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Cross-Cultural Trances

As many of you may know, I am very active in the hypnosis community.  Despite having utilized hypnosis for a number of years and practicing self-hypnosis almost every day for relaxation, accelerating the healing response, suggesting healing dreams and other applications I am still somewhat puzzled as to how to define hypnosis.  Since hypnosis is a social construct or term from the 19th century, perhaps the older usage of the term is incorrect.  It makes more sense to utilize the word “trance” or “hypnotic-like” procedures.

Anthropologist G. Agogine states that this history of hypnotism maybe as old as the practice of shamanism when over 20,000 years ago, shamans would drum, dance and shake to expand their consciousness into more transpersonal realms.  Hypnotic-like procedures were used in the court of the pharaoh Khufu 5,800 years ago.  Temple priests and priestesses induced their clients into “Temple sleep” followed by healing suggestions.

The great sanctuary at Delphi on Mt. Parnassus was home to the Delphic Oracle, or Pythia, a priestess of Apollo.  She sat on a giant bronze tripod above a crevice in the rocks from which the vapors of methylene were emerging.  By gently inhaling the vapors, she would experience an expansion of consciousness (trance?) and then go on to make astonishingly accurate prophecies.

The ancient druids chanted over their clients until a “deep sleep” was attained then offered helpful directions or opinions.  Consciousness enhancing herbs were used to intensify verbal suggestions by native healers in pre-Columbian Central and South America.  

As part of the training to become a shaman, they are introduced to hypnotic-like experiences during their initiation so that they can dissociated from themselves and reality  and “journey” to another source of information –  frequently symbolic or metaphorical in order to serve or heal their sick or ill person.

North American Indians once sought (and still seek) alternative states of consciousness with spiritual components such as psychoactive plants, fasting, thirsting, self-mutilation, animal secretions, exposure to the elements, sweat lodge, continual dancing, chanting, bleeding, drumming or almost any rhythmic activity that will break up and scatter the tight focus of our everyday consciousness. The purpose of which is to listen to the whispers within the realms of nature, spirit entities, plant energies concerned ancestors, or if you will, our higher self which is always whispering to us for guidance but which we cannot hear because of the infernal din and clamor of civilization and our lives.

The Eskimos of eastern Greenland would induce trance with the continuous and monotonous rubbing of stones against each other – thus erasing mundane thoughts and again – “listening for the whispers”.  The Navajo Indians would chant to facilitate suggestibility and shifts in attention through repetitive singing, and then perform purification rites through sand paintings – but destroyed once the healing session is over.

Anthropologist Bradford Keeney in his stunning and superb book Shamans of the World described various cultures where participants would prepare for a “spiritual journey” by fasting, going to a “prayer house” and then, as they are “touched by the spirit” would be subject to spontaneous jerks, shivering, trembling and letting out unexpected shouts, sobs, hisses or unintelligible sounds.

The Afro-Brazilian procedures which I am most familiar with include the diverse ceremonies of the various Afro-Brazilian groups (eg. Candomble, Umbanda, Quimbanda, Xango and Macumba) which are affiliated with the Espiritistas – a Christian group that believe in and develop practices for communicating with departed spirits – frequently through automatic writing and other forms of incorporation of “energies”.

As part of my research and spiritual development during my 18 visits to Brazil, I trained as a medium through the Umbanda Espiritista group – but that can perhaps be a topic in a future communication.

The point of comparing “trance” to hypnosis – being that western practitioners of hypnosis utilize different rituals to awaken latent human capacities than those used by native practitioners in their hypnotic-like procedures.  These include igniting imaginative suggestibility, the ability to shift attention, absorption and focus, the potential for intention and motivation and awakening our ability for self-healing.

All the above notwithstanding – are we really talking about “old wine in new wineskins?”  What do you think?

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