Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trance for Peace

Western urban society dictates that people must be future oriented. Every move that people make in the present must be conceived of in the context of the effect it will have on things to come. Due to this forward drive, people are taught to regard things such as meeting deadlines and adhering to social norms and constructions as extremely important. However, this lifestyle of doing things in order to become something, or someone, can put people out of touch with their current existence, or the something or someone that they are right now. The abundance of stress and pressure that plagues much of Western society is evidence of the fact that living in the future does not always create a pleasant present.

Transcendent experiences, in the Western cultural context, allow people to ground themselves in the present. Attending yoga classes, participating in a religious service, and using drugs and alcohol are just some of the ways in which people break away from the demands of society and focus on the here and now. As Hume (11) suggests, some transcendent experiences transcend even the present moment, leaving the realm of time, and perhaps space, altogether. Some may feel compelled to experience being of another world when existence in Western urban society means being very much of this world. No matter what the transcendent experience, trance is an important tool used by those living in the Western world to remove themselves from their fast-paced and demanding lives.

In order to understand why obsession with the future has become the Western way of life, it is important to grasp what concepts humans have employed to help them make sense of the overwhelming, stimulus-packed world around them. One example of these concepts is put forth by Rock & Baynes (51), who, borrowing Kant’s ideology, state that humans divide the world into sections, categories, classes, and types in order to understand it. With that in mind, it makes sense that many in the Western world are prone to living in the future. The present, as fleeting, is impossible to compartmentalize. The future, however, is an ever-present promise of things to come, and can thus be broken down into sections and rendered comprehensible. It can be anticipated and planned for. Perhaps the ease with which the future lends itself to this fundamental human construct of categorization is what keeps people so caught up in it.

Breaking away from social constructs to hone in on the present moment involves appealing to a Yogic framework that Hume (12) cites: “stopping the oscillation of the mind.” This notion is key because it implies not only a disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but a fundamental slowing down of processing. Hume (12-13) explains that trance occurs only when logical thinking is abandoned. Rituals such as drumming, chanting, and dancing are essential to trance states, Hume believes, because they are stimuli very much anchored in the present moment. By focusing in on these stimuli, people can transcend their own ordinary waking state of consciousness and enter into an altered state.

While trance is an excellent way to momentarily escape from the future-driven Western life and revel in the present or some other world, it also serves a much deeper and more meaningful purpose for many people. Trance, in its separation from the ordinary waking state, offers many a new understanding of themselves and a unique perspective on life. It is as if the self that exists in the altered state is given the opportunity to closely examine the self that exists in the ordinary waking state. In this way, trance and everyday life are not completely disconnected. Rock & Baynes (51) affirm this idea by borrowing Scholem’s theory that trance is relative to the world that we know. This is, Scholem believes, why people that experience visions tend to encounter things within those visions that are more or less a part of their cultural context—things that they can more or less make sense of.

Peters & Price-Wiliams (406) argue that the ability to transcend the ordinary waking state is one that all humans possess. However, the extent to which this transcendence takes place differs across individuals. The variations in trance experiences that people partake in are a result of societal and environmental differences. This notion of trance is helpful in understanding why issues such as drug and alcohol addiction are so prevalent in Western society. When a trance state seems to far exceed the ordinary waking state in the happiness and tranquillity it provides, it can be hard to resist. Many people find the pressures of everyday life so unbearably stressful that they do everything they can to stay disconnected for as long as possible. Drug and alcohol addiction are a result of this obsession with trance, or rather this fear of the ordinary waking state.

The current literature indicates that trance can be an efficient way for people in Western urban society to escape from their busy lives. With that said, the literature also stresses maintaining, as much as possible, some presence in this world while the trance is occurring. This presence in two worlds at once is what allows people to engage in self-reflection and enlightened understanding. Using the knowledge they have gained during trance, people can return to their ordinary waking states with a renewed sense of ease and serenity.

Works Cited

Hume, Lynne. Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2007. 1-24. Print.

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

Rock, Adam J., and Peter B. Baynes. "Shamanic Journeying Imagery, Constructivism and the Affect Bridge Technique." Anthropology of Consciousness 16.2 (2005): 50-71. Print.

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