Sunday, May 24, 2009
His feet sit pointing towards the incoming remnant of what was once a green, white, and brown blue tendril of the sea. Creeping up the sand the water touches toe after toe then immerses the feet completely, blending them into one writhing mass for a moment before attempting to drag them back and back. He relinquishes a part of himself into that sea, knowing soon he will join with it. Surfboard under an arm, eyes closed, every movement is felt around him, every moment as it plays across his senses. The smell of salt, seaweed, sunned bodies, rocks. The taste of the fine salty air bringing with it the taste of the Earth. The touch of sand and rock and water and wind. The sound of waves, of play, of birds. His sense of breath joins with it all in gratitude, in awe. A slight move forward and he is in, every moment and movement tightening his focus to a pinpoint, the pinpoint the entirety surrounding him.
Words attempt to convey this silent ritual, the silent interaction between what is named nature and human. These words inevitably separate, but the experience itself seems to be anything but that. Riding a wave, surfing it, like everything, means different things to people and beings. For some it is 'the unequaled exhilaration of flying down the face of a moving, green force and becoming a part of nature (Severson, 188) and being 'chiefly conscious of ecstatic bliss at having caught the wave (London 52).' For others it is 'giving the waves a sporting chance to pound you beneath the surface if they can (Roselyn 50). '
Taking this subjectivity into account, the following will be a brief discussion on the experience of surfing and how altered states of consciousness are related.
The rituals and experiences I observed while surfing with others along the central coast of New South Wales will make up the majority of this essay. Descriptions of these experiences will be based upon discussion with surfers and drawn from my own experiences. Ultimately, my own experiences will colour these descriptive pieces with touches on others' observations and experiences. Its purpose is not to perform an in depth study, but instead attempt to give a sense of altered states and surfing, an overall feel through these words chosen.
For the purpose of this discussion, an altered state of consciousness is a state which is significantly different from a normal waking state. This gets somewhat tricky in defining 'normal'. Western science relates normality to brain wave frequency where the beta wave frequency is seen as 'normal'.
Comparisons between altered states reached surfing as well as altered states reached in any activity draw similar conclusions. An intense focus and sense of connectedness tends to be a common theme. Altered states in indigenous cultures are often used as an aspect of life to assist in life. Rituals are used to induce these states in order to divine, heal and connect to oneself and their surroundings.
On the wave, 'it is not a boisterous or frantic feeling, but a quiet one, a feeling of dignity and truth--a feeling that helps one to recognize the vast harmony and order that permeate the sea, the world, and mankind (Roselyn, 66).' This recognition of the harmony, the balance, and the interconnectedness of all things is a common theme the world over. The moment you are brought into whilst surfing unveils this, if it was ever veiled to begin with.
'This is the essence of surfing, the delicate balance between control and chaos, and it works on surfers as a drug (Roselyn,73).' Again,this can be interpreted as the altered state allowing a balance, a harmony to be perceived. This describes both the outer reality, the board and rider on the wave, as well as the inner reality.
'The sea...gives the surfer life (Roselyn, 70).'
She emerged from beneath, white frothy foam settling and singing, nestling next to her body, clinging to her and itself, connecting atom to atom, spark to spark. A deep breath of air swam into her lungs and she looked around. Headland bursting patiently. Seabirds arrowing into the black surface. Scrub extending outwards, fanning the inland with its tales of the sea. Then there was the sun. Its sweet afternoon touch, tongue-like, licking at everything in sight. Her skin coloured as if sired from stars. Everything touched everything. She suddenly felt humbled in the immensity, immediacy and seemingly impossible nature or it all. Waves or no waves, it did not matter.
It is not only the act of riding the wave that induces an altered state, but also what comes before and after. It is the entire process which brings about the state, or perhaps the state brings about the entire process. Either way, there is no separation.
'I am immersed in the water, melding with the ocean which is melding with the shore, which is melding with the land, which is melding with the mountains, the sky, the clouds, the stars. This awareness seems to have no end point. It picks me up like the wave picks me up and all I can do is go along with the flow and hope not to get dashed on any rocks along the way (Crane, 2009).'
In the article by Andrew Francis, Creature of Water, Francis describes his ritual and relationship with the ocean and surfing and that it begins as soon as he arrives at the beach. The sensual awareness and the respect for where you are can bring you into an altered state, bring you into the moment which neither culminates nor ends with the catching of the wave but ebbs and flows like the sea itself.
Bron Taylor's article, Sea Spirituality, Surfing and Aquatic Nature Religion also discusses similar ideas. He sees that 'participants in nature religions understand nature to be sacred and believe that facilitating human connections to nature is the most important part of the practice (Taylor, 1).' In another article by Taylor, Surfing into Spirituality and a New, Aquatic Nature Religion, he contends that from some angles, surfing resembles a religion in its similarities towards its veneration of nature. Veneration can only come with awareness of the subject, direct experience, and it seems that surfing heightens awareness.
Although few, the above descriptive examples show the art of surfing as more than just the physical act of riding a wave. Its mental, emotional and especially sensual elements bring about an awareness and a connection to one's surroundings that tends to be a personal interaction, even though many share the same experiences.
Admittedly, this comes from a romantic viewpoint as not everyone who surfs or participates in aspects of surf culture feel the same way. This is simply one piece of understanding in what is inevitably limitless.
Finney B & Houston J. Surfing: The Sport of Hawaiian Kings, Tokyo, Charles E Tuttle Company, 1966.
Francis A & Shaw S Eds. Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature, Religon and Water, London. Equinox, 2008.
London, Jack. A Royal Sport, Surfs Up. Edited by H. Arthur Klien and M.C. Klien. New York. Bobbs-Merril Co, 1966.
Severson John, Modern Surfing Around the World, Garden City, N.Y. Doubleday, 1964.
Stone R, Meanings Found in the Acts of Surfing and Skiing, California, University of Southern California,1970.
Interviews and discussions with Charity Crane & Pond Dempster. Conducted 5 May 2009.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism – by Richard Noll
In this article, Noll provides an academic study which explores the role of mental imagery cultivation also known as visions. Although he argues that the role of mental imagery cultivation is a universal phenomenon which exists in varying degree among different cultures and societies throughout history, his main focus here is on the role of mental imagery cultivation associated with shamanistic practices within traditional, non-literate societies. (Noll 1995:444)
Noll views shamanistic practice of mental imagery cultivation as a ‘two-phase process’. The shaman trains to not only increase the vividness of their visions but to also enable them to increase their ability to control their mental imagery. (Noll 1995:445) According to Noll, the shaman uses ritual techniques and tools to deliberately induce altered states of conscious (ASC) to accomplish the task of increasing the vividness of his visions. Once this is achieved, the shaman then proceeds to try and gain control over his visions. This mastery over his visions enables a shaman to manipulate and gain mastery over spirits. The importance of spirit mastery enables the Shaman commune with and gain aid from these spirits for purposes of healing and divination and to gain insight on behalf of the community. (Noll 1995:448)
I find that Noll’s research successfully convinces the reader of not only the importance of mental imagery cultivation within shamanistic practices but also highlights the importance that mental imagery has within different cultures. However, it is interesting to note his acceptance of mental imagery cultivation as being the primary concern of shamanism in order to communicate with the spirit world which I find questionable. I tend to agree with Townsend that the main role a shaman plays is to communicate with spirits and that the cultivation of mental imagery is purely a means employed by the shaman in order to do so. (Townsend 1997:433)
Noll R, 1995, ‘Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism’, Current Anthropology, 26, 4, pp. 443-461.
Townsend, J. 1997. “Shamanism”, in S. Glazier, Ed, Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press, pp. 429-469
Shamanism- by Joan Townsend.
In this article, Townsend aims to provide a detailed definition of what shamanism is by using not only her definitions but also those held by other academics. Townsend also gives her readers an overview of the significant aspects and practices of shamanism such as the origins of shamanism, the beliefs, world-view, the characteristics, initiation and ritual techniques, and social responsibilities of shamans.
