On Possession

if done well,
should be prologue.

Speaking In Tongues

A Cross Cultural Study of Glossolalia
by Dr. Felicitas Goodman

The subjective experience of glossolalia is usually accompanied by a sense of disassociation, a feeling that the person experiencing it has been taken over by an outside entity. When this entity is perceived as a ‘Holy Spirit’ the experience is usually a voluntary, positive, and culturally sanctioned event, as it is among charismatic Christian sects. In general, the institutionalized “great religions’ based on agriculture, literacy, and hierarchy, primarily recognize the ecstatic state of possession that allows the divine (both beneficent and malevolent) to speak through a mundane human medium. While more ancient and egalitarian tribal societies recognize and utilize ecstatic states of possession, they also practice what we now call shamanic journeying. One of the primary subjective differences between journeying and possession is that:

• In shamanic journeying, there is a continuous sense of self that directs the experiences of the alternate or ‘non’-consensual’ realities and that memory is accessible regardless of state.
• Possession ( or channeling)) allows a distinct and different entity to speak and act through the passive medium who often does not even remember what their body says or does during the ecstatic state

Another fundamental difference is that:

• In shamanic states, the responsibility for interacting with and influencing the beings of the alternate reality rests on the practitioner
• In possession, someone other than the medium, such as a client, priest, or exorcist, must interact with and influence the behavior of these beings.

Yet another difference is that for the most part:

• In shamanic states, beings of the alternate reality, however varied in their attributes, are consistently powerful and can be dangerous if not treated with due respect by the practitioner. Their benevolence or malevolence is earned, not absolute.
• In possession, beings of the alternate reality are experienced as intrinsically benevolent or malevolent regardless of the character or the actions of the one possessed.

Dr. Felicitas Goodman realized that the distinctive intonation patterns found in recordings of people speaking in tongues (click here) were similar regardless of their native language or belief system, an insight opened a window into the neuro-physiology of the ecstatic state. In this regard, I found one bit of her unpublished research most intriguing. She had persuaded a woman that had learned about and practiced directing her shamanic journeying through body posture , but who also made her living channeling, to participate in some testing during the two different states. In this very preliminary research, it appeared that the major neuro-hormonal difference between the two subjective experiences was when and how the body produced stress and bliss hormones.

• During beneficent possession, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol rose and stayed elevated until the end of the experience when a sudden jolt of endorphins and other bliss hormones appeared.
• During a shamanic journey, the sound of the rattle or drum inspired an initial spike of stress hormones, which quickly dropped well below normal and were replaced with a steady rise in endorphins that leveled off towards the end of the experience. Most interesting was that the body maintained the increased level of bliss hormones well after the rhythmic stimulation stopped.
• I don’t know of any research documenting the neuro-hormonal variations with a malevolent or demonic possession, but I would dare to speculate that such an altered state would be rife with stress hormones and lacking in blissful ones.

I would like to offer more information, but even now, decades after Felicitas’ work was published, there is still an institutionalized lack of interest in these more dramatic workings of the human psyche. I find myself continually amazed that so many people in the psychological and medical professions, never mind the general public, are unaware of the groundbreaking 1963 study supported by the National Institute of Mental Health and headed by Dr. Erica Bourguignon of Ohio State University. Her premise was that:

Given the large number of societies
That anthropologists have made a record of,
It would be an unlikely coincidence indeed
If each one of these societies
Despite their small size
Had a psychotic person
Of the right sex
And the right age
To carry out its religious rituals.

How About Demons

Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World

by Dr. Felicitas Goodman

What the statistical study showed was that anthropologists and ethnologists had documented at least one form of socially acceptable coherently structured and frequent use of religious altered states of consciousness in 90 percent of the societies studied despite industrialized urbanized Western civilization’s depiction of such states as abnormal. It is likely that the 10 percent of studies lacking such activity were the result of the observer’s failure to notice or record it, rather than that society’s failure to practice such altered states. Cross-cultural documentation of strategies for inducing the ecstatic states includes:

• Preparing physically- fasting, bathing, sweating
• Expectation of and concentration on the desired state
• A rhythmic driving stimulation
• Transition into the desired state
• And a return from the desired state

While an observing anthropologist can document these external behaviors; the internal preparations and neuro-physiological changes are less accessible. Those who have chosen to extend the boundaries of the participant/observer role in anthropology by becoming active participants in ecstatic rituals tend to suffer a commensurate loss of standing in their academic circles. Undermining if not actively blocking genuine investigation and research into the psychological and neuro-physiological complexities of such states only contributes to the number of those suffering from the affects of these all too human experiences, and to the confusion and suffering arising out of the widespread inability to recognize, accept, or understand, much less manage them.

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2 thoughts on “On Possession

  1. Sara, in some cultures of the Brazilian Amazon shamans do not make a distinction between shamanic trance and possession. I was taught an intermediate state that incorporated elements of both but fit my comfort level as a shamanic practitioner. I am still exploring the options.

    • I do have a couple more posts on the subject coming up that might be pertinent. But for now, the fundamental and telling trait of true possession is amnesia. I tend to think that it is a ‘modern’ stress-based distortion of our inherent human abilities. Involuntary trance states are generally considered problematic, and a great deal of shamanic initiation consists of learning how to enter and leave different states of mind at will. What you are speaking of sounds like ‘Spiritual Interpretation’ (as it is called by many, from Rudolf Steiner to Pentecostal sects to the Brazilian Umbanda), where there is a conscious, cooperative, and willing conversation with non-human beings. That practice not only feels truer to me, it is more likely to become an enduring and constructive aspect of people’s lives. On an anthropological note, that first you were taught how to do this and second, that it fit your comfort level, are two very important characteristics for anyone wanting to learn.

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