By Georgia A-D
Entering Creative Consciousness: Moving into Deep Connection, by Selene Vega.
In her article “Entering Creative Consciousness” Vega provides a framework for personal development professionals (such as therapists or workshop leaders) to transcend the ‘western’ attitude of being close minded toward altered consciousness and encourage a trance experience as a conduit of personal creativity (Vega 2006). She states that entering this new level of consciousness is the best way to access what people really need to know about themselves; insights which promote healing and growth. This is the first in a number of unintentionally vague claims she makes with little explanation or sufficient examples.
Vega discusses the positive role trance and ritual can have in the creative process. Not in particular artistic creativity, but creativity as the expression of the self, to promote self-confidence and imagination. She proposes that due to the western oppression of physical expression and the limitations put on it by social rules (her examples being putting feet on a chair or standing quietly in line), the only way to transcend them and present a genuine, unconscious, physical expression is to do so under the safety of a trance state, or altered consciousness. She also explains the importance of the therapist’s ability to enter a similar altered consciousness to maintain a congruous relationship with their client.
She discusses ritual as the vehicle to trance and physical expression of the unconscious as the way to experience a ‘non-ordinary state of consciousness’, or trance state. It is through ritual that the trance is contextualised and allowed to happen in a ‘safe space’ with the therapist as Shaman, which gives the participant more freedom to express themselves, making the trance more effective. Ritual, she explains, develops as a coping mechanism for groups with a shared experience or hardship. This is the case for both the Huichols and Korean women, however Vega fails to really present a real problem being faced by the nondescript (apart from ‘western’) participants she discusses in her article. The biggest problem she claims them as facing is a disconnection from their artistic spirituality, or personal creativity. Her article discusses how trance may be useful, but fails to explore why. She quotes other scholars on the purpose of ritual yet fails to contextualise them.
Further research on the author shows that her specialty is in using techniques as described in this article to deal particularly with addiction and eating disorders (Vega, 2011). A direct link between her framework and the addressing of these afflictions would have given a much needed credibility to an otherwise baseless theory. She does not even explain how one might enter the trance state, beyond ‘creative movement’ or ‘physical expression’, which, again, is vague. Dineen claims that this deliberate ambiguity is a canny habit of new age psychotherapy practitioners. She sees the relatively recent surge in alternative psychotherapeutical practices akin to ‘selling snake oil’, a predatory and manipulative marketing tool of psychotherapists to make people believe that they are getting something, when in reality they are not (Dineen 1998, 55). While perhaps, as an ex-psychologist herself, Dineen may be somewhat prejudiced against the profession, the practice as (poorly) described by Vega certainly raises more questions than it answers.
The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex among the Huichol Indians of Mexico, by Barbara G Myerhoff.
This article discusses the consumption of hallucinogens (peyote) as the entry to a trance state as part of a ritual called the Peyote Hunt. The Peyote Hunt is a male only expedition to Huichol homeland to obtain peyote, and return to the tribe with it whereupon they are treated as gods. The tribe (including women and children) then ‘slay’ the peyote and consume it, entering the alternate consciousness (Myerhoff 1970).
Myerhoff states that the purpose of the ritual and trance among Huichol Indians is to reconnect with Huichol roots and promote unity within the tribe by transcending social hierarchies. She explains the validity of the trinity and gives a history on how it has previously been interpreted, and presents her own interpretation: though the deer are now rare in Huichol territory, they represent the significance of the hunter in Huichol history and the perfection of their past life. Maize is an introduced, now primary food source that represents the ‘mundane’, and peyote is essential to religious rituals, which are of utmost importance to Huichols. The three things have a symbiotic and intrinsically linked relationship; maize cannot grow without deer blood, deer blood cannot be shed without consumption of peyote, peyote cannot be consumed without the cleansing of the maize with deer blood, and so on.
Myerhoff claims that the purpose of the Deer-maize-Peyote complex is to reconcile the tribe’s losses without forcing them to participate in a moral introspection and deal with the Huichol’s losses: “denying the gratuitous and cruel state of the present by refusing to relinquish the past” (p13). She presents this in the context of the comfort Huichol derive from having religion as their crutch as a healthy and beneficial approach to their collective loss. McGuire argues that this is an ineffective and ultimately damaging approach. He stated that comfort in the superstitious was essentially comfort in lies, and that religion can only provide a ‘band-aid’ comfort at best, which is largely inadequate (McGuire 1990, 284). While a common approach to psychotherapy, it is difficult to argue this against Myerhoff’s reporting of the overall mental health and social cohesion of the Huichol tribe.
While Vega’s western centric article discussed the importance of trance for the solitary individual, reflecting the western focus on individualistic worldviews, Myerhoff instead presents trance as a community bonding practice that is experienced by a mutually benefiting group. However, the participants do not discuss their personal experiences while under the influence of peyote; the details of their trance are private and outside the obligatory visions of common deities, which individualises the experience to a degree.
This article is difficult to fault as it is an insight into a largely unstudied area. It relies on a theoretical approach, which is the best Myerhoff has as an outsider; however she manages to present a unique commentary on the effects of ecological devastation.
Shamanism and Its Emancipatory Power for Korean Women, by Jonghyun Lee.
The purpose of this article is to educate social workers in effectively dealing with Korean women and their culture specific needs, by approaching Shamanism for Korean women through a feminist lens (Lee 2009). Unfortunately though, Lee does not stipulate until the end that the paper is directed at United States social workers, which would have provided a useful contextualisation.
