Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Importance of Transcendent experiences in Western Urban Society

Transcendent experiences are important in today’s Western urban society. By reflecting on rituals, and shamanic and esoteric practices in the articles of Humes, Peters and Price-Williams, Myerhoff, and Bernard, it will be proposed that transcendent experiences are essential in connecting with the cosmos, developing one’s propensity to enter altered states, and healing emotional and mental distress.

Shamanic practices and trance states are imperative because they teach humanity to utilise their bodily senses in order to strengthen and re-establish a connection with nature. The globe faces an ecological crisis--a crisis which Western society is consequently desensitised to. Accumulation, possession, and material advancement are prioritised and used as a measure of worth--in order to advance and accumulate then, humanity turns to Earth and strips it of its resources. As a product of human advancement, nature is being destroyed; it has lost its sense of sacredness. Hume notes that if humans can learn to broaden their awareness through transcendent experiences, “they can achieve an intimacy with non-human nature” again (Hume 3). Rituals and Shamanic practices can create this intimacy; for they induce, through a variety of techniques (such as repetitive sounds, rhythmic movement, focused attention, and heightened emotion) altered states of consciousness that expand the human awareness (Hume 15). Through these components of trance then, a heightened awareness can be achieved when all the bodily senses--touch, taste, sound, emotion, smell-- are engaged with. Bodily senses “influence conceptions of self and cosmos”; they are the media through which we perceive the world (Hume 10). Trance states are therefore important for they develop all the senses, helping reshape how one perceives and feels about the world. Through these senses then, humanity is able transcend, and in this transcendence, sensitise and connect with the universe. Thus, trance opens one up to different realms of existence, and it is through these different states that we can spiritually grow and learn to respect the world and recognise it as ‘alive, awake, and aware’ (Hume 4).

Humanity has the psychological capacity to enter altered states; as such, it is integral to experience, develop, and understand because it is a part of being human. According to Sufi Arabi in Hume’s article, ‘there is a spark of the divine in human beings’ (Hume 21). Everyone has this divine spark, the propensity to transcend reality--it is “universal, and its utilisation, institutionalisation, and patterning” (Peters 404) is able to enrich the human experience. The Huichol civilisation in Mexico revolves around a ritualistic Peyote Hunt. Every year the Huichol citizens journey to their ancestors homeland to cultivate and eat the peyote, inducing a transcendental state (Myerhoff 66). This ritual, and its significance in shaping the Huichol civilisation, creates for the individual, and the community, a sense of wholeness and fulfilment--a wholeness that the Huichol states is essential “and all a part of being human” (Myerhoff 72-73). As today’s urban Western society favours rational and logical thought (Hume 4), there is a lack of emotional and spiritual awareness that civilisations such as the Huichol possess. Thus, any sense of spiritual wholeness is limited because the majority of Western society does not engage with, or explore, their capacity to transcend reality. Trance and ecstasy are thus important for Western society because it teaches one to reach and learn all that the human experience has to offer--that is, the rational and logical, as well as the spiritual and intuitive components of life. While rituals and transcendent experiences may also be culturally defined, it isn’t a culturally exclusive. Indeed, as Penny, a European researcher initiated into the mystical rites of the African Zulu culture, rituals and trance states aren’t culturally specific--it is universal, and an essential capacity that all humans have (Bernard 8).

Experiencing altered states promotes and helps create emotional and mental wellbeing. Mental illness is prevalent in Western society. While there is awareness of mental illness, it is still largely silenced and unjustly perceived as a form of failure. Shamanic trances are ‘typical types of ecstasy that have therapeutic potentials’ (Peters 406). Indeed, the very first and initiory stage of Shamanic possession is predominately attributed to mental illness--the ecstasy experienced is not interpreted as a disease, ‘but a way of being healed’ from it (Peters 398). Shamanic ecstasy is defined as a dissociative condition (Peters 402). According to Bourguignon, this dissociation benefit’s the self--it is a creative outlet that releases and gives expression to ‘repressed thoughts, feelings, and desires’ (Peters 402). Thus, it is a way of relinquishing, and giving relief to, any emotional and mental distress. In esoteric teachings, transcendent experiences are developed only when one learns to ‘focus on the interior world of the self’ (Hume 21). This method of delving into the self helps uncover and closely examine personal anxieties and problems. In shedding light into this interior world, and taking the time to discover and understand the nuances of one’s inner self, a sense of peace and wellbeing can be found. Even ritualistic figures, such as the South African fertility goddess Inkosazana, promotes wellbeing when she is ritualistically worshipped and obeyed. She tends to the physical wellbeing of her people by looking after their crops and waters, as well as the emotional and spiritual; for, as the South African Lindiwe documents, Inkosazana revealed herself to Lindiwe, counselling and saving Lindiwe from committing suicide (Bernard 13). Thus, transcendental experiences, whether through shamanic or esoteric practices, and rituals are cathartic and have the potential to heal.

Trance, ecstasy, and rituals create different realms of existence. Thus, it is through, and by, this transcendence that Western urban society can understand the importance of the cosmos, their capability to spiritually grow, and explore their inner self to find wellbeing.

Amanda Warren

Works as Cited

Bernard, Penny. “Fertility Goddess of the Zulu: Reflections on a Calling to Inkosazana’s Pool.” Deep Blue: Reflections on Nature Religion and Water. Ed. Sylvie Shaw and Andrew Francis. London: Equinox Publications, 2008. 1-20.

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

Myerhoff, Barbara. “The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex Among the Huichol Indians of Mexico.” Anthropological Quarterly, 43.2 (1970): 64-78.

Peters, Larry G. and Price-Williams, Douglass. “Towards An Experiential Analysis of Shamanism.” American Ethnologist, 7.3 (1980): 397-418.

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