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Altered State of Consciousness and Religion

Updated on December 21, 2016
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MariaInes is a freelancer and artist who writes about social matters from different perspectives.


Life and death are part of a cycle that for the San people are intrinsically connected. Death supposes continuation in the afterlife and it is regarded as a natural end of life on Earth. They believe that people will become spirits after dying. This spirits could behave hostile or not, without relation to their behavior of the people when alive. The healing dance is a ritual that brings closer the realms of life and death, allowing them to communicating face-to-face as explained by JS Kruger in “Along the edges” reading. The healing dance exposes the ultimate demonstration of the religious lifestyle of the San people.

J.S Kruger (2008) also, explains that the community gathers around a circle, which marks two zones, the inside, and the outside. Symbolically, the people is united inside against the hostile forces from outside, the inner conflicts must be overcome to protect the inner peace. The dancers that reached an Altered State of Consciousness (ASC), can travel outside their bodies to the outside world to fight spirits and plead restoration of fortune and balance for the community, at the same time the trickster god Ikaggen and the spirits of the dead are waiting for the spirits of illness to be given back to the lesser god.

The objective of this essay is first to point that similar experiences are attained by other cultures through other religious practices, like for example meditation for Buddhists. The detachment of the body, the experience of being able to connect and fly to transcendental realms and even see other places and things, all related to ASC type of experience. Second, it will be discussed the reason for practicing the healing dance if healing physical ailments is shown not to be possible. Could it be possible that these two points indicate that the San religious experience in the healing dance is only in their minds or, actually, any other religious experience?

What is an Altered State of Consciousness (ASC)?

ASCs are related to “states of consciousness where one loses the sense of identity with one’s body or with one’s perceptions”. Such states may be spontaneously achieved, instigated by such things as trauma, sleep disturbance, sensory deprivation or sensory overload, neurochemical imbalance, epileptic seizure, or fever. They may also be induced by social behavior, such as frenzied dancing or chanting. Finally, they may be induced by electrically stimulating parts of the brain or by ingesting psychotropic drugs.” Carrol, R. (1994).

The Healing Dance and the Ikia.

According to Kruger (2008), San people gather once a month, at night, under the full moon. They usually dance and heal until dawn. Women sit next to each other forming a circle, with a fire in the center, they clap the whole night giving rhythm to the dance. Men, and sometimes women, dance around them, shaking the rattles that hang from their legs while stomping vigorously. The dancers bring their bodies to exhaustion until they experience the divine energy (N/um), firstly in the pit of their stomachs as burning fire, then traveling up the spinal column towards the head. The peak of this experience is denominated Ikia. At this point the dancer-healer is able to see beyond normal boundaries, he is able to see inside people and outside this world, he goes to trance or to an induced ASC. It is induced by exhaustion after long hours of vigorous movements at the rhythmic clapping of a group of people.

San people believe that the N/um is placed inside human bodies, plants and medicine songs by the gods, and it is healing and dangerous at the same time. The San people are aware of this and know that they could heal and die at the same time during the healing dances. During Ikia the healer goes to fight evil spirits, to save people and to plead for balance for people and for the community. The healers also touch people and take out their sickness into their own bodies, for release back to the gods. He may need to be helped to be re-animated at the end of the ritual as he can reach a deep stage of unconsciousness, resembling death (Kruger, 2008)

The San Healing Dance

Physical Illness and the Healing Dance

The healing of the physical body is a common question that comes to religious practices such as the San healing dance. The elements shown in the healing dance, do not depict that people were after healing physical ailments, at least not the ones that clearly did not have an emotional root, for example, an amputated member of the body. This does not look contradictory as for the San people, the death of the body did not suppose a kind of punishment but part of the natural aspect of being human.

The healing dance works the spiritual and emotional aspects of the people that are participating in the dance. Connecting people with themselves, the community and the environment, to bring balance and unity are the main purpose of the ritual so that they can remain united against the hostile forces of the outside world that brought evil and sickness to the people.

Buddhism and ASC

According to Story, F (1995), Buddhism is a religion that does not practice worshiping to a God-creator. The followers of its practices search a path to reach Enlightenment, a place of complete peace, happiness and no suffering called Nirvana.

The same author affirms that the Buddhists possess several meditation tools that help them to reach ASCs states, though this is not their main objective. Their objective is to reach a state where their gurus can make them receptive to the truth or they can experience the truth, away from the lies of human senses.

It is stated by Kruger(2008), that although Buddhist do not utilize vigorous movements, the use of rhythmic breathing, and mantra-like discourses in their minds create a way to concentrate and detach from the outside reality; they reach contemplative states in this way. During meditation. they experience situations that are similar in nature to the shamanic experience of the San people, practicing the healing dance, such as being able to go deep into the water and raising again, or flying like a bird, or hearing voices and sounds that are not real in their immediate environment.



After briefly, discussing the San healing dance and merely touching Buddhism it looks like some religious experiences are only reached after creating ASCs. This does not imply that religion or rather God is only in the human mind, however, it indicates that the human is able to co-create a religious experience, it is able to connect with himself/herself and another in an alternative reality that is detached from everyday behaviour and can take a person to feel unity with something greater than himself or herself.

Now, if the aspect of the sick body member is brought to attention, the idea that a god or gods exist is directly challenged as they seem not able to cure these kind of problems (seen as physical and therefore real). This could lead people to think that religion and god or gods are only in the human minds. However, this cannot disprove god or gods either, as bodies are mortal and humans face the everyday aging and decaying. Usually, religions do not claim that god or gods can bring immortality to humans on this Earth or reverse the effects of aging or accidents, they rather promise a figure or concept to be able to connect at a higher level for care, protection, providence and meaning, while the mortal body passes away and the souls are released.

Reference List

Carrol, R.T (1994).

Kruger J.S, Lubbe GJA, Steyn HC (2008). The human search for meaning, a multireligion introduction to the religions of humankind. Pretoria. Van Schaick Publishers.

Kruger, J.S. Along edges. Religions in South Africa: Bushman, Christian, Buddhist.

Story, F. (1995).

© 2016 MariaInes


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