Thursday, May 13, 2010

Profile of a Modern Day Shaman

The Search for a Modern Day Shaman
By Toby Coates

Shamanism is not a topic often discussed in modern Western society, and rarely will one be called a Shaman. In the occasional event when the term is applied, it is done so loosely, resulting in negative connotations from its misplaced interchangeability with words like ‘sorcerer’ and magician’ (Fox 2001: 315), and such a misunderstood and disrespectful use of the term ‘Shaman’ holds it back from being truly understood or respected.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the existence of a Shaman in modern Western society, by exploring the question of whether a massage therapist fits the framework of a Shaman . In short, this framework consists of healing, ritual, the appropriate use of altered states of consciousness (ASC) and the travel between different realms of reality – which will specifically be referred to in this paper as ‘Shamanistic travel’. In order to effectively approach the discussion at hand, generate a greater understanding of massage therapy and create a focused and streamlined paper, an interview has been conducted with Mandy Coates, a massage therapist. Rather then focusing on the overly vague question of whether any massage therapist can fit the framework of a Shaman, this paper will specifically explore whether Mandy Coates matches this outline.

This will done through four key steps, in which the importance of each element to the Shaman framework will be explained and clarified, followed by an examination of the extent to which Coates’ work as a massage therapist matches that element. Through these steps, it will be shown that Mandy Coates, a massage therapist in modern Western society, can potentially act as a modern day Shaman.

There are four key elements that support the framework of a Shaman to be discussed in this paper, the first of which is healing. Healing is a major feature of Shamanistic practices, and there is nearly always an element of healing involved in some way within the work of a Shaman. (Atkinson 1992: 313-314; Calvert 2002: 13; Farmer 2003; Hume 2007: 2; Jilek 2005: 9; Johnson et. al 2008: 62; Mayes 2005: 330; Nakanishi 2006: 235; Townsend 1997: 432,450; USA Today 2005: 12).

What is vital to understand is that Shamanistic healing goes far beyond conventional healing in Western society, which is focused on the physical symptoms and cures. Shamanistic healing involves a much deeper, complete healing, stepping between the emotional and physical, conscious and subconscious, individual and communal, in order to generate an absolute state of both physical and psychological well-being. (Farmer 2003; Hume 2007: 23; Jilek 2005: 13; Noll 1983: 444; Winkelman 1997: 393,395, 415)

So, the question to answer here is whether or not Mandy’s work as a massage therapist involves this absolute form of healing. When asked whether her massage involved healing beyond the physical realm, M. Coates (2010, Personal Communication, May 10) responded with a loud ‘definitely’, before going on to explain how her massage – specifically kahuna massage – achieves just this depth of healing. She explains how massage works on areas of conscious and subconscious emotional stress and deep memories in order to achieve this absolute healing.

Now that the importance of healing to Shamanism has been clarified, and the clear extent to which massage therapy matches this element has become obvious, the next aspect of the Shaman framework can be explored. This next element to be explored is the importance of ritual within Shamanistic practices. Ritual plays an undeniably large aspect of the Shamans life (Farmer 2003; Jilek 2005: 9). Much of their experience involves tradition, repetition and ceremony, all of which feature ritual. There are various crucial functions of ritual to Shamanism. Through appropriate use of ritual, a Shaman is able to create the necessary environment in which the inhibitions of the mind are allowed to open, and design a mood that can comfort those involved in what is a uniquely different experience then what they may be used to. What’s more, the use of ritual provides a spiritual consistency, aids in teaching and understanding, and can provide a far more communal and unifying experience than may have occurred otherwise. (Calvert 2002: 13-14; Farmer 2003; Hume 1997: 112,113,136). Calvert (2002: 14) and Vega (2006: 6) also notes that ritual plays a significant feature in Shamanistic healing, and Calvert goes on to point out the frequent use of massage in Shamanistic rituals of healing.

M. Coates (2010, Personal Communication, May 10) noted how she felt ritual played an integral part in her massage. Firstly, her rituals before and after each massage helped define her work, while the massage itself consisted of a learned ritual – particularly the use of music, and of ‘dance’ around the client – vital to generating the desired atmosphere and result. Secondly, Coates mentions the individual rituals that each client may develop. These can be important for allowing the client to effectively remove themselves from their ‘ordinary’ life, and prepare for the ‘unconventional’ experience to come. Coates goes on to explain how essential her ritual is to the massage, in order to create the necessary environment and provide a consistent process that can successfully encompass complete healing.

Now that the use of ritual is understood, and it has been shown that a massage therapist can appropriately involve this vital element, a Shamans use of ASC will be explored. The appropriate use of ASC is a fundamental basis of Shamanic practices, as the shift of focus onto the senses is extremely important for their ability to gain greater knowledge of the elements and energies around – and within – them, and to effectively participate in the form of absolute Shamanistic healing mentioned earlier (Hume 2007: 4-5; Jilek 2005: 10-11; Johnson et. al 2008: 64; Peters and Price-Williams 1980: 398; Townsend 1997: 431,438; Winkelman 1997: 402).

ASC can be used to encourage union between all levels of consciousness and promote self-awareness and well-being. When used correctly, it can also generate greater awareness of ones own reality and understanding of the nature of the universe and life itself; knowledge that is inaccessible in the ordinary state of consciousness. In short, ASC provides a means through which greater realms of knowledge come within our grasp. (Farmer 2003; Hume 2007: 3,7,17; Noll 1983: 444; Vega 2006: 2; Willis 1994: 16,18; Winkelman 1997: 393,395,409)

In the interview with M. Coates (2010, Personal Communication, May 10), it can be seen just how prevalent ASC is in her massage . She points out how she can find an ASC within herself. During her ritual – of performing her dance, hearing her music and opening up to the energies within the room – she is able to find her own altered state, one of peace and understanding. On top of this, she notes the clients potential to reach an altered state, assisting in absolute healing. The client can find themselves in a state of deeper thought where solutions to inner problems may present themselves, either knowingly or not. From these observations, it is clear that whether ASC occurs in the client, Coates herself, or even both at the same time, it is not only a common feature of her massage, but also a significant tool by which absolute healing can occur.

Healing, ritual and the use of ASC have not only been examined as essential elements of Shamanistic practices, but have also been shown to be dominant features of relevant massage practices by Mandy Coates. The final chapter of the Shaman framework to be explored here is Shamanistic travel .

The first thing that must be done is to explain what is meant by this type of ‘travel’. In short, there are different levels of reality and existence beyond that which is ordinarily perceived (Hume 1997: 113, 2007: 1,5; Jilek 2005: 9; Mayes 2005: 330,345; Townsend 1997: 437; USA Today 2005: 12; Vitebsky 2003: 279). This is tied in with the use of ASC, in that these different realms can be reached through appropriate ASC. Conventional reality consists of a closed perception of existence, hindered by personal and societal inhibitions and the pressure of an overwhelming stream of unanswered issues and irrational beliefs. Shamanistic travel involves the ability to effectively ‘break away’ from this reality, into an opened state of mind; a different realm of existence. (Farmer 2003; Hume 2007: 5-7; Jilek 2005: 9; Peters and Price-Williams 1980: 405-406; Townsend 1997: 437; Winkelman 1997: 411-412)
The purpose of such travel is that by using this ability, the Shaman is able to open their minds not only to their individual existence, but also to the nature and life around them and access an otherwise invisible reality. Through this, they can create a greater connection with, and understanding of, other beings, leading to an enhanced ability to seek out answers to that beings issues, and assist in greater levels of healing. (Farmer 2003; Hume 2007: 3-7,23; Willis 1994: 16)

Healing and ritual, and to some extent, the use of ASC, are all intuitively used within massage. However, the question of whether the massage therapist has the ability to successfully use Shamanistic travel provides a more challenging requirement. M. Coates’ description of her ASC helps explain how she is able to match this kind of travel (2010, Personal Communication, May 10). She notes her belief in different planes of life, and the separation from the day-to-day plane that she makes during massage. As she travels to another realm – with the help of her rituals and ASC – where she can relax her own mind, feel the ‘groove’ and connect on a new level with her patient, she generates greater potentials of healing and understanding.

This essay has explored Shamanism in modern Western society. Specifically, it set out to establish whether Mandy Coates, a modern massage therapist, can fit the framework of a Shaman. To approach the discussion, this essay consisted of four key steps. Each step was an explanation of a fundamental element of the Shaman framework – being healing, ritual, ASC and Shamanistic travel – and an examination of Coates’ applicability to that element.

Through these steps, this paper has provided a relevant Shamanistic profile of Mandy Coates, and shown how her work as a massage therapist appropriately matches the framework of a Shaman. As such, this essay has shown that although modern Western society does not recognise any formal workers as ‘Shamans’, this by no means leads to a lack of any Shamans in such a society. Massage therapy, when performed in the relevant and appropriate manner, has the potential to match Shamanistic practices.

