Sunday, June 12, 2011

Shamanism and Neurotheology

G. A-D.

Neurotheology is a nascent field that is developing understanding of the neural patterns behind spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviour. It is often used to explain the physiology of altered states of consciousness, which are a common element in Shamanistic practices. Shamanism has existed in various forms since earliest recorded human history, and continues to be practiced around the world today. Some areas have aspects of shamanism that are unique to them; however there are also a host of common elements of shamanism that are found in all practicing communities. The psychobiology behind some of these universalities will be discussed in this paper. The nature of neurotheology and its legitimacy in studies of spirituality will also be explored, as well as the structure and function of shamanism and its effects, with particular focus on the work of Winkelman, Newberg, d’Aquili and Sidky, and the concept of Shamanism as the original neurotheology.

In a previous paper (Archbold-Digby, 2011, pp. 2-3), it was stated that Neuropsychology is the scientific study of the structure of the brain and brain functions during particular psychological processes or behaviours. Neuropsychological tests are standardised and administered to a large group to establish validity of results. These tests are designed to measure or identify specific neural processes or pathways associated with certain thoughts or behaviours. After the test has been initially administered, the results are averaged into a normative sample. Subsequent testing then relates the new individual or group’s results to the previously established normative ones (Ponser & DiGirolamo, 2000). Neurotheology applies these studies in an attempt to understand the neurobiological processes associated with religious experience. It is specifically the study of neural phenomena and its connection to subjective spiritual experiences (Muller, 2008, p. 24).

As an emerging scientific field, neurotheology has a pressing need for clear parameters to be set around its study. Currently, there is a consistent need for disambiguation when discussing it as it can refer to two fundamentally different things. On the one hand, it is a branch of neuroscience, and a methodologically sound and legitimate scientific endeavour that is broadening our understanding of the neural processes behind religious and spiritual thought and action. On the other, it is a pseudoscience; ‘scientific process’ is forged and manipulated to bolster philosophical religious claims. The ambiguity is easy to understand considering the term itself; one would assume that something ending in ‘theology’ would be a more philosophical field, as opposed to the scientific nature indicated by the prefix ‘neuro’. Regardless, many are calling for a strict set of parameters to be set to neurotheology, in particular Andrew Newberg, and his proposal for a “Principia Neurotheologica”, a mandate on the “Principles of Neurotheology”. He feels that with clear guidelines of process, the ambiguity around the term will be clarified. In his book he emphasises the importance of definitions especially in the scientific realm. He says that it is only from this common understanding that reliable scholarship may proceed, and that neurotheology above many other fields actually requires more stringent defining due its multidisciplinary nature (Newberg, 2010, p. 23). He states that neurotheology will become a more significant field once it can be legitimised by both the theological and the scientific community. One could argue that such a marriage would be fundamentally impossible: to neuroscience, religious and spiritual feelings are the result of specific neural processes that are derived from influences such as evolution, that the interpretation of certain experiences as supernatural in any way is the result of a delusion or neuropathy. To those who fully believe in the legitimacy of spirituality and religion, however, they are the result of external influences, explained by a wider philosophy. Scientific neurotheology and Theological neurotheology are two very different fields, only one of which can give concrete insight to the physiology of spiritual experience. For the purpose of this essay, the term neurotheology will be used to refer to scientific neurotheology; diversion from this will be clearly stated.

Shamanism, to our knowledge, is the earliest and most pervasive magico-religious tradition, which has provided the foundation for the major faith systems in the world today (Voight, 1977). Throughout history, from its origins to today, it is said to have maintained three universal consistencies: One, the belief in a spirit world, these spirits are usually capable of taking form often in animals and are capable of affecting human beings. The Shaman acts as the messenger, conduit and mediator between worlds; Two, trance or altered states of consciousness are significant – the Shaman enters into these when connecting with the spirit world, and lay people (participants in shamanic ritual) can also enter into these altered stats of consciousness; and Three, with the power invested in them by the spirit world, the Shaman can act as a healer of psychosomatic illnesses, and can assist community members handle conflict in their lives. Stutley argues that many psychiatric methods first seen in shamanic traditions are still in use today, some of them having been adopted by Western psychiatry (Stutley, 2003, p. 2). While there are new interpretations and developments, the fact remains that there is no such thing as shamanism without tradition. Tradition and ritual is its foundation and in contemporary practicing communities, the shamanic ritual present is unlikely to be too diverged from how it was practiced hundreds of years ago.

Sidky, in his article “On the Antiquity of Shamanism and its Role in Human Religiosity” (2010), presents a list of assumptions that can logically be made from reviewing the majority of scholarly literature on shamanism. The list includes the recognition that shamanism is “an extremely ancient and once widespread religion dating back to the … Upper Paleolithic period”, “Magico-religious beliefs and practices among… hunting-gathering cultures have preserved (shamanism) intact”, and that “Shamanism represents a biological foundation for religiosity, or a “neurotheology” (Sidky, 2010, p. 69). Sidky argues that because the history of shamanism dates back to Paleolithic peoples, it could be argued that it is indeed the basis of human religiosity itself, a “neurotheology”. This poses a problem, however. He claims that it has invited

“Indiscriminate labelling of historically and ethnographically unrelated magico-religious beliefs and behaviours as shamanism simply because the human central nervous system tends to display common functional attributes in ASC (Altered states of consciousness) under certain conditions (Sidky, 2010, p. 80)”.

This is essentially true; it is the most logical conclusion we can make given the data we have, that shamanism is the basis of religion. Now that we have modern, science based neurotheology however, we can further expand on this perspective. Instead of seeing shamanism’s universality as reductive, it could be argued that its universality is what qualifies it to provide insight to humanity as a species, meaning that Shamanism and its historicity is the most useful basis we have from which to approach Scientific neurotheology today.
An example of the application of neurotheological perspectives applied to early shamanism is the interpretation of prehistoric rock art. Because trance (or altered states of consciousness) is a universal element of shamanism, ancient rock art depicting scenes of altered states of consciousness (such as ecstasy, hybridisation of human and animal qualities, or hallucinations) present a code of symbolism that can be translated across a range of discovered ancient Palaeolithic cave paintings around the world. These discoveries allow two tentative assumptions: that shamanistic experience was experienced in similar ways by differing groups of people that had no contact with each other, thus could not have influenced each other, therefore different peoples’ shamanism was independent from each other however still held universal traits; and that as this art is the earliest record we have of any supernatural, ethereal, or altered states of consciousness it is therefore to the best of our knowledge the first instance of human religiosity, and the situations they depict are still widely found in almost all cultures today to varying degrees, therefore we can use them to draw reliable conclusions on the nature of religiosity from an evolutionary neuropsysiological perspective; that is, as a basis for modern Scientific neuropsychology. These assumptions are tentative because, as Sidky says, consciousness itself is so technically undefinable, that to see an “altered state of consciousness” as a universality of shamanism is perhaps too grand a claim to make. However, semantics aside, one cannot argue that the general concepts behind shamanism in the Palaeolithic era and today are easily comparable (Kaplan, 2006).

