I have been a four-legged animal

14,000 BC Cave Painting, Lascaux, France

A darkened room. A group of fifteen people who don’t know each other. Quiet. The leader speaks for about five minutes, telling us about the tiny figurines found on archaeological sites, the postures they show, the idea that these figurines might be aids to trance, the research by someone eminent showing that the method can be used in modern times. She seems sensible, and has conveyed a certain sense of trust.

I’m not sure why I’m here. I signed on because the title of the workshop, ‘Trance Postures’, sounded whacky and I thought I could spare a couple of hours in the middle of the conference. I put my arms in the required position (the postures are simple, not uncomfortable) and close my eyes.

The leader starts to drum. A steady beat. It will change our brain-waves. She will drum for 15 minutes. She will be interested in what we see.

The drum-beat enters my senses. Under my eyelids, I see bright lights in different colours. I’m aware that instead of letting my eyes rest and looking inward, I’m looking into my eyelids as though into a forward landscape. The light steadies to a rusty orange and starts to move across my vision from right to left; then it speeds up and begins to take the form of moving animals. A herd of deer, maybe, or wildebeest? More likely the latter – they’re big.

I think, ‘Yes, these are wildebeest,’ and straightaway the words ‘You’ve been watching too much David Attenborough!’ run across my mind. I notice it and let it pass.

Yes, wildebeest – and there are thousands of them. A massive herd, in migration. I’m absorbed into the hammering, thundering movement of their hooves, the individual bodies moving as one, the dust they raise, the heat and sweat of this press and charge, the urgency of the process, its inevitability, like childbirth. I am part of the process. At the same time, I’m aware of my presence in this darkened room in a tall thin building off the main street of an English market town, of my bodily position, of the other people in the room, of the workshop that I’m a part of.

Now I become aware of my skeleton inside me. My spine, my thigh-bones, my pelvic circle, my skull. My jaw-bones! I feel the bone of my lower jaw being stretched forwards. My bone is changing from human to wildebeest. From my bones outwards, I’m becoming one of these wild animals as they run.

I’m one of the young ones, and not strong. We’re being chased by a predator – I can’t see what kind of predator it is, I’m racing too fast and with too harsh a sense of panic. I’m young, I’m fragile, I’m on the outside of the herd, I’ve lost my mother and I’m desperate with fear. I run, run, run….

And, in a shock instant, the back of my neck is seized in huge incisor teeth, in a massive jaw. I am caught. My entire head is jerked upward, my jaw jerked forward. I think, though I’m not sure (and I’m not asking any questions until afterwards), that the position of my human body doesn’t change. I’m sitting as still as before, as still as the other people in this darkened room.

What happens next?

There’s a gap in the film here. Yet it isn’t a film. It’s experience. The form, with its vivid sections separated by hiatuses, is like a dream. Yet it has the hardness, the definition, the coherence of experience. This is trance, trance experience.

I don’t experience being killed and torn apart and eaten. Is it a defence of my brain, or the young wildebeest’s brain, to be saved from remembering this agony?

The next scene is quiet and still. The herd, instead of charging in dust and sweat and panic, have arranged themselves in a huge silent circle. I am the young wildebeest still, but I’m no longer flesh, just bone and spirit. I am in two places at the same time: in the bones that are heaped in the centre of the circle of beasts, and, as spirit, hovering above the circle, gazing down at my grieving family and friends. I love them, and they love me. I know that they are expressing sorrow at their loss of me, and their gratitude for my sacrifice. If it had not been me who was offered to the predator, it would have been one of them. They will miss me.

The drum beat slows, and grows louder. It’s time to come out of the trance, ease ourselves out of the postures, and rejoin everyday life. First we’ll share our experiences in pairs, then we can speak to the leader, in the group or privately, about what we’ve seen.

I tell my partner what happened to me. It seems amazing to hear it coming out of my mouth as a story. Yet it seems oddly ordinary too. It happened. It’s over. My partner listens, and says she doesn’t know what to say. I sympathise with her. I ask her what she saw during her 15 minutes, and she says, ‘Nothing much, a few colours’. Later, aside from the group, I tell the leader about being a wildebeest caught by a predator and being grieved for by my herd. She’s fascinated, and asks if she can quote me. I never see her again, and it’s a couple of years before I even read the book on which the practice is based.

But I am changed. I know that I was once a different kind of animal, wild, a member of a herd. Somewhere inside me, the spirit and even the bone-memory of that wildebeest still lives. I have a different view of the human place in the scheme of things, and, very slowly, that different view begins to change my life.

Alison Leonard

The research on which this workshop was based is Where The Spirits Ride The Wind, by Felicitas Goodman, published 1990 by Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-20566-2.

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