Reflections on Introducing the Cuyamungue Method

by Laura Lee 

As Felicitas often said, this powerful technique must be one that our nervous system and physiology already know how to do, so effective and natural it is — even for the first-timer. And, it’s one the body wants to do. Some day we’ll be measuring benefits far beyond the few that we know or sense, such as the dramatic increase in endorphins. And yet, the most difficult part of introducing this work is to explain exactly what to do once the rattling or drumming begins.

There are several contributing factors to this. One is that our culture has lost knowledge of this. Not the ability, but the knowledge, and with that, our understanding of what is going on and how normal and natural it is. Our body knows how to shift into a gear we have little intellectual understanding of. Part of the barrier is that we have come to trust the intellect more than “body wisdom.” We like our “cause and effect” well laid out, which is difficult to do in the uncharted territory of the psyche.

Our culture is so unfamiliar of such turf that the very the notion of altered states raises suspicion, so vested are we in our Newtonian, “what-you-see-is-what-you-get” view of the world. Happily, this is changing. The further the leading edge of science and Quantum Physics peers into the fabric of reality, the more it concludes that matter doesn’t exist as we know it and experience it. The universe is a sea of (take your pick) Intelligence, consciousness, energy, vibration. The trajectory of our worldview is slowly, broadly marching back to where it began. It will come full circle to the worldview of our earliest ancestors, whose experience of the universe included this realm as well as those hinted at by modern science.

In “The River Why” (pg 53-54) David James Duncan compares native intelligence with non-native. The indigenous, earth-based stance, aligned with the web of life, shows us how hampered we are today by artificial boundaries.
….A native is a man or creature or plant indigenous to a limited geographical area–a space boundary and defined by mountains, rivers or coastline (not by latitudes, longitudes or state and county lines), with its own peculiar mixture of weeds, trees, bugs, birds, flowers, streams, hills, rocks and critters (including people), its own nuances of rain, wind and seasonal change. Native intelligence develops through an unspoken or soft-spoken relationship with these interwoven things: it evolves as the native involves himself in his region. A non-native awakes in the morning in a body in a bed in a room in a building on a street in a county in a state in a nation. A native awakes in the center of a little cosmos–or a big one, if his intelligence is vast–and he wears this cosmos like a robe, sensing the barely perceptible shiftings, migrations, moods, and machinations of it creatures, its growing green things, its earth and sky…..most often where the earth, air, fire and water have been least bamboozled by men and machines.

I believe that our worldview, our map of the universe at large, will someday (perhaps sooner than we think) include such an experiential understanding of the cosmos. This will rock the foundations of a science which strives for “Truth” based only upon objective evidence that excludes us, its subject. But already science is finding that Objective vs. Subjective is one more limiting, artificial boundary. The sages of long ago did pretty well with Self as the instrument, the Universe as the lab. Science is starting to reconfirm what they always knew.

I am continually awed by the key pieces that Felicitas added to this puzzle. She made several  insights that led her to “rediscover” the Cuyamungue Method. I say rediscover, as the evidence suggests that cultures all over the world, through time, figured this out too. One insight was to cook down the common elements of the ritual that induced “the inward gaze” to its universal elements, thus releasing the practice from any dogma or doctrine. Another was that not all altered states are the same. While her mentor, anthropologist Erika Bourguignon was studying “dissociative” states where seemingly the trancer ‘left the body’, Felicitas was following the trail to that state of expanded awareness in which the doors of perception were thrown open to a wider realm, all the while firmly anchored in this realm. We may stand with full awareness in this realm while we journey through the parallel realm, the “alternate reality”. That’s the innate gift of our physiology  — that we can be simultaneously in both. Our brains find “beta/theta” healing and enjoyable, not a strain.

The waking state is just one slice of a wide spectrum. Pathological, imbalanced, mentally ill states once gave all altered states the bad rap of psychosis. Several decades of the self-help and conscious-expanding movement have changed that, though our language lags behind. Take the word trance. Such a nice word, with fun extensions: “trance-form” and “entrance”. The problem is that what the word means to me is not necessarily what it means to everyone else. Trance has quite a range of definitions, from “half-conscious state between waking and sleeping in which the ability to function voluntarily may be suspended” to “a dazed or bewildered condition” to “unconscious, cataleptic, or hypnotic condition”. None of the above describes the Cuyamungue Method. Better is “a state of complete mental absorption or deep musing,” and “to entrance, to enrapture” hints at the ecstatic nature of the experience, but both still widely miss the mark. Then there’s “temporary state in which a medium, with suspension of personal consciousness, is controlled by an intelligence from without and used as a means of communication, as from the dead.” Certainly, there are altered states that do that, as Bourguignon was studying. But that is not this, not by a long shot. Going to the etymological origin of the word, we can trace it back to the Middle Ages, a time of extreme fear and judgement over any and all altered states (though they did deem as saints a few who spontaneously entered blissful altered states). “Traunce” was a state of extreme dread, swooning in a dazed state.”  There’s a hint of the shamanic in the root word, “transir” in the sense of “passage, passing over” from life to death. Yes, the word “trance” is loaded with land mines, really not adequate to describe the work that we do. Altered state, yes. Trance in the various dictionary definitions of the words, no.