Winkelman supports Newberg’s argument that shamanism is the original neurotheology. He sees neurotheology as a ‘bridge’ between scientific and religious perspectives. He states that while neurotheology provides insight into spirituality from human biology and evolutionary psychology perspectives, it can also be limited by culture bias, or ethnocentrism. He claims that such bias can be avoided when approaching neurotheology with systematic, cross-cultural research, which can reveal the universal patterns Newberg discusses, and provide “transcultural frameworks for neurotheological theories (Winkelman, Shamanism as the Original Neurotheology, 2004, p. 194)”. Unlike others who make the argument for shamanism as the original neurotheology based on sociological or anthropological perspectives (Laughlin, 1997), Winkelman actually takes a scientific approach in discussing the physiology behind altered states of consciousness. Shamanic processes, he says, “intensify connections between the limbic system and lower brain structures and project these synchronous integrative slow wave (theta) discharges into the frontal brain.” This pattern is interpreted by neuroscientists as conducive to mental capacities for attention, memory, inhibitions, and beliefs. The therapeutic effects of shamanism felt by participants in altered states of consciousness rituals are what have made Shamanism so transcendentally pervasive throughout history (Winkelman, Shamanism as Neurotheology and Evolutionary Psychology, 2002, p. 1875).

d’Aquili and Newberg discuss this pervasiveness, claiming that religion serves two main functions: It is a “system of self-maintenance” and a system of “self-transcendence” (d'Aquili & Newberg, 1998, p. 187). It is these shared qualities among shamanism and its subsequent religions and spiritualities throughout history that are evidence for a solid base from which to approach neurotheology. These functions, they say, have direct influence on human survival, therefore the neuropsychological mechanisms behind them are to be viewed as evolutionary adaptations, ingrained in the human brain and experience.

Though the arguments d’Aquili and Newberg present (and indeed many of the arguments of Scientific Neurotheology) may seem to show religious and spiritual experience as explicable therefore disproving their ‘legitimacy’, or the existence of god or spiritual realms, they stress that this is not the case. Everything, they argue, can be explained neurologically, from interpretations of physical objections to feelings like love and desire, and this does not negate the objects’ existence. They speculate that the experiences they have recorded throughout their studies provides evidence for the existence of a heightened reality or ‘other realm’, Echoing the sentiment that Newberg also presents in his book “Principles of Neurotheology”, they conclude that by nature the certainty of such things as religion or spirituality are ultimately ‘unknowable’, due to the brain’s functional interpretation of everything in its consciousness (d'Aquili & Newberg, 1998, p. 199; Newberg, 2010).

Other more strictly scientific neurotheologists maintain that these elements are explicable; that as we are able to explain the origins of particular neuropathies, we shed light on what we previously, (and uneducatedly) would have labelled religion or spirituality. With greater knowledge and understanding we can move away from speculation of other realities because science explains our reality so fully (Hayward, Koenig, Owen, Pyne, & Steffens, 2011).

An example of the practical application of neurotheology on shamanistic practice is Ramachandran’s studies into the neuroscience behind epilepsy and its relation to religiosity. In shamanism, trance rituals are conduits to altered states of consciousness. In these altered states, participants can undergo a range of physiological reactions to external stimulants. These reactions throughout history have been exclusively attributed to the shaman and their ritual, and as we develop understanding of the brain and certain neuropathies, these states can be attributed to actual illnesses. Ramachandran and Blakeslee are known for their work exploring temporal lobe epilepsy as spiritual experience. Their study “Phantoms in the Brain” (1999) involved the use of the ‘galvanic skin response’, which is the method of measuring the moisture level of the skin, thus its electrical conductance, and interpreting it as psychological or physiological arousal (Lott & Porier, 1967, p. 253). They selected participants who suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, and a control group of those who did not, and compared their reactions when shown words with religious, neutral or sexual connotations, with an aim to determine whether hyper-religiosity in people suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy was due to an overall heightened emotional state, or was stimuli-specific. They then took the galvanic skin response and found that between the two groups, those with temporal lobe epilepsy had a heightened response to religious words by comparison (as well as a decreased response to sexual words and similar response to neutral words). This means that he had discovered a link between the temporal lobe and emotional reactions to religious stimuli, indicating that those with affected by temporal lobe epilepsy were more likely to be religious (Blakeslee & Ramachandran, 1999).

Scientific neurotheology is a field that has immense potential to further our understanding of shamanism, religiosity and spirituality (Achterberg, Cooke, Kozak, Lake, Richards, & Standish, 2005, p. 966). It is bringing shamanism out of being a purely anthropological study, and developing our understanding not only of modern incarnations of shamanism but also providing concrete scientific theory on the psychology of Paleolithic human beings. In his paper, Sidky (2010) inadvertently presents a rather solid case against the term neurotheology as applied to a scientific field. It is an obvious trend throughout extensive academic reading on shamanism and neurotheology that authors regularly remind readers to keep in mind certain definitions, or lack thereof. Sidky discusses shamanism as the basis for neurotheology, yet goes on to say that shamanism is ill-defined, the states that are involved in shamanism are ill-defined, and that spirituality itself is too exceedingly broad to define. All of these undefinable terms and concepts have no place in science, which is a fact-based field. True science does not deal in ambiguity, yet ‘neurotheology’ is steeped in it to the point where virtually any argument can be countered with a refutation of semantics. This is the fundamental issue scientists have with the term and its perceived misappropriation, and why it is so important to be clear when discussing it and concepts within it, and why a new term needs to be found and agreed upon, as Newberg says, by both scientists and theologians.

Scientific neurotheology only aims to provide a strictly scientific interpretation and explanation of shamanism.  Dismissing it as reductionist for applying parameters to something that is limitless; that is to say, that to apply purely scientific concepts to something as complicated as shamanic spirituality is failing to appreciate the validity of a purely spiritual experience, is a hermeneutical error of approaching scientific theory. Regardless, no matter what evidence either ‘side’ of the debate discovers or claims to have discovered, there will always be a polarity between them of science and religiosity. It would be detrimental to both sides, however, to dismiss each other because both have the potential to provide endless insight into humanity. It would also be a significant loss to the scientific community to discount claims of shamanistic experience, as it is through investigating them that things like temporal lobe epilepsy are better understood.

Winkelman presents a workable framework through which to approach the neurotheology of shamanism while maintaining scientific integrity. He could be interpreted as having taken on some of Newberg’s requests detailed in “Principles of Neurotheology” for an inclusive and mutually agreeable approach to neurotheology, however Winkelman presents an arguably more scientific approach than Newberg seemed to be envisioning. Science is a fact and evidence based endeavour. What Newberg and others are suggesting is a marriage between science and philosophy, but they are two that cannot be married. One can only have a scientific philosophy, but there is no such thing as a legitimate philosophical science, it is a misnomer. However, as previously mentioned, this does not detract in any way from the importance of shamanism historically. In fact, because it is so ritual based and steeped in strict and elaborate tradition, shamanistic practice that we witness today could be seen as a sort of window into the past, and due to the fact that shamanism is one of the earliest recorded universalities of human nature at the arguable dawn of human nature itself, it should be preserved as one of our most significant and insightful historical artefacts.  

Monday, June 6, 2011

Finding Yourself in the Art

Nidean Dickson

To practitioners, martial arts are not just a sport but a lifestyle that is identified with an ancient art transforming each individual’s way of life and image of self. This essay aims to outline and analyse how peak experience and transcendence is achieved through the practice of martial arts blending both theoretical concepts with personal experience. Initially, peak experience will be understood through Abraham Maslow’s theory that underlines the significance of unity and self-awareness in reaching a transcendent experience. Peak experiences give rise to the absorption of the self in the activity. This is experienced in martial arts through the achievement of no-mind or mushin that is reflective of Zen Buddhism precepts. In correlation with achieving no-mind, the practitioner also evokes flow that Mihayli Csikszentmihayli outlines as the fusion between the loss of self and control of bodily experience. Intrinsic to achieving flow is the Eastern ideology of ki energy that relies heavily on breath, meditation and focus to embrace inner energy that produces flow. The development of a peak experience in martial arts deems it as a sacred practice in correlation with transcendent aspects fused with ritual. Thus, these several elements intrinsic to martial arts practice are predicates to the spirit and transcendent experience each practitioner aims to achieve. As an embodied practice the connection between the body and mind in order to achieve a transcendent experience is indistinguishable.