Whether or not they are recognised, Shamans exist today, spread throughout society. The saddest thing is not that Western society does not recognise and respect their abilities, but that the Shamans themselves may not see the truth. Western society must seek to understand the truth of Shamanism, and the Shamans themselves must open up to their abilities.

Reference List:

• Atkinson, Jane Monnig. 1992. ‘Shamanisms Today.’ Annual Review of Anthropology 21(1): 307-330.

• Calvert, Robert Noah. 2002. The History of Massage. Vermont, USA: Healing Arts Press.

• Farmer, Steven. 2003. Shamanism and the Shamanic Journey. Accessed 30 April 2010. Available at:

• Fox, Mary Jo Tippeconnic. 2002. ‘Shamanism’. Review of Shamanism, by Piers Vitebsky. The Social Science Journal 39(2): 314-316.

• MacLellan, Gordon. 2003, ‘Dancing on the Edge’. In Shamanism: A Reader, ed. G. Harvey. London, UK: Routledge.

• Hume, Lynne. 1997. Witchcraft and Paganism in Australia. Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press.

• Hume, Lynne. 2007. Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses. Oxford, UK: Berg.

• Jilek, Wolfgang. 2005. ‘Transforming the Shaman: Changing Western Views of Shamanism and. Altered States of Consciousness’. Numero 7(1): 8-15.

• Johnson, Luke, Janelle Levesque, Adam Rock and Jessica Wilson. 2008. ‘Ego Boundaries, Shamanic-Like Techniques, and Subjective Experience: An Experimental Study’. Anthropology of Consciousness 19(1): 60-83.

• Klaniczay, Gábor. 2006. ‘Shamanism and Witchcraft’. Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 1(2): 214-221.

• Mayes, Clifford. 2005. 'The teacher as shaman.' Journal of Curriculum Studies 37(3): 329-348.

• Nakanishi, Fumiaki. 2006. ‘Possession: A Form of Shamanism’. Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft 1(2): 234-241

• Peters, Larry and Douglass Price-Williams. 1980. ‘Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism.’ American Ethnologist 7(3): 397-418

• Townsend, Joan. 1997. ‘Shamanism’. In Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, ed. Stephen D. Glazier. Connecticut, USA: Greenwood Press.

• USA Today. 2005. ‘Can Shamanism Really Heal Patients?’. USA Today 133(2721): 12.

• Vega, Selene. 2006. ‘Entering Creative Consciousness: Moving into Deep Connection’. Accessed 30 April 2010. Available at:

• Vitebsky, Piers. 2003. ‘From Cosmology to Environmentalism: Shamanism as Local Knowledge in a Global Setting’. In Shamanism: A Reader, ed. G. Harvey. London, UK: Routledge.

• Wallis, Robert J. 2003. Shamans and Neo-Shamans : ecstasy alternative archaeologies and contemporary pagans. London and New York : Routledge

• Willis, Roy. 1994. ‘New Shamanism’. Anthropology Today 10(6): 16-18.

• Winkelman, Michael. 1997. ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour.’ In Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, ed. Stephen D. Glazier. Connecticut, USA: Greenwood Press.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Altered States in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Altered States in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Catherine Mackenzie 41194078

Event explored and reviewed: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Competition, 27 March 2010

The warriors amble onto the green square mat, carefully sizing up their foe. Following them is the referee - their critic and adjudicator for four long minutes. One warrior bows to his opponent, the other too lost in tense concentration, forgets. The bell goes and yet, there is no contact. They begin to circle each other like two enraged yet cautious animals, always moving but not attacking. Suddenly there is movement, a lunge to unbalance the opponent and they fall to the ground in a forceful impassive embrace. They are completely unaware of anything other than their adversary and themselves. The crowd yells and cheers for their champion but it falls on deaf ears. They cannot hear anything.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a somewhat modern form of Martial Arts with its origins in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. With the first school being opened in Rio de Janeiro in 1925 its expansion has occurred extremely quickly. Devotees of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu train all over the world, striving to achieve prominence and compete in their field. As with any sport or combative practice, there is the ability to go further, to achieve higher levels of spiritual actualisation. This essay will address the occurrence of altered states in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the forms that they can take. Whether it is a recognisable and clear state of altered consciousness or something more implicit like the feeling of being ‘in the zone’.

Sporting history is littered with stories of superhuman feats of strength and agility occurring at the very last moment to win a game or race. Can this just be labelled as ‘putting in more effort’ or is it something more? Is it perhaps that competitors or practitioners pass into an altered state of consciousness? There are innumerable accounts of the feeling of passing into a different level of achievement and skill, of being in “effortless control” (Murphy and White, 1995, pg 21). This is often referred to as being ‘in the zone’. The zone is not a physical place that an athlete can withdraw to, nor somewhere that can easily be reached by any mortal. Being ‘in the zone’ can reportedly include effects such as happiness, effortless, intuition, timelessness and self-transcendence (Cooper, 1998, pg 33). The phenomenon of timelessness is one that Manolito, a 22 year old devotee of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Karate, can relate to. He believes that although Karate is a more mentally challenging practice, elements of altered states occur in both. During a fight he often loses the concept of time due to the intense concentration on what he is doing as well as the concentration on what his adversary is doing. Brian Aitken calls this experience ‘extraordinary time’ which he believes can act as a sign of some kind of transcendence (in Hoffman, 1992, pg 244) Manolito also notes the degree of detachment that can occur in a fight. He states “sometimes you get up and you’re dizzy, but you weren’t in that state when you were fighting”. Due to the high level of concentration, awareness of the state of the human body is made secondary and overcoming the opponent is of the upmost importance. The phrase, ‘in the zone’ has grown to encompass many different states of sporting prowess, all generally positive however. Achieving an altered state of consciousness in sport is seen as an advantageous and sought-after occurrence.

Joshua is a 21 year old Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner who has recently enlisted in the army and uses the Jiu-Jitsu to keep fit. Joshua competed in the heavyweight competition on the day. His first fight was against a man much taller than himself, although he would be considered in normal circles reasonably tall. Within 45 seconds Joshua has his opponent on the floor in a position that he must ‘tap out’ of, meaning he forfeits. The referee awards the match to Joshua and they shake hands. Talking to Joshua later he finds it difficult to explain how he managed to win the match so quickly. It is evident that being as well-trained as he is, his movements are intuitive and quick. In their book, In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports, Michael Murphy and Rhea White write that “one does not consciously have to plan how to act: instead, one lets the appropriate responses happen of themselves” (1995, pg 25). These intuitive responses do not happen at a conscious level but instead occur when the brain switches off and the athlete moves into an altered state of being.

During the competition there is also the occurrence of competitors passing out completely, from what can be assumed to be a lack of oxygen to the brain. If a person was to faint in any normal everyday setting, they would be given water and made to lie down for an extended period of time. In the fighting arena, if a competitor passes out they stop the match, they wait for the invalid to wake whereby they immediately stand up and the other competitor is declared the winner. This kind of behaviour, to the untrained eye is somewhat inappropriate but these Jiu-Jitsu devotees are trained to pass in and out of the states of consciousness, masters of their craft not unlike the high priest who wakes from a trance, unharmed and unaltered.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is just one of the many practices through which altered states can be achieved, despite it being decidedly less mentally challenging than other forms of martial arts. In competition, concentration is the hallmark of victory, allowing intuition and training take over and to eventually allow the competitor to move into ‘the zone’.

Aitken, Brian. Sport, Religion and Human Well-Being in Hoffman, Shirl. Sport and Religion. Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, 1992.
Camargo, Bruno. The History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. (accessed 2 May 2010).
Cooper, Andrew. Playing in the Zone: Exploring the Spiritual Dimensions of Sports. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.
De Gasperi, Manolito. Interview taken on 27 March, 2010.
Murphy, Michael and Rhea A. White. In the Zone: Transcendent Experience in Sports. New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1995.
Parry, Jim. Sport and Spirituality: an Introduction. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Prebish, Charles S. Religion and Sport: the Meeting of Sacred and Profane. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Saint Sing, Susan. Spirituality of Sport: Balancing Body and Soul. Cincinnati: Anthony Messenger Press, 2004.
Sieber, Lothar, Wojciech J. Cynarski and Artur Litwiniuk. “Spheres of Fight in Martial Arts”. Archives of Budo 3 (2007).

Replenishing the Soul through Yoga and Meditation

Yoga is a calming and meditative activity that allows for individuals to access an altered state of consciousness through elements of concentration and various body techniques. It is an activity practiced within the sanctuary of a peaceful and controlled environment, promoting participants to engage in reflection and create harmony throughout the mind, body and soul. It utilizes elements of meditation in the way that it calms the active mind and body of an individual, encouraging them to view reality as truth after their minds have been cleansed from the demanding outside world. Furthermore, it is essential for people within contemporary society to have an outlet that allows them to disengage from the busy modern world, and focus on their inner self. This can be accessed through the practice of yoga and meditation combined, allowing for an individual to access an altered state of consciousness to rejuvenate and revitalize the soul.

