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Shamans and Trance Mechanics

This post is by Steven Rumbelow.

Shaman 03

Before Priests, before medical doctors, before psychologists, before faith healers, before dancers, before singers, before actors, before magicians, before historians, before differences… there were Shamans. In those days to be a shaman was to be all of the above. They were the first actors but what actors do you know that you would trust to heal you or teach you about gods or look into the future? None that I know of. Although there is still the vestige of hero worship that early tribal shamans enjoyed.

During the 1970s I conducted a number of transpersonal field experiments with Shamans from different cultures. For me it was a study of the anthropological roots of the actor. The big difference being that although actors and rock stars do exhibit the power to influence the public they didnt have the power to heal people, dance in trance on the edge of mountains, manipulate the environment around them, speak in tongues or convincingly channel “god” through their bodies. Shamans do all of these things often in a state of trance. What they often refer to as becoming a gate or doorway between realities.

I observed and interesting number of performance triggers that were common to shamans of very different cultures. Rhythms, “dances”, symbols, directions, colours, ways of expressing certain phenomena and something that I observed and called “literality” which was a mechanic they used in order to evoke the respect of their spectators. “Literality” was proof of superhuman capabilities which once performed would allow the shaman to pose conceptual issues and value judgements as facts and the audience who would now view him or her as superhuman and willingly to accept the abstractions being “presented” later. Well known examples of the Literality Mechanic include fire walking, Kris Knife Rituals, self mutilation without blood.

I likened these events to Bruce Springstein clearing a 12 foot speaker in one jump and then throwing himself on the floor and screaming “Im a prisoner of rock and roll!” Or Little Richard collapsing off his piano during a song. Iggy Pop or Gene Vincent damaging themselves in the grip of a passionate song.

I had observed shamans dancing on rocks with their eyes closed on mountain edges, seen shamans dancing with the wind whilst seeming to completely control the wind. Scorpion dancing. Snakes, knives, arrows… using so many instruments of death to open their dialogue with the spectators. Once they had the belief of the spectator they were able to heal them of lift their curse or whatever.

I felt sure that the trigger was trance and began experiments in several Universities. To see if trance was possible to evoke in  citizens of modern technological cultures. I performed investigations at the University of York (UK), Exeter U., Leicester Poly, The Actors Institute in Wroclaw, Dartington College, The Centre for Theatre Research, The Kalambur in Wroclaw, Northwesterns Communications Department, among others, and shared information with 7 other theatres involved in similar research at the symposium for the Frontiers of Modern Theatre at the Theatre Research Centre in Milan.

We even performed experiments with primates at London zoo to see if the communications techniques could work with different species. We developed a workshop program that put over 10,000 participants trough the program from 20 odd cultures. The outcome of the research which I shared with the Museum of Man (so it was then called) in Ottawa and 21 university departments which were mainly theatre and psychology or communications departments.

We discovered that there was a simple repeated action, a repeated genuflection of the spine, that would trigger trances in participants and it would take about three days to condition the subjects to that degree. We discovered a large amount of other useful “tools” on the research and found that if we kept the participants somewhat in the dark that they responded faster.

Whilst working with one biologist she noted that the genuflection of the spine probably created cerebral fluid pressure build up in the cranium. Her observation was that this created a chemical change in the brain and after questioning participants concluded that it probably elevated adrenaline which would speed up mental processes. Rather akin to when things slow down during the adrenaline rush of an auto accident. In slow motion at normal speed it allowed one to run up walls and fall without hurt. It allowed one to speak in tongues that really seemed to be linguistic. It allowed one to do superhuman leaps and yells. To perform  possessions. To fall and strike ones self. To sing loudly in key for the first time. To feel breaths of wind on the face and thus dancing with wind or fire. The list went on.

Add to this the time that one person diagnosed with MPD worked through her past in the trance and reconstituted her  personalities. I checked with her about 10 years later. She had become the Editor of an English newspaper and had never experienced another episode since that workshop.

I am sure that some of the religious and paranormal experiences which are described by followers are born from the trance mechanic. I am also convinced that this trance mechanic pulls on a lot more than just adrenaline and probably point to some deep mystical anomalies that we currently count as mysteries.

We found that over two thirds of the trance participants in our programs would experiece trance within three days of preparation. That they all professed to experiencing “slow motion” events and that about 80% felt that they resolved important issues related to themselves. About 90% reported the ability to perform physical feats that they were not normally capable of. They were never told that trance was a target or a subject of investigation until later. It became apparent that these ancient triggers where just as potent now and close to the surface even in modern urban subjects.

This research was to echo in several areas of the paranormal universe and show us the way in so many future investigations…

Steven Rumbelow
Steven Rumbelow was born in Bristol, England, and has been a director in the entertainment industry for decades. He began in theatre in London and then started on films. His career has been a melange between media productions and theatre ever since. Rumbelow runs his own production company in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Renegade Motion Pictures, which produced "Beyond," a paranormal series that Steven directed.

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2 thoughts on “Shamans and Trance Mechanics

  1. Thomas – No cameras, either stills or video, were permitted in our Leap in the Dark workshops which took five continuous days. We found that when people became self-conscious, or employed what theatre actors call the “outside eye” that the workshop was far less successful… for obvious reasons. This was standard fair for any “investigations” of that kind. There were others who were investigating similar phenomena such as Eugenio Barba at Odin Theatre and Jerzy Grotowski at Teatre Laboratorium in Wroclaw.

    There is a trance mechanic that occurs during an experiment we did atop a mountain in Olesnica (Poland) with about 80 participants from 20 different cultures. We were comparing different cultural responses to certain exercises and there was a Polish filmmaker who came and was allowed to shoot on a limited basis over the three days. There are four members of my theatre company seen in the clip… being experienced they had learned how to use trance in different circumstances. There are seen here in various states of trance but the genuflection is not captured. You may recognize the highly talented Julian Richings who plays Death in Supernatural, these days. Smile. The blonde girl I’m pictured taking care of in the clip is now a notable theatre director in the UK.

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