Techniques exist that can tweak the human nervous system so as to induce trance and other altered states of consciousness, and these were present at the roots of Christian liturgy.
Techniques to seeing the divine? Human beings have for at least 100 thousand years devised ways to enter into the sacred through visions and other altered states of consciousness. So says scholars Felicitas Goodman and John Pilch.
Pilch explains there is good reason to hold that it is likely Australopithecines (1.4 million years ago) and Neanderthals (100,000—35,000 years ago) together with early homo sapiens also experienced and induced trance (Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams “The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Cave”).
What do religious labors, vigils, periods of silence, and ascetic exercises have to do with going into trance and experiencing visions? Why did Christians originally fast, anyway? What can cognitive neuroscience teach us about these and various vision experiences in the Bible? Watch the video below…
Techniques to See the Invisible
Over some the past few blog posts (see here and here), we’ve been talking about altered states of consciousness experience. According to Arnold Ludwig, an ASC is “any mental state(s) induced by various physiological, psychological, or pharmacological maneuvers or agents, which can be recognized subjectively by the individual himself (or by an objective observer of the individual) as representing a sufficient deviation in subject experiences or psychological functioning from certain general norms for that individual during alert, waking consciousness” (“Altered States of Consciousness,” pp. 9-10).
Scripture scholar John Pilch would say that God has hardwired humankind for these ASC experiences. We are biologically made for them. We can and have devised techniques to enter them. But some cultures do their damnedest to block these ASC experiences. People within said cultures (I am looking at you, mainstream American white folk), unless they are sleeping or under controlled substances, readily dismiss and block ASCs.
Human beings really are the capacity for holy and absolute Mystery—God. This human capacity for “God” can be thought of as “alternate reality” with help from the social sciences and insights from cognitive neuroscience.
Is It Really Possible?
But how does one enter into or induce a trance state and encounter holy Mystery? In general, cognitive neuroscientists and anthropologists agree that at all times and in all places human beings have been capable of and actually entered into a variety of altered states of consciousness. The ability to voluntarily or involuntarily shift between different states of awareness is a function all people have. You are capable of this, fellow dying inmate.
You’ve been doing it your whole life and you are doing it right now. Perhaps you read this from pragmatic consciousness that you call “the real world”? But thousands of times per day you slip into and out of different states of consciousness. None of these ASCs, including this one you are in right now, are static.
If you drink alcohol you know the effects of at least a couple different altered states. Ever drive somewhere and safely arrive but can’t remember the trip?—that’s highway hypnosis, or “road trance,” yet another ASC. And surely you’ve daydreamed, right? And just like these can be induced in you, so too can visions, ecstatic trance, and sky journeys (Revelation 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10 where “in spirit” means John is in trance). It’s part of the basic physiological makeup of all human beings. And you don’t need anything dubious and harmful injected, inhaled, or imbibed in order to enter alternate reality.
The Bible is filled from Genesis to Revelation with examples of ASCs. All humans, Jesus included, possess brains and nervous systems with the same basic functions. Therefore we can study these human universals and learn how trances and other ASC experiences happen. Consequently, we can learn also how to induce them through various techniques.
Techniques that Arouse
As researchers have long observed, rhythmic stimulation gets human beings “aroused.” Drums, clapping, bells, really any type of sustained rhythmic stimulation. Think jazz, the blues, and rock music. Think Pentecostal-style worship services, or traditions outside of Christianity, such as Santería, or Haitian Vodou. All these stimulate the sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight”). We can induce powerful and brief trances through similar methods and techniques.
In the ritual devised by members of the Cuyamungue Institute founded by Dr. Goodman, members employ either a rattle or a drum to induce trance. Dr. Goodman’s research discovered that shaking a rattle (or beating a drum) approximately 220 times a minute for a fifteen a minute interval provides enough sensory stimulus to induce a trance state. Amazing and beneficial experiences resulted.
Techniques that Calm
We can induce trances of a different sort by going through the parasympathetic. This takes over as we enter into quieting exercises of peace and calmness via outside stimuli that quiet us down. Think rhythmic music that is calming, soothing, and peaceful. With these techniques, we can engage the quiescent dimension of our nervous system, and enter into a prayerful trance.
Reality and the Origins of our Christian Rituals
This is real. It really does work. Life changing things for the good can result from these techniques. At the roots of the evolution of our liturgical celebrations were ASC experiences we’ve long forgotten. Our excessive rationalism in the West, readily on display with Catholic discussion about the hows and whys of liturgy, has buried this essential and healing aspect to our faith. Following the lead of Goodman and Pilch, it is high time we recover our heritage.