key experiences of this practice is the death and rebirth experience. This may be perceived in various ways but outcome of the experience for individuals is very similar.

The practice of !kia is considered beneficial for both the individual and the community as a whole. All people are encouraged to become masters as it is thought that with more masters comes increased community wellbeing (Katz 1976:285). While being an overwhelming experience for people, the !Kung believe that only beneficial outcomes can occur.

Education for transcendence provides a good overview of the techniques used by !Kung San people to obtain an altered state of consciousness. These ASC techiniques, similarily to other ASC techniques, help to promote community harmony and stability. While all members of the community may not be !kia masters, the process involves all people of the community. The possible mental benefits that a group may gain from such practices can be seen in Winkleman’s (1997) paper.

Katz R, 1976, ‘Education for Transcendence’, in R Lee & I DeVore, Eds, Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers, Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 281-402.

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