We need a variety of words to describe the variety of healthy, healing altered states that are our birthright. We can liken this to those cultures who live in perpetual snow country, with words to differentiate each texture, each nuance of snow. Compare that to those who have never seen any snow and can hardly believe that frozen drops of water could float down from the sky, or those that so rarely deal with it they lump all manner of snow into one. The more you explore, the more terms you coin to label what you find.

It will get easier when we have a better way to language all of this. The act of closing one’s eyes to tune inward is now so well known with various types of meditation that people assume that this too, is a relaxation technique, one of quieting the mind, and going into the void. Quite the opposite! Felicitas used to tell the story of how everyone in the kiva took to this work quite naturally, but for the those versed in meditation techniques who were emptying the mind. “With every image that came up, they’d be emptying, emptying,” she explained. “I had to tell them, go with it, see where the image leads, it is the beginning of the journey.” This is such an active trance that an innovative way of measuring the DC voltage of the brain activity during this work found an increase of ten to twenty fold.

At least we’ve put altered states of consciousness back into the equation, with neurologists telling us we go in and out of slightly altered states an average of fifty times a day. Some we enter naturally: looking at a sunset, daydreaming. Or just turn on a television in a darkened room; you’ll quickly enter a mildly altered state. Part of the power of the medium, and its commercial messages, is that they are delivered to you in a highly receptive state of mind. There is something to do with the flickering lights dancing in the dark that works its magic upon our brains. Our ancestors gathered around the nightly campfire knew this well, and I think the rattling and drumming, the “sonic driving” known to activate the physiological shift, is cut of the same cloth.  Recent studies suggest that fast, steady rhythmic beats preoccupies the left hemisphere, thus allowing the right hemisphere, home of mystical and expansive states, to predominate. Drums, rattles, clapping of hands, singing: simple, readily available tools we’ve had from the beginning of the human story. In our high-tech age, I tip my hat to the Creator who built into our body and brain such simple, readily available avenues of activation to higher states.

Yet, so enduring is the antiquated notion that going into trance means becoming a sort of zombie or automaton that the husband of one participant, while entirely supportive of his wife attending our workshop, declined our invitation to join us. “I don’t like to loose control,” he said. We explained that in fact, you don’t loose control; you remain awake and aware and the lab tests, showing beta brain waves — the waking state of normal activity — throughout, confirm that. In fact, the significant aspect of this type of altered state is that you remain in beta while simultaneously experiencing theta brain waves — the state of dreaming in deep sleep. So, you are awake while dreaming — a waking dream of sorts. Furthermore, we told him, you are always in control and can shut this process down at any time, and your body knows to return to normal waking state when the rattling ends. We further explained that in fact, one’s self-control is so complete you must decide to allow the physiology to make the shift, to the point that staying in ‘beta brain’ where the Inner Critic is chattering away is a sure way to delay the process. It isn’t stepping out of one’s body and mind, as he feared, but, anchored there, taking a step into an expanded, inner state of awareness.

I liken it to a vehicle built to downshift…upshift….glide into the gear that best gets it to where it wants to go. Here we are in our ‘earth-suits’, the physical ‘vehicle’ designed to navigate through our all-to-brief sojourn on this planet. How thrilling to learn, from direct experience, that, just as the mystics have been saying all along, there is a parallel realm to this physical reality, and our earth suits come equipped to journey in that realm too! What’s more, this is a realm well-traveled, and every culture that has been there reports the same landscape: upper, middle and lower worlds; the Tree of Life. That’s why we find, in the myth and folklore of the world, hints of the spirit journeys countless others have taken before us.

One of the joys of teaching this is to witness the exhilaration, especially in those newly finding their ‘wings,’ that they can do this, and what a delightful and profound ride it is. The inner screen upon which we dream, imagine, and remember is the same inner screen employed in our spirit journeys. We are flexing muscles we already know and use, in a new way. It’s like a waking dreaming, but not dreaming. It’s like letting our mind wander in a daydream, but not wandering, not a daydream. It’s using our imagination, but not projecting what we want to imagine. We have called the spirits to join us, and they set the scene, they are taking us on this spirit journey. We are engaging with a force larger than ourselves. As we say in our workshops, and this is true be it a group of one, or many: we simply create the container, and hold the space, while the spirits set the curriculum. Once “there” (that is, once we’ve allowed the physiological shift to happen) we have volition and can participate. In our “Initiation Workshop,” Lena, new to this work, told us how her real adventures in this realm began when in a cave, she met a friendly dragon who asked her where she wanted to go. “Outside,” she replied, and the dragon whisked her off to tour the at once familiar, the at once mysterious landscape.