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Chapter 5

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Jane Leverick

Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Specialists 05/10/2013 5:03:00 PM Altered States of Consciousness  Any mental state that differs from a normal state, i.e., daydreaming, feeling tipsy, etc. -> subjectively identified by the individual and/or seen by observers; religious or secular Entering an Altered State of Consciousness  Brought about by physiological, psychological, or pharmaceutical factors; experiences will vary according to the factor responsible, as well as the expectation of the individual  Familiar states are meditation/trance; entered by ceasing all activity and reducing stimuli; secular i.e., a state of total relaxation by lying on a beach or floating in a pool  Solitary confinement or any other severe enforced isolation (self- imposed as well) can bring about an altered state of consciousness; seeking enlightenment or contact with god/spirits (isolate themselves in a cave/desert/etc.)  Concentrating on object/sound, as in active meditation (drums, chant, nature sounds)  Strenuous motor activity, i.e., Mevlevi Order (whirling dervishes) in Near Eastern cultures achive altered states through continuous/monotonous movement leading to exhaustion; can be accompanied by loud music, singing, energetic dancing  Fasting/dehydration/sleep deprivation can result in altered state (changes in body chemistry)  Drugs, i.e., peyote in Huichol pilgrimage The Native American Church  Ritual use of peyote is referred to as peyotism  Late 19 thcentury gave way to nativistic movement by native americans, as the US government was trying to assimilate Native culture into general American culture; religion was a coping mech.  Some groups, pan-Indians, syncretize Christianity with Native culture, and mix elements; peyote contains the power of god -> legal sacrament in Native American church rituals 1978 Features of Altered States of Consciousness  Difficulty concentrating, poor memory, impaired judgment  Increase in feeling of power/control  Weakness/numbness/blurred vision  Hallucinations/visions  Feelings of timelessness/speeding or slowing of time  Extreme emotional expression, detachment, and lack of emotions  New meanings to objects/experiences, belief of a gain of insight  Loss of control/feeling of helplessness  Body parts appear enlarged/heavy/detached/shrunken  Increased acuteness of the senses Sacred Pain  Pain is a common theme in religious traditions, i.e., Eve bringing forth children in pain, or Hindu consequences of bad karma  Pain can be purifying (monks who self-inflict pain in order to avoid soul torment in the next life), an enemy/weapon (Christ on the cross, or transformative/a source of supernatural power (exorcism)  We think of pain as individualistic, but in a religious context, pain is shared -> vicarious suffering through stigmata  Many rituals that use pain are self-inflicted or inflicted by others; individuals may go through a purifying ritual beforehand o i.e., Maya male rules piercing penis, and females piercing tongue and stringing through thorns, to bleed onto the bark to act as an offering; blood loss allows them to enter an altered state and speak with the gods o i.e., rites of passage, the ability to withstand pain (subject often enters an altered state)  ex. Pilgrimage to Sabari Malai in South India -> follows path of lord Ayyappan (son of Shiva) and his encounter with/defeat of a female demon; pilgrims are celibate/barefoot/sleep on hard ground during -> pain is seen as essential part of becoming one with Ayyappan The Role of Altered States in Religious Practices  Culture places meaning on our experiences; subjective interpretations, religious or secular  Altered states can facilitate healing -> healers sending their own soul on a journey to find a lost soul, or suggestibility/catharsis aid in healing  Religious interpretations of altered states fall into two categories: spirit possessions and trances o Spirit possession: the phenomenon of when a supernatural power (often a spirit) enters a person’s body o Trance state: when the soul has left the body  Unitary state: the individual experiences a feeling of becoming one with the supernatural -> a god/spirit, or generalized force o i.e., Sabari Malai, unitary state with lord Ayyappan  common religious theme that humans were once one with the supernatural; goal of religious practices is to regain that unity The Biological Basis of Altered States of Consciousness  Altered states from an etic perspective o Oliver Sacks work on migraines (nausea or other symptoms that incapacitate an individual) -> auras or hallucinations o Culture plays role in interpreting auras -> modern migraine sufferer will interpret a visual aura as a pathological condition that makes it difficult to function; can be interpreted as a vision (Hildegard of Bingen, nun/mystic, described/drew interpretations of visions that match modern day medical condition auras)  Modern neurobiology research shows that in situations with fast rhythms (vigorous singing/dancing), the sympathetic (arousal) system is over stimulated, and shuts down selective functions o One system that shuts down is the orientation association structure, the part that allows us to distinguish ourselves from the world around us and to orient ourselves in space -> could be responsible for the unitary state participants feel  Emotional impact of repetitive motor behaviours, including marked actions (actions that are different from normal ordinary movements, such as a slow bow)  Impact of smell, such as burning of incense  Studies show that it is not possible to achieve the same ritual behaviour affects just by stimulating chemically the right part of the brain; it takes belief Ethnographic Examples of Altered States of Consciousness The Holiness Churches  Series of independent churches found in Appalachia, predominantly in West Virginia; area that used to be highly dependent on coal mining -> isolated/depressed area (why the churches exist)  During services, members enter an altered state, entered through intense concentration in prayer and with loud music (repetitive beat); individuals speak in tongues, dance energetically, and enter trance-like states -> some participants will drink snake poison  Seen as a unitary state, interpreted as being filled by the holy god San Healing Rituals  Ju/’hoansi, subgroup of San (hunting/gathering people in Kalahari Desert in Southern Africa, Khoisan culture area)  Several times a month, group gathers around the fire for a night of singing/dancing as part of a healing ritual -> medicine owners are seen to possess healing energy, and through dance it will rise up and cause visions -> num k”ausi will lay hands/rub sweat on members of the community The Sun Dance of the North American Plains  Takes place near the summer solstice – represents theme of renewal  North American Plains Culture area; sun dance lodge constructed with large pole in the centre ->
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