Exploring Characteristics of Healing Trance with Ritual Postures Using Gamma Radiation Assessment:
A Quantitative and Qualitative Study
By Belinda Gore, Ph.D.
Felicitas Goodman (1990, 1999) reported the discovery of ritual body postures among the art of hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies around the world. Through her research Goodman concluded that when these distinctive body postures were used under proper conditions, they mediate visionary experiences in a non-ordinary state of consciousness. “Ecstatic trance” is the term used by Goodman to define the discrete physiological condition that is induced using rhythmic aural stimulation of the nervous system combined with a ritual body posture. The term “ecstatic trance” is also used by Goodman to describe the resulting experience.
The reports of hundreds of research subjects and workshop participants have confirmed that ordinary people can have quite extraordinary experiences during ecstatic trance (Goodman, 1990; Gore, 1995). Individuals have frequently reported extensive journeys in both fantastic and familiar settings as well as interactions with spirit beings, all of which are reminiscent of traditional stories told by shamans. Goodman’s research identified several subsets of ritual postures: those used for healing, others that offer spirit journeys or initiatory experiences, postures for divination, or those through which metamorphosis or shape-shifting occurs. The focus of this study was what Goodman (1999) refers to as “healing trance.”
The Bear Spirit Posture used in this study provides a consistently strong experience of healing when utilized in ecstatic trance. Among small societies around the world, the bear has been identified as the animal spirit most called upon for healing human ailments. In reporting on North American myths and rituals that include the bear, David Rockwell (1991) stated “both bear and shaman were conceived of as spiritually powerful entities, both potentially dangerous…The shaman healed the sick; likewise the bear was considered to have potent healing powers.” The Yavapai of southern California believed Bear was the first great shaman. The prototype for the Bear Spirit Posture is a Kwakiutl wood carving of a shaman standing in the posture with a huge bear standing behind him and presumably empowering him. To hold the position, it is necessary to stand with feet parallel, about four inches apart, with knees slightly bent. Both hands are held in loose fists and positioned over the navel. The head is tilted backward and the jaw is slack so the mouth is open.
From the perspective of the indigenous people from whom the ritual postures emerged, healing is typically viewed as the restoration of balance (Katz, 1982; Allen, 1991). In this paradigm physical, psychological, and social maladies are the result of imbalances, and in order for healing to occur the source of the imbalance must be identified and balance restored. The healing or re-balancing is usually accomplished through the intervention of a healer, someone who has a special gift and has undergone training and apprenticeship with an experienced healer. In the context of ecstatic trance as it is currently practiced (that is, as it is taught by practitioners trained through the Cuyamungue Institute established by Goodman), there is no person who is the designated healer. Instead, the person facilitating the trance uses a ritual process to create a “sacred space” and to call upon the help of healing spirits, provides the rattling or drumming that stimulates the nervous system to initiate the trance, and assists afterward in understanding the meaning of the visions. However, during the trance the individual who is in the posture and experiencing the trance functions in the roles of both healer and patient, interacting with the spirits and integrating the events of the trance while also receiving the benefits of the “treatment.” When individuals undergo a healing trance using a ritual posture, they may report discernible energy shifts or flows in their bodies, visions of colors and patterns of light, experiences of healing journeys or rituals usually accompanied by animal spirits or other spirit beings, and/or an over-riding sense of well-being. In some situations the individual in trance may experience directing energy toward the healing of others.
Thus, an investigation of healing using ecstatic trance allowed us to explore the effects that are taking place within the individual, the “patient”, without having to account for the influence of the energy fields of another person, the “healer,” who is directing the energy.
Various physiological changes occurring during ecstatic trance have previously been identified in several other studies. Ingrid Mueller (1983) at the University of Munich observed several measures of physiological change that occurred consistently among four volunteer subjects during ecstatic trance using different postures. In her subjects, the blood serum levels of cortisol, epinepherine, and norepinepherine initially rose then dropped dramatically during the course of the standard fifteen-minute trance, indicating initial stress then relaxation. There was also an increase in beta-endorphins in the blood. Endorphins are a group of proteins that are synthesized in the brain; beta-endorphins are the terminal sequence of 31 amino acids in the polypeptide chain of beta-lipotropin and have a greater analgesic potency than morphine. The presence of beta-endorphins is responsible for the characteristic sense of well-being that accompanies ecstatic trance. The subjects’ blood pressure dropped while at the same time pulse rates increased, an unusual and paradoxical condition associated with the preliminary stages of dying. Given this parallel, it is not surprising that shamans often called trance the “little death.” Dr. Mueller’s findings were consistent regardless of the subject’s level of experience with ecstatic trance or the specific posture used.
