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Altered States Of Consciousness

  ‘Altered states of consciousness’ is an umbrella term for describing physical and mental states which are not considered part of ordinary experience. They occur in many societies in connection with mystical practices, ecstatic and trance states. Modern psychology locates these changes as arising within the psyche, while other cultures explain them in terms of changes in external reality, such as access to a spirit realm or extrahuman power. Trance states can be defined according to the degree of interaction believed to occur between the individual, who is in an altered state, and the spirit realm. In states of possession, the spirit is assumed to be in control of the person, who acts as the bodily vehicle by means of which the spirit can communicate. In shamanism the spirit or spirit world has been domesticated by the shaman, who uses his or her familiarity with the spirit realm in order to bring about changes in everyday life.

The word shaman originated in Siberia, where it referred to a religious specialist. Shamans are found throughout Asia and in many other cultures. They journey to the realm of the spirits in an altered state of consciousness, often induced by rhythmic drumming. Because of their ability to associate with the spirit realm shamans, as with other religious specialists, are often powerful figures in their society and are called on to mediate on behalf of humans, providing protective and curative services. The power shamans can tap into is also seen as potentially dangerous, so they may at times be marginalized by the rest of the community.

Anthropologists have examined the use of altered states to empower weak groups on the margins of society. The members of spirit-possession cults and religious ecstatic practices are usually drawn from weak, marginalized social groups. Ecstasy literally means ‘standing outside [one\'s mind]’, and reflects the spiritual transcendence from the mundane which they are trying to achieve.

The use of hallucinatory drugs, such as peyote, to induce ecstatic states as a means to explore the transcendental realm, was made famous by Carlos Castaneda in the 1960s. The authenticity of his anthropological accounts of initiation with a Yacqui Indian shaman in Mexico, however, have now been discredited. CL

See also indigenous metaphysics.Further reading Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan; , N. Drury, The Elements of Shamanism; , I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion.



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