Maslow’s peak experience expresses the self in alignment with the world through the experience of profound happiness that shapes a mystical or transcendent experience which is often found in martial arts. According to Vrinte (1996, p.246) peak experiences are “moments of intense ecstasy, wonder, awe and delight, with an expansion of human consciousness.” This expansion of the human consciousness and feelings directed towards awe and wonder are often derived from the feeling of unity and integration prominent in peak experiences. Maslow (1961, p.255) comments that this fusion during peak experience is “the greatest attainment of identity, autonomy, or self-hood… as it is simultaneously a transcending of itself, a going beyond and above self-hood.” By identifying the experience as outward or beyond previous conceptions and consciousness, Maslow identifies the relevance of the immersion of the self in the experience to attain a relationship or experience with the transcendent (Ravizza, cited in Smith & Bar-Eli 2007, p.124). For martial artists, this experience with the transcendent and immersion of the self that connects the body and mind is prevalent in the concept of spirit. The peak experience for the martial artist is concerned with the need to “follow the path of the spirit rather than human conventionality” (Breed 2006, p.6). The spirit derived from spiritus meaning “life principle…involves the integration of affective, cognitive, and physical elements, making it impossible to isolate the spiritual from physical” (Nesti & Robinson 2007, 23). Ellison (cited in Nesti & Robinson 2007, p.24) expressed the intrinsic role of the spirit as a vital function in identifying a deeper purpose by seeking the transcendent. As a practitioner of karate for the last ten years, I find it hard, if not impossible to distinguish between spirit and peak experience as both require me to search beyond myself through the fusion of the body and mind. I often associate my spirit with the warriors from the origin of my art, the samurai. I immerse myself within the bushido, the way of the warrior (Nitobe 1969). In turn this transforms my mind, followed by my body, into the mind of a samurai and allows me to unknowably honour an art rather than practice a technique and effectively perform outside of myself. However, the ability to attain a peak experience relies heavily on the capability to achieve a state of no-mind or mushin.

Mushin identifies a particular state of consciousness associated with Zen principles that highlights the necessity of a controlled state of mind during the embodied experience of martial arts to achieve a peak or transcendent experience. The central aim of mushin is to reach a state of consciousness that releases the mind of thought. Keenan (1989, p.287) argues that there are two elements to the state of mushin, “the absence of thinking and the release of spontaneous creativity.” Evidently, a significant amount of training is required in order to achieve this state as the mind and the body need to be align so that the mind is “free to think less about these things and can enter a state of heightened awareness” (Ledwab & Standefer 2000, p.61). The intrinsic relationship between the body and mind to achieve this state highlights the importance of a martial arts practitioner to equally train the body and mind. Often breathing is an intrinsic component in training the mind in having no thought. In my experience, at the beginning and end of every class we enter mokuso. Mokuso is often related to meditation of the mind that forces the student to focus on everything within the dojo (place of training) through deep breathing from the hara (lower abdomen/stomach) (Kanazawa 2006, p.45). By meditating, mushin becomes more susceptible to the practitioner allowing the interconnectedness between the body and mind to occur which is the goal of Zen Buddhism (Cohen 2007, p.9). Evidently, by achieving mushin the practitioner disregards thought and instead embraces reaction and sensory experiences (Brett 2008, p.47). The attainment of mushin allows the practitioner to embrace the spirit and form a relationship with the embodied experience that allows it to transform into a transcendent nature that relies heavily on the consistency of training to develop flow.

The state of mushin allows martial artists to achieve flow or complete absorption with the activity that in turn results in reaching a peak experience. Maslow (1961, p.256) touches on flow as an element of peak experience which is described as “the feeling of grace and the look of grace that comes with smooth, easy, effortless fully functioning, when everything clicks or is in the groove.” This is corroborated by Csikszentmihalyi (cited in Iwaniec 2006, p.193) who states that flow “is the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sake of doing it.” Flow is similar to peak experience in several senses including the characteristic of pure happiness, achievement of an altered state and unison between the mind and body. However, flow is more relevant to the activity in that it requires goals, skill perception, feedback, concentration and control (Donaldson cited in Csikiszentmihayli & Nakamura 2011, p.148). These components of flow allude to the need for repetitive, consistent training to achieve this in practice (Orlando 1997, p.96). Consistent training and embodiment of the art will enable the spirit and flow to be immersed in the practitioner or conversely, the practitioner immersed in the flow. McNoughton and Levine (2004, p.253) explain the intrinsic goal of flow by comparing Western and Eastern principles stating that “Western technique tries to strengthen the self…whereas Eastern methods aim for disappearance of self (melting into the universe).” The ability to blend the body and the mind with the universe is an essential element in achieving a peak experience which highlights the significant of flow in reaching an altered state of consciousness. Although the embodied experience is vital to achieving flow and achieving the feeling of melting to the universe, there is also an internal process that accompanies body movement in the form of energy.

A key component in martial arts training that blends the body with the mind to achieve a peak experience and create flow is the concept of ki energy. The roots of ki energy are found in Chinese culture that identifies the need to strengthen energy to develop flow (Frantzis 2006). Ki can be translated as “vital energy…living essence…which means the cultivation of the energy within a person’s body with the goal of increasing and controlling energy’s circulation” (Myers, 2005). Ki energy is developed through breathing meditation exercises such as mokuso but also through cultivating an energy force in the form of a kiai or shout of spirit/power (Lowry 2002, p.150). Ki energy allows practitioners to merge the self with the universe providing an essential connection and attunement with the self, body and universe adding another layer to the achievement of embodied flow (Wiley 1995, p.55). Lowry (2002, p.37) summarises the effect of ki stating that “it is a method of renewing a sense of oneness with the natural forces of the universe and allowing this spiritual energy to free flow through the physical body.” Often the culmination of mushin, ki and flow in an embodied experience in martial arts is most prominent in kata. In the most basic definition, kata are fight sequence patterns (Thompson 2008, p.55). When I perform a kata, I aim to tell a story that is often related to the meaning of the kata by becoming one with the kata rather than presenting the kata. A higher level ranked kata, Seiunchin, literally translates to meaning “rising storm” or “storm with the calm” (McCarthy & Lee 1987, p.62). The moment I enter the state of this kata I immediately feel as if I have entered a different level of consciousness where I am no longer myself but I am the warrior, fighting the fight that the kata portrays. I use the interpretation of the storm to build my spirit and actions based on the reality it possesses for example, slow movements represent the clouds and thunder rolling in and the fast movements represent lightening flashes. Breathing and kiai’s (spirit shouts) are imperative to my ability to step outside of myself and embrace another persona or reach a new state of awareness during the kata. At that present moment I am in the zone, I am alive in the flow and often it feels effortless during kata but tiring at the conclusion. Evidently, kata is a masterpiece that does not necessarily rely on skill but rather spirit, flow, energy, concentration without thought, presence and absence that blends the practitioners mind and body with the tradition of the art. Ultimately, many martial arts movements exemplify the meaning of a peak experience that forges the practitioner to develop a relationship with the art and the sacred.

The interconnected relationship between martial arts and transcendent or peak experiences deems the practice of the art as sacred and ritualistic in accordance with Emile Durkheim and Arnold van Gennep. Durkheim’s distinction between the sacred and profane categorises the sacred as “a system of rites, beliefs and social practices” (Morrison 2006,p.426). These rites, beliefs and social practices were aligned with several postulates to consider something as sacred including the need to specify prohibitions, be distinguished from the profane and entailing a unifying principle (Morrison 2006, p.426). Evidently, there are several precepts and rules involved in martial arts that alter between styles and organisations and each practice seeks unison between the individual and the art as a vital relationship to the practice. In correlation with Durkheim, van Gennep identified the transition between significant phases as an essential element of ritual prominent in important rites of passage. Van Gennep (1960, p.3) argues that for every rite of passage “there are ceremonies whose essential purpose is to enable the individual to pass from one defined position to another which is equally well defined.” The concept of liminality is vital to Van Gennep’s theory as it embraces three phases including the initiation, the crossing of the threshold and reassimilation (Teather 1999, p.60). Evidently, these processes and beliefs are derived from the state of awareness the martial artist will experience as the sacred in every day. In martial arts the dojo, place of training, is considered a sacred space for training and upon entrance and exit each practitioner will bow in and out of the door paying respect to the space they have their experience in. The dojo is the place where practitioners perfect their art in the pursuit of progressing, not necessarily in rank but in skill level and in spirit. Progression in rank or a grading is often the most commonly known ritual associated with martial arts which exemplifies the concept of crossing the threshold or liminality. A grading requires preparation, permission and a series of ritualistic elements including performing the required techniques and an initiation to a new ranking which relates to the etiquette and principles that the practitioner needs to be aware of. The belt and gi (uniform) are also symbolic elements in the ritual that have unique individual processes of tieing and folding as part of the preparation for every class. However, mental preparation to endure and perform during the grading is often most important. Consequently a peak experience is most prevalent during a grading as it is an external representation of the crossing the liminal state by blending the body and mind with the embodied experience that produces transcendent qualities for the practitioner. Thus, in accordance with Durkheim and van Gennep, martial arts encompass several ritualistic elements that invite the cross over between thresholds emphasising the distinction between the sacred and the profane for martial artists. Evidently, for a practitioner, martial arts are considered sacred due to the ritualistic elements that are fused with the embodied experience that transforms the practice from the profane to experience transcendence or a peak experience.

