Trances Spirit Healing and Possession

Carol Laderman, an anthropologist who went to study childbirth practices in Malaysia, found that shamanic healers, who it was thought had disappeared 75 years ago, were still an everyday part of village life, (Science Digest July 1983, Trances That Heal—Rites Rituals and Brain Chemicals). To study their methods she became the apprentice of Pak Long Awang, himself a traditional shamanic healer. It is interesting that although she is highly educated in Western thought, she has the same fear of the unconscious as Philip Zimbardo. She says,

For almost two years after my arrival in the village, I refused to undergo one of the shaman’s trances. Having become a member of Pak Long’s entourage, I had attended healing ceremonies with growing regularity; the shaman had even adopted me as his own daughter. Still, as a Westerner and a scientist, I was afraid to enter trances — afraid I might embarrass myself or, worse, never come out at all. My reluctance became a standing joke among the villagers.

She goes on to say what some of the healing sessions she attended were like. A very fat woman for instance, who regularly experienced depression because of her awkwardness and girth, while ‘entranced’ by the music of drums and gongs, and Pak Long’s chants, rose from her ‘sleeping mat’ with the grace of a lithe young girl and danced the role of the beautiful princess in the Malay Opera before a delighted audience of friends and neighbours. Afterwards her ailment disappeared.

Eventually Carol took the plunge herself.

As the vibrations of the drums and gongs entered my body, my eyes seemed to glaze over. As the music became louder my mouth opened, trembling uncontrollably. I began to feel cold winds blowing inside my chest, winds that increased in intensity as the music swelled and accelerated until it felt as if a hurricane was raging within my heart. I put my hands on my chest to try to calm it, but instead I began to move my shoulders and then the upper part of my body as if I were about to get up and dance. With the last vestiges of my self control, I prevented myself; I still feared embarrassment But as the music swelled to a climax I began to move my head so quickly and violently that, had I not been in trance, my neck would undoubtedly have snapped.

What Carol Laderman describes appears to be just the same sort of movements as those experienced in ‘Shaktipat’ and in modern homeostasis. The approach, however, is quite different. In Shaktipat ‘trance’ is achieved by the individual sitting “still, but not rigidly; he does not concentrate in any way, but simply relaxes.” In Malaysian shamanism, trance is entered “through cultural cues, ritual props, incantations, songs and stories. Percussive music, a steady, musical pulse.” In modern homeostasis similar states can be experienced simply by allowing spontaneous movement. So it seems as if all that is important is that the persons own fears, cultural theories and needs are respected. For instance in Haiti, the trance is often accompanied by ‘possession’ by the god Ghede, which is manifested by a particular physical posture.

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