The Australian School of Meditation and Yoga is a centre located in the West End of Brisbane, promoting relaxation and inner peace through the wide variety of yoga and mediation classes they offer to the community. This particular school of yoga and meditation primarily targets young adults of different cultural backgrounds with its affordable prices and popular location. The Australian School of Meditation and Yoga is based within a comfortable wooden hall that is clean and tidy, decorated tastefully with lanterns and few posters representative of traditional Hindu Gods. All of the equipment required in yoga is provided for the convenience of the participants, as an experienced yoga teacher then instructs the class on what to do. Participants locate their desirable spot within the yoga hall, immediately entering a silent zone with their new focus on calming the body and bringing it into a zone of concentration. Participants are required to listen intently as they are guided by the yoga instructor. The voice of the instructor is very calm, directive yet kind and open to allow participants to feel comfortable and ask for assistance if needed. This enables participants to access an altered state of consciousness more comfortably with the option of assistance if it is needed. ‘The beautiful thing about yoga is that it’s not competitive. You work at your own pace, listening to your body, gradually encouraging it’ (The Australian School of Meditation and Yoga 2007).

The yoga and meditation experienced allows participants to relax their mind, body and soul from everyday stresses. The class is conducted in a silent group environment, which promotes individuals to collaboratively respect the atmosphere of the activity and understand people’s need to unwind from the everyday stresses of their contemporary lifestyles. As the class progresses over ninety-minutes, a deeper meaning is further developed for the individuals as they continue to combine exercise and mediation, embracing an altered state of consciousness and intensifying the altered state. This ultimately allows the individual to produce a harmonious balance throughout the mind, body and soul. Meditation is an important element of yoga and is described by the Australian School of Yoga and Meditation as the ‘spiritual essence of yoga’ (The Australian School of Meditation and Yoga 2007).

Meditation provides insights into the workings of the mind and emotions. It further helps you develop clarity and wisdom, gaining a greater understanding of life… In this consciousness a person is free from temporary worries, anxieties and concerns and is immersed in a higher spiritual happiness and inner peacefulness (The Australian School of Meditation and Yoga 2007).

Through the combined use of yoga and meditation, participants are able to focus intently on their activity, which ultimately eliminates the subconscious mind from manifesting throughout the yoga process. At the conclusion of class the participants are then instructed to lie down on their matts with closed eyes for a time of relaxed contemplation before returning back to their busy lifestyles. During this time of relaxation and contemplation the lights are dimmed and the altered state of consciousness experienced continues to deepen as the trance continues. After a while of laying down and relaxing, the class is then instructed to sit on their matts to listen to the instructor play melodic tunes on a guitar as chanting is then introduced to conclude the ritual. Participants are encouraged to join in with the chanting if they like, which finalizes the yoga class with a community feeling by bringing everyone together in a bond that they have just shared through experiencing an altered state. The entire process of the ninety-minute ritual is relaxing and riveting for the mind, body and soul. It allows an individual to exercise whilst entering a trance, not only stretching and assisting in maintaining a healthy body, but promoting a clear and harmonious outlook for an individual to see the world more clearly with a positive mindset.

As participants are then ready to leave the class with a new energy, there are refreshments provided by the Australian School of Meditation and Yoga consisting of some small cakes and water. This encourages participants to interact with one another, further enhancing the community feeling as everybody comes together to celebrate this altered state and body-healing process.
The entire process of yoga, meditation, relaxation, music and chanting brings about an individual harmony, yet also an community feeling as the ritual that is shared silently acknowledges every day stresses which are shared amongst us. It is a ritual that gives an individual strength to continue, as the healing process promotes us to move forward and work together.

Set yourself on the path to health and wellbeing. Become stronger, healthier and more flexible. Get into shape in a way that is less stressful on your body. Improve the quality of your life. Become physically and spiritually renewed through the time tested practices of the yoga lifestyle (The Australian School of Meditation and Yoga 2007).

By Arnikka de Kort

Where Two Rivers Meet: An Analysis of Trance and Ritual Practice in Fiji

Fiji has a reputation worldwide as being a country that welcomes tourists with open arms. Though much of Fijian society has been influenced by Western thought and philosophy, its indigenous culture still thrives. It is this connection to ancestral tradition and ritual practice, along with its beautiful landscapes and vistas, that makes Fiji such a popular tourist destination. Fijian eco-tourism has become increasingly popular in recent years due to the high demand for “indigenous knowledge” on the part of the Western tourist (Mulcock 50). I got the privilege to spend a week in Fiji in April of this year. Western, (though culturally conscious) tourist that I was, I decided to embark upon an eco-tour to a village called Namuamua. I found that Fijian ritual was permeated with emotion and trance-inducing practices, which were aimed at establishing a sense of community and shared experience.
Namuamua (‘where two rivers meet’) is hidden deep in the mountain rainforests located on the southern coast of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu. Though Namuamua is accessible by car, the most efficient way of travelling there is by boat. I began my journey with a large group of tourists in the town of Navua, where we boarded our wooden longboats in pairs. Our Fijian guide sat at the back of the boat, guiding the motor that propelled us down the river. With each metre we travelled, the river narrowed and the mountains grew taller. As I noticed the cascading waterfalls and complete wilderness that surrounded me, I realized that this boat trip held much importance in itself. It was making all of us acutely aware of the depth and significance of our surroundings, so that we would have a context within witch to place the ritual we were about experience.
The sevusevu, or welcoming ceremony, commenced the minute we disembarked the boat. A longstanding part of Fijian culture, the sevusevu is a ceremony designed to bring communities together through the consumption of kava (Brisonb 48). Kava, an integral part of many Fijian ceremonies, is a root that is crushed into powder and steeped in water, like tea. It acts as a muscle relaxant, and often induces a mild state of euphoria. For Fijians, kava is what Hume (21) refers to as a “correspondence”: it connects this world to another spiritual realm. Specifically, kava connects “ancestral spirits of a particular location with a human community connected to that location” (Brisona 316). Through the sevusevu and kava ceremony, villagers affirm their positions as “guardians of a sacred tradition” (Brisona 326).
Directly following the chief’s welcome speech, the kava ceremony began. Every aspect of the ceremony was ritualised, from the way the kava was mixed, to the way it was served, down to the way it was consumed. Three male Namuamuans, covered in body paint and donning woven skirts, sat around a large wooden bowl of water, into which the man sitting in the middle dipped a satchel filled with kava. After the water had become a murky brown colour, the man removed the satchel and began mixing the liquid with a bowl-shaped coconut shell. Once the kava had been prepared, a very elaborately painted man emerged to serve the kava to our chief. The rest of us were offered our own bowls once our chief had imbibed his portion.
We were instructed that, in accepting the kava, we were to clap once and say ‘bula’ (‘hello’), and then drink the whole bowl in one fell swoop. Once we had finished, we were to clap three times and say ‘matha’ (‘finished’). This was not my first taste of kava, but it was my first time drinking kava in a ceremonial setting. I slowly noticed my tongue going numb and my body beginning to relax. While I was not in an altered state, I felt as though I might be standing on the threshold of some deeper spiritual experience.
The rest of the savusavu consisted of songs and dances, both those that were performed for us and those that we were encouraged to participate in. It was during this part of the ritual that I noticed people falling into trance states. These were not shifts that caused people to appear physically different than they had before. Rather, I realized in retrospect that many people present—villagers and tourists alike—had entered into a state of flow, or a rather indescribable feeling of an unbroken stream of awareness (Csikszentmihalyi 29). I say that I realized this in retrospect, because I myself had fallen into a flow state, and therefore did not come to many of these conclusions until after the ceremony. I was dancing and chanting along with the rest of the group with very little thought about what I was doing. It was not until I felt a tear roll down my cheek as I was listening to the villagers perform their second song that I became aware of my body again, and realized what a profound impact the ceremony was having on me.
While the dancing was largely responsible for maintaining people’s sense of flow, the singing in the ceremony seemed to be the primary flow inducer. The singing held a lot more emotional and cultural significance than the dancing, and was more of a central focus of the ceremony. This observation is supported by fieldwork done by Russell (197) on the significance of singing in Fijian culture. Russell suggests that singing “fosters group identity, helps us to know ourselves and others, and alleviates alienation,” and that it also “transmits the cultural values and products of a culture” (199). Russell asked one villager to describe the relationship between singing and religion in Fiji, to which the villager said: “singing is the religion” (205). This mindset was evident in the performances I witnessed in Namuamua. The songs were felt so powerfully by those singing them that they had no choice but to chant them as loudly as they could, clapping and rocking their bodies to the rhythm of the music.
Fachner suggests that “music creates the context, which fosters the onset of trance, regulates the form and process of trance and makes it foreseeable and controllable” (21). Though there have been no musical elements proven to be trance-inducing, there are some musical features that are more common to music associated with trance states. These features include repetition and rhythmic ebb and flow (22, 37), both of which were prevalent in the singing at Namuamua. The repetition was an especially powerful device, as it stood as a metaphor for the flow that many were experiencing on a larger level.
The savusavu lasted about 45 minutes. While it is difficult to say with certainty what the other tourists were thinking when the savusavu was over, the smiles on their faces indicated that at least it had been a pleasant experience for them. For myself, attending the savusavu was invaluable. I was reminded of the deep connection I have always had with music. Getting to hear foreign music in an environment that was so different than what I was used to was enlightening and extremely powerful. Additionally, I felt liberated by allowing myself to dance and experience flow, thereby participating in the ceremony wholeheartedly. The most important lesson I learned was that participating in rituals so deeply entrenched in tradition can instantly make you feel like you are apart of a larger community that has a greater purpose.