Martial arts fuses the body, mind and spirit together allowing practitioners to reach a peak experience. In alignment with Maslow’s theory of peak experience, martial arts allows the practitioner to attain an altered state of awareness or transcendent experience through consistent training. This consistency relies on the immersion of the self within the activity for it to be completely embraced and embodied. This fusion is only achieved by training the mind in Zen related principles allowing the body to be unified with the mind through sensory experience. Thus, the autonomy of the mind in conjunction with ki energy gives rise to the flow the practitioner can now access to as a way to be completely immersed in the experience. Evidently flow transforms the practitioner to an altered state of awareness through the unison of the mind and body with the universe. Hence, a transcendent experience in martial arts may be considered sacred in congruence with the ritual elements of the art that reject the notion of martial arts and a sacred ritual being mutually exclusive. Therefore, an altered state of consciousness is attainable in martial arts due to the intrinsic nature of the fusion between the body and mind and ultimately creates a sense of the sacred due to the unison between the self and the universe that escalates into a peak experience.

Reference List

Breed, G 2004, Embodying spirit: the inner work of the warrior, iUniverse, Lincoln.

Brett, KL 2008, The way of the martial artist: achieving success in martial arts and in life, The Donohue Group, Virginia.

Cohen, EB 2007, ‘Timing in karate and the body in its own right’, Social Analysis, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 1-22.

Donaldson, SI, Csikiszentmihalyi, M & Nakamura, J (eds) 2011, Applied Positive Psychology, Routledge, New York.

Frantzis, BK 2006, Opening the energy gates of your body: Chi Gong for lifelong health, Energy Arts Inc., California.

Iwaniec, D 2006, The child’s journey through care: placement, stability, care-planning and achieving permanency, John Wiley and Sons, Sussex.

Kanazawa, H 2006, Black belt karate; the intensive course, Kodansha Limited, New York.

Keenan, JP 1989, ‘Spontaneity in Western martial arts: a yogacara critique of mushin’, Journal of Religious Studies, vol. 16, no. 4, pp. 285-298.

Ledwad, CA & Standefer, PL 2000, Martial arts: mind and body, Human Kinetics, Illinois.

Lowry, D 2002, Traditions: essays on the Japanese martial arts and ways, Tuttle Publishing, Boston.

Maslow, AH 1961, ‘Peak experiences as acute identity experiences’, American Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 254-260.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Into the Wild. Wilderness Experiences: Returning to the fundamentals of nature

Into the Wild
Wilderness Experiences: Returning to the fundamentals of nature
Sophia Andes
Nature is an essential and inherent property intrinsic to the continuation of humanity.  Positive wilderness experiences eventuate in a realisation of these elementary origins.  Nature is the fundamental element from which humanity is created, continuously evolving from and finally returned to in death.  Western societies are increasingly removing themselves from natural elements and are instead encompassed by mechanical contraptions, high-rise infrastructure and machines that purge toxic fumes into the air.  This overtly manufactured era has developed a distinct divide between humanity and the natural realm.  The enlightened perceptions generated by wilderness experiences are considered an essential progression towards restoring environmental value and self connection to nature.   This essay is an analysis of the effects pertaining to wilderness experiences for generating human health, wellbeing and transformation of both self and our values towards the environment.  This essay explores the connection to natural religious values and discusses how wilderness experiences inspire spiritual properties.  Finally this essay aims to address why Western society has disconnected itself from nature and will argue that wilderness experiences inspire the return of humanity’s intrinsic desire to reconnect with the divine forces of nature.

Positive wilderness experiences directly correlate with the environmentally conscious ethics, values and spirituality of nature religions.  A wilderness experience is defined as an encounter where an individual is immersed in natural surroundings and typically experiences enlightened feelings of peace, realisations of fundamental personal values and a deepened understanding one’s spiritual connection with the Earth (Powch 1994: 11).  It is to be noted that wilderness experiences are not necessarily religious experiences, yet can eventuate in, produce and inspire spiritual awakening and promote environmental awareness.  Wilderness experiences correlate with the values and beliefs of nature religions and the foundational elements of indigenous cultures and tribal spirituality.  Natural religious values are described as an inherent continuity between “the natural and the divine, earth and heaven” (Fern 2002: 106) and encourage a “holistic relationship among all created beings” in nature (Chamberlain 2008: 5).  Wilderness experiences typically occur in remote wilderness areas and promote holistic relationships between humans and the natural environment.  The relatively new term “wilderness is a Western concept” and evolved due to increased urban development that greatly minimised “large areas of uninhabited land containing native plant and animal communities relatively unaltered or unaffected by human society” (McDonald, Pointing, & Wearing 2009: 371).  The destructive mentality of the West directly contrasts how traditional indigenous cultures fundamentally exist in accordance with the wilderness, responding and adapting to the change of season, and seeking never to harm the land they live upon.  Out of respect and awe, indigenous cultures worship the land that sustains them and their idea of personhood “extends beyond human beings to include God, ancestors, other spirits and animals, plants, rocks, clouds, and more” (Cox 2007: 59).  Generally, the West’s notion of personhood and importance of all living organisms become aligned to the values of tribal cultures in the event of enlightened wilderness experiences.  Wilderness experiences generally transform our westernised notions of the Earth towards the positive connections that nature religions and indigenous spiritualities portray.   

Western cultures have developed a dualistic mentality towards nature as opposed to the holistically inclusive relationship that wilderness experiences inspire.  In contrast to the respective attitudes, ethics and values that nature religions have towards the environment, the general western mentality is to treat nature as a commodity to be sold for the highest price.   This dualistic mentality transforms nature from an intrinsic and crucial element into an unconnected, disrespected and insignificant constituent of human life (McCormack, Nairn, & Panelli 2003: 12).  The wilderness experience is regarded as a means to reconnecting this dualistic division.  Greenway indicates that the modern trend of reliance upon and improvisation of machinery makes it “relatively easy to assign natural systems to an inferior status, something to objectify, study, master, conquer, exploit – or destroy” (2005: 186).  Respect for the environment has been replaced by a dominate will to control and manipulate nature into a subordinate element from which we destroy via littering, excessive manufacturing, mass-production of food and animal products and numerous others modes of negligent destruction.  It is via this destructive attitude towards nature that humanity becomes disconnected from their wellbeing and separated from their core values to protect rather than to destroy.  Greenway argues that in order to reconnect entirely with nature, the thought process of hierarchy and dualism must be altered.  “If the wilderness experience is to transform, one must enter it openly and fully psychologically; one must be able to loosen the dualistic processing of the culture and find communion with – as opposed to projection onto - the realm of natural processes” (1995: 187-188).  Reconnection and regeneration of self requires a reunion with the holistic community encompassed by nature.  Wilderness experiences are traditionally viewed to counteract our destructive notions and return the incentive for humans to treat the Earth with renewed respect. 