One of the main features of shamanism held in common belief is the three-level of the cosmos connected by the ‘axis-mundi’ which a shaman is believed to be able to travel along, by using techniques to induce altered states of consciousness (or as Townsend refers to it-Shamanic states of consciousness), in order to gain help from the spirit world. The help of spirits allows for healing, divination and balance of nature. She points out that unlike meditation and trance used by individuals for personal gain and achievement, shamanistic use of altered states of consciousness is usually undertaken in order to help others in the society rather than for a personal gain. There are different techniques a shaman can use to induce a shamanic state of consciousness such as drumming, dancing, fasting and the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances. Like Noll (Noll 1995) Townsend views the ability to control shamanic states of consciousness as being one of the hallmarks of shamanic training. (Townsend 1997:442)
One fundamental viewpoint which I have gotten from this article is that shamans are also concern with environmental issues. They see the earth as alive and that all of us who inhabit this planet are connected spiritually. If the earth is unhappy with regards to the irresponsible actions of humans, eg. mining, cutting down the rain forest, etc, mother nature thus retaliates and it is up to the shaman to communicate with the spirits in order to find out what is wrong and to try and put things right.
Townsend gives a comprehensive definition of shamanism by using cross-cultural study of common practices and practices of hunter-gather societies throughout the world and does not limit the practice of shamanism to a single culture. (Townsend 1997:436) She does however attempt to look at the common fundamental principles of shamanism which can be found in different cultures and societies. This article also provides a good understanding of shamanism in regards to their beliefs and practices.
Townsend, J. 1997. “Shamanism”, in S. Glazier, Ed, Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press, pp. 429-469
Noll R, 1995, ‘Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism’, Current Anthropology, 26, 4, pp. 443-461.
Trance, Shamanic – by Diana Riboli
This article speaks of and defines trance in relation to shamanism. The author makes a clear distinction is made in regards to trance of possession and shamanic trance, although the main focus of this article is shamanic trance and its significant importance in the lives and workings of shamans. The author takes a further step to not only describe shamanic trance in relation to soul flight but goes a step further and looks at the use of trance in other aspects of a shaman’s life and practice, as well as the different methods employed by the shaman to enable him or her to enter this altered state of consciousness.
An important distinction made by Riboli with regards to trance of possession and shamanic trance. The main characteristic of trance of possession is an involuntary occurrence which allows for the possession of a shaman’s body by supernatural beings, whereas shamanic trance is a voluntary process which allows for the control by the shaman of otherworldly beings. (Riboli 2004:251) This ability of Shamans to enter into a trance state in order to enable them to engage with spirits is an important aspect shamanism; (Riboli 2004:252) which other authors such as Townsend (1997) and Winkelman (2004) tend to agree with as well. This ability however, may also be used in other aspects of their lives as well, such as during their initiation process. (Riboli 2004:251)
Shamanic trance is usually facilitated with the help of hallucinogenic plants, the employment of rhythmic beats from instruments such as drums and other types of percussion instruments, and meditation or deep concentration. Riboli notes that even though the reasons for a shaman to enter into an altered state of consciousness may be universal among shamans in a cross-cultural perspective, the tools employed to achieve this ecstatic state may differ among different groups of shamans.
Riboli, D. 2004. “Trance, Shamanic” in Walter M.N & Neumann E.J, Eds. Shamanism: An Encyclopaedia of World Beliefs, Practice and Culture. Vol.1, pp. 250-255
Townsend, J. 1997. “Shamanism”, in S. Glazier, Ed, Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press, pp. 429-469
Winkelman, M. (2004). “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Shamans.” in Walter M.N & Neumann E.J, Eds. Shamanism: An Encyclopaedia of World Beliefs, Practice and Culture. Vol.1, pp. 61-70
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Ever since the emergence of pagan spiritual reconstruction movements in the West, practitioners, worshippers and spiritual leaders alike have struggled to develop meaningful ways of enacting rituals which are both socially and metaphysically fulfilling. The unconventionality of their faith means they have had to adopt methods perhaps not common to larger mainstream Western faiths like Christianity and Judaism, and have instead turned to forms of shamanic and trance based practices. These forms of ceremony are not only highly effective in generating social and spiritual capital within pagan organizations, but also in offering yet another element of worship to differentiate them from mainline faiths from whom they may wish to draw new membership. As such, it is the purpose of this essay to outline and examine the various elements of shamanic practice and trance that are apparent within Western pagan spiritual reconstructions and discuss how they interact with and inform the means of worship within these faith communities. This will provide a meaningful example of how shamanism and trance can be discussed in Western, modern spiritual contexts.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which pagan spiritual reconstructions and shamanism and trance interact is through a shared belief in alternate worlds and various methods of attaining access to and insight from these ‘otherworlds’ (Heaney in Clifton & Harvey, 1994). Heaney uses the example of Irish pagans who view what are likely burial mounds from beyond recorded history, as the dwellings of the Tuatha De Danaan or sidhe, faerie-peoples who can be communed with via poetry and song, a belief which may well be derived from shamanic initiation and trace practices (1994). Similarly, Clifton draws links between ancient Greek religious archetypes and legends and modern day shamanism, attributing this to the multifaceted and numerous centres of Greek spirituality. He argues, “modern Pagans can feel an affinity with it [ancient Greek religion] that we cannot feel with the exclusive, judgmental, and dogmatic scriptural traditions” (2004), and that by seeing traditional Greek myths such as Orpheus’s journey into the underworld as descriptions of shamanic and trace practices, modern pagans can easily integrate these rituals into their own worship, lending them greater authenticity and a classical appeal (1994). This is highly important for many modern pagan reconstruction groups, as they sometimes struggle to maintain concrete evidential links with the ancient cultures they claim to draw their basic beliefs from. Shamanic practice provides an obvious means to circumvent this, by allowing members participating in rituals to connect directly to the alternate worlds and spirits which they worship without necessarily having full prior knowledge of what they are in fact trying to achieve.
This is especially interested when viewed in light of the discussion in Blain and Wallis’s Sacred Sites – Contested Rites/Rights regarding the importance of ancestral locations and genealogy in the rekindling of Western European shamanic practices within modern pagan movements. They cite the experiences MacEowen, an American of Scots-Irish descent who claimed to be reclaiming, reviving and reinventing the ancient shamanic traditions and rituals of his European ancestors (Blain & Wallis, 2007). He came to this realization after his participation in various Lakota-based Native American ceremonies led him to commune not with traditional Native American teacher spirits but with entities much more closely resembling those worshipped by his Irish and Scottish ancestors (Blain & Wallis, 2007). This led him to further explore his conceptions of indigenous shamanism, and through it, enhance the ways in which he was able to engage with paganism in a modern context. Although the rituals he engaged in had little inherently to do with the spirits with which he communed, MacEowen’s experience provides a tremendously useful base for examining the ways in which trance is influenced by the essential nature and spirit of the practitioner.
This shamanic concept of spiritual connection through ancestral means is prevalent in many other modern pagan spiritual reconstructions, and is perhaps one of the most important links between paganism and shamanic ritual and spirituality. The Norse pagan reconstruction of Asatru for example, a spirituality in which ancient Norse Gods and various other spirits are worshipped, has surprisingly found immense success outside of its traditional home in Northern Europe, especially in the United States of America (Strmiska 2005). This is because American practitioners of Asatru, through citing the Vinland theory of potential Viking settlements in North America, find an inherently more primal and spiritual connection to the possible religion of their forebears that is not as easily accessed in more mainline American religious groups. Asatru, like other similar pagan reconstructions affords its worshippers the ability to feel as if they are part of a continuing line of worshippers beginning with their oldest ancestors who communed with the same spirits generations ago that they still worship today. Here again, a pagan movement’s popularity and accessibility is reliant on shamanic concepts of ancestral memory and worship, and it is through rituals that allow conversance with spirits and beings beyond the ‘everyday’ that pagan reconstructions such as Asatru gain a means of cementing their authenticity, as well as the social and spiritual capital which they generate (Strmiska 2005).
