The Brain and Ecstatic Trance

by Belinda Gore

Senior teachers around the world are invited to become members of the Certified Instructors Network and to participate in conference calls to discuss new research and review information that relates to teaching The Cuyamungue Method and our practice of Ecstatic Trance. Recently we had a great discussion about how the brain functions during the expanded state of consciousness that we call Ecstatic Trance.

Let’s start with a review from over a decade ago. In the spring of 1999 Deborah Milton visited the Human Energy Systems Lab at the University of Arizona and spoke with researchers Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek. Deborah was hooked up to a nineteen electrode EEG cap, with three of the electrodes linked with EKG equipment, thereby monitoring her brain activity and heart rate while holding Ecstatic Body Postures in the lab. To provide control data, Deborah first held the Chiltan Spirits posture – used for healing – for fifteen minutes, then a control posture without sound, then the Lady of Cholula – used for divination – for fifteen minutes and another control session for a final fifteen minutes. Her brain activity during the healing session demonstrated what the Lab identified as “unitive consciousness,” the desired outcome of many spiritual practices, and the Lady of Cholula readings were consistent with the presence of dialogue. She was hearing the Lady and it was measured! Deborah has written about her experience in earlier issues of this newsletter.

Around the same time, during the summer and autumn of 1999, Nana Nauwald was working with the Director of the Institute for Communication and Brain Research in Stuttgart, Germany, Gunter Haffelder. In her interview with him, published in the May 2000 issue of this newsletter, Haffelder suggested that one way the brain is impacted by ritual postures is through the effect of muscular tension activating the production and release of neurotransmitters, many with healing potential, including melatonin which is usually released during darkness. Through repeated trance experiences, the body learns to produce new and more endorphins, creating an ongoing positive field for the practitioner. At the same time that our experiences are charging new neural connections, we are also gaining access to old information stored in the muscle fascia as well as in the brainstem. It is an optimal blending of past and future!

Haffelder also recognized the effect of group practice, as in a workshop, where the synchronization of participants with the rhythm of the rattle is magnified by the vibration of the whole group at the same rate in the same space, enhancing the depth of the experience. This effect functions to bring the resonance of the group to the level of the highest resonance in the group., much as a healer resonates with the patient and helps transform the “sick matrix” to the more balanced matrix field of the healer. We acknowledge this powerful effect when we train our instructors how to hold the highest possible levels of consciousness, a high vibration to use another term, so their groups can move into higher resonance in their contact with the spirits.

((Paul: this could be part II if you want…))

Recently James Lawer contributed another article on brain functioning. I have used Jill Bolte Taylors’ book “My Stroke of Insight” (and her outstanding talk on TED) to explain that, in her terms, subduing the rational, analytic left-hemisphere of the cerebral cortex of the brain allows the more holistic right brain to open into expansive states of awareness. As a neurophysiologist, Dr. Taylor was able to identify what was happening in her brain when a stroke cause her to lose access to her left brain functioning for periods of time. Two important things happened. Without the left brain, she could not read a telephone book or use a telephone to call for help. At the same time, she experienced mystical states of spiritual enlightenment easily and naturally. We have proposed that the Cuyamungue Method assists us in similarly subduing the left brain through holding the tension of an unusual posture, activating the brainstem and right brain structures that register body awareness. In addition the breathing exercise calms the active left brain and the rattle or drumming sound have a similar effect. We have in the past proposed that the ritual of The Cuyamungue Method opens us to our natural capacity for holistic and even mystical states of expanded consciousness.

In his article and in the Network conference call, Jim shared with us the newer language of brain research. Rather than focusing on the left hemisphere functions, Task Positive Network (TPN) that includes wiring into both hemispheres is activated when we are focused in the external world. The Default Mode Network (DMN) that supports our sense of identity and our capacity for introspection is predominantly in the right hemisphere but also has wiring in the left side of the brain. While these are usually described as discrete circuits, Jim suggests that we have a third capacity through which we relate to the reality of the spirit world, external to our sense of self but accessed through our inner world experiences. Rather than creating the usual competition between the flow of blood and energy consumption between the TPN and the DMN, practice with activating the third capacity allows us to have a whole-brain experience, providing integration rather than competition. This capacity was demonstrated in brain studies after the use of psilocybin and seems easily applicable to the state we know as ecstatic trance.

Jim describes the Cuyamungue Method as “an intentionally structured fusion of states – in which the Method induces a planned ambiguity – that looks in some ways like early stages of a psychotic episode.” Of course the use of the ritual posture and the sound of the rattle to cue the nervous system to enter this “zone of ambiguity” is an important distinction between psychosis and spiritual experience. I agree with Jim that we need to emphasize in our teaching that we are inviting people to enter this zone of ambiguity and to cultivate, through repeated experience, a trust in surrendering to a shift in consciousness. Rather than having a psychotic experience we have spiritually mature access to the very real world of the spirits. The Cuyamungue Method offers a specific methodology to guide our own consciousness into this “heightened plasticity,” to use Jim’s excellent term, so that we are able to be fully present, conscious and alert, while interacting with the literal spirit world, a dimension that offers us immense possibilities for healing ourselves and the world.