Chamberlain (2008: 4-6) outlines that people’s understanding of nature as an important aspect of their lives is reinforced when people realise that they have become disconnected from nature.  Wilderness experiences inspire a reconnection to nature and encourage a transformation from the destructive hierarchical attitude of the West into an awakened awareness of the natural equilibrium.  Wilderness experiences possess the ability to transform perceptions of environmental values into a fundamental importance within our lives.  The notion of an enlightened environmental awareness is connected to a transition from prioritised self valuation over the environment into the environment becoming the contention of a collective “moral dimension” (Millais 2006: 1).  The importance of retaining a holistic relationship with the environment is realised due to the diminishing health of the environment that sustains our world.  Wilderness experiences enlighten the West to admit that due to destructive human tendencies, wilderness and nature are a rapidly diminishing factor within our daily lives.  Greenway supports this notion and states that “to advocate the wilderness experience as an essential ground of healing is to advocate an experience of decreasing availability” (1995: 183).  The wish to reintegrate the self into natural environments produces the realisation that contemporary westernised values of utilising the environment for financial gain are not supportive to our founding needs as children of nature. 
Humans are a part of nature.  When we connect deeply with our body and with nature we experience a sense of genuine wholeness which moves us towards greater integration emotionally and spiritually and leads us naturally to act in certain ways towards others and the environment we live in. (Greenwood 2005: 39)
The realisation that nature provides beneficial and essential qualities to humanity emphasises the notion that nature is of fundamental importance to our lives.  “From this perspective, Western civilisation is not corroding but is coming full circle.  It is returning to retrieve something it discarded along the way” (Burton 2002: 7).  The West discarded the fundamental human value of nature, being that the spirituality and continuation of life pertaining to nature is currently confined to be realised through wilderness experiences.  Thus the realisation of humanity’s mistaken self removal from the holistic relationship with nature is the beginning to understanding why the reconnection to nature instigated by wilderness experiences is a return to the natural and divine path. 

Nature and religion are fundamentally connected in creation stories of human origin and thus constitutes reason for spirituality to be of transcendent importance within all forms of wilderness experiences and in life.  A wilderness experience is not necessarily the result of particularly appealing biophysical attributes yet is instead the “positive interpersonal interactions” (Anderson & Fredrickson 1999: 35) that people discover in nature.   The phenomenon of connecting spiritually with nature’s properties inspires the concept that nature is more than a mere element pertaining to spiritual experience: Instead nature is an all-encompassing spiritual manifestation of life.  Wilderness experiences inspire the “regeneration and revitalisation of ancient earth-based ways of knowing [...] and nature as a spiritual source” (Albanese 1991: 27).  In association with the astounding realisation of the existent natural beauty of undeveloped natural scenery, “wilderness settings provide a mix of aesthetic pleasure and renewal that can lead to a triggering of peak experiences that provides the basis for individual spiritual expression” (McDonald, Pointing & Wearing 2009: 370).  The concept of “peak experiences” was devised by Abraham Maslow who argues the following;
“Peak-experience conveys the parameters of existence.  The self is affirmed absolutely and freely; the world is perceived as ideal potential and in harmony with itself and with the individual; the products of the human spirit – science, art, culture, religion – are integrated into the total framework of nature and the wider experience of life as a whole” (Breslauer 1976: 54).
The notion of spiritual expression realised in peak experiences includes concepts of self-realisation, empowerment, enlightenment and connection to self valuation (Rymarz & Souza 2007).  Knowing that peak experiences are triggered by wilderness experiences supports the confirmation that self value and spiritual expression are encompassed in nature. 

The eventuated forms of improved human health, wellbeing, transformation of self and spiritual expression are argued to pertain solely to wilderness experiences.  In support of this, research conducted by Anderson & Fredrickson in 1999 analysing people’s experiences in the wilderness of the Grand Canyon resulted in the following conclusion that spirituality when encountered via wilderness experiences is defined and separated to other forms of spirituality.  It needs to be considered that there are dynamic relationships that eventuate from solely from wilderness experiences. 
“There are measurable benefits that can occur from this experience, such as an improvement in personal development, therapeutic/healing, physical health, spiritual well-being, and self-sufficiency. Wilderness can facilitate meaningful changes in one's psychological well-being, benefiting the user through an improvement in their psychological condition [...] also creating notions of connection with nature that humans aspire to” (Duncan 1998).
The spiritual experiences of the participants reconstructed their views of the wilderness in ways that led to their belief of nature as a powerful, transformative, healing and sacred element of life.  The spiritual sense was described by participants as “beyond words, or more accurately, that words simply could not adequately capture what it was when they were fully experiencing their own spirituality” (Anderson & Fredrickson 1999: 34).  The notion of an indescribable positive spirituality of the wilderness experience affirms that “nature provides the best of both support and challenge to test the participant and to confirm his or her transition” (Davis 2003).  Furthermore, the notion that nature inspires these transitions presents the argument of nature being the sole environment in which these particular forms of spiritual expression can be realised.  Anderson and Fredrickson’s research indicated that their research “seems to indicate that there is a certain ineffability and intangibility that marks or delineates those experiences that are more ‘spiritual’ in nature, as opposed to those that are more ordinary” (1999: 34).  Nature is the element from which human are created and without nature humanity would cease to exist.

In conclusion, it is from natural resources that humanity has evolved from, survives on and adapts to and therefore what human life must always return to.  The wilderness experience is a modem for achieving a reconnection with nature.  The wilderness has traditionally been a setting in which transitions could be engaged, explored, and deepened.  The emerging shift in cultural values regarding nature emphasises that Western society is rediscovering the value of the environment within their daily lives.  This coexistent relationship of nature and humanity is a portrayal of the ideals and perspectives that the wilderness experience introduces to the adversely different thought processes of contemporary Western society.  The progression towards protecting the environment is encouraged by our realised spiritual connection to the Earth.  Therefore, wilderness experiences are not only encouraging processes that are beneficial to human wellbeing, yet are also inspiring the West to protect the wellbeing and life of the environment. 

Works Cited
Albanese, C 1991, Nature religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to the New Age, Chicago University Press, Chicago.
Anderson, DH & Fredrickson, LM 1999, ‘A Qualitative Exploration of the Wilderness Experience as a source of Spiritual Inspiration’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 21-39, viewed 31 May 2011, <>.
Breslauer, SD 1976, ‘Abraham Maslow’s Category of Peak-Experience and the Theological Critique of Religion’,  Review of Religious Research, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 53-61, viewed 1 June 2011, <>
Burton, L 2002, Worship and Wilderness: Culture, Religion and Law in Management of Public Lands and Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.
Chamberlain, GL 2008, Troubled Waters.  Religion, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc, Lanham, Maryland.
Cox, JL 2007, From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions, Ashgate Press, Aldershot, England.
Davis, J 2003, Wilderness Rites of Passage: Healing, Growth, and Initiation, Naropa University and The School of Lost Borders, viewed 31 May 2011, <>.
Fern, RL 2002, Nature, God and Humanity.  Envisioning an Ethics of Nature, University of Cambridge Press, Cambridge, UK.
Greenway, R 1995, ‘Healing by the Wilderness Experience’, in D Rothenberg (ed.), Wild Ideas, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, pp.182-193.
Greenwood, S 2005, The Nature of Magic.  An Anthropology of Consciousness, Berg Publishers, New York.
McCormack, J, Nairn, K & Panelli, R 2003, ‘Destabilising Dualism: Young People’s Experiences of Rural and Urban Environments’, Childhood, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 9-42, viewed 31 May 2011, <>.
McDonald, MG, Pointing, J & Wearing, S 2009, 'The Nature of Peak Experience in Wilderness', The Humanistic Psychologist, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 370-385, viewed 31 May 2011, <>.
Millais, C 2006, ‘Global Warming’, The Religion Report, 6 December, p.1, viewed 31 May 2011, <>.
Powch, IG 1994, ‘Wilderness Therapy.  What makes it empowering for women?’, Women and Therapy, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 11-27, viewed 22 May 2011, <>.
Rymarz, R & Souza, M.D 2007, ‘The role of cultural and spiritual expressions in affirming a sense of self, place, and purpose among young, urban, Indigenous Australians’, The International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 277-288, viewed 2 June 2011, <>.