Works Cited
Brisona, Karen J. “Constructing Identity through Ceremonial Language in Rural Fiji.”
Ethnology 40.4 (2001): 309-327 (Print).
Brisonb, Karen J. “Crafting Sociocentric Selves in Religious Discourse in Rural Fiji.”
Ethos 29.4 (2001): 453-474 (Print).
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “The Flow Experience and its Significance for Human
Psychology.” Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of Flow in
Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 15-35 (Print).
Fachner, Jörg. "Music and Altered States of Consciousness: An Overview." Music and
Altered States - Consciousness, Transcendence, Therapy and Addictions. London:
Jessica Kingsley, 2006. 15-37 (Print).
Hume, Lynne. "Entrances and Exits." Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities
Through the Senses. Oxford: Berg, 2007. 1-24 (Print).
Mulcock, Jane. “(Re)Discovering Our Indigenous Selves: The Nostalgic Appeal of
Native Americans and Other Generic Indigenes.” Australian Religion Studies
Review 14.1 (2001): 45-64 (Print).
Russell, Joan. “Born to Sing: Fiji’s ‘Singing Culture’ and Implications for Music
Education in Canada.” McGill Journal of Education 36.3 (2001): 197-218 (Print).

Tribal and Ritual Elements of Contemporary Doof Culture.

Tribes all around the world have used ecstatic dance, percussion, entheogens and the creation of a sacred ritual space to assist in the facilitation of transcendent experiences. However, these key factors which can be used to induce a trance state are not limited to tribal rituals. On the 12th of February 2010, the 5th annual EarthFreq Festival officially began, with a dance performed by the traditional owners of the land, and a group meditation. EarthFreq is an outdoor trance festival (doof) located at Landcruiser National Park, 40 minutes north of Kilcoy. A gathering of people from all walks of life, many were drawn to the event by its spiritual focus, natural setting and the promise of a wide variety of music ranging from psytrance to jazz. In this essay, I discuss some of the key elements of ritual present in outdoor trance parties and ways in which they assist with invoking ecstatic and religious experiences. Additionally, I will outline the similarities between tribal rituals and those present in doof culture.

Upon arriving at the festival I experienced the familiar sensation of leaving the outside world behind. It was Victor Turner (1969) who first spoke of separation as 'stage one' in the ritual process, and of the liminoid state (a variation on the term liminal – with liminoid referring only to voluntary practices). Despite the fact that arriving at an Australian trance festival might seem far removed from traditional rights of passage in a tribal context, the sensation of stepping over an invisible line into another world is very real indeed. Bahktin wrote that “ while carnival lasts there is no other life

outside it. During carnival time life is subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom” (1968: 7) At a doof, this is very much the case. Right there in the middle of the bush there is a small town, complete with markets, cafes, hospital tent and performance areas, all elaborately decorated.

This decoration is part of the process of creating a sacred, other worldly space for the festivities. Often, one of the organizers will lead some kind of ritual, giving thanks to the land and guiding patrons in a grounding, connection and protection exercise or meditation. This is done with the intention of facillitating a spiritual connection to the space while ensuring the etheric safety of all in attendance, based on the principals of Pranic Spirituality. Although commonly known as 'New Age Thinking' many of the beliefs and practices which fall under the umbrella of 'Pranic Spirituality' have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as well as Hindu practice and Shamanic ritual for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, this ritual serves to make sacred the space in which the festival is held, and bring patrons together in a sense of oneness. As noted by Strong, Australian doofs are places where “people of all races, sexualities and cultural backgrounds can come together.” (2001)

As night falls, a transformation takes place on many different levels. Des Tramacchi describes the various forms of transgression that take place in a doof environment. He notes that transgression of identity can be achieved through metamorphosis. Just like traditional Shamans employ the use of masks as a method for transgression, many 'doofers' are renowned for their elaborate dress and characterization (often as a faerie, elf or other mystical creature) which facilitates a similar transformation. Some people at doofs also participate in illegal activities, normally in the form of consumption of psychoactive substances. It seems that “transgression of laws provides a valuable mechanism for transcending the logic of the everyday.”(Tramacchi, 2001: 283)

Therefore, illegal activity such as drug taking is “frequently one of the ingredients in the category disruption that is the central mechanism of liminality.” (Tramacchi, 2001: 283)

What follows is an experience like none other. While some people choose to consume psychoactive substances to assist the process, it is not a necessity. The trance inducing qualities present in much of the music play a significant part in facilitating 'peak experiences' (Maslow, 1976). Like in many tribal cultures, repetitive, methodical percussion plays a large part in much psytrance music, a popular choice at trance parties. A peak as I have experienced it is not dissimilar from a sexual climax. It is when one's heart is filled with such an intense joy, when everything seems possible - and when the happiness and excitement felt is so overwhelming that one fears they might explode. It is important to note that this is not exclusively a drug induced experience. In fact, the most powerful peak experience I have ever had took place while in a meditative state, achieved through ecstatic dancing and without the assistance of substances. Ecstatic dancing is something common in both tribal cultures and in a doof environment, and the potential for trance is undeniable. During most tribal ceremonies, the shaman will guide the trance of his community, by guiding the drummers and therefore the music.

In this way also, a doof in not dissimilar, however, in this environment, the single person with the most control at any one time is the DJ. Hutson speaks of 'technoshamanism' the term given to the process of manipulating the trance state of many through the use of the digital music medium. He notes that “the goal of techno-shamanism according to the ravers is “phase locking” - this is to get the group of people assembled at the rave into a synchronized, synergetic, collective mental space or vibe (Hutson, 1999). This concept of collectivity also falls under Turners definition of 'communitas'. That is, an intense community spirit, where there is a feeling of equality, togetherness and connection. Communitas is a characteristic of that which is experienced by people sharing in a liminal state. It occurs both in tribal environments and at places such as trance parties, where there is a great sense of oneness and collective intention.

It is this intention that sets a doof such as Earthfreq apart from a warehouse rave or house party. Consciousness and spirituality are as a general rule, valued and accepted. Many people gather to celebrate the earth and nature, and doofs are often held in honour of Celtic and Pagan Festivals. “Participants will often celebrate celestial events (e.g. the full moon or a total solar eclipse) or... to celebrate seasonal transitions.” (D 'Andrea, 2007: 6)

Many people I have spoken to have had profound transcendent experiences in a doof environment. I have found personally that my life has improved significantly since experiencing the transcendent state. I feel more connected to myself, I have more self worth, greater acceptance of trials and tribulations, less fear, improved healing ability and a greater capacity for joy. The transcendent state has been valued by societies all around the world for its health and spiritual benefits and doofs are just one way in which some of these understandings have filtered through to the urban western world.

Earthfreq 2010 was just one of many Australian trance festivals or doofs, which employ many of the ritual elements present in tribal culture. A sacred space is created, there is a transgression of identity and metamorphosis through costume, on the part of the participants, ecstatic dancing to percussive music, entry into a liminal phase of transcendence, a sense of communitas, collective intention and often, use of entheogenic substances. These factors ensure that a doof is more than just a party, but a liminoid gathering of spiritual significance where “love, joy and fulfillment stand at the fore.”

Rebecca Caine 2010

Investigating Hot Yoga

“All we ask is that you stay in the room,” the yoga instructor told us, the beginners, before we entered the studio. One would think that would be the easiest part of the 90-minute Bikram Yoga class, but that person would be underestimating the strain of hot yoga. Bikram Yoga is a form of Yoga started by Yogiraj Bikram Choudhury, emphasizing the physicality of yoga rather than the meditative. However, as many yoga teachers, as well as other “wise men and women” will repeat, ‘Where the mind goes, the body will follow,’ and in this scenario the reverse is also true. The Bikram style relies on a set series of 26 poses and 2 breathing exercises, repeated exactly each class. Each pose, like those in most yoga styles, starts simple and becomes more complex. The room temperature can vary from 95 to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. That is, indeed, hot yoga. Bikram Yoga makes a name for itself as healing your body as it works all of your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints, which can be helpful in avoiding, or recovering from, injuries. The constant effort of the thyroid gland stimulates metabolism and blood-sugar balance, and many of the yoga poses have long been known to aid in stress reduction and mental clarity, as well as stress relief (Millado 2010). Sweating out the “toxins”, physical or psychological, in your body can be helpful as well.

