“Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night.”
The first time I watched the full N/um Tchai video, I found it deeply disturbing, even frightening. Interpretation of the signs of a Bushman trance frenzy - twitching, thrashing, involuntary vocalizations, etc. - is very different in Western culture, where such actions emblemize loss of control and illness, not community medicine. This reaction was enhanced by the mediation of the images - the filmography was taken with many very close images, as if I-the-viewer was not only right there, but also very close or touching the people being filmed.I was less disturbed by watching the individual clips  before the full video; the clips are edited to eliminate the violent shaking and heaving which is contained in the video. Many of the clips show the early stages of the ceremony, as the music and clapping and the motion of traveling around the fire begins to induce a trance state. The music is very uniform and shows a difference between San culture and American culture: the San, coming from a traditional hunting and gathering society, do not have specialists, meaning that everyone is part of the same chorus, and in fact, the role of men shows this, too: both videos say that every man in a San group is likely to take on the role of medicine man at some point in his life. This very likely has changed by now or will change soon, as the San have been removed from their traditional setting and their culture has shifted away from hunting and gathering.
My reaction has not been ameliorated by greater understanding of what is achieved. In an article for the Journal of Rural Community Psychology, Tim Thomason writes about trance states and altered consciousness and its use in Native American healing. In his article, Thomason suggests that the drumming, chanting, and dancing used by Native Americans - including the Salish, who are native to my region - serve to induce a hypnotic state where the participants are open to hypnotic suggestion. About the Salish particularly, he suggests that the extended dancing and stimulation created by the Spirit Dance may stimulate production of natural opiods, creating a general sensation of painlessness and euphoria.
I think it is particularly telling that to understand the San’s trance dance, I turn to a Western psychologist’s interpretation of the uses of altered states of consciousness from a Western medicine worldview. It demonstrates and reinforces my established foundation in Western medicine and psychology. In this way, the practice of trance or spirit dancing in inaccessible to me - I am skeptical of the extent to which it can heal. Knowing what I know and having the biases I have, I would not want to be in a situation where I needed to rely on trance dancing for healing, nor would I support solely relying on such a practice for physical ailments like appendicitis or tuberculosis. However, Western medical science has uncovered many surprising things about what used to be purely “alternative” practices from around the world, including the use of meditation - another altered state of consciousness - as effective treatment for chronic pain, depression, and anxiety. And I believe that the explanations understood by indigenous cultures for their practices and the scientific explanation of those practices do not have to be mutually exclusive - if we believe that an activity is healing because it releases endorphins and oxytocin and makes people feel better about what they are experiencing, and the people doing the activity believe that they are being healed by holy energy which makes them feel better about what they are experiencing - these are just two different culturally appropriate ways of describing the phenomenon. This is one way to become more sympathetic towards a different cultural practice, to compare it and see the similarities with our own culture.
- Clips are here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eT_XTM9MSx0 | http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IyLF3y1YJKA&feature=plcp
- Thomason, T. C. (2010). "The Role of Altered States of Consciousness in Native American Healing." Journal of Rural Community Psychology E13(1). http://www.marshall.edu/jrcp/VE13%20N1/jrcp%2013%201%20thomason.pdf
- http://sites.duke.edu/greesonlab/files/2011/07/Rosenzweig_Greeson_etal_2010_JPR-MBSR-outcomes-chronic-pain.pdf | http://www.umassmed.edu/Content.aspx?id=42426