'Soul Surfing': An Unrealised Religion

'Soul Surfing’: An unrealised religion
Sophia Andes

The ocean has forever existed as a fundamental entity of life regardless of religion, cultural context or continent.  Surfing and the culture that pertains to the oceanic sport are deeply embedded in this vast life form.  This essay is an analysis of the forms, processes and rituals that transform a sporting venture into a religion.  The analysis is drawn from observations and personal integration into the surfing communities of South-East Queensland, Australia.  This report explores the forms of ritual and practice within the surfing community that attain to producing altered states of consciousness.  It is to be noted that the notion of surfing as a religious phenomenon is not a recent concept.  Instead, this essay seeks to address the emphasis on spirituality apparent in surfing; a seemingly secular sporting activity.  Finally this essay aims to explore the notion that while spirituality within surfing cultures is apparent, surfing remains unrecognised by its followers as an ‘unrealised’ religion.

The spiritual importance of the ocean traces back to the origins of surfing.  Glen Henning, who in 1984 founded the environmentalist Surfrider Foundation, discovered evidence that the ancient Peruvians were the first surfers recorded (2005: 1610-1611).  However, the initial emergence of religious connection to surfing is apparent in the early cultures of Hawai’i.  The Hawaiian surfing cultures practiced and performed religious rituals and offerings over their hand-carved, wooden surfboards to ensure prosperous waves and safe riding (Kampion 2003).  When the European missionaries arrived on the shores of Hawai’i, they perceived these surfing rituals as pagan dimensions of the Hawaiian culture and sort to destroy the practices of this ‘religious’ culture.  The notion of paganism values in the surfing culture is predominantly due to the worship of “Mother Nature, and especially in its manifestation of Mother Ocean” (Taylor 2007).  The diminished surfing culture was revitalised in the early twentieth century due to the emergence of surfers in the United States and Australia who sought the pristine waves of Hawai’i (Warshaw 2003:48).  The religious notion connected to surfing has declined dramatically.  However, contemporary surfing culture has transformed into a highly popular pursuit in the sports arena and tourist industry while retaining a sense of spirituality.
Surf culture has a rich history and a unique system of rituals, distinctive language elements, symbolic elements, a loose tribal hierarchy, and unique lifestyle characteristics that have been broadly imitated and emulated around the world.  Even today, aspects of surf culture express fundamental and persisting Polynesian cultural values, which regarded surfing as noble, positive, and deeply imbued with spiritual meaning (Kampion 2003: 46).

The positivity and connectedness with nature are the origins of the spiritual meaning associated with surfing culture.  The concept of surfing as a religion is derived from the spiritual and oceanic formation of ‘Mother Nature’ believed to be the equivalent of God.  The surfing religion has developed rituals, practices, even texts and also encounters streams of altered states of consciousness and ‘spiritual awaking’ with Mother Ocean.
Forms of altered states of consciousness are highly prominent in surfing, stemming from the psychedelic era of the 1960’s.  Surfing served as a physical and spiritual outlet of the sporting community and as a peaceful rebellion to consumerist lifestyles of the American community (Warshaw 2003:56).  The following statement exemplifies how the religious past of surfing didn’t fade away; instead the surfing spirituality transformed and adapted in accordance to societal change.

It was during the 1960s that surfing’s spiritual revival intensified as it fused with new religious and political currents, blending anti-establishment and anti-hierarchal attitudes with holistic metaphysics that were connected to psychedelics, religions origination in Asia or found in indigenous societies, [...] metaphysical traditions, and neo-paganism.  The impact was that surfing, for some, became a part of a wider American turn towards nature religion (Taylor 2007:931). 

The nature religion movement correlates with the Australian surfing culture.  Based on research conducted in the prominent surfing community of Noosa, the profoundly unified concept that surfers express is the fundamental experience of surfing is inner joy and to be immersed in the glory of nature.  Nature is the key aspect of surfing.  Analysing those that surf and as a surfer myself, you witness and experience the alternate world where you are at one with the ocean.  Broadly, the experience of surfing is viewed in terms of balance and harmony with the wave and one’s board.  This sense of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi 1990: 1) being the process of all living things in balance, is confirmed by Warshaw as the foundations of surfing.  Warshaw states that optimal transcendence “will be the order of the universe at equilibrium with all natural forces in balance.  And that’s what riding a wave is” (2003:312).  The commonly defined spiritual components of surfing are widely disregarded by surfers as a formalised religion and instead recognised as an unrealised religious practice.

The term ‘practice’ is employed because surfing does not draw upon rigid doctrines yet instead appeals as a transcendent and intimate journey that relates to trance states.  Surfing can be viewed as a ritualised religion and “surfing’s most important ritual dimension is early rising to greet the sum, waves, and sea creatures” (Taylor 2007:939).  The transcendent values of surfing are usually derived from the exhilaration and ultimate involvement of the sport with the oceanic surroundings.  Typically expressed by surfers who have experienced large surf barrelling above them, is the notion of experiencing time in an altered state.  Csikszentmihalyi argues that these forms of altered states of consciousness “usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” (1990:3).  Interviewing surfing fanatics in-between sets at Noosa’s National Park surf break led to some interesting conclusions about the importance of surfing in their lives and happiness of mind.  These surfers expressed notions of an overwhelming connectedness to nature when surfing.  The board acts as their apparatus to achieve the connection to the waves.  The pressures that they may be experiencing on land are removed by the connection to the ocean.  As a religion, the experience of surfing is perceived as the “central centre of the practice; and this practice does what many religions purport to do: transform consciousness and facilitate the development of an authentic, awakened self” (Taylor 2007:940).

In conclusion, surfing is a culture that originated from religious foundations and has transformed into a spiritual venture sought and practised by sporting fanatics to curious beginners.  Surfing has been inducted in the extremist sporting category while forms of trance and altered states of consciousness continually play an apparent role in contemporary surfing.  As asserted by the research conducted, forms of altered states of consciousness in surfing tend to arise from the immersion of self, mind and body and perhaps ‘soul’ with the ocean.  Such conclusions lead straight back to surfing’s religious connection, as the Gods of contemporary religions portray their immersion in ‘Mother Nature’: “I am the ocean” (Krish[n]a in the Bhagavad Gita 10:24).

Works Cited
Csikszentmihalyi, M 1990, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Harper and Row, San Francisco.
Henning, G & Taylor, B 2005, ‘Surfing’, in Henning, G & Taylor, B (eds), The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Nature, 1st edition, Continuum International, London & New York, pp. 1607-1612.
Kampion, D 2003, Stoked!: A History of Surf Culture, Gibbs Smith, Salt Lake City, UT.
(Krish[n]a in the Bhagavad Gita 10:24).
Taylor, B 2007, ‘Surfing into Spirituality and a New, Aquatic Nature Religion’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 75, no. 4, pp. 923-951, viewed 6 April 2011,
Warshaw, M 2003, The Encyclopaedia of Surfing, Harcourt, New York.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Craniosacral Therapy: A shamanic practice? - Freya

Craniosacral therapy is a relatively new alternative healing modality that entails working with the cerebrospinal fluid which bathes our brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves. It is a gentle treatment that involves ‘listening’ to the fluid’s subtle wave-like motions, known as the craniosacral rhythm. Through sensitive, yet specific, hands-on techniques the whole nervous system is affected by balancing and harmonising the craniosacral system (Agustoni 2008, p. 2; Milne 1995 vol 1, pp. 4-6). The main focus of this essay will be to describe my personal experience of a craniosacral healing session. This will include excerpts of an interview conducted with the practitioner, referred to throughout the paper as ‘Blue Wren’. Altered states of consciousness and shamanic principles involved will also be discussed, along with whether craniosacral therapy could be deemed a neoshamanistic practice.

