Body-based Spirituality teaches that our physical bodies empower us in making a direct connection with the spiritual world. We are familiar with practices such as ecstatic dancing, chanting or dervish-style spinning. The Cuyamungue Method, based on the teachings I learned from anthropologist Felicitas Goodman, outlines the steps necessary for our bodies to use Ancient Ritual Postures and experience what Dr. Goodman called the ecstatic trance state. This Method uses the steps of setting up a sacred space, engaging in a breathing practice, assuming an Ancient Ritual Posture while listening to the sound of the rattle, and then letting the nervous system do the rest.
In this practice, my body is performing the ritual, not my mind. My bones and muscles are working in concert with my endocrine system, blood flow, and nervous system – as well as energy pathways called meridians in Chinese medicine – to activate and shape the ritual experience. My mind doesn’t have to do anything except to witness whatever occurs.
When the body holds and grounds the ritual, this opens the door to a direct and embodied experience, not just guided imagery or imagination.
Body-based Spirituality: A Direct Experience
Have you ever taken a walk on a summer night under a full moon? Maybe there was a breeze and you may have seen some stars despite the brightness of the moon. Your memory is of a direct experience, full of sensory detail. Analyzing the meaning of the experience is not so important as just being there and allowing yourself to be affected by it.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote that experience itself is what is most important, not intellectual or analytic understanding. We could look up the meaning of the moon in various mythologies, or perhaps consider how ancient people tracked the movements of the moon and other celestial bodies. But Jung said that the ways we think about an experience “prove meaningful only when the road to original experience is blocked.” In other words, witnessing the full moon in summer is a direct experience and it can change us in ways that our minds cannot fathom. Similarly direct experience during the ritual with these ancient postures affects us beyond intellectual understanding. That doesn’t mean we don’t reflect and try to understand the personal meaning of our experiences. It does mean that we lead with the body not the mind.
What Does Body-based Spirituality Mean?
Body-based spirituality encompasses:
- Doing something to or with the body (like holding a ritual posture and listening to the sound of the rattle) to activate connection with the spirits and the Alternate Reality;
- Relying on direct experience more than doctrinal teaching or ideological interpretation, although teachers and guides can help to better understand the meaning of our direct experience for us individually;
- Recognizing the unique ability of the physical body to be fully present in the moment, a requirement for embodying the spiritual quality of Presence;
- Relying on the body to ground and balance experience in the heart and mind.
Using Ancient Ritual Postures, the spirits themselves become our teachers. The spirits embody the essential qualities of Source, known in other traditions as gods and goddesses, or the names of God, or even the major arcana in Tarot. The cosmologies of indigenous people tend to be more Earth-based, relying on animal spirits and ancestors to provide wisdom and guidance in how to live and how to die so that we live forever in the Alternate Reality.
Using Ritual Postures
Using the Cuyamungue Method we select one of the Ancient Ritual Postures to open a doorway to the Alternate Reality. The types of experiences we may seek are organized into six primary categories: Healing, Divination, Metamorphosis (or shape-shifting), Spirit Journey, Initiation, and Ritual. These distinctions and their characteristics will be explored more fully in a later blog.
For now, begin by selecting any ritual posture, perhaps by drawing a card from the Oracle deck of Ancient Ritual Postures. Many small societies apparently knew and used only a few ritual postures, so becoming proficient in one or two of the postures is a good first step. Practice the posture so that you can easily hold it during fifteen minutes. If you need lean into a wall or other back rest, or if you need pillows or other props, do whatever helps you to relax during the rattling session. Remember that our purpose in assuming the posture is to activate the same neurological wiring as our ancient ancestors who first used these postures and documented them on rock walls or in sculptures. It is the position itself that is the focus.
The Spiritual Trance State
There are several physiological markers that characterize the spiritual trance state you will enter. Anthropologists call it the religious altered state of consciousness. These markers make it clear that your body is helping you to shift into a different state of being.
First your blood pressure will likely be lower than usual but at the same time your heart rate may increase. This curious combination of body changes also occurs when our bodies are dying. Shamans regularly reported that they died during trance states. Clearly they understood how their bodies were changing. The good news is that it is a pleasant sensation and not at all dangerous. Be careful afterwards, though, to move slowly in case you might be dizzy since your blood sugar levels may also go down. A little orange juice will easily bring those levels back to normal.
Another appealing physiological change is an increase in your body’s production of beta-endorphins. When released into the blood stream, endorphins act like chemical messengers to help relieve pain and stress. More beta-endorphins in your blood can give you a signature feeling of well-being that many people report in their experiences with Ancient Ritual Postures.
During the rattling the pulse of brain waves may slow down to the theta level, about six to seven cycles per second, usually associated with deep sleep or the meditative state achieved by accomplished Zen practitioners. At the University of Vienna, Professor Giselher Guttmann developed a technology for measuring brain waves by direct current rather than alternating current, like a battery. In a state of normal concentration, subjects registered brain waves at about 100 microvolts; during ecstatic trance, individuals who had previously practiced using Ancient Ritual Postures recorded brain waves of 1000 to 2500 microvolts. Clearly a lot can be happening in the brain during the experience.