This then seems to be the essence of shamanic and trance based practices in modern pagan contexts. They provide a valuable means of connecting both individual practitioners and greater spiritual communities under a single ritually induced consciousness, as well as providing a means of bridging ‘spirit worlds’ and the ‘everyday’ (Letcher in Blain, Ezzy, Harvey, 2004). Shamanic practice allows pagan spiritual reconstructions to travel beyond the bounds of their own immediate experience and draw on belief and inspiration in a method that transcends historicity in favor of a much greater primal immediacy fed by instinctual feelings of belonging to a greater inter-generational spirituality, unbound by harsh doctrine and narrowly refined ritual (McNierney in Clifton & Harvey, 2004) . Through shamanic practice and ritual, a pagan who is in many senses entirely genealogically and geographically divorced from the focus of their worship may avoid this spiritual inconsistency and interact on another level with the source of their beliefs. Thus, though an American Asatru, or Scots-Irish Pagan like MacEowen may never have visited the home of their ancestors, or even have particularly strong European familial roots, the world which their various deities and spirits inhabit is only as far away as their next ritual engagement with it.
Blain, Jenny & Ezzy, Douglas & Harvey, Graham (eds). Researching Paganisms. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press (2004)
Blain, Jenny & Wallis, Robert. Sacred Sites: Contested Rites/Rights. Brighton; Portland: Sussex Academic Press (2007)
Clifton, Chas S. & Harvey, Graham (eds). The Paganism Reader. London; New York: Routledge (2004)
Strmiska, Michael F. (ed) Modern Paganism In World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO (2005)
This essay is an exploration and review of a martial arts academy and the types of altered states of consciousness (ASC) and trance states that could be accessed during the physical training of the class. Sources are minimal in this area of research, but they have been used where applicable in the discussion of the different types of ASC and how they can be accessed.
The place that was observed, as a place of trance and altered states, was Advance Martial Arts (AMA), a full-time martial arts academy and gym based near Brisbane's central business district. Advance Martial Arts teaches a variety of styles: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a ground based grappling art; Muay Thai, a kick-boxing art native to Thailand; boxing; wrestling, a combination of the Olympic sports of Greco-Roman and Freestyle Wrestling; and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), a combination of all the 'best' techniques from the other styles taught to provide a well-rounded self-defence in both striking and ground based grappling.
Classes, at AMA, are held at a selection of times throughout the week, providing a flexible training schedule seven days a week. Advance is aware that there are people that train there from all walks of life and experience, and, thus, the training provided is also heavily influenced by the other people you train with. Everyone is welcoming and friendly, and ready to help if you ask any questions. The mantra of all AMA classes is a simple one: "we teach only what works in the real world". Rules are set so students can train in relative safety; they know what is allowed and what is not.
Students learn how far they should apply a technique or how hard, with practice. Through the nature of learning through each other, training partners become empathically aware of what is occurring while they perform an action—of course, this also differs in certain ways depending on individual flexibility, awareness and experience.
Training is spiritual. Even if the finished product is viewed as too violent, or orientated as a violent act and is seen by most to take away from the spiritual ideal does not change the act of training. To train in a realistic setting, is to place one's self in a consensual environment with set rules to minimise all possible damage to one's self and others. Once a student has enough experience they may train in a way that is more indicative of a realistic fight-encounter, using full resistance, trying to perform techniques at a hundred percent speed and power. It is only in this way that students learn how to deal with problems with technique that may come up. Through these set rules a student is able to push themselves to the very limit—of endurance, strength, and mental focus—and possibly beyond to transcend their limitations, in a controlled environment.
The observed and experienced training session was the brazilan ju-jitsu open class, which runs for an hour, Monday to Thursday. The class begins with a basic warm-up (which may change day-to-day, but is fundamentally the same) of light cardio, running around the mat space; and stretches for major muscles groups that are involved in wrestling, thighs, arms, neck, and back.
After this, the class starts to do the fundamental hip-escapes: these are when you are on your back and you imagine an opponent straddling you, the goal is to 'buck' them off-balance with your hips, turn to your side with your shoulders lined up horizontally to point to the ceiling, and 'wiggle' to get your leg or legs out from their straddling position. A few laps of the 'shrimping' technique are done up the mat a number of times, start to finish.
After this, the class will focus on a technique for the night—repeating it during drills numerous times before moving on to wrestling rounds, this is where the techniqes that have been learned can be applied in a resisting environment. In essence, the goal is to "drill-in" the importance of these basic techniques, so if in a time of crisis one will revert back to instinct and rely upon what the body remembers from all the repetitious training—the muscle memory.
Within the training it is possible to transcend the normal physical limitations that restrict a person, through altered states of consciousness and trance states. One can push on—and past normal endurance—while under extreme physical and mental pressures, and pain. The trance states that can be achieved during the physical exersion of martial arts training are both psychological and physiological. Through the repetitive motion in training it is possible to reach a trance state, similar to shamanic ecstatic dance.
Respitory maneuvers, controlled breathing while in stressful physical situations; moving meditation; and rhythm induced trance are all states that can lead to Alpha or Alpha-like brainwave states (Vaitil 104-108). The Alpha brainwave is at a frequency of 8-12hz, which is indicitive of relaxed yet focused sports activity (Griffiths 2). These ASC are being increasingly researched due to the importance they hold in sport performance increases. The Alpha brainwave frequency is similar to that of 'being in the zone' (Griffiths 1): the zone is a state where body movements seem to occur automatically and without conscious effort.
By the hundreds or thousands of technique repetitions the body goes through during the course of training, it can result in the induction of an altered state of consciousness (Vaitil 107). A practitioner of martial arts, through this repetitive intense training, can reach a key or peak state in which they can induce or enter an ASC, due to their constant physical and mental training (Devonport 103, Henry 395).
The repetitive motion and focusing of the mind on the 'task at hand' narrows awareness to the moment and action being performed, the mind is completely absorbed in the activity of moving and performing the technique that is being done. Speaking to a training partner and friend after training about what he thought of trance states during the brazilian ju-jitsu training he had this to say, "You know, I never really thought about it as religious, but when we are training there is definitely something weird happening. I feel different mentally, it's hard to explain or put a finger on, but something is definitely happening—I feel like I'm in a trance."
Griffiths, M. J. Et al. "Recent Advances in EEG Monitoring for General Anaesthesia, Altered States of Consciousness and Sports Performance Science." IEE International Seminar on Medical Applications of Signal Processing, November 4, 2005, Vol. 3; pp. 1-5.
Henry, James L. “Possible Involvement of Endorphins in Altered States of Consciousness.” Ethos, 1982; Vol.10, No.4, pp. 394-408. Blackwell Publishing.
Vaitil, Dieter Et al. “Psychobiology of Altered States of Consciousness.” Psychological Bulletin, 2005; Vol. 131, No.1; pp. 98-127. American Psychological Association.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Although the process of learning was slow and painful Mark came to realise that pain was part of a natural and necessary process: “enlightening pain is the letting-go of understanding.” It is enlightening because it teaches you that you must “un-learn” how to hold on to pain, and let it flow. These views, far from having any masochistic connotations, are supported by Ariel Glucklich, who, basing his theory on neuroscientific and psychological grounds, posits that we can find positive meaning in “sacred pain”: “Religious pain produces states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject and her sense of belonging […] to a more fundamental state of being.” Shinzen Young goes even further by arguing that meditation can be seen as a way alleviating pain: “[Meditation] is a way of focusing awareness on the pain and observing it with precision, while at the same time opening to it and dropping resistance.”