The article begins with a brief history of shamanism in Korea. Lee points out that while Shamanism is prolific in modern Korean society, with around 35% of people seeking the services of around 30,000 shamans, it is seen as a ‘deviant’ belief, running counter-culture to the official national religion of Buddhism. It is also widely referred to, denigratingly, as superstition, or mishin.
Shamanism (both practitioners and those who seek them) is a female dominated sphere. Lee cites studies that have found that the female focus of shamanism holds ‘emancipatory power’, and is an effective spiritual tool for women in dealing with a patriarchal society.
The Korean shaman starts with a culture specific trance-like illness, shinbyung, which most often affects women who have endured a personal crisis. Shinbyung is only overcome when the person answers their spiritual calling by accepting their destiny.
Lee explains the value of shamanism in modern Korea and how it has not lessened despite a perceived improvement in gender equality. Korea still has many areas in which women are disadvantaged: socially, professionally and privately. It was the Chosun Dynasty’s (c. 14-19th C) casting out and criminalisation of shamanism that put it into the hands of women, who were also outcast, and thus it has thrived since then.
The shamanic ritual of kut is a direct addressing of women’s subordinate role, and involves a highly physical dance to cymbals and drumming, with singing and chanting to invoke the endowment of the gods and deities’ power. It provides a cathartic release of woman’s ‘silent suffering’ and is seen to challenge the social order. It also provides a safe space for women to express themselves and their disillusionment with their status in society, and “speaking the stories that must never be told” without fear of reprehension. Observers of the kut are encouraged to join in by donning the shaman’s costume and participating in the dance which becomes a possession trance. Lee effectively contextualises this practice for a western audience by likening it to the blues singing of African American women in that it gives the participants a collective conscious and shared identification of their oppression.
Throughout the article the reader seems invited to infer that the oppression of Shamanism is merely incidental in what is first and foremost an institutionalised oppression of women. By leaving the statement of this link until the conclusion, Lee misses opportunities throughout the work to emphasise the value in learning about shamanism’s importance to women.
Lee makes an interesting point in presenting the Shaman as a valuable aid to the American social worker, due to the reliance on them by Korean immigrants. She warns against the ethnocentrism of labelling it as superstitious, or the shinbyung as psychosomatic, as it is an insult to a practice that has been instrumental in the development of women’s physical, economic and psychological autonomy throughout Korean history. Goleman wrote a respected paper on the Asian approach to psychology. He claims it to have existed more or less as a profession for two or three millennia (Goleman 1976, 42), much longer than western psychology. He attributes its longevity to its inextricable links with spirituality and the ethereal. His paper supports Lee’s call for western and eastern practitioners, in this case, shamans and social workers, to work symbiotically for the best outcomes.
Vega, Myerhoff and Lee all argue the importance of trance and spirituality. Myerhoff and Lee have a more effective argument as their articles are based on social studies and cultural observations, and are able to clearly identify key benefits to participants. Vega is also able to identify benefits however only ambiguously and she fails to address how the trance state is achieved. Both Lee and Myerhoff thoroughly explain the practice necessary to enter the trance states they discuss. All three present a host of benefits to altered consciousness in a safe setting, however it holds arguably much more significance in the contexts the Lee and Myerhoff discuss; trance for the Huichol is integral to the community’s collective consciousness and fosters social cohesion, and trance practices for Korean women have been essential in providing women with a collective voice and emancipation from oppressive patriarchal structures. Vega’s benefits discussed are ultimately individualistic, like increased self-esteem or personal creativity, which are little competition with the survival of a tribe or the empowerment of a sex. Vega and Lee both present arguments to mental health practitioners (social workers and therapists) of the importance of trance in the therapeutic process, however Vega’s lack of academic evidentiary support of her claims is her downfall and one can easily discount her.
All three articles have varying goals, however what can be compared is their usefulness. Myerhoff presents a history lesson and explanation of a dying society’s coping mechanism in the face of ecological destruction and a changing world. Her conclusions can be applied to other communities not yet at their level of decline, providing explanation and warning. Lee presents an insight into a culture that will be invaluable for her target audience, American psychotherapists, when dealing with immigrants from that culture. It provides a helpful guide to assist such an ideologically alien community. Vega speaks of the personal benefits of new age spiritualism and trance therapy, yet does so entirely ineffectively by omitting methods of therapy, and instead only discussing their theoretical benefits, rendering her article ultimately useless on its own.
Dineen, T. (1998). Psychotherapy: The Snake Oil of the 90’s? Skeptic, 6 (3), 54-63.
Goleman, D. (1976). Meditation and Cosnciousness: An Asian Approach to Mental Health. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 41-54.
Lee J. (2009). Shamanism and Its Emancipatory Power for Korean Women. Affilia, 24 (2), 186-198.
McGuire, M. (1990). Religion and the Body: Rematerializing the Human Body in the Social Sciences of Religion. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 29 (3), 283-296.
Myerhoff B. (1970). The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex among the Huichol Indians of Mexico. Anthropological Quarterly, 43 (2), 64-78.
Vega, S. (2006). Entering Creative Consciousness: Moving into Deep Connection. http://blackboard.elearning.uq.edu.au/@@/E7C8E0F0B1D67ECCB7DC1D112787EEB4/courses/1/RELN2110S_6120STx/content/_1705414_1/Creative%20Consciousness.pdf.
Vega, S. (2011). Spirit Moving: About. http://spiritmoving.com/about-selene/.