Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Future of Trance and Ritual

By Tallulah Grey

Our modern world has become disenchanted with spirituality. We no longer search for beauty and meaning in our lives, but look for material gain and momentary bliss. Hallucinogenic substances that many consider to be Entheogens are outlawed, and many forms of spirituality are laughed out of what has come to be considered educated society. Courses such as this very one are few and far between. Try telling someone that you’re studying Trance or Divination or the History of the Supernatural at university and see what their reaction is. Is this a sign of humanity’s descent into cynicism, a world without miracles or magic? Is there still hope of acceptance for those who live a spiritual life? Trance is swiftly becoming both mundane and bizarre, with yoga and tai chi being considered more of a workout than a connection with the self or the divine, and psychotropic drugs that aid in that same connection considered taboo. However, popular culture, ever interested in the supernatural and the unusual, is fighting back with our bookstores and televisions being inundated with worlds where trance and ritual are not only accepted, they are the norm.

Fantasy novels such as the incredibly popular Harry Potter series may be helping to free the mind from modern cynicism, but they may also be aiding in our disenchantment. “The mainstream inability to see anything incorrect in children practising witchcraft (or children reading about children practising witchcraft) is our first indication of how thoroughly witchcraft and other forms of magic have lost any real potency in contemporary society.” (Ostling 2003 5) Ostling argues in his essay that books like Harry Potter are actually contributing to the disenchantment of the next generation. I personally disagree. JK Rowling’s novels, while dealing with the everyday in magic, “[making] the extraordinary ordinary” (Ostling 2003 16), also remind us of the magic in the everyday. The fantasy genre has, for decades, delighted minds young and old with the possibilities available in the world around us. The Jedi Knights of George Lucas’ ‘Star Wars’ films have a very deep and personal connection with the world around them, and are able to draw strength from the Force which exists in all things. Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Dragonriders of Pern’ bond telepathically with their Dragons, creating a partnership that can only be ended through death. The magical powers of Belgarath and Polgara of David Eddings’ ‘Belgariad’ come from what they call the Will and the Word: a strength that comes from deep within themselves, and can only be channeled via intense focus. These stories and many others show us that, even if trance and ritual are disappearing from our lives, there are aspects surviving in fiction. Whether or not that will be enough to reawaken the dormant part of us that craves a deeper connection with our world is yet to be seen.

Although “the use of psychotropic substances [may be] at the root of perhaps all religions”, (Shanon 2008 52) these substances are illegal in the majority of Western countries. Some very few religious groups have been given special permission to use Entheogens such as Ayuahasca, but these are not legally available for the masses. Would our views on spirituality be the same with easy access to Dimethyltryptamine and similar intoxicants? If you could purchase Ayuahasca at your local health food store and conduct your own rituals, surely your relationship with religion would be much more personal. Dimethyltryptamine exists naturally in many plants and animals, including humans, but its hallucinogenic nature brings its safety into question in legal circles. Once again, trance and ritual are becoming exclusive to the few able to find and use these substances, legally or illegally.

We live in a world of science where miracles and beliefs are being constantly disproved and cynicism is invading every mind. Possibilities are being ignored, fantasies are being forsaken. Religious trance is disappearing into a meld of other secular phenomena and rituals are becoming, for the majority of the Western world, an unnecessary observance best left in the past. Churches are still attended, ritualistic activities are still played out, but the reverence in which these were once enacted is starting to disappear. Ritual is becoming an obligation. Perhaps, as the next generation takes its place at the forefront of history, this will change, as they have been raised in a world of magic and enchantment. Perhaps, just perhaps, they will learn to shed this cynicism that has so pervaded our culture, and connect with the world and through that themselves once again. All we can do is hope.

Ostling, M. (2003) “Harry Potter and the Disenchantment of the World” in Journal of Contemporary Religion Volume 18 Issue 1, pp. 3 - 23

Shanon, B. (March 2008) “Biblical Entheogens: a Speculative Hypothesis” in “Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology Consciousness and Culture” Volume 1 Issue 1, pp. 51-74

Rosenzweig, R. (Spring 2006) “Intercessionary Prayer, Healing, and Jewish Shamanism” in Jewish Education News

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