More importantly, Mark views meditation as a means of “letting go of everything”. This includes pain, but also material things: “material things are ok, they're even great! But you have to realise that your deepest desire is to go beyond all that.” By beyond, Mark means “beyond the confines of ordinary reality”, to quote Nona Oxhead; but he is also pinpointing to a transcendental state of what Engel calls the “extension of consciousness mostly in the form of phenomena of light cohering with an extraordinary feeling of bliss.” Oxhead sees meditation as “the most prevalent inducement of mystic bliss [in the West].”
Mark described to me one of his typical meditation sessions. “Sometimes I will do some yoga beforehand, and some stretching”. This is a good way to feel comfortable, as he can spend hours sitting there cross-legged - it actually took him several years before he could sit cross-legged on the floor to meditate. Then he “allows whatever is there to come up and be with what is.” He also underlined the importance of not going on a train of thoughts, an imperative endorsed by Austin: “When the incessant chatter drops, what remains are those few mental processes essential to the present.”
The process of letting-go is arguably the most difficult aspect of meditation, because “we tend to believe in the presence of an essential core to our being, which characterises our individuality and identity as a discrete ego”, in the Dalai Lama's own words. The way Mark did it was by trying to focus on the “emptiness, silence, nothingness.” The meditator must try and “become aware of where everything is coming from”. It may be that everything is coming from the void, “the nothingness where everything is possible”, perhaps to attain a state of consciousness akin to Locke's concept of “tabula rasa”, which sees the human soul as a blank slate on which anything can be potentially written. The idea of Emptiness of inherent existence is also something we can find in Eastern philosophy:
“All things and events, whether ‘material’, mental or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To intrinsically possess such independent existence would imply that all things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with or exert influence on any other phenomena. But we know that there is cause and effect – turn a key in a car, the starter motor turns the engine over, spark plugs ignite and fuel begins to burn…”
Gradually Mark pursued his quest for enlightenment by developing “forms of meditation that were practical ways of engaging with life”, such as walking, or standing meditation. Kumar's study found out that such changes in meditation were rather common: “as the meditator undergoes changes in one's belief system, values, expectations, and perceptions, one's mediation practice changes.” As a result he is now able to take pleasure in doing ordinary things: “even in doing the mundane tasks like paperwork there is enjoyment.” Hence meditation has become a way not only of increasing self-awareness, but also awareness of virtually everything that surrounds him.
Mark now has a very healthy lifestyle: no alcohol, no tobacco and no drugs. But although this is now a long time ago, he did try psychedelics drugs. When asked if he could compare such experiences to meditation, he replied that the difference is drugs are an “external input”, whilst the process of meditation is one where awareness is spurred from within us. The after-effect can also be radically different: “after taking drugs you can feel like shit”, whereas with meditation, “the coming down is more likely to have an impact on the rest of your life.”
One of the most interesting aspects of meditation that Mark seems to underline, is that it transcends typical Western dichotomies - in his Eastern philosophical fable Island, Aldous Huxley wrote: “Dualism... Without it, there is no good literature. With it, there can certainly be no good life.” - “Everything is different, everything is the same,” in Claudio Naranjo's words. For instance, it goes beyond the dualism of pleasure and pain. It can cause disturbance, uneasiness, but it is all part of the process of “letting go”. Mark sees pains as “a necessary stepping-stone”, which is “part of a whole”. Yet there is also “something that runs beyond peace, something that runs through the nothingness and the matter.” Reformulated in Aldous Huxley's words, “it is neither good or bad. It just is.” Walking meditation is also a paradox, because it can be viewed as stillness in movement, walking without effort. “But stillness is all relative. There is movement everywhere in everything.” These views are share by Austin, who describes meditation as “a relaxed attentive state, an active passivity”.
Finally Mark underlines the importance of living in the now, something he learnt from reading Eckart Tolle. This was particularly emphasised at the end of our interview: “I'd be delighted to talk to you again. I don't know if I'll be consistent, but then who cares?”
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, wrote Ralph Wald Emerson, arguing that inconsistency did not matter. Somehow these words now seemed to make more sense to me.
Austin, James H., 1999, Zen and the Brain. Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality, 46 (Broadway, 2005)
Engel, Klaus, Meditation Vol.1: History and Present Time, (Peter Lang, 1997)
Emerson, Ralph Waldo,“Self Reliance”, 1841,
Glucklich, Ariel, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul, (Oxford University Press, 2001)
Huxley, Aldous The Doors of Perception, 1954
Kumar, S.K. Kiran, Psychology of Meditation: A contextual Approach, (Concept Publishing, New Dehli, 2002)
Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 33-36 (Hackett Publishing Company, 1996)
Naranjo, Claudio, “Meditation: its Spirit and Techniques”, in On the Psychology of Meditation, Claudio Naranjo and Robert E. Ornstein (George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1971)
Oxhead, Nona, Relevance of bliss : a contemporary exploration of mystic experience, London, Wildwood House, 1985, ch.4, pp.56-78.
Tolle, Eckart, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, (New World Library, 2005)
Many rituals within cultures and religions have similar intents, to be healed, to gain understanding, and to achieve redemption. Shamanic and Jewish rituals are two examples where this enlightenment takes place.
Passover is the Jewish holiday when family gathers together and remembers the hardship and torture of being slaves in Egypt, as well as the freedom and redemption received from God. The ritual of Passover is like a shamanic ritual in terms that it is systematic and ceremonial, we recall on past ancestors and reveal stories to help gain understanding and healing.
Shamans are healers that journey into the spirit world in order to heal people, understand and fix problems in the material world, and predict future occurrences. In this paper I will reflect and compare the similarities between the shamanic rituals and my experiences of Passover Seders.
The Passover ritual is one that includes much preparation. It has been a tradition in my family that a week before the ceremony I will accompany my Papa (grandfather), who plays the role of the shaman, in preparing the food and offerings for the Seder.
Although in some shamanic cultures new shamans are chose by means of vision quests, dreams, presentation of gift, and ancestral lineages, I was chosen because the I had the most interest and sat with my grandfather (although he was still alive) for a period of time just like the Tlingit culture (Townsend 1997.) The method to becoming a shaman involves the acquisition of necessary ritual paraphernalia, which in my case are the secret family recipes of Matzo ball soup and “Papa Milt’s horseradish”.
At the age of 13, when a person becomes an adult in the Jewish religion, my shaman started to teach me of the importance of the rituals and how to prepare the offerings as well as myself. This preparation includes the making of horseradish and chicken matzo ball soup. These are tedious tasks that endure pain and patience. The making of horseradish is a painful endeavor in which the grinding of the radish causes tears and stinging in the face. It is in a way compared to the journey the shaman has to go through in order to experience a death and rebirth.
Instead of being stripped of flesh and given new organs, the stinging aroma of the radish clears my sinuses, washes my eyes with my tears, and opens all orifices to my mind. Some cultures involve the community in a new shamans journey but in my culture I provide the community with the nourishment and healing powers of the ‘Jewish penicillin’. During this week of cooking and preparing my grandfather enlightens me with knowledge of our religious history and life lessons in order to prepare me for the journey of life I will endure.
The Passover Seder, which usually occurs in April, is a ritual that brings family and community together in order to take them on a journey of the history of their ancestors in order to heal, understand, and rejoice. Just like a shamanic séance, the Seder has a costume many ritual paraphernalia. A kipa, head covering, is worn in order to honor God and as a symbol of the Jewish people. It is a means to help “draw in spirits to the séance” just as wood, ivory, stones, and other materials are used for shamans (Townsend 1997).