Before beginning the healing, Blue Wren used a sage smudge stick to cleanse the treatment room and myself of negative energy. Having never experienced the ancient art of smudging, I was pleasantly surprised at the feeling of contentment and relaxation it invoked. As the treatment began Blue Wren stood silently away from the treatment table which she explained afterwards as being “a time in which I ground and centre myself. I go into a meditative state, expand my consciousness and open my heart centre.” An open heart centre is vital for craniosacral healing as the heart is considered the centre of perception (Ridley 2006, p. 30). She describes this ASC as one of “higher perception, awareness and intuition during which our heart centres connect.”

Blue Wren explained that “in this state of connectedness, the practitioner is able to ‘see’ what the client needs on all levels”. According to Agustoni (2008, p. 4), craniosacral therapy has the potential to impact on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels. Milne (1995 vol 1, p. 80) refers to this mind-body-spirit complex as the “dreambody”. Craniosacral therapists work with the principle that the dreambody is capable of self-regulation, self-healing and maintenance of wellbeing. Trauma, whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual, is believed to reduce energy flow within the body and diminish the craniosacral rhythm. This may restrict, or even block, the dreambody’s self-healing capabilities which can potentially lead to disharmony and disease if left unresolved (Agustoni 2008, p. 7).

The treatment proceeded with Blue Wren placing her hands gently on different areas of my body. I felt progressively more relaxed; an altered state of consciousness in which I experienced a deepened sense of body awareness while my mind remained relatively alert. With Blue Wren’s hands placed under my pelvis, I had the sensation that my sacrum was twitching and throbbing, then see-sawing and swinging back and forth. She explained afterwards that this is “the body reorganising and releasing any restrictions or blockages”. Similar sensations were also experienced in other regions of my body during the healing. Although these felt as though the tissue and bone itself were making gross physical movements, Milne (1995 vol 2, p. 39) hypothesises that the motility is actually due to fluctuations in the client’s energy field.

During one of the head holds I felt an unusual movement coursing down my spine and then my sacrum seemed to become heavy or ‘full’. This sense of fullness lasted a few minutes before there was another coursing movement along my spine, this time upwards towards my head. When I told Blue Wren of this afterwards, she explained that during this particular hold she ‘listens’ to the craniosacral rhythm then, using her enhanced perception, follows the movement of the spinal fluid down into the sacrum. Here, she “induces a ‘still point’ during which the fluid is potentised by the chi. This is similar to awakening the kundalini energy. Then the craniosacral rhythm resumes and flows more harmoniously”. It was amazing to experience this sensation. Milne (1995 vol 2, p. 39) explains that kundalini is an ancient Hindu term depicting two serpents ascending the spine, intertwined. This represents the dance of the ida (female) energy and pingala (male) energy spiralling around a still point. Analogous to this belief, the ancient Chinese portray this dance as one between the energies of female yin and male yang. Again, this occurs around a still point, embodied as the centre point in the universal yin/yang symbol (Milne 1995 vol 2, p. 39).

Asked of her view on how craniosacral therapy works, Blue Wren described the healing power as a fusion of the universal energy (chi) and our two individual energies. She added that “in this ‘oneness’, universal energy channels through me into you and assists your dreambody in re-establishing harmony and health through inviting stillness”. Ridley (2006, pp. 53-54) describes stillness as a pause in the craniosacral rhythm during which healing occurs. Through the clearing of energy blockages and restrictions, the body’s own healing and regulating capabilities, and thus inner balance, are restored (Agustoni 2008, p. 3). Blue Wren also mentioned that spirit guides of both practitioner and client are present during healings. Both Brennan (1993, p. 54) and Milne (1995 vol 1, pp. 106-108), deem the presence of guides as very important in providing support and guidance during a healing.

At another stage during the healing while Blue Wren was touching my jaw and throat, it was as if the back of my eyelids had turned a brilliant light blue. It was a lovely experience and upon informing Blue Wren she explained that blue corresponds to the throat chakra. Angelo (1994, p. 64) and Brennan (1988, pp. 34, 48) agree that sky blue denotes the throat chakra which deals with true expression of the soul. Also, multiple times throughout the healing I felt as if I was on the verge of sleep when suddenly I would become alert and feel an ‘electric’ tingling sensation in my chest. This would quickly move downwards through my body into my lower legs. Telling Blue Wren of this she explained that all people experience different sensations during a healing. She thinks it most likely that what I felt was “stillness and then release”. This theory is supported by Milne (1995 vol 2, p. 41) who describes that during a still point clients often fall into a deep state of relaxation, close to that of sleep, during which major alterations and adjustments occur within the dreambody.

Looking back, I consider the healing involved elements of shamanism. Many aspects of the healing were ritualistic in nature, such as Blue Wren always using sage smudging to purify the treatment room and client of negative energy before commencing a healing. Likewise, she always uses the same ritual steps while standing back from the client to achieve “stillness and neutrality” within herself and an expansion of consciousness. Achieving this involves “breathing techniques, focus and silent invocations”. As mentioned earlier, it is in this ASC that Blue Wren receives intuitive guidance on what the client needs and how the treatment should proceed. This knowledge is provided by guides which are invited to attend the craniosacral healing and, along with other helping spirits, guide and support the session (Brennan 1993, p. 54; Milne 1995 vol 1, pp 106-108). This may be considered parallel to the shaman’s journey to another realm in which they encounter helping spirits that closely guide their healing work (von Stuckrad 2002).

The aforementioned “centring and grounding” that Blue Wren must achieve before commencing treatment could be regarded as analogous to connecting with Father Sky and Mother Earth referred to in Native American shamanism (Milne 1995 vol 1, p. 46). When asked how she became involved in alternative healing therapies Blue Wren explained that during a serious illness a “gifted natural therapist came into my life and healed me”. After this illness, though her interest in alternative therapies was ignited, she returned to her normal way of life. Several years later she was diagnosed with the even more life-threatening disease of cancer. For this also, she sought the treatment of alternative healers and has now been cancer-free for seven years. In this time, she has been studying and practising alternative therapies herself. Universal tales of ‘initiatory sickness’ exist, often involving near-fatal illnesses when the call to become a shaman is ignored (Milne 1995 vol 1, p 46; Jilek 2005). As quoted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead: “You can’t fight becoming a shaman. If you try, the ongons [spirits] will force you anyway (Freemantle & Trungpa 1975).”

Due to the various characteristics mentioned in this essay, I propose craniosacral therapy, as I have experienced it, to be shamanic healing. I also suggest that Blue Wren may be considered a new-age shaman, or ‘neoshaman’. Entering an altered, meditative state of consciousness is vital for perception of the craniosacral rhythm and also in accessing spiritual guidance from the ‘other world’ (Milne 1995 vol 1, p. 4 ;von Stuckrad 2002). Both of these occurred in our session along with the use of ritual, guided visualisation, breathing techniques and invocations which are commonly employed by traditional shamans in their healing practices (Milne 1995 vol 1, p. 46). Blue Wren is important in her community in the role of local healer but her role is distinct from that of the traditional shaman. This may be due to a neoshaman’s role often being confined to those within the community who are open to the alternative healing experience. In summation, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of a craniosacral healing session. Afterwards I felt very relaxed and calm with a sense of ‘lightness’. However, it is very difficult to describe in words the sensations I felt and the experience as a whole. A quote by Rollin Becker (1997) says it nicely: “... if I talk about it, that isn’t what it is. How and why it works I don’t know, and if I did know, that wouldn’t be it”.

Reference List

Agustoni, D 2008, Craniosacral Rhythm: A practical guide to a gentle form of bodywork therapy, Elsevier Limited, London.

Angelo, J 1994, Your healing power, Piatkus, London.