In meditative yoga, the patterned breathing, ascetic stillness, and concentrated control can lead to altered states of consciousness, or trance states. In Bikram, if you do not concentrate on breathing, you will pass out. The heightened concentration on your inner and outer physicality initiates its own level of trance state where you are aware of nothing but your own body in space and time. Thus, one may think of it as a much more focused and high-energy form of an ordinary state of consciousness. Meditative trances of Indian yogis can be characterized by dissociation, a definite side-effect, I found, of over-association in Bikram, as well as auditory and visual religious hallucinations (Castillo 2003). Because of this aspect of yoga, Bikram has been documented to have some negative effects such as psychosis characterized by hallucinations after feeling dehydrated, eating poorly, and losing sleep (Lu and Pierre 2007). However, the class in which I took part was very competently led and I felt very safe and able to continue at my own pace, especially as it was completely normal for beginners to have to stop and rest as the more experiences members continued. A key element to this yoga class was that the poses were relatively fast and the instructor never stopped talking. Even as poses were being held, she continued to encourage and correct very quickly, her voice becoming a line for my ears to follow to prevent distraction.

There is repetition in the words she uses, as well as in the class itself, two sets of each pose, and the collective of Bikram yoga in that the exact process is repeated each class. This becomes a ritual, as does the laying down of the mats and towels, the preliminary stretching in the mirrors, and the instructor granting ending to the 90 minutes with a gentle, “Namaste.” Of course, this was my first class. The heat was stifling, fifteen minutes in and everyone was dripping with sweat. By the end of the fourth pose I nearly passed out. My ears buzzed, my vision swam, I felt like the boiling air did not have enough oxygen to go around. My extremities tingled and felt full of lead. “That’s normal,” she said, “Feeling faint, dizzy, as though you might throw up, that’s how you should be feeling.” Deprivation and physical discomfort are both common prerequisites to some types of trance, and are well demonstrated in this type of yoga. Even when you rest, you sweat. Through the pain though, the instructor reminded us of the benefits of Bikram to our minds and our bodies, benefits that would continue to manifest themselves into old age, such as strength of spine. She pointed out that 30 seconds in the 23rd and 24th poses (Head to Knee Pose with Stretching Pose, or Janushirasana with Paschimottanasana) can energize a person more than a full eight hours of sleep can. My roommate has had experience with hot yoga and she previously described to me how when the heat is on, there is no way to concentrate on anything besides your breathing and your body and your position. I found this declaration to be the case absolutely- even when I could no longer hold a pose and relaxed back onto my knees, breathing deeply through my nose, there was no room in my mind for any kind of thought or worry.

In this meditative and deprived aspect, trace, and obviously healing, is certainly possible. Yoga is, however, a lifestyle as well as a ritualized part of the day, as Tom Pilarzyk reminds, in that it leads to, “…reconnecting with a daily intention; checking our seated posture; watching the turning of our minds and the straying of our thoughts; welcoming difficult situations that test our resolve to stay present…reminding ourselves to breathe deeply, stay with the flow of energy…” (Pilarzyk, x). Harmonizing oneself with the world is not only an effect of yoga, but of many trance mechanisms, including the use of entheogenic substances.

On a personal level, it is important to me that my trance activity manifest itself in my physical day-to-day life, that is to say that my body does in fact follow my mind. Trying Bikram Yoga, or even the yoga I do more regularly, satisfies this requirement as having physical requirements and results. Beyond strengthening my muscles for the present and future, I do, after one class, feel more energized than if I napped all afternoon. It became very clear to me in this class that to find balance physically, which many poses required, one must find balance mentally, with a neutral mind. It seems that once one is advanced enough to continue the postures through the sensual symptoms described above without acknowledging his/her body’s demand for release, they go into a hot yoga trance, not extricating him/herself until the ritual is complete. In this vein, the origins of yogic practice involve shamanic practitioners searching for a deeper relationship with their inner natures than could be acknowledged in their own culture, and would often do so by isolating themselves in nature, often forests or caves (Stapleton, xiii), a familiar facet of trance.

In today’s fast-paced and highly socialized world, we are constantly bombarded with stimulation directed at all of our five senses. Thus, though the heat and difficulty of Bikram Yoga was certainly disoriented, it initiated a much-needed mental and physical cleansing for this beginner yogi. With further repetition and ritual, this method of trace could become addictive, a necessary part of life to keep myself in balance with my own blood and body, and to keep myself in balance with the natural world.


Castillo, R.J. (2003). Trance, functional psychosis, and culture. Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes 66(1), 9-21.

Lu, J.s. and Pierre, J.M. (2007). Psychotic Episode Associated with Bikram Yoga. American Psychiatric Association 164 (11), 1761.

Millado, N. (2010). Stretch Yourself. Men’s Fitness 26(4), 60-62.

Pilarzyk, Tom. Yoga Beyond Fitness: Getting More That Exercise from an Ancient Spiritual Practice. Wheaton: Quest Books, 2008.

Stapleton, Don. Self-Awakening Yoga: The Expansion of Consciousness through the Body’s Own Wisdom. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 2004.

Sufis and Trance: Self-Knowledge from Experience and Why Altered States of Consciousness Bring Practitioners Closer to God

This report presents observations from four visits to a gathering of Namatollahi Sufi practitioners at a private residence in Oxley, Brisbane, in April 2010. This paper will discuss the rituals and gestures observed during those meetings and explain the significance and ascribed meaning for the practitioners. The means by which altered states of consciousness (ASC) are achieved will be briefly examined and the complex layers of outcomes desired by advanced Sufi practitioners when they enter a state of trance explored. Finally, this report will discuss the relevance of social and cultural artifacts in ASC, emphasising that the ASC experience cannot be separated from the socio-cultural context in which it occurs.

It is first necessary however, to provide a brief definition of Sufism and to address some popular myths surrounding it. Embedded within Sufi philosophy is that “all answers lie within the self, deep in the heart” (Azmayesh, 2002; p.15) and Sufism’s emphasis on personal development through experience suggests its nature is individual rather than collective. Azmayesh (2002) defines Sufism as “a set of personal practices…designed to help the follower develop hidden and unexploited capacities, with the goal of developing knowledge of the self and the visible and the invisible world and guiding the seeker or “traveller” along the spiritual path… ultimately acquiring truths of his existence and a certain vision of the world.” (p. 14). While Sufism is considered by many as the ‘mystical branch of Islam’ – in much the same way as the Kabbalah is to Judaism (Matt, 1996) – Sufism does not require conversion to Islam or any other belief system, save that of “the belief in the existence of divinity, of an invisible world, and of the immortality of the soul.” (Azmayesh, 2002; p. 14). Another widely-held fallacy is that all Sufi practitioners engage in trance dancing akin to the Whirling Dervishes from central Turkey. Whilst all Sufis believe that union of the body and soul leads ultimately to re-union with God/The Divine Spirit, they contend this can be accomplished in various ways, and indeed several techniques to elicit ASC were simultaneously employed by the Namatollahi practitioners in Oxley. Specific techniques will be discussed in detail later in this report; however, the principle underlying Sufi trance is that the expression and appreciation of love and beauty brings about self-transcendence and connection to the Divine.

All student practitioners at the Oxley Sufi gathering were Caucasian, and the majority were native English speakers born in Australia, New Zealand, England and Scotland, and more than 40 years of age. There were also two Persian student practitioners (one male, one female), who were younger than the majority. Furthermore, the ‘teacher’ was in his sixties, Iranian-born and had been living in Australia for sixteen years. Meetings were held weekly on Sunday evenings, and although attendance was ad hoc, there were eight students present at each gathering, with equal numbers of males and females attending. It was observed that those who attended most regularly were male and played a musical instrument. It was also noted that few women played a musical instrument, and many were reluctant to play the drums provided to accompany the musicians (sitar and flute). Both Persian practitioners played the sitar, however, the male practitioner attended more frequently than the female.

The gathering was facilitated by ‘teacher’ and Sufi ‘master’, Mr. Amir Mozzaffri, who most frequently performed technical functions (such as turning music and lights on and off; inviting a new attendee to take a cushion through gesture) and gave few, if any, direct instructions to the participants. Although Sufism acknowledges the private and sacrosanct relationship between student and teacher, it does not insist the teacher is omnipotent. Instead, followers are encouraged to “develop the capacities to discover for [himself] themselves the answers to [his] their existential questions.”(Azmayesh, 2002; p. 15). Nonetheless, in much the same way as those learning tantric yoga require the guidance of a “master” who has walked the same path to assist their students navigate the union of body and soul (Yeshe, 1987), Sufism “requires many years of exercises punctuated with successive spiritual stages that are always under the responsibility and surveillance of a competent guide or ‘master’ who knows, having experienced it himself.” (Azmayesh, 2002; p. 15).