There are symbolic items on a Seder plate in the center of the table. The objects that reside on this plate are; charosets (ground up apple and honey mixture), shank bone, roasted egg, parsley, maror (bitter herb), karpas (vegetable). These representations of the distress and deprivations of our ancestors as slaves and the hurdles that were overcome in order to lead us to freedom and sacred land. The Seder begins after sundown like most shamanic séances. The Passover shaman (my grandfather) sits at the head of the table and leads the service with prayers and chants to god. This is the first thing that is done in the Seder in order to get everyone in the mood and the state of mind to engage in the story.
Just as assistants might provoke questions in a shamanic séance, the youngest child has the responsibilities of asking the 4 questions of why we do these rituals on this holiday. It is then through song, chanting, and prayer that these questions are answered by the leader. Throughout the ceremony 4 glasses of wine are drunk in order to heighten our awareness to the spirits and to remember our past. After the first cup of wine, the men are to wash their hands as a metaphor of washing their ailments away and becoming healthier people. Parsley is then dipped into salt water and eaten to remind everyone of the tears shed by our ancestors through their hard times. This is done to make the family aware that we are free people now and our troubles and hardships can be overcome.
The story of Passover is then told by all members at the Seder in order to become connected with each other as one people telling the story that led us to be the culture we are today. Bitter herbs are consumed in order to reveal the torture our ancestors went through and unleavened bread is restricted just as shamans might fast or have strict dietary practices. Just as people of a community give offerings to the shaman and spirits, it is recommended that participants of the Seder bring food or wine as their offerings and sacrifices. These offerings are consumed towards the end of the Seder, which is another method to allow the family to reach a higher state of consciousness. The food opens conversation and stimulates the mind so that elders can share their knowledge and experiences. It is at this time that the matzo ball soup is served to help heal and rejuvenate.
After the meal, everyone has reached a higher state of consciousness and it is then time to call upon Elijah. Elijah is a spirit that engages with the messiah who will tell us of the future. An empty cup is passed around the table so everyone can give Elijah an offering and the door is opened to let him in. The future is not revealed to us at that moment, it takes time for the understanding to be acknowledged. The Seder is then concluded with the singing of Dianu, meaning it would have been enough. This is the prayer and chant to bring us back to the material and than the spirits for all they have done for us. We repeat Dianu numerous times with chants that say, “If you would have lead us out of Egypt, it would have been enough” and so on with praises and thanks to Adoni (God). After the Seder the family feels connected to each other as well as God and the ancestors of our religion.
Shamanism is an important part of many cultures and rituals and in no way am I implying that my grandfather is a shaman.
This comparison is to make others aware that the idea that rituals in different cultures and religions have similar methods to their rituals and reasons for them. Rituals are meant to enlighten people with knowledge of their self, their history, and their future. Both shamanic rituals and Passover have the power to heal, gain knowledge and achieve fulfillment.
Townsend (1997). Shamanism. Anthropology of Religion 429-469
Friday, May 8, 2009
This place of trance can be found in the studio of Zen Hot Yoga, located in Sherwood, Brisbane. An altered state of consciousness is achieved here through the practice of yoga in a far-infrared (FIR) heated room. Participants of this activity can choose different styles of yoga to inhibit their own experience. In the mist of the heated room a usual group of roughly twenty people, varying from the young to old, are guided by a yoga teacher. This hot yoga activity is open to anyone and everyone who is looking to alter their state of consciousness. The questions to ask are how an altered state is provoked by such activity, how does this activity reflect on the participant’s processes of life and feelings, and what is the function of trance, altered states and the relationship to the transcendent?
An altered state of consciousness (ASC) is a ‘non-ordinary psychic state’. (Townsend, pg441) It is evident most societies practise inducement of ASC and there are many procedures of inducement which evoke common changes of consciousness. (Winkleman, p393) Zen hot yoga includes procedures of ASC defined by Winkleman as auditory driving response, sensory stimulation, extensive motor behaviour, and meditation.
Auditory driving response and sensory stimulation are applied by the setting at the studio which entices all the senses. The low lit, yellow room is gentle on the eyes, the calm chanting soft on the ears, the smell of therapeutic fragrance, the tender and encouraging voice of the instructor are all stimulating the brain waves. The infrared heated room also contributes to induction of ASC.
Hot yoga is an exuberant and quiet activity. Zen Hot Yoga offers a range of classes, some of which are more physically demanding than others but all leaving the members in an ASC. The two focused on in this report is Power Yoga and Qi Yoga. ASC in Power Yoga is provoked by extensive motor behaviour as it incorporates extensive exercise. Exercise in yoga is done by movements of the body through strenuous poses and stretching. In Qi yoga ASC is attained through meditation. The key to meditation is being able to differentiate automatic thought, the unconscious thought that runs through your head (mind chatter) in an ordinary state of awareness, to an observed thought, which can be described as one’s attention to be cleared of automatic thought, stepping away from initial responses to reactions and block thought of interaction with everyday accounts. (Winkleman, p417) In Yoga, this is done by emptying the mind of thoughts and concentrating on breathing and posture, thus creating an elevated awareness of one's self.
The ritual of yoga is performed through breathing exercises, stretching and movement of body through different postures. The yoga instructor interacts with the participants throughout the class. If new to the class, the instructor comes and helps one into the right positions. The instructor continually speaks in order to guide breathing patterns and movement into positions. In Qi Yoga there are longer periods of time compared to Power Yoga when one is left alone with the tranquillity of the surroundings. The trance or ASC is explained before and during the process. The instructor helps one realise the place of trance by heightening awareness of the participant’s body and explaining how to embrace the surroundings. There is no interaction between participants as they concentrate on themselves to induce ASC.
The after effects of yoga can make life more meaningful for the participants as it increases their general well-being as most ASC practices incorporate healing processes. The ASC of yoga has many beneficial therapeutic aspects.
At Zen hot yoga, one can learn that breathing is human’s connection to mother earth. It is life. The air breathed in and out carries energy called Prana which is nothing on its own but in everything. It is the vital link of body and mind. The way one breathes affects the mind and emotions. Deep breathing opens up the blood vessels allowing better circulation of oxygen and nutrients throughout the body and brain. This then reduces blood pressure and counter acts the adrenaline released during stress, therefore relieving one of anxiety and tension, relaxing mind and body while elevating mood. Yoga is also used as treatment for reducing fears, phobias, insomnia and asthma. Stretching along with FIR heat allows lactic acid trapped between joints and muscles to escape releasing pain and stiffness. The fresh air pumped into the studio and the rays from the FIR also contribute the more happy hormones being released into the body.
Many of the participants interview believe Zen hot yoga say they feel physically stronger, calmer, rejuvenated and invigorated after classes. One said, “every time I end class no matter how tired or ill I feel, I walk out feeling totally opposite.” The general consensuses of feelings from participants at Zen hot yoga proclaim they feel better in body and mind.
“When you connect with that special place, you sense special feelings of well-being. It energises you… when drawn to special places, people frequently have strong and meaningful experiences and go away transformed and renewed” (Swanson)
The mind during yoga is in a state of meditation. As said before, meditating is disconnecting from the ordinary self, the blockade against actions done in accordance to social norms and connecting with the observing consciousness, being able to look at oneself uninvolved which leads to pure awareness. (Winkleman, p417) Yoga is conquering of self and senses. “Achievement of this separation is liberation... which is the transpersonal consciousness only witnessing even and not participating, it is freed from pain and suffering that comes from identification with the personal self and external world.” (Winkleman) This ideology results in the mind having greater control and attention as Yoga ideology is that one’s identity is usually distorted and illusory by everyday mind cluster. It is the lack of awareness. “Many personality conflicts can be seen as a result of the failure of conscious mind to understand and know about the unconscious mind”. (Winkleman, p406)Yoga then provokes inner directedness and sense of responsibility in practitioners. Allows one to realise on psychological needs and attributes –self-realisation.
