On Exorcism

The cross-cultural agreement in physiological changes
Marks us as members of a single species.
The significant differences
In perceived experience
Illustrate how strongly we are shaped
By our respective cultures,
Our belief systems.
Contemplating possession and exorcism
In a holistic manner
By paying attention to
Both these aspects
Will underline its reality
And help us to restore dignity
To a topic that has too long languished
In the bonds of ‘superstition’
In the public view.’

Foreword to How About Demons?

Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World

Felicitas D. Goodman

While there is little research readily available on the physiology and neuro-biology of possession; there have been a few studies on multiple personality disorders that are intriguing. A study comparing the EEGs of individuals suffering from multiple personality disorder and individuals coached on imitating the disorder found that normal individuals retained their own distinct EEG regardless of how well they simulated another personality while genuine sufferers of the disorder had a significantly different EEG pattern for each alter or personality. That changes in the endocrine and immune systems are associated with brain changes is supported by the observation that different alters in cases of multiple personality disorder show notably different allergic responses and drug sensitivities.

Not only that, they found that alters that displayed specific personality disorders such as obsessive/compulsive showed brain map patterns similar to those of non-multiple individuals who suffered from similar types of disorders. In other words, the distinctive brain maps of both the alters and the destructive personality disorders were consistent with the subjective impression of persistent and stable external entities taking over their host. If possession by a demonic entity, can be said to be a the spontaneous and repeated appearance of a distinct and persistent brain map that drives a person’s behavior against their conscious will, then we have perhaps found an overlap between the religious and the scientific view of the experience.

Especially as such spontaneous often negative ecstatic disorders most often fail to respond to pharmacological and intellectual therapies but do respond to ritual and spiritual practices, it behooves the healing professions to bear Felicitas’ caution in mind:

‘Without ritual intervention
The undoing of such a pattern
Is extremely difficult
Especially so if the alter is evil
Or in religious terms,
If the possessing entity has demonic powers,
In the religious ambient,
The treatment of choice is exorcism.
As we shall see,
It is the only strategy
Used cross-culturally
Against demonic possession,
And in all instances
Where it is allowed to work
without interference
It is eminently successful.

How About Demons?

Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World

Felicitas D. Goodman

Although the elaboration of the basic rites of exorcism varies from culture to culture, there are three universally required elements. During the ritual the exorcist demands the demon supply:

• Its true name
• What it wants
• The time of departure

Such entities are bound by their words, and depart as agreed and even the relatively sterile atmosphere of the therapists office offers sufficient structure to present the three essential aspects of exorcism. However, it appears that there is a ‘genetic ability in the raw’, that those who are predisposed to switching brain maps, may find themselves dealing with this innate ability repeatedly, regardless of their belief system. The departure of a particular pattern or entity, demonic or not, does not change the host’s innate ability to enter the ecstatic state. Those for whom the ecstatic state appears as a sudden, overwhelming, and/or unwelcome experience can and must learn to tame their own energies and/or any entities involved if they do not wish to repeat the experience involuntarily.

Unfortunately, although charismatic Christian services are perhaps the most widely known venue for possession, they do not offer a means of stabilizing and controlling the experience. Even though the ‘baptism’ by the Holy Spirit through glossolalia is necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven, the actual experience tends to be marked by:

• An initial intense excitation
• that may briefly become involuntary
• and quickly becomes stereotyped
• mirroring the patterns of the guide
• then attenuates over time
• culminating in a total loss of the ability to access the behavior

Most notably, the vocalizations of the charismatic Christian’s Holy Spirit are non-productive. That is, they do not develop complexity or impart meaning over time. They are unrewarding in the long-term and unrewarded physiologically because they do not open any bridges of meaningful communication between realms or within the charismatic community. As such, they are self-extinguishing behaviors, unless something goes wrong. When a negative or demonic experience occurs, it is treated through exorcism whose goal is also to extinguish the behavior, albeit through an outward influence. Some of the public reluctance to embrace the idea of religious altered states of consciousness may be a response to this very crude approach to the subtle complexities of the ecstatic experience whose optimum long-term result is extinguishing itself.

While the ability to go into trance
Is genetically transmitted,
It needs to be triggered in some way
In order to be available
for ritual purposes.
Straying into it is rare.
Ecstasy is consciously induced
And represents a learned behavior.
Religious communities where it is practiced
Either rely on repeated demonstration
During ritual as a teaching device
Or have rituals expressly designed
to lead the beginner into it.

How About Demons?

Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World

Felicitas D. Goodman

The popularity of the South American possession cult of Umbanda may be in part because they regard the initial intense excitation as problematic and focus on stabilizing the platform stage, where the medium is able to verbalize while remaining in the trance state. In this platform stage, mediums not only control when and how they enter into and exit their own experience, their possessing entities are available to consult, offering guidance and solace to their communities. Once established, these patterns of possession remain stable, sometimes for the lifetime of the medium.

Personally, I tend to feel that the approach of the Umbanda cult, its willingness to adapt to difficult circumstances and integrate numerous lineages, is a contemporary window into a wiser, more deeply rooted, ancient, knowledgeable, constructive, and productive path. The need to acquire a ritual that gives us humans a vessel for physiological transformation of negative emotions, energies, and entities, into positive ones is one of the cross-cultural consistencies of religious trance and spiritual practice.

In most non-Western societies
Being able to switch
Into ecstasy
During certain rituals
Is a prerequisite of adulthood.
A person who cannot do it
Is considered defective,
Suffering from some mental aberration.

How About Demons?

Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World

Felicitas D. Goodman

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