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Cross Cultural Hypnotic-like Procedures

Greetings Bloggers,

I have been busy the past week or so writing an article on hypnosis. So I thought why not share the article with you.

The historical roots of hypnosis reach back many centuries to tribal rituals and the practice of native shamans. Agogino (1965) stated “The history of hypnotism may be as old as the practice of shamanism” and also described hypnotic –like procedures used in the court of the Pharaoh Kufu in 3766 B.C. Agogino adds the priests in the healing temples of Ascelpius (commencing in the 4th century B.C.) induced their clients in “temple sleep” by “hypnosis and auto-suggestion” while the ancient Druids chanted over their clients until a trance-like state was achieved. It was also noted that herbs were used to enhance verbal suggestions by native healers in pre-Columbian Central and South America.

It would appear that deliberate alterations of consciousness have been employed by over 488 different cultures for extending human capacities, resolving causes of sickness, “soul loss”, spirit possession, and other etiological issues.

The hypnotic literature can be instructive in helping to understand native models of healing which assume that practitioners, to be effective, must consider such practices as a “journeying to the upper world”, “traveling to the lower world”, “incorporating spirit guides”, “conversing with power animals” and “retrieving lost souls”.

Shamanic healing and trance procedures are carefully scripted in a manner similar to many hypnotic processes. Just as expectancy plays a major role in hypnotic responsiveness, shamans use similar “learned skills” and other procedures such as fasting, thirsting, self-mutilation, sweat lodges, sleeplessness, continual dancing, plunging into ice-cold water, different kinds of rhythmic activity, chanting and drumming to create different and more enlightening octaves of consciousness.

Anthropologist Joan Halifax wrote that the Nanaimo Indians of Vancouver Island “fall unconscious” in order to incorporate the “healing spirits” necessary for healing. It was also noted that Alaskan Eskimo shamans use rhythmic drumming and chanting to induce a hypnotic trance. Eskimos of eastern Greenland would enter a fairly deep trance state by continuously rubbing stones against each other. This monotonous and lonely behaviour would help them connect with and encounter a helping spirit.

Kirsch (2) discusses the role of expectancy in hypnosis and psychotherapy and feels it is relevant in culturally based rituals to shape and bolster relevant expectancies that reorganize consciousness to produce behavioural changes relevant to the goals of hypnosis. For example, the different kinds of ideomotor behaviour that often characterize hypnosis, resemble the postures, gestures and rhythmic movements that occur during many native rituals.

Kirsch suspects that expectancy plays a major role but admits that these responses are experienced as automatic behaviour without volition.

In the Navajo culture, repetitive chanting, body painting, the audible recitation of prayers, the touch of prayer sticks, the taste of ceremonial musk and the smell of incense all contribute to creating a deeper, healing state of trance.

In Bali, it has been noted that there are similarities between the behaviour of Balinese shamans and mediums and those of hypnotized subjects. So-called trance-dancing serves as a useful emotional outlet both for the dancer and the observer. There are also “altruistic trance states” conducted usually by ordinary members of the community to facilitate social cohesion on behalf of the entire community.

However, there are also more malevolent and demonic trance states where the “trancers” experience attacks of hysteria, acute psychotic reactions and schizophrenic episodes. The Balinese recognize the two types of “trancers” and react differently toward each of them.

West African healing practitioners felt they could access unusual powers by making offerings to certain gods who would then diagnose illnesses, prescribe cures and provide the community with warnings or blessings. The person through whom the spirits spoke and moved claimed that the dancing and singing or drumming were needed to surrender their minds and bodies to the discarnate entities.

The slaves from West Africa brought many of these practices to Brazil. Despite repression from the church, the customs survived over the centuries and formed the basis for a number of Afro-Brazilian spiritual movements.

Approximately thirty percent of Brazilians are Espiritistas who affirm the belief in poltergeists, spirit possession, psychic healing, mediumistic writing and reincarnation. It would not be unusual for a Brazilian shopkeeper to go to one of Rio’s glittering beaches at night, light a candle and leave a two-layered cake and a gift of whiskey in the sand as an offering to Iemenja, the mermaid goddess of the sea, in exchange for improving business or a relationship.

I visited Brazil on nineteen occasions over the years, gathering research for my book Miracles and Other Realities. I was also invited by Espiritista friends to train as a medium – which I did. However, that can be the subject for a future newsletter.

Hopefully this has been helpful regarding at looking at trance and how it is employed in various cross-cultural experiences and procedures.


Lee Pulos, Ph.D., ABPP

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