Winkleman describes the healthy quality of practices and mystical experiences, which is set at Zen hot yoga, a “transcendent experience” which is the function of this type of ASC. (Winkleman, p410) It is transcendental in value that yoga and it’s meditational aspect, creates “greater ambition in mind, increased energy and good health, less irritability, increased creativity, reduction of ever kind of stress and tension and a calmer, more positive outlook on life”. (Coxhead, p77) The function of transcendence is then experience of bliss beyond ordinary reality and experience, with transcendence “there is magic in the air”. (Shaw, p202)
“To me rituals are about reconnecting back to those very simple forms of uniting with the earth and with other people; the idea of death and rebirth and change and honouring, and all these things are very important. Without that you are just floating.” (As citied in Shaw, p202)
Coxhead N, 1985, The Relevance of Bliss: A Contemporary Exploration of Mystical Experience, Houndslow, Middlesex, Wildwood House
Shaw S, 2001, ‘Lose touch with the earth and you lose touch with life’, in A Dearling & B Hanley, Eds, Alternative Australia: Celebrating Cultural Diversity, Lyme Regis, Dorset, An Enabler Publication.
Swanson, J ‘Experiencing the Sacred Nature’, in “Nature and the Sacred” Conference in Corvallis, Oregon.
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.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
This essay will discuss the inner workings of a monthly gathering referred to as ‘Honouring the Goddess Within.’ The workshop is conducted by the Goddess Leader of Lotus in Focus on the first Wednesday of every month at her home on the Gold Coast. The Goddess Leader is a 56-year-old Reverend of the
Upon entering the Goddess Leader’s home the participants gathered around a circular table and engaged in undirected general conversation over a two hour period. The participants were all Caucasian females aged between 49 and 88 years. During this time, the participants asked the Goddess Leader a number of questions. One of the participants discussed a problem she was experiencing in relation to her career. The Goddess Leader, who possessed an intimate knowledge of each participant’s astrological charts, provided that the problem stemmed from the fact that the planet Venus was ruled by the astrological sign of Cancer in the participant’s chart, which caused the her to experience overwhelming ‘tunnel vision’ from time to time.
I asked the Goddess Leader how she was able to recall such detailed information about the participant’s astrological chart without referring to it. She replied that she and the participant were close friends and that all of the individuals present at the gathering had been attending monthly, whether sporadically or consistently, for approximately thirty years. Each participant collectively comprised a body of women reflecting various cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds, united by a strong sense of community. As Driver (1992, p. 152) contends, ‘[o]ne aspect of ritual is that it not only brings people together in a physical assembly but also tends to unite them emotionally.’ It was apparent that these women shared a deep connection fostered by the ritual of attending monthly Goddess workshops over a significant period of time.
Upon the conclusion of the general group discussion, the Goddess Leader sounded a gong to indicate that it was time to commence the group creative visualization meditation session. We were asked to proceed to the living room, in which a massage table was centered and surrounded by a circle of chairs, each facing inwards. We each stood next to a chair in preparation for opening our ‘angel wings.’ We were asked to close our eyes and place both of our hands on our solar plexus. Drawing energy from this chakra centre, we spread our arms out high above our heads. As we slowly descended our arms back to our sides we were asked to visualize that we were spreading gold and silver angel dust from our wings. Our breath was synchronized to the movement of our arms. After a number of repetitions we were asked to be seated on our chairs.
One of the participants suffered from various health problems and was asked to lie on her back on the massage table in order to receive a healing. The Goddess Leader proceeded to place particular crystals on the participant’s chakra centres. Clear quartz was placed on her crown, amethyst on her third eye, azurite on her throat, aquamarine on her thymus, rose quartz on her heart, citrine on her solar plexus, carnelian on her navel and bloodstone on her base. While the Goddess Leader placed her hands on the solar plexus of the participant, her assistant lit a number of tealight candles and incense sticks situated outside of the circle of chairs.
At this point, the Goddess Leader provided each of us with a palm-sized crystal wand which she referred to as a ‘pocket rocket.’ Each wand was unique and contained three crystals, of the clear quartz, rose quartz, aventurine or onyx variety, inside a copper stem bound with leather. There was also a crystal fixed to both ends of each wand. The crystal wands were designed to balance our chakra energy. We each held our wands and were asked to close our eyes. The Goddess Leader then spoke to us and informed us that we were about to engage in honouring our inner Goddess or feminine energy. She provided that it was important for Goddesses to support each other and to abstain from competing with one another. The Goddess Leader subsequently commenced our creative visualization meditation. There was no explanation before the meditation about what the participants should have expected.
To begin with, the Goddess Leader played a relaxation audio tape and asked us to ‘centre ourselves’ by taking a few deep breaths. She then asked us to imagine that we were walking barefoot over soft, green grass. We were told to imagine that we were absorbing the energy of Mother Earth through the soles of our feet. The Goddess Leader provided that we should be able to feel a slight tingling sensation on the soles of our feet at this point. She then proceeded to direct us to visualize that we were walking along the soft grass until we reached a field of lavender flowers. We were to imagine that a bright violet light was shining through our third eye. The Goddess Leader guided us towards a group of lavender flower fairies, who were to be our guides throughout the meditation. We were encouraged to ask the fairies for permission to be seated amongst the lavender flowers. At this point, we were asked to imagine that the lavender flower fairies formed a ring around our mid-sections. We were then left to silently meditate for approximately one hour.
The participants all appeared to be relaxed and contented at the conclusion of the creative visualization meditation. A number of us were yawning and slowly stretching our arms out in order to bring ourselves back to ordinary reality. The Goddess Leader asked us to return to the circular table so that we could drink tea and share our experiences. I found that the focus of the workshop was centred upon relaxation, community, engagement with each participant’s own creative energy and establishing connection between the participants, as opposed to spiritual insight. I agree with Clayton’s (2001, p. 17) statement that whilst ‘visualization and relaxation are excellent practices, … neither completely fits the esoteric definition of meditation as spiritual introspection.’
When I questioned the Goddess Leader about the method behind the creative visualization meditation, she informed me that she believes that it is possible for thoughts to effect change everyday life. Stein (2001, p. 105) summarises the position of the Goddess Leader well when she provides that ‘[c]reative visualization is thought form. It is the creation of conscious forms that manifest first in the mental body, extend upward to the spiritual and downward to emotional levels. The emotional body connects the mental and spiritual to the physical, so emotional changes have to happen before physical ones’. Engaging in the creative visualization meditation during the Goddess workshop induced an altered state of consciousness in the participants, allowing them to shape their own reality by ignoring ‘the supposed facts [of ordinary reality] in favor [sic] of a new line of thinking based on absolute truth that the facts can always be changed’ (Cooper 1999, p. 42).
The lives of the participants appeared to be enriched by the Goddess workshop, not only because it fostered a sense of community, but also because it allowed them to engage in behaviour, such as visualizing interacting with lavender flower fairies, that would ordinarily be regarded as non-mainstream by Western society. Indeed, by opening their ‘angel wings’ and letting go of externally-imposed social limitations, it was possible for the participants to set themselves free from the net of conditioning in which most of us find ourselves enmeshed in everyday life. This idea resonates with Starhawk’s (1989, p. 91) interpretation of universal energy represented by the Goddess, who ‘is the bridge, on which we can cross the chasms within ourselves, which were created by our social conditioning, and reconnect with our lost potentials.’
Clayton, G 2001, Transformative Meditation: Personal and Group Practice to Access Realms of Consciousness, Llewellyn Worldwide,
Cooper, P 1999, Secrets of Creative Visualization, Weiser,
Driver T, 1992, The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Communities, HarperSanFrancisco,
Starhawk, 1989, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, 10th anniversary edn, HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco.