It was thus apparent that each student had individual practice aims which were executed in the group setting. Whilst the ‘community’ of practitioners is important, practitioners do not actively participate in each others’ spiritual evolution, and collective teaching is practically forbidden (Azmayesh, 2002). Furthermore, group meetings are not regarded as social meditation (e.g., the AUM Meditation, Appendices A&B), nor are practitioners considered ‘mirrors’ of each other to facilitate self-knowledge (Carrivick, 2005). Nonetheless, humility is considered an essential character trait in the Sufi adherent, and regarded as an attribute that should be practiced in a social context as well as in one’s own relationship with God. Philosophically, Sufis believe there is no difference between Oneself, The Other and God, but from a procedural viewpoint, Sufism teaches that practising humility facilitates release of the ego, which in turn separates the veils of illusion between the material and immaterial worlds and brings the practitioner closer to God/The Divine.

In stark contrast with the humility demonstrated by Sufi ‘master’, Mr. Amir Mozzaffri, participants at a different Sufi gathering held in Woodridge, Brisbane, insisted that the “dreams of the student belonged to the teacher” and emphasised other matters of personal spirituality as being the property of the teacher, much in the same way that some interpretations of passages in the Qur’an and the Christian Bible insist that women’s spiritual development is ultimately the dominion of their husband or closest male relative (Karmi, 1996; Schleuter, 1997). At the Woodridge meeting, this seemed to a means of imposing discipline amongst the students and establishing the teacher’s authority, and was thus rejected for further study.

The meeting room in Oxley was plainly decorated with neutral paintwork and similarly neutral-coloured wall-to-wall carpeting. Rectangular foam floor cushions upholstered in white cotton were arranged around the perimeter of the room. Stretching across one wall were low wooden bookshelves varnished in mahogany woodstain and containing books pertaining only to Sufism. When I asked about the meaning of observed “rituals in this sacred space”, the Sufi ‘master’ denied any ritual was performed, and also refuted the sanctity of the space. Sometime later, however, he conceded the presence of ritual but insisted the space itself is “...just a room, it’s the people inside who are sacred.” (personal communication with Mr. Amir Mozzaffri, Sunday, March 28, 2010).

An observed ritualistic gesture performed by a few practitioners was to touch the ground, then touch the side of their head (right temple) upon entering and exiting the meeting space. Exiting the room involved going out backwards, as turning one’s back on fellow practitioners was considered contrary to the intent of gesture, which signified humility in the face of ‘superiors’ (which all those present are judged to be) and respect for the ‘community of practitioners’. Some expanded the gesture to include kissing their fingers in between touching the ground and touching their heads, to indicate love as well as respect. However, the majority present did not perform the gesture and, furthermore, did not exit the room in the ‘unusual’ way. But this was not deemed rude. Each was free to do whatever they felt appropriate.

A ritualistic gesture employed by the majority was clasping the right wrist with the fingers of the left hand while seated and in meditation. The gesture signifies the heart (left hand) providing gentle restraint to the mind (right hand) (personal communication with Mr. Amir Mozzaffri, Thursday March 18, 2010). However, no explicit instructions were given concerning gesture – the onus appeared to be on the student practitioners to enquire about or perform any ritual or gesture, if and when they desired. Approximately half the practitioners wore white clothing, and it was apparent this too was a matter of personal choice, though probably did indicate the practitioner’s commitment.

An important ritual was service of the tea, which occurred perhaps four or five times during the two-hour long meeting. Once again, when I asked about the ‘tea ritual’, the presence of ritual was denied. What was emphasised, however, was the ‘intent’ held by the server towards his fellow practitioners. Rich honey-coloured tea was served in tiny clear glasses on a silver tray, accompanied by biscuits and dates. The server offered the tray to each practitioner in turn, who took a small saucer and placed it and the tea glass in front of them on the floor. Sugar, dates and biscuits were then offered from the same silver tray and the practitioners placed their selection on the saucer beside their glass. This was all done in complete silence, save for the gentle tinkling sound of glass against saucer and spoon against glass. For the main part, the server’s eyes were cast downwards, though communicating thanks and sufficiency was surprisingly unproblematic. I silently observed that the taste of the tea was particularly pure and seemingly without any tannic aftertaste. After the meeting I was moved to comment upon its qualities, but was assured that the tea was actually a very cheap and bitter brand. The humility of the person preparing and serving the tea was believed to positively affect the tea’s taste.

The meeting was conducted similarly at each occasion, comprising a half-hour meditation to classical Persian and Sufi music – usually instrumental, though sometimes vocal recordings were played instead. Poems were read by the students either before or after the meditation. Discussion arose only if a student had a specific question; the program did not routinely include formal analysis of the texts. The second hour was dedicated to a brief reflective ‘talk’ given by the Sufi ‘master’ on a topic that arose from those poems followed by live musical performance and singing. Music, like dancing, is particularly emphasised by Sufis as a means of reaching ecstatic trance. Similarly repetitive chanting and poetry are employed to induce an ASC, certainly in part because they reflect the culture in which Sufism is situated (Islamic Persia). Sufis enter into trance states using textual (poetry), visual (meditation) and sensory (music/chanting/dance) stimuli; the first and second stimuli tend to predominate in Western culture, but the third is more frequently identified with shamanic cultures (Hume, 2007), although cultural synthesis has been evident since the establishment of land trade routes and the concomitant exchange of not only goods, but also of cultural artifacts and traditions.

Hume (2007) argues that ASC are achieved through culturally prescribed methods which use one or any combination of the senses as well as devices designed to stimulate the senses. Indeed, I experienced my breath being taken away by the poem, ‘The Song of the Reed’, by Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi (Appendix C), which was read aloud with remarkable feeling by one of the student practitioners. Furthermore, I entered an ASC when chanting, “Yo, Ali” repetitively to music. However, neither the reader’s skill nor the poignancy of the words themselves generated the ASC – otherwise I would have experienced this on the other occasions when I heard poetry read aloud. Likewise, if chanting on its own was capable of eliciting an ASC, then singing would have produced an ASC at other times. Consequently, when examining ASC, it is critical to include the social context the ASC occurred. Separating an ASC from the context it occurs reduces the ASC experience to a series of biological responses that can be measured and quantified. However, some researchers (Winkelman, 1997) acknowledge there are universal stimuli which elicit a trance response as well as admitting that ASC are determined by the environment in which they occur. My experience not only concurs with Jilek’s (2005) assertion that ASC can be achieved through sustained and repetitive rhythmic stimuli, but also supports Desjarlais’ (cited in Hume, 2007) view that culture is critical to the ASC experience. Indeed, Desjarlais (cited in Hume, 2007) found that even culturally unfamiliar stimuli could invoke ASC through acculturation.

Whilst an experiential state is considered by Sufis as the pathway to becoming ‘One with God’, there are nonetheless multiple layers of outcomes from the trance state, dependent on the practitioner’s knowledge and skill. Sufism teaches that an invisible and sensory world containing supernatural and paranormal phenomena exists which may be perceived by the soul, if techniques such as ASC are employed (Azmayesh, 2002). Perception of the paranormal however, is not a specific goal of Sufism. Azmayesh (2002) explains that as the practitioner develops the potential of their unique soul through awareness of their own experience, they achieve self-knowledge which brings forth a higher level of consciousness. This higher consciousness gives rise to perceptive capacities beyond that observed by the ‘ordinary’ five senses. The result is personal and experiential knowledge of a world beyond the physical realms, which lifts the veils between the material and invisible worlds. Poetry, for example, like the practice of humility, is considered by the Sufis as a means by which the veils between the visible and invisible worlds can be dissolved, thereby bringing the practitioner closer to God/The Divine. However, satisfying any questions arising in the novice student’s rational mind is emphasised at first. Sufis assert that not until all mental constructs are wholly addressed can the student practitioner move into an experiential state (personal communication with Mr. Amir Mozzaffri, Thursday April 15, 2010) in the same way that Hume (2007) discusses moving from a “less cognate, more sensate” epistemology to understand cultural phenomena (p. 2).

Sufis believe that the dissolution of the veils between both worlds is an important technique in achieving re-union with The Divine Spirit by perceiving (knowing) the soul as unattached to the physical universe. In their view, mastery of perceiving invisible realms not only assists the soul’s re-union with God, but also assists the soul transcend the physical body at death (and any attachments to a material existence). It also assists the practitioner consciously and voluntarily leave their physical body during meditation and while dreaming. Indeed, in the same manner that a shaman can occupy both the mundane and the spiritual realms and act with conscious awareness and control in both (Harner, 1990); an advanced Sufi practitioner can “show himself on one level and act at the same time in the other world” (Azmayesh, 2002 p. 41). Importantly, while dreams are regarded as indicators of the student practitioner’s spiritual progress, and are used by the teacher to direct the student along his unique spiritual journey, Sufis are directed to live in the real world, and not in the world of dreams (Mozzaffri, 2010). Mozzaffri (2010) insists that the Sufi’s role is to be a useful member of society by serving fellow human beings; nonetheless the emphasis is noticeably on the ‘human’ world rather than the ‘natural’ world. This attitude can be understood as a reflection of the humanistic culture from which the Sufi tradition emerged.

