The Religious Trance; The Difference in the Approach of Eastern, Western Societies and in the Academic Perspective

By Jitka Cirklová Ph.D. – Charles University / Prague, Czech Republic

The state of trance is commonly understood as some sort of spiritual or mystical experience. The subject of mystical/trance experience viewed by Greek philosopher Plotinus as a strong encounter with something followed by the unification with something. His definition neutralizes the spiritual flavor that accompanies the widespread outlook on the issue of trance. In the same light trance is generally seen by modern psychologists who characterize trance as a form of sleep, or dreamlike awareness or a kind of altered state of consciousness. Trance has long been associated with hypnotic states, addictions, religions and work. According to Dennis Wier, Executive Director of the Trance Research Foundation,  trance states are much more common than is normally believed. If the unusual trance- state of a shaman or a yogi is desirable, than people are tempt to believe that all trance states are desirable states. In his researches Wier focused on pathological forms of trance used by designers of television advertisers in order to manipulate consumer tastes. Based on his findings concludes that in western societies it is precisely pathological trance, not the yogic or religious trance, that permeates most of our waking reality.

I would like to place in my work the triggering experience of trance back to framework of religion. The search for a transformation of human nature is one of the main purposes of religious mysticism. Concepts of spiritual perfection, omnipotence, omniscience are not only forms of conceptualizing the divine in itself but also different ways of imagining the perfect nature toward which the mystic strives.

Two Concepts of Transformation
In the Neoplatonic concept of the “universal soul” to which the human soul cleaves by an act of ascent has trance its place during the ascending. Western concept of transformation is shaped by Plato’s definition that spiritual principle is placed outside of human body. If we agree that content of the intellect must correspond with the semantic understanding, than Divinity and human being are completely separated entities in the western societies. If God is transcendental – long expectations and longings are major conditions of the experience and its nature. For this concept of spirituality is characteristic a great gap between Divinity and created world that needs to be bridged and transformed in order to come closer to the perfect higher world. From this condition emerged the need for Mediator and Transformer as we can in it’s clearest form see in the Christianity but also in Judaism where the Holy man has his social function as well.

Human spiritual apparatus is build by his education and therefore we find correlation between expectations and experience. As an example I would like to use the famous remark of Gershom Scholem that we will hardly find a Buddhist monk who had a vision of Virgin Mary. The religious mystical experience of a Buddhist will be introverted according to his social education in contrast of transcendental mystical experience of a Christian. What I consider important to mark out that the both of them will describe their mystical experience as a moment of plentitude.

If the first, Western, concept of transformation of human nature we can see as building of relationship between World and the Creator, the second, Eastern, way of spirituality we can name as path of Discovery of the truth. The Eastern concept of spiritual transformation is by its nature less extreme and difficult to achieve. Every human being is invited to the path of transformation leading from misunderstanding the discovery of the truth and reality through knowing and opening once consciousness. Hinduists are concerned with noetic revelation of the identity of Brahman and Ataman. Buddhists aim is to achieve the clarity in which they see things, as they are – impermanent, unsatisfactory, without essence. That’s why Buddhist meditation cultivates awareness and the full consciousness is important during trance states.

The Methodology and the Problem of Cross-cultural Generalization
Before I continue my paper I would like to point out a few important facts that I try to avoid and eliminate during my short survey on trance. I am fully aware of my limited research sources and literature as well as experience for using the qualitative methodology for composing work about such a broad topic.

I do not intent simply to compare two concepts of religion and look for similarities and differences. Also the cultural meaning of religion differs in different nations, depending on their unique histories. The Western secularized societies can not be combined and compared with traditional once. Or to follow some older anthropological field works on different societies take out the data and measurements also do not make sense.

I would rather present my paper as a lengthy essay about one unusual experience human being can encounter. I attempt to pinpoint some examples how is the experience of trance viewed by different societies, religions, through the history and in scholarship.

