Transpersonal anthropology: what is it, and what are the problems we face in doing it? by

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Charles D. Laughlin, Jr.
Science in general, and anthropology in particular, is in a period of rapid change. Beginning in the 1950's and 1960's, this change has led us away from a mechanistic, hyper-rational conception of science and toward a more holistic, self-reflexive and perhaps less ethnocentric conception of science. Before this period of change, most scientists were fairly clear about what they were on about: science was seen as a means of solving problems while remaining itself largely non-problematic. The project of science was the explanation of facts, and facts were almost palpable things that fairly crunched when you stepped on them, and that were discovered by objective, public and easily replicable methods.

Science is now a bit more insecure regarding what its on about. Science has come to view the process of inquiry itself as problematic, and has produced at least two principal trends from this revolutionary adjustment of view: (1) a shift from a fragmented, mechanistic, non-purposive conception of the world to a holistic, organic and purposive conception; for example, as in systems theory, and (2) a shift from a concern with objectivity to a concern with subjectivity - that is, with the role of perception and cognition in scientific inquiry.

Anthropology has not been immune from these developments. Indeed, anthropology from at least the turn of the century has been a bastion of positivist and empiricist science. Ethnographies have all too frequently been collections of "ethnographic facts" about the behaviors and institutions of societies, and seem to lose track of human experience. It was only after structuralism began to take hold in the early 1970's that concern with more existential issues such as experience, cognition, consciousness and symbolism began to shift from the wings to center stage. Concerns which were once considered marginal in interest, like performance, myth, healing, trance states, etc., became phenomena of prime concern to anthropologists, both in fieldwork and in theory construction. And it was in the midst of this reorientation that the transpersonal movement began to make some slight headway in anthropology.


Transpersonalism is a movement in science toward seeing the significance as data of experiences had in life that somehow go beyond the boundaries of ordinary ego-consciousness. Roger Walsh and Frances Vaughan in their book, Beyond Ego, use the term transpersonal to "reflect the reports of people practicing various consciousness disciplines who spoke of experiences of an extension of identity beyond both individuality and personality" (1980:16). When we take the whole of humanity into account, there seems to be a remarkable range of such experiences. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology lists a number of these in the preface to each issue: transpersonalism may be said to encompass "transpersonal process, values and states, unitive consciousness, meta-needs, peak experiences, ecstacy, mystical experience, being, essence, bliss, awe, wonder, transcendence of self, spirit, sacralization of everyday life, oneness, cosmic awareness, cosmic play, individual and species-wide synergy, the theories and practices of meditation, spiritual paths, compassion, transpersonal cooperation, transpersonal realization and actualization; and related concepts, experiences and activities." In a more theoretically concise way, Kenneth Ring (1974, 1976) has developed a typology of transpersonal experiences, grouping these into expanding concentric rings from normal waking consciousness in the middle (the most narrow field of human experience), through what he terms preconscious, psychodynamic, orthogenetic, trans-individual, phylogenetic, extra-terrestrial, and superconsciousness, to void consciousness at the periphery (progressively more expansive fields of experience).

As recognized disciplines, transpersonal psychology dates to the latter 1960's and transpersonal anthropology to the mid-1970's. Transpersonal anthropology is simply the cross-cultural study of the psychological and sociocultural significance of transpersonal experiences. "Transpersonal anthropological research is the investigation of the relationship between consciousness and culture, altered states of mind research, and the inquiry into the integration of mind, culture and personality" (Campbell and Staniford 1978:28). Although quite recent as a formally organized discipline in anthropology, interest in transpersonal experiences dates back to the nineteenth century and the work of Edward Tylor who is often considered the "father of anthropology" and who was very interested in dreaming and the origins of religion, and Andrew Lang who was interested in the psychology of the paranormal. Andrew Lang was in fact one of the founding members of the Society for Psychical Research in England, an organization that later drew the interest of both Jung and Freud.

Transpersonalism and Ethnographic Fieldwork.

Anthropologists have routinely recorded data on extraordinary beliefs and experiences reported by informants, as well as on religious institutions and ritual practices associated with such experiences. All the same, some researchers have argued that western science does not pay enough credence to the importance of such experiences to the study of psychology and culture, and a number of these have even suggested that there exist universal structures resulting in similar transpersonal experiences among people all over the world.

A few ethnographers have undergone spontaneous transpersonal experiences while in the field. Geoffrey Gorer for instance reported such an experience in his book, Africa Dances. He found himself in a large gathering of people that included a famous Dahomeyan shaman. At one point he met the shaman's gaze: "I felt that for some reason it was necessary for me to meet his gaze and I continued staring at him across a space of about thirty yards til all the surrounding people and the landscape became an indistinct blur and his face seemed preternaturally distinct and as it were detached from his body and nearer to me physically than it was in reality. I wondered whether I was being hypnotized..." (1935:131).

More recently, Bruce Grindal (1983) has reported a profound experience which occurred to him while attending a Sisala funeral in Ghana in 1967. After undergoing several days of arduous

privation involving fasting, loss of sleep, physical ordeal, and the like, Grindal entered a state of consciousness in which he perceived the corpse come alive and dance and play drums, as well as seeing radiant energy streaming from the corpse and other people attending the rite. According to him, this experience also occurred to some of the Sisala.