Becker, RE 1997, The stillness of life, Rudra Press, Cambridge.

Brennan, BA 1988, Hands of light: A guide to healing through the human energy field, Bantam Books, New York.

Brennan, BA 1993, Light emerging: The journey of personal healing, Bantam Books, New York.

Freemantle, F & Trungpa, C 1975, The Tibetan book of the dead, Shambala, Boston.

Jilek, WG 2005, ‘Transforming the shaman: Changing western views of shamanism and altered states of consciousness’, Articulo de Investigacion, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 8-15.

Milne, H 1995, The heart of listening 1: A visionary approach to craniosacral work, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley.

Milne, H 1995, The heart of listening 2: A visionary approach to craniosacral work, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley.

Ridley, C 2006, Stillness: Biodynamic cranial practice and the evolution of consciousness, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley.

von Stuckrad, K 2002, ‘Reenchanting nature: modern western shamanism and nineteenth-century thought’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 70, no. 4, pp. 771-799.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

John Lockley: Modern Day Shaman

G. A-D.

John Lockley, or Uncingolwednaba, is a Xhosa sangoma, a Southern African Shaman. At his initiation in 2007, he was widely believed to be the first white man in recent history to have been initiated into Xhosa sangoma-hood (other white sangomas do exist but within different tribes). Non-African people are generally widely accepted in sangoma rituals, often participants in rituals are treated the same way African ‘patients’ would be, however it is exceedingly rare to have white Shamans (Binsbergen, 1991, p. 312).

As is traditional for Shamans, Lockley first received his call in a dream, followed by an extended period of serious illness. This process is a largely universal element in the call to shamanism; shamans of China, the Americas, and Korea, for example, all experience the prophetic dream and then physical illness, until they answer the ‘call’ from their ancestors or deities (Lee, 2009, p. 187; Walsh, 1994, p. 9). Sangomas call this process thwasa. As a white Southern African, when Lockley dreamed a sangoma appeared to him and commanded him to find a Xhosa instructor, he was unequipped to follow it. Growing up during apartheid, he was far removed from his ancestral heritage and so was largely unaware of the world of sangomas, his role within it, and how to respond to his “calling dream” (Lockley, You Cannot Choose to be a Sangoma, 2007).

After Lockley’s dream, he woke with welts and boils on his legs, from a tick bite. He went on, over the next seven years, to contract a number of illnesses and diseases, broken bones, and accidents. One could suggest that the ailments he suffered were situational, and coincidental, for example, tick bites are common, as are all of his sufferings; it is simply a matter of concentrated misfortune experienced by one person, but not interference by ancestors. However, Lockley approached a sangoma in the hope of an end to his issues. The sangoma, MaMgwevu, claimed to have received a dream from God about becoming the mentor to a person from a different culture, identified Lockley as this man, and then proceeding to train him in shamanism, overseeing his apprenticeship over ten years (Lockley, You Cannot Choose to be a Sangoma, 2007).

Uncingolwednaba’s specialty area as a sangoma is dance, or xentsa. Dance is an important aspect of shamanism as it provides a channel through which participants can have an active, satisfying engagement with the ritual. This feeling of involvement encourages a more positive outcome for the ritual, especially considering how the majority of illnesses clients bring to shamans are psychosomatic. To feel that one is physically, tangibly taking action to address a problem can often be a cure in itself, much like the placebo effect (O'Connell, 1983, p. 340).

One of the three areas in which Traditional Southern African healers are trained, xentsa is a dance based on the human heart beat, dancing in tune to it is “centring… brings inner peace, reduces anxiety, and brings about a sense of awareness and meaning” (Lockley, Healing Through Dance, 2005). Drumming, another universal trait of the shaman, is also an important element in sangoma ritual as it mimics the heart beat rhythmically (Jilek, 2005, p. 11). For Lockley, it provides an amplifier of sorts so other participants can dance to the same beat he is as he follows his heartbeat. Xentsa is the way sangomas and participants enter a deep meditative trance, allowing them to communicate with their ancestors within a dream, in a realm called ‘the river world’. Participants will receive a message through a vision which is then to be shared and learned from (Farrand, 1982, p. 68).

As a shaman, Uncingolwednaba also interacts with ancestors through divination, or ‘throwing bones’. It is one of the more common requests of clients, and involves the casting of a handful of objects (not just bones but shell, or various objects with meaning attached for the client like dice or dominoes), onto a mat, and then their configuration is interpreted or “read” by the sangoma. Knowledge of medicinal herbs is also important as sangomas are more often than not village doctors, and so curative brews, or muti, also need to be administered (Thornton, 2009, p. 24). People seek out the services of shamans like Lockley to address a range of physical, environmental and situational issues, from epilepsy, to mental illness, to bad luck; therefore almost anything perceived as negative can drive a person to seek a shaman. Sangoma clients are disproportionately women, senior, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the main precursor to becoming a client is whether or not they have received a disability grant in the past (Nattras, 2005, p. 177).

Trance for Lockley is his conduit to help others through psychic consultation. Once he enters the altered state, he becomes extremely aware of the client’s life; “I can sense people’s obstacles: what’s wrong with them physically, psychologically and spiritually… and if they are or aren’t living according to their destiny (Lockley, You Cannot Choose to be a Sangoma, 2007).” He can also see what people need to do in order to appease their ancestors and live according to their destiny. The physical sensation, for him, is of a wind going through his body, as he is lifted to an ethereal realm where he is communicated with via words, imagery and motif.

Uncingolwednaba lives in Ireland teaching various workshops (as he was directed to do in a dream), but has also taught in greater Europe, the USA, as well as practicing in Xhosa communities. Lockley’s sangoma-hood is seen by some to lose its legitimacy due to his decision to live in Ireland as opposed to living in Xhosa communities of Southern Africa. At the time of writing, not a single black practicing sangoma could be located living outside of Africa. Lockley is also initiated in Zen Buddhism and Yoga, running a yoga centre in Galway. His diverse spirituality appears to be accepted by the Xhosa, however there is not enough empirical research available to discern how respected he is within Xhosa communities or whether he is seen as more of a transient novelty. It is, however, common for sangomas to live in urban areas, which itself is a progression from the traditionally rural communities in which Shamanism was practiced. They still practice and hold the same position in their communities, but their adaptation into the developing areas of their country shows a willingness to embrace the modernisation while integrating their traditional lifestyles successfully (Morgan & Reid, 2010, p. 381).

Lockley also presents a marriage between the traditional and the modern by having a relatively strong online presence. He has a fan generated page on ‘Facebook’, and while at the time of writing it boasts only eight fans, it is still the only page for a Xhosa sangoma (Various, 2011). He also contributes to video sharing site ‘youtube’. There are videos of him being interviewed, performing rituals, such as dancing or throwing the bones, but also of him in casual attire, speaking straight to the camera in a sermon of sorts, on the importance of honouring ancestors (Lockley, John Lockley, Xhosa Sangoma, Speaks About the Importance of Honouring our Ancestors , 2010). While there are also other videos of sangoma ritual (involving sangomas other than Lockley), it is the piece-to-camera videos he posts that are particularly interesting as they reflect his background in Buddhism; it is extremely common for Buddhist spiritualists to post such content, however highly uncommon for sangomas, especially Xhosa sangomas (at the time of writing none could be found).

John Lockley is a significant symbol of the willingness of traditional African spirituality to develop and progress in a rapidly changing world. Aside from the fact that he was even initiated, what Lockley has gone on to achieve in terms of teaching non Africans about shamanism and its universal relevance is to be commended. Traditional healing methods are becoming more and more common in western society, but the realm of alternative therapy is largely dominated by Asian philosophies like Buddhism and Chinese herbalism. Lockley is a major contributor to bringing traditional African healing processes to a global stage as a modern day shaman.

Works Cited

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Various. (2011, May 3). John Lockley. Retrieved May 3, 2011, from Facebook:
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