Trance and Science
I noticed certain development in focus and in approach of scholars to trance during my search through the secondary literature. While the earliest work done on the various form of the ecstatic religious experience is dealing mainly with the philosophy of the religion and it’s concepts of world view and mostly omits the techniques and experiences – as the example the works of M. Eliade, Edward Conze or G. Scholem. The researches accomplished on trance during the sixties and seventies decades of the last century are very empirical and focused on taking measurements of the mystical experience. The latest books and articles on various forms of trance published during the previous decade are less concerned with the technical aspect and more look for the cultural and social meaning of trance states eg. W. Hanegraaff, M. Idel or P. Wexler.

Dr. Felicitas Goodman describes how seriously was science immersed in taking measurements of trance as a completely new phenomena the Western scholars discovered. Religious trance is not in Western religions available to broad public. It is viewed generally more as a Divine gift to pious mystic and not a question of mastering of a technique. During sixties trance was approached as a single dynamic psychological process. The laboratory researches measured processes in the brain and in the whole body. “In the blood serum, the compounds indicating stress, namely, adrenaline, noradrenalin, and cortisol, dropped, and at the same time, there was evidence that the brain started synthesizing beta-endorphin, the miracle painkiller of the body, which is also responsible for the intense joy felt after a trance. The EEG exhibited not the famous alpha waves, so well known from meditation, but a steady stream of the even slower theta waves, in the range 6-7 cps, usually seen only in bursts shortly before a subject goes to sleep, or in deep Zen meditation. Most puzzling, blood pressure dropped, and simultaneously, the pulse started to rise. Under ordinary conditions, I was told, physicians see this kind of paradoxical behaviour of the body only under extreme conditions, such as when a patient bleeds to death or is about to die.”

Goodman is just an example of broad range of studies that by using Western science and philosophy confirmed for the Western world the existence of trance as an experience that broad range of people can encounter. What I consider a main problem of the researches from this period is that Western science for lengthy period isolated and studied trance without any cultural, social and religious framework focusing on trance only as on psychological changes occurring in certain conditions in human brain. The use of trance as an empirical foundation for a spiritual worldview is an example of the psychologizing of religion and sacralization of psychology. Just to name one leading figure in this field I would like to mention S. Grof as the leading empirical researcher in transpersonal psychology. In Prague and in the USA he conducted several thousands LSD sessions in a clinical psychiatric setting. He concluded that LSD as the tool producing trance stated (Goodman used drums and rattle in order to bring about the subjects to trance states) and apart for producing drug-specific hallucinations, in fact greatly facilitated access to the subconscious. For Grof and other trance was the adventure of Self-discovery, personal growth and psychiatric healing. The powerful experience of trance was left without religious meaning of both – Western or Eastern traditional cultures.

International counterculture of the late sixties and seventies influenced the encounter with Eastern understanding to the spirituality. The classical concept of Western Spirituality of Dwelling (God is found in places as church or synagogue and there is no essential element o a personal faith – faith is inherited by being born into an established church) was among the young generation replaced by belief in Spirituality of Seeking. That pays virtually no attention to the contrast between sacred and profane, but concentrates on mixture of spiritual and rational, ethical and soteriological, individual and collective activities whereby the person in modern societies seeks meaning in life. I am inserting here one more comical than scholarly quotation but very accurately illustrating the social and religious transformation of that time: “’Jeremy,’ you could hear some unregenerate hippie’s mother says, ‘is a Seeker. He came back from Bombay very thin, the poor dear, but looking exactly like St Francis of Assisi.’”

Against above given background the western scholars during the past fifteen years started to analyze what has an impact on shaping of the mystical experience. Having available enormous amount of information based on empirical measurements, anthropological field works, translations of classical texts etc. and living in pluralistic period of post-modernity when no topic is considered marginal many interesting works can be now found in the libraries. Under the new social circumstances the Westerner had to borrow such words as smadhi or moksha from the Hindus, or satori or kensho from the Japanese, to describe the experience of oneness with the universe.

M. Idel highlights in his works previously overlooked importance of ecstatic experience in Jewish Kabbalah. P. Wexler considers what we call the New religious movements to be continuity of the alchymistic and occult movements in western societies – which demonstrate the permanent need of human for some direct form of mystical, ecstatic practice. Just to mentioned two examples.