Indeed, when examining cultural artifacts, it is both impossible and imprudent to separate the artifact from culture. Rituals may be subtly or overtly executed, and sometimes those performing rituals are unaware of ritualistic gestures because they are embedded within the context they occur and thus unable to be perceived as separate phenomena. Whilst it is possible to ‘essentialise’ an ASC experience by reducing it to simple, biological elements, unless the socio-cultural context is incorporated, true understanding of ASC cannot be realised. For Sufis, trance states enhance their connectedness with God; however, those from another cultural tradition might simply view an ASC as a shift to the transcendent and perhaps even without any religious significance.


Azmayesh, SM 2002, The Teachings of a Sufi Master, Simorgh Sufi Society, New York.

Carrivick, AD 2005, Veeresh: Bliss Beyond Fear (2nd ed), Koregaon Publications, Germany.

Harner, M 1990, The Way of the Shaman, (3rd ed), HarperCollins Publishers, New York.

Hume, L 2007, Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses, Berg, Oxford/New York.

Jilek, WG 2005, ‘Transforming the shaman: Changing Western views of shamanism and altered states of consciousness’, Medigraphic, vol. VII, no. 1, pp. 8-15.

Karmi, G 1996, ‘Women, The Qur’an and patriarchal interpretations’ in M Yamani (ed), Feminism and Islam: Legal and Literary Perspectives, New York University Press, New York, pp. 69-83.

Matt, DC 1996, The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism’, Harper, San Francisco.

Mozzaffri, A 2010, ’Darvish Information’, Unpublished, Queensland.

Schleuter, CJ 1997, ‘Revitalizing interpretations of Ephesians 5:22’, Pastoral Psychology, vol. 45, no. 4, pp. 317-339.

Wilkelman, M 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’ in S Blazier (ed), Anthropology of Religion, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, pp. 393-428.

Yeshe, Lama 1987, Introduction to Tantra: A Vision of Totality, Wisdom Publications, Boston.

Appendix A

In 1975, Osho gave his student and devotee Veeresh D. Yuson-Sánchez the AUM Marathon to use in his work helping others. After many years working with the AUM Marathon, Veeresh created a condensed version of the 5-day AUM Marathon as a gift to his master Osho, which he called the AUM Meditation.

Following is the promotional text for the Osho Humaniversity AUM Meditation taken from the Osho Humaniversity Meditation Leadership Booklet (2007):

The Osho Humaniversity AUM Meditation is a 2 ½ hour guided tour through thirteen different aspects of being human. It is a social process in which you function as a mirror to each other to become more aware about yourselves, your feelings, and your attitudes towards life.

The process takes you from negativity to positivity, from anger to love, from catharsis to stillness, to finally bring you back into your centre. Then, you will understand that you are a unique and loveable human being. The final goal is friendship.

The Osho Humaniversity AUM Meditation is a social process to help you discover who you are by exploring the full range of your emotions. It will help you transform stress into creativity and well-being. The goal is to make friends with yourself and others.

The Osho Humaniversity AUM Meditation is a guided journey through your emotional life. It uses a range of techniques from catharsis to meditation in a group setting. It will help you transform stress and painful emotions into creativity and well-being. The goal is to make friends with yourself and others.

Appendix B

Following is a brief summary of the thirteen stages of the AUM Meditation:

• “NO” (requires shouting the phrase, “I hate you” to participants in turn, and then freely associating with the words and person facing you)

• “I’m sorry if I hurt you…” (meet all, or as many participants as possible, look into their eyes and say the words with genuine feeling)

• “I love you” (say the words and embrace all participants in turn)

• Second wind (physically going beyond that which you think possible)

• Kundalini (moving sacral energy through the body to connect to your creative force)

• Freak out (facing your fears of going crazy by letting go in a safe environment)

• Dancing (celebrating that self-transcendence has taken place by expressing elation through physical movement)

• Crying (with one partner, holding each other in a seated embrace)

• Laughing (demonstrating the possibility of rapid movement from an opposite emotional state)

• Dance of the lovers (connecting to one’s sexuality and discovering means of freely expressing it in the group)

• AUM chanting (generating spiritual group energy through sound)

• Wowing (observing the radiant beauty that exists within yourself)

• Namaste (meeting all participants and bowing with hands in prayer position, saying or communicating the intention: “I recognise the Buddha in you, as I recognise the Buddha in me”)

Appendix C

The Song of the Reed (part one) from The Mathnawi (Book 1) of Jalaluddin Rumi

1. Listen to the reed how it tells a tale, complaining of separations.

2. Saying, "Ever since I was parted from the reed-bed,

man and woman have moaned in (unison with) my lament.

3. I want a bosom torn by severance,

that I may unfold (to such a one) the pain of love-desire.

4. Every one who is left far from his source

wishes back the time when he was united with it.

5. In every company I uttered my wailful notes,

I consorted with the unhappy and with them that rejoice.

6. Every one became my friend from his own opinion;

none sought out my secrets from within me.

7. My secret is not far from my plaint,

but ear and eye lack the light (whereby it should be apprehended).

8. Body is not veiled from soul, nor soul from body,

yet none is permitted to see the soul."

9. This noise of the reed is fire, it is not wind:

whoso hath not this fire, may he be naught!

10. 'Tis the fire of Love that is in the reed,

'tis the fervour of Love that is in the wine.

11. The reed is the comrade of every one who has been parted from

a friend: its strains pierced our hearts.

12. Who ever saw a poison and antidote like the reed?

Who ever saw a sympathiser and a longing lover like the reed?

13. The reed tells of the Way full of blood

and recounts stories of the passion of Majnun.

14. Only to the senseless is this sense confided:

the tongue hath no customer save the ear.

15. In our woe the days (of life) have become untimely:

our days travel hand in hand with burning griefs.

16. If our days are gone, let them go! – ‘tis no matter.

Do Thou remain, for none is holy as Thou art!

17. Except the fish, everyone becomes sated with water;

whoever is without daily bread finds the day long.

18. None that is raw understands the state of the ripe:

therefore my words must be brief. Farewell!

19. O son, burst thy chains and be free!

How long wilt thou be a bondsman to silver and gold?

20. If thou pour the sea into a pitcher,

how much will it hold? One day's store.

21. The pitcher, the eye of the covetous, never becomes full:

the oyster-shell is not filled with pearls until it is contented.

(London: Cambridge University Press, 1926, translated by RA Nicholson)

