The Direct Experience Approach – Going Native

by Susan Josephson Ph.D

Editors Note: Being the daughter of  Dr. Felicitas Goodman, Susan Josephson shares a unique perspective of the research and work her mother, Dr. Felicitas Goodman, the founder of the Cuyamungue Institute.

handsMy mother, Dr. Felicitas Goodman, felt professional pressures to be scientific. There was a line between studying indigenous religion as a scientific anthropologist and converting to the indigenous worldview.  If she stepped over that line, “went native,” she would loose all academic credibility.   As Edith Turner pointed out in her article “the Reality of Spirits” (from the June Cuyamungue Newsletter) in the old model anthropologists thought they could only objective study indigenous people if they reframed from having direct experience of their spiritual life.  The native’s spiritual experiences were hallucinations and superstitions not to be taken seriously by the anthropologist.

Dr. Goodman started her research that way.  She studied the correlation between specific trance postures and experience by doing trances as experiments and telling her subjects as little as possible about what to expect so that whatever they experienced came directly from the posture.  This made it easier to compare trance sessions done at different places with different groups. Telling people what to expect, priming, risked the criticism that what people experienced was just the result of suggestion, like hypnosis or guided meditation.

But then Dr. Goodman went beyond her scientific anthropology training to believer in the indigenous worldview and her ecstatic trance research changed from scientific experiments about the power of posture to explorations of techniques for contacting spirits and visiting the greater reality.  Dr. Goodman wrote books about the trance experiences, even though, as she points out in Where the Spirits Ride the Wind, reading about the postures in her book or in Belinda Gore’s workbooks, makes it impossible for people to approach the trances without expectations as her scientific method required.

Further she began to realize that the scientific method approach to trances falsely assumed that doing the trances without priming gave the same experience that people would have in an indigenous setting.  As Dr. Goodman points out, the trance experience is vacuous without an interpretation.   It is just a neuro-physiological event.  For example, when subjects did the Bear posture with no priming at all, “The bodies of the subjects or their heads would spit open as if to receive something, a substance, a flow of energy, which was then administered to them. …. They may be supported, shaken, or pushed from behind, gently or quite roughly, they may be caught in a spiraling movement and about to loose their balance…. ”  In other words their experiences were just physical, like a rollercoaster ride.

bear_posture-1However, telling people taking the Bear posture to expect bears and healing, results in them seeing bears in their trance and getting healing.  It is the bears and healing that are the indigenous experience and the reason for doing the posture, not the physical rushes people experienced with no priming.  In an indigenous context people would know what to expect from the trance and how to steer it to better suit why they were doing it and there would be an interpretive structure, a mythology, through which to understand their experience.

For example, one year while I was rattling for a bear trance, Mother Bear rose up on her hind legs, put her big front paws on my shoulders and bit off my head.  I was shocked. I had no head! Then I noticed that I was still rattling. How could that be?  I was rattling without a head!  Knowing that the Bear trance is about healing I could interpret my experience. I had just retired from being a philosophy professor.  For me retiring meant changing from a butterfly into a used up wrinkled worm.  It was depressing.  I was having difficulty adjusting.  But when the bear bit off my head and I could still rattle, I realized that my head, in the metaphor of the trance, was my professional identity and ego.  The trance was telling me that I did not need my career identity as a philosophy professor to continue my life. Indeed, I was better off rattling without my head.  Being retired meant that there was nothing I needed to prove and no identity I needed to preserve.  Knowing that the trance was about healing, I could use my experience to heal.

As Paul Robear reminded me in a discussion of the June Cuyamungue newsletter, Dr Goodman was a “pioneer in participant observation, and the need to engage in direct experience to fully understand and honor the traditions of indigenous peoples. There is no way observation without experience can fully grasp the context of the rituals and social structure of indigenous people.”

The old school anthropologists did not actually experience the rituals they observed because they did not open themselves up to indigenous spirituality.  I had a situation like that at one trance session I lead, where an assistant pastor from a neighborhood evangelical church attended. When her turn came to talk about her trance experience, she said that she did not have a trance experience because she was afraid to go into trance since the deity we were calling was not Christian, and so was evil. I asked her then why did she come to the trance?  She said because she wanted to know first hand what pagans do.  This is like the old school anthropologists. She thought she experienced what we pagans did, but she did not, because she did not experience the trance, and the trance experience was what the event was about.

As Dr. Goodman’s work matured she realized that in an indigenous culture people do trances in a context, and to get the full impact of the trances you need a context.   In an indigenous context people know what to expect and how to steer the trances and interpret their experiences.  But in our own society, people suffer from a deep skepticism. Since the strange things that happen in trance are outside their ordinary experience, they assume they just imagined it and it was not real.  If someone tells them what they can expect to experience and that is what they do experience, they discount the reality of their experience and continue their skepticism.  So for contemporary people with this deep skepticism, not priming their trances serves a function beyond the original function of making the trances more scientific and objective, namely not priming helps people overcome their skepticism.  Hence Dr. Goodman continued to advocate no priming.

However, as we evolve from the skepticism of our culture towards the deeper understandings of indigenous people, priming becomes important. Being given a context for the trances helps guide the trance experience to something deeper and richer like what an indigenous person would have. Then we can directly experience the greater reality of the indigenous people. We can go native.  Then the trances show us a bigger reality, help us with our lives, and promote the indigenous worldview Paul Robear so well articulated in his introduction to the June Cuyamungue newsletter.  Paul wrote that the core of indigenous spirituality is that everything is interconnected, alive, and embodied with spirit.  Humans are just one more sentient being, “not more or less, but equal to all the members on the web of life… The visible and the invisible pulse with the same life force.”