Trance and society
As I mentioned earlier in mystical experience we can find correlation between the nature of Divinity and technical structure of experience. The sociologist Mary Douglas is expanding the above theory with the claim that the position of religious trance in society is reflecting also how rigid or loose is the social structure of certain communities.

What is interesting for sociologist on the rituals of religious trance is how the roles are distributed: whether it is practiced by all, by all males or by all females, by specialists chosen by birth or by trained and initiated specialists. While looking at the trance states Douglas focuses in attitudes to varying degrees of bodily control and considerations of trance as a danger, whether to the person in trance or to others. With growing sense of danger in trance there are highly specialized trance roles. Also the benefits attributed to trance will be narrowly defined where social control by doctrine and group is more intense. She concludes that trance like states are feared as dangerous where the social dimension of religion is under strong control, because strong social control demands strong bodily control. The Western Christianity can be seen as and example that supports her theory.

In a different light will be seen trance in societies with more complex system of classification of cosmology and where exist stronger pressure on each individual to maintain it. There the social intercourse will take place also between disembodied spirits. As an example of such societies Douglas sees cultures benefiting from shamanism or spirit possession and where rituals of trance are important during the rituals of passage or for keeping cosmology in harmony.

Trance and Human Body
Another, I would say the most striking difference is the approach of towards human body in Western and Eastern religious concepts. Western theologies are shaped by Plato’s concept of spirit/body or good/bad and therefore the function of the human body is reduced or excluded from mysticism. As we can see on the examples of Desert Fathers and more preciously in the first systematic work on Christian mysticism Mystical Theology written by Pseudo Dionysius Areopagita body is great obstacle during mystical practice. Besides being considered to be a tool of devil during the attacks on holiness of mystic Pseudo Dionysius analyzed problematic psychological states during mystical practice, named them as various cases of melancholy caused by various demons.

The exception of the above framework is the work of Ignac of Loyola. He described in details mystical exercise including body postures and breathing techniques. According to him only complete exercise of body and mind can be preparation towards reception of Divine grace. In Jewish mysticism and especially in ecstatic Kabbalah we can find in manuscripts detailed descriptions how should Kabbalist sit or stand in order to achieve the desired mystical state of mind. The leading figure of the stream of the ecstatic Kabbalah Abraham Abulafia is even pictured in one of the preserved manuscript in standing posture during his practice.

The active usage of body postures and techniques we can find in shamanism as well as in archaic Eastern civilizations – figure holding yoga posture known as proto-Shiva was found during the excavations in Mohenjo-daro.

Trance in Shamanism and Possession
The hallmark of religious performance in the local cults all over the Asia were and are transic states known as possession. Buddhism and also Brahmanism were diametrically opposed to total loss of normal awareness. Because in awareness are beside it cognitive activity present also ethical aspects: attention, carefulness, conscientiousness, and diligence. Even in spite of the fact that yoga is conductive to the Altered States of Consciousness with the roots in shamanistic practice or possession (during the sacrifices priests used hallucinogenic drink soma and achieved ASC showed similar signs as possessions during the stages of transition). During the later period when yoga became institutionalized body and breath control became the essential part of the practiced also the Transic State is different from possession. Yogi can enter the ASC and come out of them voluntary.

Transic State of possession is tied with memory lose after being cured of involuntary or uncontrolled states. Eliade divided shamanism and possession, claiming that shaman is not possessed, only his soul is coming out of the body, ascent or travelers, communicate with Divine and returns to his body. But later sources agree generally that shaman can be consciously possessed and later relieve the spirit. These rituals are known as: Reincarnate possession, Tutelary possession, and oracular possession.

The phenomena of possession have a sense of immediacy centralized around the belief that human can enter into a direct and very personal communication with another world.