Stein, D 2001, Diane Stein's Guide to Goddess Craft, The Crossing Press,
A Simple Example of an Altered State of Consciousness
TAYCE McQUAID 42060545
Two Crows mirth
Three Crows a wedding
Four Crows a birth
Five Crows for riches
Six Crows a thief
Seven Crows a journey
Eight Crows for grief
Nine Crows a secret
Ten Crows for sorrow
Eleven Crows for true love
Twelve's a new day tomorrow
After two nights of sleep deprivation in preparation for an experience in an altered state of consciousness, my body was taken over and my mind was taken on a journey through myself, though I did not know it at the time. With what felt like sleep rippling through my fatigued limbs, soothing my muscles; images flooded into my mind. The room I was in dimmed, I was surrounded by people, and yet alone – barely aware of their presence. One by one seven crows flew in through the door, stopping in front of me, staring into my soul. How long they remained, I could not say – but it seemed like an hour and it seemed like a second, time had ceased to exist. A lucid dream, the likes of which I had never before experienced, and although I wasn’t sure exactly what I was experiencing, I knew then that this was what I had been waiting for.
Aside from pharmacological means, such as LSD, or attending a class, such as hot yoga, there are many other physiological methods which may result in alterations of consciousness – or lead to short (or long) term losses of consciousness all together including auditory and visual hallucinations and states of trance with time awareness also effected. These may include sexual activity and orgasm, along with extreme environmental conditions – including starvation, exposure to extreme temperatures and weather conditions, along with sleep deprivation. During a normal cycle of sleep and wakefulness the variations of vigilance would not normally induce an altered state of consciousness, however with extreme sleep deprivation; one may experience short episodes of immediate sleep onset (defined by Oswald (1969) as a Micro Sleep) or suffer hallucinations and trance-like experiences (Vaitl et al., 2005 pp.1-8)
Thompson (1995) refers to the function of dreaming as, not only for the dreamer’s health and well being but also as a tool to heal and resolve inner conflicts. Lucid dreams, in particular, are dreams in which the dreamer knows that they dreaming. These dreams are vivid, with intense colour, smells, touch, taste and so on. Lucid dreams give the dreamer a degree of control – which, once mastered in the dream, can be taken back to the dreamer’s wakeful state to achieve similar results (Thompson M., 1995 pp. 6-11)
When I returned to what I knew as real all I felt was confusion. Although I was absolutely sure that this was what I had been waiting for more than forty-eight hours to experience, I didn’t have any idea why – to me it felt like everything had happened, and yet nothing had happened. The seven crows I had seen meant nothing to me and I was angry and upset, feeling like I had wasted so much time over nothing. But being new to altered states of consciousness I remained as positive as I could, not knowing what I was meant to feel, or find and I began to research seven crows, and the first thing I found, almost immediately after I began my search, was an anonymous folk poem (above) “... Seven crows a journey...” Another rendition of the same poem read the same except for the line, “Seven crows a story, yet to be told”. It seemed that I would have to wait, this was just my first trance-like experience and it felt like I was being bottle fed. But I was exhausted and I knew that my body was right, although I longed to keep going and find out more, I knew that all I needed right now was sleep.
This experience shows that you don’t need to travel far from home, or associate with people that may make you feel uncomfortable to have an experience just as meaningful or spiritual. To me this experience was perfect – I had never been down the path of altered states or trances before, I was brand new to the whole experience and as this occasion was orchestrated entirely by myself, my body and my mind was in control, and it knew just how much I could take. I was entirely in control of my own experience and for me that was perfect. While in the future I may investigate further into altered states of consciousness and seek out different ways of finding and achieving them, for my first attempt, a non-pharmacological, self-controlled, natural approach was the way.
Vaitl, D., Birbaumer, N., Jamieson, G. A., Gruzelier, J., Kotchoubey, B., Kuebler, A., Lehmann, D., Miltner, W. H. R., Ott, U., Puetz, P., Sammer, G., Strauch, I., Strehl, U., Wackermann, J., Weiss, T. Psychobiology of Altered States of Consciousness, Psychological Bulletin Vol. 131, No. 1, pp. 98-127, 2005
[Electronic Copy: Accessed 8/5/2009 p1-8]
Thompson, M. Dreamer’s Dictionary, Sunburst Handguides, pp 6-11, 1995
My objective was to search for altered states and trance in the everyday. For the purpose of exploring these within rock-climbing and yoga I decided to exercise two forms of research. For the climbing I observed and interviewed participants and chose a more empirical form of research for yoga by participating myself. The first of these was rock climbing. I have been fortunate enough to meet two brothers who were willing to participate in my study. The eldest brother has been climbing for over three years, the younger for two. Both have climbed and done bouldering indoors and outdoors. The second activity I observed and partook in was Hatha Yoga. I chose a local not-for-profit yoga centre where I had previously been a member and who were willing to take part in my research.
As I watched the boys climb, I saw them climb the most difficult climbs with more ease than I could ever imagine. Well at least more ease than I could imagine myself doing, as I had discovered a year or so earlier when my pathetic attempts to climb even the most basic climbs made me realise it’s really not as easy as it looks. Yet here they were speeding up the wall like little spider monkeys. At that point for the interest of the study and out of a sense of my own inadequacy, I decided to look past their athleticism and search for the meaning and source of transcendence behind the activity.
Whilst writing about his vision runs, Rob Schultheis (1996) mentions the Chinese Taoists and their concept of ‘wu wei’, “doing without doing”. To me there was an obvious element of this involved in rock climbing, as during their climbs, the brothers wore such peaceful expressions combined with a light air of determination. To me it seemed it was as if they knew a secret, a serene passageway to the top, which required simply the patience to see. They had already been climbing for two hours by the time I arrived, yet they still had the energy and determination to complete most of the courses effortlessly, or so it seemed to me.
Schultheis (1996) also mentions that the Hopis (Native North Americans) used extreme forms of running as a deliberate way to power. I wondered how climbing compares to this. According to Schultheis the Hopis had 15 foot races annually, each with its own divine purpose and with elaborate symbolic underpinnings like; prayers, preparatory fasts, abstinence from sex and powerful body paint and clothing. I could see no evidence of body paint nor ‘special’ clothing and the other factors were perhaps best left to my imagination, as they didn’t seem like appropriate questions to ask.
I did however briefly interview the elder of the two brothers. When asked about thought processes during climbs he told me that, the focus is purely on the task at hand and that sequence, for him is predominant. He also said that there is an element of control in terms of consciously ‘switching on’ the muscles required to reach the objective, especially in relation to the more difficult steps within the sequence that require more proficiency and/ or fortitude. He spoke about energy conservation and endurance, saying; “ It’s possible to regain energy in rest spots. These occur when repetition has afforded you the time and opportunity to rest briefly before tackling the next, more difficult part of the sequence.” He also spoke of reaching a point where it was no longer necessary to switch on certain muscles therefore doing without doing and reaching a trance state where it’s “just you and the climb”.
In his article, New Perspectives of Self, Nature and Others (1995), Peter Martin speaks of seeing cliffs as playing fields. I think now I can see how this may be possible for people have that type of passion and zeal. He does however, also cite a beautiful poem by Bill Neidjie, which I was inspired by and think it expresses the oneness and the connection of humans to nature marvellously.
I die and put my bones in cave and earth.
Soon my bones become earth…
all the same.
My spirit becomes my country…
Bill Neidjie (1986) Kadadu Man
The name hatha yoga has two roots, ‘ha’ (sun) and ‘tha’ (moon) and of course yoga which is derived from the root ‘yuj’ which means, to join. These symbolically refer to the flowing breath from right nostril ‘sun breath’ and the left ‘moon breath’ thus hatha is the unification of these two breaths (Bernard, 1967).
Because it had been two years since I last practiced yoga, I took a friend with me for moral support. As we entered the room and joined the group, I noticed the minimal light and how it created a safe, calm and warm environment. There was also soothing Indian music playing featuring the sitar, which had an immediate calming effect. When our group had settled on our mats, we began a short private meditation. From there our instructor lead us through breathing exercises and more meditation. First we focussed on our breathing and drawing air deep into our stomachs, then into our chests. The focus on this repeated activity put me in the zone for meditation.
