The Cuyamungue Method consists of six fundamental steps in the practice of ecstatic trance. This method is available to ordinary people who have the same inherent capacity to interact with the world of spirit as priests, shamans, and other religious specialists around the world.
- Preparing oneself
- Establishing sacred space
- Quieting the mind
- Stimulating the nervous system
- Undertaking a ritual, in this case through the use of a ritual posture
- The Return
Psychological preparation is as simple as anticipating the experience of trance with positive expectation: this is something beneficial to me and I will come away from the experience feeling better about myself and about the world. During the ritual in preparation for ecstatic trance, we use smudging as a way to clean out the mental and emotional cobwebs and to become psychologically ready to shift into an alternate state of consciousness. The practice of smudging has been revived with the current interest in Native American spirituality. In churches and temples the counterpart is the use of incense. We burn a fragrant herb or resin to create smoke that cleanses both the space and each individual’s personal space or energy field. Placing a stone in a large flat shell or fireproof pottery, you can burn a piece of charcoal (there are small, self-lighting briquettes sold in religious stores or wherever you can buy incense) and put a little bit of sage or cedar, or a chunk of resin like copal on it. Drawing the smoke over your head and body, you are clearing away energetic stuffiness. The traditions say that smoke lives in both worlds, the visible physical world because we can see it but also in the spirit world because it has not substance.
ESTABLISHING SACRED SPACE
Once prepared, the next step is to establish sacred space. Churches and temples are the spaces traditionally used for spiritual rituals but we can create sacred space anywhere using a few simple steps to create a safe container for the experience of transcendence, a container that by definition has well defined boundaries and the protection from intrusion and interruptions. Choose your space well. It is important to create a beautiful space as well, perhaps with lit candles and flowers, also components of many religious services. An altar establishes the center focus and is the place to put all of the ritual materials, like rattle, smudge pot, and candles, as well as any special sacred objects that are meaningful to you.
In our practice we invite the spirits to be with us by awakening the spirit of the rattle or drum and using it to call upon those in the east, north, west, and south, and above and below. Following any invocation, one offers a gift. The gift we give is a pinch of cornmeal, returning the gift of the Corn Mothers who, according to Pueblo tradition, gave their bodies so the people could eat.
QUIETING THE MIND
The ever-present internal chatter effectively interferes in the shift of consciousness required for ecstasy. People have used various hallucinogens to suppress this function but that adds additional risk, both physically and legally. A simple alternative is to learn the fundamental meditative practice of emptying the mind, usually with a breathing technique. We suggest sitting comfortably and beginning to count your breathing. On the inhalation, notice the rising of your chest, and as that breath naturally releases, count that as one breath. Then take in a second breath, expand your chest slowly and release, and count “two”. Inevitably the mind begins to wander-is this the right way? what do I look like? remember the last time I meditated or tried to, what was it that I wanted to remember to do this afternoon? and on and on. When that happens, just bring the focus of awareness back to the breath and the counting. Slowly, the chatter dies down and our sense of presence in the moment deepens. We suggest using a count of fifty breaths prior to using a ritual posture for trance, counting ten breaths, holding down one finger, then repeating that four more times.
STIMULATING THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
While in meditation we learn to calm both mind and body, in the practice of ecstasy the nervous system must be stimulated. Our method is to use a drum or rattle to create a steady even rhythm of about 200 beats per minute, a beat that is consistent with ceremonial rhythms at the corn dances and animal dances of the Pueblo Indians who are our neighbors at the Cuyamungue Institute. In order to initiate the change in consciousness that we know as ecstasy, you have to do something to the body. Little children induce mild states of ecstasy when they delight in spinning, again and again on the merry-go-round or twirling their bodies until they fall on the grass giggling. Clapping, dancing, chanting and singing all have a similar effect. Harsher and more demanding stimulants like flagellation, long periods of deprivation, and various kinds of naturally occurring drugs, are also effective and all have been traditionally used by shamans and other religious specialists to induce ecstatic transcendence.
The beauty of working with ritual postures is that they are so subtle that simple drumming or rattling is sufficient and cannot be misused with dangerous consequences. The sound affects the brain so that rational processes are subdued and other functions are stimulated. Given the precision of this means of stimulating the brain and nervous system, it is possible to enter the trance state on cue, with the beginning of the sound of the rattle accompanied by a ritual posture, and even more importantly to return from the altered state, on cue. This latter capacity distinguishes intentional journeys into Alternate Reality from the random wanderings of people with psychotic disorders, who cannot choose when the shift in consciousness occurs nor where the shift will take them.
Simply stimulating the body, and more specifically the nervous system, will not provide a religious experience. Felicitas learned in her early research that given all four of the previous conditions, her subjects would certainly experience shifts in consciousness but none had what might be called a spiritual experience or an ecstatic trance. Ritual aligns the body like a key in a lock, opening the door to perception through alternative “organs” that let us see, hear, smell, and feel waves of energy that we have learned to screen out. Ritual body postures are just that: rituals performed by the body as it holds a stance in a very specific way.
Felicitas wrote that “ritual is the means of communication for the spirits, as important as speech is to us.” We know that a ritual is correct because when it is, something happens. What is it that happens experientially in this aroused ecstatic state? It is essentially a three-stage process. First we make the shift of consciousness and open to it. We surrender our stubborn attachment to the world as defined by ego and allow ourselves to be taken into other dimensions. It has been my experience in working with hundreds and hundreds of people in both workshops and counseling settings that we are never taken further than we can go while still maintaining the conscious awareness of the observing ego. The point is not to lose consciousness but to expand it. It is also true that in the expansive movement we never explode but always retain the boundary of self-aware existence within the personal self. Guided by the spirits whose home we visit, we are then trained by them to continually expand and receive, expand and receive, moving through first the step of seeing colors and forms, then of perceiving animals, and finally of stepping into the dimension of ecstasy in which we are at one with these multiple worlds.
It is then time to close the expansion, to pull back slowly and carefully. In ecstatic trance workshops and groups, we suggest that when the rattling or drumming stops at the conclusion of a fifteen minute session, that people remind themselves to change their positions, to move out of the ritual posture, and to breathe slowly for a few minutes, reviewing the experiences of trance. Then it is best to document what occurred, through writing about the experience or sharing it verbally, or both. Just as in dreams, the dominant rational functioning of the left brain can override the subtler trance, no matter how powerful it was in the moment. To retain the memory it is important to set down memory tracks in the left brain as well.
It is then time to close the expansion, to pull back slowly and carefully. In ecstatic trance workshops and groups, we suggest that when the rattling or drumming stops at the conclusion of a fifteen minute session, that people remind themselves to change their positions, to move out of the ritual posture, and to breathe slowly for a few minutes, reviewing the experiences of trance. Sometimes a drink of water helps with the grounding our nervous system. Then it is best to document what occurred, through writing or sketching about the experience. We then have an opportunity to share our stories in the talking circle with no interpretation, though insights and inter-connections begin to bubble up and excitement begins to generate. Just as in dreams, the dominant rational functioning of the left brain can override the subtler trance, no matter how powerful it was in the moment. To retain the memory it is important to set down memory tracks in the left brain as well.
In order to better ground the inner experience, some form of expression is ideal. People may create a dance to express what occurred, or perhaps paint, draw, or collage images from the experiences. Others write poetry. Whatever your hands and body create is a gift back to the spirits and to the community.