In a case study (Goodman, 1999) of a woman who was identified as a “trance channel”–that is, an individual who enters an altered state of consciousness to allow a disembodied entity or spirit to communicate through her–as well as a practitioner of ecstatic trance, physiological indices were compared between these two trance states. The findings suggested that during ecstatic trance the changes in blood pressure and pulse dropped during the middle of the trance while during channeling these measures dropped at the end of the trance. The most pronounced difference was observed in the beta-endorphin levels. During ecstatic trance there was a gradual increase that tapered off and remained steady until the end of the experience, while in the channeling trance there was a spike in beta-endorphin levels at the end, reported as an experience of intense rapture. It was evident that these two kinds of altered states of consciousness produced related but not identical physiological conditions. For the purposes of this study, it is important to note that the subject in Goodman’s case study did not undertake a healing trance but instead used a posture that is reported to provide a divination experience.
Upon repeating the same posture, it becomes evident that while the general structure of a vision remains constant, the individual adventure varies greatly. We might, in fact, formulate a paradigm stipulating a rigid frame generating an open system of visionary experiences, which in turn carries the imprint of individual differences” (Goodman, 2000).
We can see that clear patterns in physiological changes during ecstatic have been reported but psychological measures and subjective reports have not been effectively used to weave together both physical and intra-psychic findings. It is our purpose in this study to integrate a quantitative approach with qualitative methodology in order to gain a better understanding of this phenomenon.
The quantitative focus of this study was the measurement of physiological change during ecstatic trance using gamma radiation fluctuation. Gamma rays are photons, the smallest (quantum) unit of light or electromagnetic energy, particles of zero mass and with no electrical charge. Gamma rays are the highest energy, shortest wavelength electromagnetic radiation, usually any photon having energy greater than 100 keV (kilo electron volts). The development of sophisticated gamma detection equipment has made it possible to investigate subtler energy radiation in the human electromagnetic field than has previously been possible.
Gamma radiation emissions have been shown to change during healing sessions using several different hand-mediated techniques including therapeutic touch, qigong, Polarity therapy, and Reiki (Benford, 1999). Our investigation explored the possibility of similar effects in a non-hand-mediated form of healing, namely healing trance using a ritual body posture and rhythmic stimulation of the nervous system through the sound of a gourd rattle.
Fluctuation in gamma emissions may occur because of increased gamma ray absorption by the patient during a healing session. It has been hypothesized that this absorption is due to the patient using gamma radiation to activate natural mechanisms that trigger the body’s biological processes at cellular and molecular levels, initiating injury repair (Bassett, 1995) or clearing passageways in the body’s energy matrix to allow innate biological energy to stimulate natural healing processes (Oschman, 1993).
The absorption of gamma radiation for healing is similar to the therapeutic health effects seen in low-dose radiation experiments in which small amounts of radiation appear to activate repair of genes without causing serious biological damage. The positive health effect of low-dose radiation is known as hormesis (Luckey, 1991). The idea of hormesis goes back to ancient Greece, where it was thought that frequent doses of a poison would fine tune the body and cause positive health effects (Benford, 1999). A similar theory underlies the practice of homeopathy, a system of medical treatment based on the use of small quantities of drugs that would produce symptoms similar to those of the disease if administered in larger doses to healthy individuals. According to the theory of radiation hormesis, small amounts of ionizing radiation (eg, gamma rays) are actually beneficial and without ionizing radiation our health actually suffers. The possibility exists that ecstatic trance could provide a means for individuals to self-administer low doses of ionizing radiation.
About the Author
Belinda is the former vice-president then president of The Cuyamungue Institute, and currently serves as an advisor to the Board of Directors. For over twenty years, she was a close friend and colleague of Dr. Goodman. Her books Ecstatic Body Postures: An Alternate Reality Workbook and The Ecstatic Experience: Healing Postures for Spirit Journeys introduce fifty-seven different postures and the method for using them, and is an essential resource for practitioners of ecstatic trance.
Belinda is a partner and senior faculty for The Deep Coaching Institute, providing advanced coach training based on the Enneagram and the practice of Presence. She is also on the Board of Directors of the International Enneagram Association and is a leadership consultant and coach. All of her work emerges from a deeply held vision of supporting the evolution of consciousness in all aspects of life.