Buddhist scriptures describe 360 kinds of evil devils who act against doctrine and attempt to cause harm to men. Beside these, there are other kinds of evil spirits according to folk belief (Nat spirits in Burma, Btsan in Ladakh or Phii in Thailand). In folk cosmology we can trace the influence of Indian culture, the further we go, the influence decrease. But in Buddhist societies is clearly accepted that the existence of the spirits is irrelevant to one’s fate at death or to spiritual progress and has nothing to do with Buddhist doctrine.

Possession belief and possession trance has long tradition in Western history as it appears in both Hebrew and Greek roots of Western society. As the earliest historical examples we can mention the ancient traditions of shamanism of Northern Eurasia as one stream with influence on Western cultures. The example of other tradition we can see in the Delphic oracle of Apollo. Judaism of the Second Temple period had acquired much of their belief in number of demons from the Parses; at the level of orthodox rabbinical interpretation, they did not think of the possessing demons as entirely evil but rather as subject to God, even as his agents of punishment. The demons of the Jews were usually demons of something specific – of an unclean place, of death, of corpses, of cemeteries, of a specific symptom of illness, the demon of asthma for example. The most known is the belief in one type of possessing spirit, called dybbuk, who was the soul a dead person, the spirit had to be exorcised.

Through the history of Christian Church the belief in possession crystallized in two antipode possibilities – the spirit entering body from outside can be either personified as Devil or as Holy Ghost. In both cases there is a convention that during the trance the host himself is absent from his own body. Thus there is no memory of what took place while the person was in trance.

Possession behaviour is considered to be a form of cultural behaviour and could be learned through imitating or a direct learning. The most studied form of possession in the western societies is the behaviour of the Pentecostal congregations known as glossolalia or speaking in tongues. I found interesting to notice that some researchers don’t approach the ecstatic states of charismatics as possessions – even the belief in Holy Spirit entering human body is directly involved but are only considered about the state of trance into which the members of the Pentecostal Church frequently fall. The most of  the work written on this topic is very descriptive and empirical but omits the social functions of the ecstatic states as well as serious study what is the role of body and its postures, how they reflect the society. Or what is the place and role of the Holy Spirit in today post-modern society. Not only on glossolalia but on other forms of ecstatic states in present western societies there is a lot of work waiting to be done by scholars of religious studies or sociology. Because only recently western scholarship started to take other, then official forms of religions, seriously.

Beside the growing favor in Neo-Shamanism in post-modern western societies we can look up and find constant presence of folk healers and various prognostics filling up the exactly same function as is required from shamans in the traditional societies. Someone, who can serve as mediator between worlds of human and spirits.

In any case I don’t consider this sketchy work to cover the issue of religious trance in Western and Eastern societies entirely. But can we ever absorb and describe such a fluid, transcendental event such the ecstatic experience is? It is indeed powerful experience for human belonging to the Eastern as well as to the Western societies, either of them doesn’t stop to strive for the experience and consider it fascinating. Nevertheless the Western science tested trance without it cultural and religious background, people have never stop to see trance connected to the spiritual world – in secular Western societies people tend to give spiritual/religious dimension even to trance states caused by drugs. For the Eastern societies, where is trance far more studied and wanted experience, it is not considered to be an ordinary event. But also there is perceived as a unique spiritual experience human can achieve.

We can only wish that Western scholars would dedicate new studies with sensitive and open approach to transic experience. That Western society will not abuse the pathological forms of trance for futile earthly goals or pleasures and trance in the East as well in the West will stay as a special experience bringing happiness to the all beings.

About the Author: Jitka Cirklová

I completed Ph.D. at The Charles University in Prague, Faculty of Social Sciences, department of Sociology. My research interests focus on the varieties of contemporary religiosity and spiritual practice.  I am interested in local modification and variation of religious organizations, trying to define the influence and the effects of the local social settings causing divergence of the religious communities. Also I observe the value models influenced by religion and the forms of intergeneration transmission of religiosity and religious values.  I lecture B.A. and M.A. level Social Anthropology courses. The topics of the courses are very closely touching issues of contemporary religiosity, post-colonialism, inter/intra cultural exchanges.


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