Body-based Spirituality and the Doors of Perception
Perception also changes. It is common to have the sound of the rattle disappear or perhaps amplify to become the sound of dozens of rattles or the sound of chirping crickets, or perhaps transform into chimes, bells, or whistles. Many people say they have changes in body temperature, usually getting hot. However, in lying down postures, it is more common to feel cold. Once the rattling ends, the body goes back to normal.
Maintaining the details of the posture is important, but many people have involuntary movements. You may find yourself twitching or swaying, bobbing your head, or grimacing, all involuntarily. With two of the postures, the Singing Shaman and the Psychopomp, we make an “aaahhh” sound during the rattling. At first it can seem strange to listen as the sound of your own voice changing into animal noises or singing, but it is indicates that you are in an altered state when the sound seems to happen without willing it. Don’t worry, you can stop it if you really want to.
The Research on Body-Based Spirituality
We have relied on the research of Dr. Ingrid Mueller at the University of Munich to demonstrate some physiological markers of this altered state of consciousness: blood levels of the stress-related hormones cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine initially rise, then drop dramatically; the brain synthesizes beta-endorphins, which are responsible for the signature feeling of well-being; blood pressure drops, but at the same time the pulse rate increases. Dr. Mueller’s overall findings are consistent regardless of the subject’s level of experience with trance or the specific posture used. None of the other altered states that have been studied, such as hypnotic trance, REM and non-REM sleep, and meditation have this characteristic combination of effects.
All of this information indicates that the body undergoes tremendous change during periods of using Ancient Ritual postures. Dr. Goodman’s research with over a thousand subjects has determined that anyone with a normally functioning nervous system can shift easily into this altered state on cue and just as easily return to the ordinary state of consciousness. When you assume an Ancient Ritual Posture in a ritual context and the rattling begins, you make the shift and then when the rattling stops and you move your body out of the ritual posture, you return to normal.
Inexperienced individuals are able to learn how to enter the ecstatic trance state easily. Dr. Goodman thought that the nervous system periodically needs to be exercised in this way. It might even be therapeutic. She called contemporary Western society “ecstasy deprived” and believed there would a radical reduction in addictions if people had more direct access to the ecstasy of spiritual connection through body-based spirituality.
Dimensions of Ecstacy
In the early stages of the rattling session we might begin with seeing colors and forms, then of perceiving animals and landscapes and perhaps other spirit forms. Eventually we might step into dimensions of ecstasy in which we are at one with multiple worlds. When you are just learning, you may not have an ecstatic experience but that capacity always comes with practice.
We know that the intention with which we begin the ritual as well as the physical setting and our psychological orientation can all affect what we experience. We see through the filter of what is meaningful to us at the time. The use of the rhythmic sound suppresses the activity of the logical left hemisphere of the frontal cortex. We become more open to the dreamlike perception of the right hemisphere, activating the capacity to see and experience inwardly. Because we do this every night during the dream state, our experience of dreams becomes the guide to help us understand what happens during trance. Sometimes I use dreamwork techniques to help people understand the content of their trance experiences.
The surrounding physical landscape or geographic field where the ritual takes places can also affect what is experienced during a trance. Spirits traditionally known to inhabit specific locations are more available when we are in those places. Rituals activate the sacred energies of a location. Once, during a workshop on the beach in Mexico, a woman described what we were doing as “acupuncture on the body of the Earth.” Stimulating our bodies with the sound of the rattle seemed to have a resonant effect on the earth beneath us. In response, we were more attuned to the presence of the Maya pantheon: the goddess Ixchel and the sacred ceiba tree, the local Tree of the World, were more present and meaningful to us there.
Body-based Spirituality and the Sacred
Finally, our worldview affects the form our visions may take. “The mind,” writes neuro-psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, “emerges at the interface of interpersonal experience and the structure and function of the brain. . . . Interpersonal experiences directly influence how we mentally construct reality.” The people in our lives teach us how to interpret the billions of sensory messages we receive every day. Our minds create a central integrative function to make sense of it all within the personal narrative we call “self.”
Scientists can record the electromagnetic field that surrounds our physical bodies called an aura and may identify its varying vibrations as color. Other people can intuitively read the emotional energy when they enter a room or interact with an individual. Research into the functioning of mirror neurons in every human being informs us that every one of us is reading this energy, all the time, but only some people are aware of it.
Similarly, we learn to interpret our experiences in non-ordinary reality according to past experiences in ordinary life, the influence of the people around us, our physical environment, and our belief structures.
Any body-based practice is difficult to thoroughly describe until you have had your own experience of it. Recall your last good massage or maybe a yoga session. The external conditions and maneuvers can be explained, but that is not enough to fully convey what happened.
Based on my own experiences with Ancient Ritual Postures and those of my students over the past 35 years, I can say with confidence that you are likely to emerge from the ritual with a greater sense of relaxation and peace. And beyond that, you can begin to build a connection with the magnificent Spirit Presences that have accompanied humanity over the millennium.