Spirits and Souls

I first became aware of the work of Felicitas D. Goodman because of her classic text on spirit possession. Published by the reputable Indiana University Press, that book has become a standard for anthropological understanding of a strange phenomenon, which includes demonic possession. I found Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences in a used bookstore. Recognizing Goodman’s name, and always eager to learn about spirituality, I picked it up, It’s one of those books that makes you wonder. In an effort to experience trance states, Goodman began to experiment with various posture represented in the archaeological record. When she taught classes where students had no foreknowledge on the postures, she found they they reported similar visions during their trances while using the same posture. Matter, it seems, can effect mind.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read her account, what Indiana University Press must have thought about what they were publishing. This could be some serious woo, depending on how far you’re willing to go with Goodman. She was a doctorate-holding professor, so academic convention suggests she should be taken seriously. The BISAC classifications (those categories that often appear on the back cover of a book) tell the reader that this is Anthropology and Psychology of Religion. Neither field tends to give a whole lot of credence to the supernatural. At least not necessarily. And yet, there it is. Neither field really captures what Goodman describes in this book. Nobody really doubts that trances can happen; alternate states of consciousness are acknowledged phenomena. What we don’t have, however, is an explanation of what’s really going on.

A good deal of the this book consists of her students’ accounts of their visions. Although a native of Hungary, Goodman, through fieldwork and experience, became quite adept at Native American and other indigenous religious practices. The images that suggested the postures to her come from archaeological contexts around the world. This suggests that, according to Goodman’s worldview, these are some universal experiences. Attaining trance states, like meditation, takes practice. They can shift perceptions of reality. We tend not to hear too much about religion faculty who explore such things too openly. It’s a dangerous move in academia. Ironically, the institutions we build to understand our world tend to restrict themselves to the physical world or those fields that make ample lucre. I’m impressed that, even if by labeling it anthropology or psychology of religion, at least one university press took a chance at offering an exploration that might have some real world consequences.

Strawberry Fields Forever

For beings dwelling on the surface of our planet, we tend to live far from the earth. I was reminded of this yesterday when my family went on our annual strawberry-picking venture. Each year we drive out to a remote farm that has pick-your-own strawberries and fill too many baskets because we just can’t stop ourselves when nature offers such obvious bounty. On the years when I can visit the northwest with my in-laws, one of my favorite pastimes is huckleberry picking. The two berry experiences differ vastly; one is a cultivated, planned layout of particular strains of red berries, the other is a forage-and-hunt search for wild purple berries that haven’t been stripped by the grizzlies. Both, however, put me intimately in touch with the earth. Trousers muddy from direct contact with the ground, fingers stained from the delicate fruit juices newly plucked from the plant – it is an earthy enterprise.

At such times it is evident how religions began. I don’t pretend to comprehend the whole complex phenomenon of the psychology of religion, but in those rare moments I share in the ancient art of survival. Finding your own food, body pressing directly on the earth with no cushion or blanket or furniture between. These moments must reflect our earliest ancestors’ daily life. When times of hardship came and food could not be found, they could only watch as members of their group died an agonizing death from hunger. Would they not call out to the powers beyond themselves, the unseen providers who alone could assure a steady supply of food?

In is no surprise that the first instances we find of religion in any developed form are strongly agricultural. Gods of rain and “fertility” abound. The ancient voices can distinctly be heard: we truly are helpless to create our own food. It is an echo that fades with each passing triumph of human control over our environment. When we can force nature to do our bidding – irrigating huge tracts of waterless land, feeding pesticides and growth enhancers into the very soil, even starting to create life itself in the laboratory – where are the gods? They have stiff competition indeed. So when I hold that strawberry in my hand, organically connected to the very planet that gave birth to us all, I feel that I have tapped into the roots of religion itself.