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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Ecstatic Religion: An Anthropological Study of Spirit Possession and Shamanism.

Lewis, I. M. (1971).
Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin.

ISBN: none

Description: paperback, 221 pages, plus 16 pages of photographs between pages 112 and 113.

Contents: List of plates, preface, 7 chapters, bibliography, index.

Excerpt(s): By confining his attention to the Christian tradition, and arguing in effect that spirituality is to be judged by its fruits, [Ronald] Knox was not faced with the problem of relating mystical experiences in other religions to those in his own. This tendentious issue has been left to plague other Christian authorities. Thus R. C. Zaehner, the orientalist, has boldly sought to establish criteria with which to assess objectively the relative validity of a host of mystical encounters. The examples range from the recorded experiences of celebrated Christian and oriental mystics at one extreme, to the author's own and Huxley's experiments with drugs at the other. The critical sophistication of his argument is impressive, but the result is too predictable to be entirely convincing. Indeed, only those who share his assurance will accept Zaehner's conclusion, that Christian mysticism represents a more lofty form of transcendental experience than any other. (pages 22-23)

Attempts to diminish the status of such drug-induced mysticism by dubbing it *instant religion' need not detain us here. Nor need we be unduly disturbed by the fact that psychiatric case-records abound in descriptions of similar subjectively evaluated mystical experience. The problem of distinguishing between madmen and mystics, which we shall take up later, is one most religious communities have had to face.

For our purposes all we need to note for the moment is the universality of mystical experience and the remarkable uniformity of mystical language and symbolism. We also require, however, a neutral term to denote the mental state of the subject of such experiences. Here I shall employ the word *trance', using it in its general medical sense which the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology conveniently defines as: *a condition of dissociation, characterized by the lack of voluntary movement, and frequently by automatisms in act in thought, illustrated by hypnotic and mediumistic conditions.' So conceived, trance may involve complete or only partial dissociation, and is often accompanied by exciting visions, or *hallucinations', the full content of which is not always subsequently so clearly recalled as in the two experiences quoted earlier.

As is well known, trance states can be readily induced in most normal people by a wide range of stimuli, applied either separately or in combination. Time-honored techniques include the use of alcoholic spirits, hypnotic suggestion, rapid over-breathing, the inhalation of smoke and vapours, music, and dancing; and the ingestion of such drugs as mescaline or lysergic acid and other psychotropic alkaloids. Even without aids, much the same effect can be produced, although usually in the nature of things more slowly, by such self-inflicted or externally imposed mortification's and privations as fasting and ascetic contemplation (e.g. *transcendental meditation'). The inspirational effect of sensory deprivation, implied in the stereotypical mystical *flight' into the wilderness, has also been well documented in recent laboratory experiments. (pages 38-39)

The existence of rival and apparently mutually opposed interpretations of trance occurs of course today in our own society. With the advance of medical science, the incidence of trance states interpreted by the Church as signs of possession has progressively decreased since the Middle Ages. Yet outside this rigid framework of established religion, fringe cults have increasingly taken over a mystical interpretation of trance as the sign of divine inspiration. This is certainly the manner in which trance is overwhelmingly understood in revivalist movements like those of the *Bible Belt' of the U S A, and seems also to be growing in significance in the newer protest cult groups which employ drugs such as LSD and other psychedelic stimulants. (page 44)

The shaman is thus the symbol not of subjection and despondency but of independence and hope. Through him the otherwise unfettered power of the world beyond human society is harnessed purposefully and applied to minister to the needs of the community. ... And this hard-won control over the ground of affliction is reenacted in every shamanistic seance. This, rather than the repetition of any personal crisis, is the message of the seance. For at the seance the gods enter the shaman at his bidding, and are thus brought into direct confrontation with society and its problems. It is by dragging the gods down to his level, as much by soaring aloft to meet them, that the shaman enables man to deal with his deities on an equal footing. (page 189)

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