Capoeira: Martial Art, Dance, and Trance

by Heather Ehrlich

Heather Ehrlich
Capoeira: Martial Art, Dance, and Trance
I looked around at my comrades in arms to find them equally drenched in sweat and craving air conditioning. It was gratifying to know that I wasn’t the only one exhausted, as we all glanced longingly at the ceiling fans, wishing they were more effective. Our instructor, saluting with his hand from his heart, said “Salve”, to which we responded in kind. The capoeira lesson was over, but it left me in a calm headspace with a lot to think about.
I chose a capoeira class to experience trance in the every day for several reasons. One of the primary reasons was curiosity: I always wanted to learn a martial art and this one seemed particularly exotic and interesting. Additionally, the idea of the mix of fighting and dancing appealed to me in that I have some experience with and love for the latter. However, beyond personal interest, I remembered a friend in high school who had done capoeira and talked about getting into the rhythm of the dance, and how it was like “going into a trance”. Clearly, this warranted further exploration.
Capoeira originally came into being during the 19th century on Brazilian farms, practiced in secret by African slaves as a form of resistance to the oppressive system of their masters (Talmon-Chvaicer 2004). The practice of martial arts was forbidden them, so it was camouflaged as a dance and hidden in shacks at the edges of the properties. According to Desch-Obi (2006), the martial art can be traced back to traditions in the Angolan highlands of Central Africa in the tenth century as part of an effort for farmers to protect their herds from raiders. They used moves stylized after the fighting methods of their cattle, with heavy emphasis on dodging ability and attacking moves like headbutts. These skills were practiced in rituals with the aid of drumming and song, while two adepts would exchange attacks inside a circle of peers. However, it became more than just a defense mechanism; these practices would take place during events such as rites of passage and healing rituals. With heavy emphasis on movement and agility, it evolved to be more of a dance and exercise in learning to read one’s partner. This had a practical application as well, for traditional sword and shield fighting had little place in the Angolan highlands.
When enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas, they brought this martial art with them. In addition to its use in festivals and as entertainment, it also found a place in religious rituals and initiation societies. In the nineteenth century, as African slavery was slowly faded out, capoeira became a practice of urban initiation societies called maltas, who progressed through the ranks with ceremonial demonstrations of skill at the martial art (Desch-Obi 2006). Today, the art is still going strong and contains many of the traditional elements, which I experienced in class.
I learned capoeira with a group of people at a range of skill levels, which gave me a very good feel for the different places it had in their lives. My friend, Illi, learned the art about 6 years ago (with the same instructor that we had), and had a lot to say on the subject. She said she loved the way capoeira made her feel about herself, as an exercise in both mind and body. It starts with music: in the background the percussion beat and vocals chanted low, foreign tones. The first thing we learned was the ginga, a crouched sway from side to side that is the basic unit of capoeira style fighting. Our instructor said that you could be able to do the best and most complicated kicks in the world, but if you didn’t have a good ginga, you could not be good at capoeira. Traditionally, two capoeira partners face each other and ginga together at the start of every bout. As we made strong, deliberate, yet smooth movements, I could feel my body slipping into the automatic rhythm of the dance. The instructor came by and corrected my form, forcing me to stay conscious of the activity, but I glanced over at my new friend. Her body was tense, but her face relaxed and calm. When we discussed it later, she said she “zones out” and finds a place of calm when doing the ginga; it is very relaxing to her. Muscles aching, I found this difficult to believe, but the serene look that had been on her face told a different story. This whole experience reminded me of Arnold van Gennep’s first two rites of passage, the rite of separation and the rite of transition. As soon as we said “Salve”, we were in the process of separating from our daily patterns and into this other world of capoeira. As the ginga began, the rite of transition was occurring, as we allowed ourselves to fall into the altered state of consciousness embodied by the dance.
This altered state of consciousness, the calm center, is very important to capoeiristas in the throws of the dance. As our teacher explained on the last day of class, most of the performance of capoeira is improved, with the dancers reading each other’s movements to discover their next move. However, it is not about simply blocking or beating your opponent, but instead finding a rhythm with them in which neither is leading or following, but both are in tune with the dance. Angela Miller (2009) says “For me, to do capoeira has meant unlearning a lifetime of rumination, reflection, and interiorized experience of the world.” She hypothesizes that the experience of capoeira is about being truly in touch with living in the moment of the world, and being totally aware of how your surroundings are affecting you. She said it is dangerous to think too much when in the fight-dance, for it is only the body’s memory that will respond well to the cues given by your partner. It is part of the journey to learn how your partner’s movements produce your own, and how conscious learning becomes instinctual. Her writings also reminded me of van Gennep’s rite of incorporation, as she returned to her daily life after bouts of capoeira feeling more in tune with the world.
While I perhaps did not progress enough to experience this, in many little ways I could understand her points. When we finally attempted an un-choreographed dance on our own, I found myself unable to respond at all if I was thinking too hard about what I thought my partner was doing. When I relaxed, and let her movements only register closer to the edges of my consciousness, I was able to dodge far more effectively. This experience was uncanny, as it was very hard to force myself to not focus on avoiding being kicked. In a world that encourages hyper awareness through constantly flashing images and targeted advertisements, letting go and trusting my body was disconcerting (especially given my fledgling experience with the craft).
All of these experiences and the limited research that has been presented on capoeira in modern society have given me many ideas of how it fits into modern society as a form of trance. It clearly has a meditative purpose, as described by Illa, who loved how relaxed she felt after capoeira workouts. It was not just the physical catharsis that we usually experience after a good bout of exercise, but her mind also found a calm space when she just listened to the music and let her body move with it accordingly. She did not have to think for a while; her physical memory was doing the work for her. Most of the time, I was over-thinking my movements, consciously attempting to correct my stance and be aware of the others in the class. It was, however, nearer to the end of class, when I was mostly exhausted, that I was sometimes able to let go a bit and revel in the feel of letting my body experience the dance for itself. Today’s society of psychology and science places so much emphasis on consciousness and self-consciousness that encourages constant awareness and leaves little room for the calm, quiet, and yet thoroughly aware place in the center of a capoeira circle.

Works Cited

Desch-Obi, T. "Capoeira." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, 0002 (2006)

Miller, Angela. "Reciprocity." American Art, 23.1 (2009): 11-12.

Talmon-Chvaicer, Maya (2004) 'Verbal and Non-Verbal Memory in Capoeira', Sport in Society, 7: 1, 49 — 68

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ecstatic States in the Modern Day

Shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent experiences have formed a crucial part of cultures all around the world since the beginning of time. Rituals, both solemn and celebratory have brought communities together, and Shamans have employed a variety of techniques which induce a transcendent state as a means of healing, divination and protection. While the Western World in general has little time for that which lies outside of cultural norms, there are still people who recognise the importance of the spiritual development that these powerful experiences can offer. I will discuss here some of the ways in which Shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent experiences are still significant in contemporary western society, as well as the wider community benefits of these practices.
Meditation is recognised by many as a powerful and beneficial practise which can improve mental and physical health, decrease stress and support evolutionary insight. In fact, even experts in Western medicine have acknowledged the many health benefits of regular meditation. What many do not realise however is that when in deep meditation, we experience an ‘Altered State of Consciousness’ (ASC). Grof (2007) coined the term ‘Holotropic State of Consciousness’ to describe the enhanced state often achieved during “forms of systematic spiritual practice involving meditation, concentration, breathing, and movement exercises” among other things.
Studies into the benefits and healing potential of holotropic and transcendent experiences have produced amazing results. Meditation appears to be especially beneficial for people with stress disorders. Results have shown that mindfulness meditation (most commonly used in Buddhist teachings), can assist those with insomnia, eating, anxiety, panic and phobic disorders (S. Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998). Additionally, it has been shown to enhance perception as measured by perceptual sensitivity, processing speed, empathy, and synaesthesia (Murphy & Donovan, 1997). Transcendent meditation (originally a Hindu practice) is reported to alleviate anxiety, aggression, and recidivism in prisoners and to reduce the use of both legal and illegal drugs (C.Alexander et al., 2003). Several other studies also found that meditation resulted in an increase in empathy, and that consequently, interpersonal functionality and marital satisfaction increased (Tloczynski & Tantriells, 1998). It has been suggested also that meditation is a significant factor in personal development and maturity, with several studies finding that those who meditate regularly score higher on measures of ego, moral and cognitive development, self-actualization, coping skills and defences and states and stages of consciousness (C. Alexander & Langer, 1990).
Outside of the academic realm, personal experience has proven to me that meditation is a incredibly beneficial practise. On days when I meditate, I find myself feeling happier and more energized. I have improved concentration and am better equipped to deal with any obstacles that the day may present. As an energy worker and crystal healer, I often find that I achieve a meditative state far more easily during bodywork and healing practice. My connection to the Divine is never as powerful as when I am participating in the process of healing with energy, and time and time again this practice has proven to be to be beneficial to all involved. In this case, the transcendent state reached serves not only to support mental and emotional growth, but also facilitates significant healing on a physical level, overall improvement of health and minimisation of pain from various ailments. This serves as an example of one of the ways in which meditation can benefit not only the practitioner, but also the wider community.
Members of the general public in general remain unaware of the importance and benefits of transcendent, ecstatic and shamanic experiences. Terms such as Shaman have been known to invoke fear, with images of dark sorcerers and a world of the unknown. This fear is also common at the mention of things such as hallucinogens. What many don’t realise is that these substances have been used since ancient times, in ritualistic shamanic practise, as spiritual tools for healing and divination. The Huichol use Peyote, the South Americans, Ayahuasca. In urban western society, substances such as psilocybin (in magic mushrooms), LSD and DMT serve a similar purpose for some individuals. While these substances are technically illegal, and sometimes used recreationally without the proper respect, those who have experienced their powerful effects often speak of spiritual insights, changes in perspective and profound experiences which have changed their lives for the better.
Controlled studies into the benefits of such substances have yielded amazing results. One such study of the effects of psilocybin noted that for many it “can occasion mystical-type experiences [of] substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance” (Griffiths, Richards, McCann & Jesse, 2006). This study also found that the significant majority of volunteers “attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behaviour that were consistent with changes rated by friends and family.” (Griffiths, 2006)
My personal experiences with psilocybin and LSD were consistent with these findings. I believe very strongly that the spiritual benefits of these substances far outweigh the physical toll on the body when used with respect and in moderation. The ecstatic state alone, experienced during intoxication, I believe has powerful healing properties and has often left me feeling increasingly positive and at peace for weeks and even months after the fact. Additionally, there is the wealth of knowledge to be gained while in a transcendent state. Grof (2007) based on his research, suggested that “we can obtain information about the universe in two radically different ways: Besides the conventional possibility of learning through sensory perception and analysis and synthesis of the data, we can also find out about various aspects of the world by direct identification with them in a holotropic state of consciousness.” Psychoactive drugs are just another means of achieving this state, and while meditation is the ideal method, these chemicals are able to support a more prolonged and enhanced transcendence which can lead to profound spiritual insights and personal growth. They are a powerful tool chosen by some in the western world and they assist in ensuring that more people reap the benefits of the ever important transcendent and ecstatic states of consciousness.
In conclusion, the importance of shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent states has certainly not decreased with time. If anything, it is more important now that ever that practises such as meditation and respectful use on entheogens be encouraged, not prohibited, as we live in a time where theologies of separateness, individualism and materialism are commonplace, at least in the western world. Ecstatic and transcendent states enhance our connection to the Divine, bring people together, and facilitate healing as well as personal and spiritual development. It is time we spread the word so more people can reap the benefits of these profound and powerful practices.

Rebecca Caine.