The breathing also put us in the right state for our yoga practice. Beginning with slow careful stretches we then moved into more dynamic movements and patterns. Our breathing was in harmony with our movements and by this stage the breathing pattern was relaxed, automatic and required no monitoring. However at one stage during our session my conscious mind snuck in and tormented me saying, “Oh come on, do you really have time for this? There are so many things you should be doing, can you really justify this?” I quickly told my fully conscious self to leave me alone, and pushed it so far away that I could hear nothing at all. I found once again that through repetition and flow my mind was released.
Sound also plays an interesting part in yoga practice. Allowing the sounds not to register but still to accept them is important, especially when it’s not possible to be somewhere silent. I enjoyed noticing all of the individual sounds become one comforting continuous buzz then eventually disappearing. This reminded me of when I meditate in nature, as it’s almost the same process. Allowing the breeze, chirping of birds, scurries of animals and the trickling of water to unify as one peaceful sound. Now in the city with the bustle, the sound of passing traffic and distant voices play the same role and become indistinguishable. Although I feel more of a connection with nature and find the sounds much more pleasant and organic, I was pleased that I still found it possible within these surroundings.
There was a definite feeling of transcendence attained during my yoga practice, although I only became fully aware of this once we had completed our session and done another meditation and breathing exercise. As I got up from my mat, and for some time afterwards, I felt as though I was awakening from a deep restful sleep, still in a dream world whilst reality was slowly seeping in.
Through the process of observing rock climbing and experiencing yoga, I’ve come to conclude that there is a real presence of trance and altered states in both.
Bernard, T. (1968) Hatha Yoga, The Report of a Personal Experience. London: Rider.
Horst, E. (2003) How to Climb 5.12. Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press.
Martin, P. (1995) http://www.latrobe.edu.au/oent/Staff/martin_papers/NewPerspectives_
Martin.pdf. New Perspectives of Self, Nature and Others. Retrieved May 2, 2009.
Schultheis, R. (1996) Bone Games : Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen, and the Search for Transcendence. New York, N.Y: Breakaway Books.
Singh, P. (1974) The Hatha Yoga Pradipika: Sacred Books of the Hindus. New York: AMS Press.
When referring to trance and altered states of consciousness, we include a multitude of different types of experience. The major ways of inducing trance as stated by Winkelman (1997) include but are not limited to auditory driving (such as drumming), extensive motor behaviour(such as dancing), fasting, sensory deprivation and stimulation, sleep and dream states and meditation. Unfortunately in our society, there seems to be a negative connotation to terms such as trance, or altered states of consciousness, most probably due to the narrow minded thinking of a secular society, but also because of misinformation in its relation to drug culture. There are those who induce altered states through the use of various drugs such as opioids or hallucinogens, and our society deems such behaviour as deviant. While similar practices have been successfully used to induce trance across many cultures, in Australia they only account for a minority of trance like experiences, and will not be explored here. The greater majority of ASC are found in our daily lives, at work, in the home and in our various recreational activities.
One of the most prevalent theories that can be found to describe trance and the everyday is that of peak experiences presented by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1964). The peak experience is a transcendence commonly characterised by an ecstatic or euphoric state, and make up the especially joyous and most exciting moments of our lives (Maslow, 1964). These are the major realisations or epiphanies many of us can experience at various times in our lives, and can be inspired by, for example, the vast beauty of a natural landscape, or intense feelings of love such as those felt by the parent of a newborn child. They may also be purposefully induced, most commonly through the ongoing practice of meditation or contemplative prayer. Maslow (1964) states that the core and realisation of every world religion has been based upon such an epiphany experienced by the prophet and relayed to the people, which demonstrates the importance peak experiences hold. Similarly, Coxhead (1985) describes these altered states of consciousness as “blissful” mystical experiences that are a common goal of many religious or spiritual practices. She states:
Although the methods may have changed with the evolution of societies, the basic element of inducement remains: somehow or other to reach out beyond the confines of ordinary reality, from transience and the ephemeral to something which lies waiting in the unknown, in the whole order of things. (Coxhead, 1985, p.56)
Coxhead (1985) goes on to demonstrate the various ways mystical experiences can come about, citing as examples the mystical experience of a prisoner of war, a woman who overdosed on insulin and the bliss achieved by a Kundalini Yoga practitioner. While peak experience and mystical experience theories account for a lot of the religious epiphanies and more intense forms of trance, there are far more subtle forms of altered states that we may all experience at some point in our daily lives, without actively pursuing them. The concept of “Flow,” proposed by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990), accounts for these more subtle forms of trance. Most commonly referred to as “being in the zone,” it is a mental state of higher awareness and deep concentration. Flow comes about when fully immersed in a task, and is a feeling of full involvement, being at one with things (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Also referred to as Optimal Experience, the author defines Flow as:
...the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake. In reviewing some of the activities that consistently produce flow-such as sports, games, arts, hobbies-it becomes easier to understand what makes people happy. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 6)
Most people would recognise such a state in some of the activities in their daily lives, and the altered states of consciousness found in places of trance may well be included as forms of optimal experience.
An exploration of places of trance is a useful way of investigating these theories. There are a multitude of these in any neighbourhood such as religious services, spiritual gatherings, sporting events and other outdoor activities. One of the most popular examples of a place of trance is the multitude of Yoga studios and classes offered in many neighbourhoods. The combination of exercise, relaxation and meditation makes Yoga a particularly relevant example. The Yoga in Daily Life centre in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, is a member of the international Fellowship of Yoga in Daily Life, which was founded by His Holiness Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda, affectionately referred to as Swamiji. A beginner’s yoga class was attended to gain further insight into yoga, and its use of altered states of consciousness.
The early morning class was mixed gender and made up of adults of various ages. The Yoga Instructor guided the students through the two hour long class, starting off with a brief introduction of the basic principles of Yoga, the plan for the exercises to be carried out by the class and what was to be expected from the experience. The class included physical exercises or asanas that are designed to increase flexibility and build strength. These exercises, the students were informed, were also designed to benefit the nervous system and internal organs as well as the energy centres or chakras and the mind. Relaxation techniques, including breathing exercises or pranayam are utilised in class, as well as meditation practices. The class started with a relaxing warm-up using pranayam, then some light asanas which gradually increased in difficulty. After the pranayam and asanas, the instructor guided a brief meditation which focused on an imaginary light on the top of each student's head.
Students of the class left with a feeling of inner peace, and were advised by the instructor at the conclusion of the lesson to carry this feeling with them throughout the day. They were told to practice these techniques in their own home as often as possible, and that further classes and practice would lead to greater benefits for their health and well-being. To most participants, this practice may make daily life more enjoyable if not more meaningful, which seems to be the intended function of the activity. The feeling of inner-peace brought about by the yoga class, this slightly altered state of consciousness, may not qualify as a peak experience, or even a mystical experience, but certainly it can be said to be an optimal experience which brings about flow. Not only does it start with Flow, but as the instructor stated, further practice leads to further benefit, and there have been many influential yogis that have attained such higher states as the peak experience described by Maslow through years of yogic practice.
In conclusion, this is just one example of a multitude of ways available to all of us of inducing altered states of consciousness in the urban neighbourhood. As long as religions and societies have existed, so have the practices and rituals that’s major function is to induce peak, mystical and optimal experiences. There are countless ways of inducing different types of trance, many of which can be found locally. Despite some of the negative connotations the term trance may possess in our society, we should all embrace the many benefits altered states of consciousness can provide.
Coxhead, Nona. Relevance of Bliss: A Contemporary Exploration of Mystic Experience, London, Wildwood House, 1985.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York, Harper Perennial, 1990.
Winkelman, Michael. Blazier, Stephen (ed.), Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour, Anthropology of religion, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997.
Maslow, Abraham. Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1964.