Saturday, 16 May 2009

Suspension of Disbelief...

It is clear that there are many factors involved in the production of altered consciousness in those who are witness to séance phenomena. An important aspect that I feel needs to be addressed is the role of performance. Performance can have a significant effect on the observer.

Performance has the ability to move our consciousness to other places. It is said that we may suspend our disbelief when watching a play or reading a book in order to fully engage ourselves in the situation being presented to us. This suspension of disbelief is usually created by the performance: if the performance is good the observer will be better able to immerse him/herself in the drama, and may even forget that what they are observing is an act. This is a powerful phenomenon.

Performance often takes a central role in the practices of shamans throughout the world. The types of performance utilised might include; dancing, singing, drumming, illusions/tricks, role playing and fantastic feats of physical ability, alone or in combination with one another. I would suggest that such performances serve as external cues to induce within the observer a sense of the otherworldly and as proofs to the witness that the shaman is indeed in contact with this other world.

Korean shaman performing physical feats with knives (Source)

To a degree then, trickery may well form a part of the physical medium’s trade, but only to serve the purpose of engaging the sitter’s energies with his/her endeavours. Tricks and illusions can cause the observer to look at reality differently; they can induce in the observer a sense of the impossible and magical. To this end the performance increases the acceptance of the witness that something is actually happening, which may well be the case. In other words performance can produce a conducive atmosphere within which certain phenomena can manifest more easily.

To this end it might be reasonable to suggest that our notion of fraud is somewhat misplaced when used in reference to the practice of physical mediumship. The anthropologist Edith Turner (1998) arrived at a similar conclusion when considering the ihamba healing ceremony of the Ndembu. During this ritual a human tooth, possessed by spirit intentionality, is believed to be the cause of physical illness. Following a lengthy and ritualised ordeal the tooth is finally extracted from the patient. But was the tooth really to blame for the illness, and did it really get extracted from the patient? Edith Turner writes:

“…Meru’s affliction by a human tooth looks impossible; in the West the only words for such a process are “trickery”, “sleight of hand”, and the like. But these terms derive from quite a different world from the scene at Mulandu farm” (Turner, 1998, 169)

Performance and/or elements of trickery may be a fundamental aspect of the process of inducing something to happen: creating an atmosphere in which things may occur through providing stimulus to suggest the tangible action of the spirit world; through allowing the individual to suspend their disbelief. Once in that frame of mind an individual will be open to experience on more subtle levels and will be able to willingly engaging with them. In the case of Edith Turner's experience, whether the spirit tooth was produced by trickery or supernatural means is irrelevent when the overall effect is understood: the patient was healed.

Indeed, the importance of acceptance has been stressed by spirits communicating through trance mediumship. These beings operate on a mental level in which thought is fundamental. If we wish to communicate with them we must literally allow them in; we have to be in a receptive frame of mind. Belief is a highly significant factor: if you do not believe it is possible it is much less likely to happen (but then again there are numerous accounts of individuals who have had their pre-conceptions entirely altered by an apparently impossible experience).

In writing this I am not apologizing for the use of fraud in the history of physical mediumship, but am rather suggesting that our understanding of such matters is far from complete and that by dismissing mediums on the grounds that they have utilised trickery is not necessarilly the right move to make. Shamans maintain a high status in their societies for aiding communication with the other world, even if this process involves an element of trickery; the communication and its effects are, nevertheless, still valid.

We must suspend our disbelief in order to experience the other world.

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