However, looking back over the history of ethnology, few fieldworkers have actually made a serious effort to produce alternative states of consciousness in themselves; this despite evidence that people in many, if not most, human cultures believe in cosmic realms the reality of which is commonly verified via experiences in alternative states of consciousness. It may well be argued that this oversight on the part of anthropologists is not accidental, but in fact is due to a bias born of enculturation to what we may call "monophasic" consciousness characteristic of Euroamerican societies. Is it not interesting that while ethnographers are trained to participate in native activities and observe their significance from the intimate stance of "insider," so few have found it worthwhile trying to enter the alternative states of consciousness so important to many peoples?

Despite this bias, a few fieldworkers have attempted to attain alternative states of consciousness in order to advance their understanding of the culture or phenomenon being researched: these include Coult (n.d.) who attempted to establish a field he called "psychedelic anthropology;" Harner (1973) who worked on hallucinogens and religion; Chagnon's (1977:154ff) experiment with shamanic dance and chanting; and David-Neel's (1971) work among Tibetan lamas that involved extensive meditation. Some fieldworkers like Katz (1982:6ff) have reported participating in ritual practices intended to produce such experiences, but without attaining the intended state (or failing to report it if it was attained).

The relative poverty of attempts to enter alternative states of consciousness recorded in the ethnographic literature, and the seemingly paradoxical current interest in our own society about such states, underscores the importance to anthropology of several methodological issues: (1) the mind-body problem, (2) the question of what constitutes a "public" event, (3) the cross-cultural comparability of descriptions of transpersonal experiences, (4) the difficulty of constructing an adequate "phenomenological typewriter," and (5) symbolism and transpersonal fieldwork.


With the shift toward greater self-reflection in science has come a renewed interest in the perennial question of the relationship between mind and body. At the very roots of this persistent problem is an inherent tendency toward mind-body dualism in Euroamerican culture. We westerners are enculturated to think of mental events as somehow distinct from physical events. Developing a stable methodology for moving perceptually and conceptually between the mental and physical domains has never proved easy, either in philosophy or in science. We even split-up the scientific disciplines according to these two domains with physics, chemistry and biology being on about the "physical" world, and sociology, economics, linguistics, anthropology, and-so-on being concerned with the "mental" world.

There have been a variety of solutions posed for the mind-body problem. Some theorists solve it by claiming that mind is spirit and essentially non-causal in nature, and therefore outside the province of the physical sciences. Some extremely materialistic schools of anthropological theory, such as some forms of Marxist analysis, might exemplify this type of solution. Others like the behaviorists in psychology have virtually denied any existence of mind other than as sets of dispositions to behave. In anthropology, some brands of non-psychological structural-functionalism would seem to be solutions of this sort. Central-State Materialism and the "New" Epiphenomenalism.

But of the various philosophical points of view, only two

really hold sway as serious positions in current science. These have been called by Campbell (1984) "central-state materialism" and the "new epiphenomenalism." Central-state materialism holds that all mental and physical events are "reducible" to the laws of the physical sciences. That is, the physical sciences are considered complete explanations for all conditions arising either in mentation or in behavior (this view includes many so-called "identity theories" of mind and brain). Materialistic theories of culture in anthropology often depend upon a central state materialism for their formulation.

The new epiphenomenalism holds (along with the "old" epiphenomenalism of the nineteenth century) that mental and physical events exist in two distinct domains, but some (never all!) mental events exist in a causal relationship with physical events. The structuralism of Claude Levi-Strauss might provide an example of new epiphenomenalism in anthropology.

Transpersonal Anthropology and the Mind-Body Problem.

The position of transpersonal anthropologists is often vague and inexplicite with respect to the mind-body issue. Yet it is of major methodological importance, for how one "gets at what's happening in the native's head" -- something every fieldworker wants to be able to do -- depends a great deal upon how one conceives of the relationship between external physical events (like behavior, speech, institutions, technologies) and internal mental events (like sensations, images, thoughts, intuitions and moods). For example, transpersonalists will want to argue that participation in certain types of ritual techniques, music, dance and drama may produce alternative states of consciousness. Yet the nature of the causality involved is often obscure: Are alternative states of consciousness merely passive effects of physical causes? Are such states epiphenomena separate from, but simultaneous with, physical states? Are out-of-body experiences due to this epiphenomenal relationship, or are all such experiences occurring within the "inner space" of the brain and body? And what are we to make of claims for extraordinary effects of mind upon physical matter (i.e., psychokenesics)?

All such questions arise in part from a dualistic conception of mind and body, and how one evaluates them depends to some extent upon how one resolves the mind-body problem. For what it is worth, the author rejects both central-state materialism and the new epiphenomenalism as inappropriate to a modern and sophisticated science of consciousness. Rather, he believes that mind and body (including experience and behavior) are two imperfect ways of perceiving and knowing our being. "Spiritual" awareness is one way of knowing our being, "physical" awareness is another way of knowing our being. Neither the spiritual disciplines (theology, parapsychology, transpersonal anthropology), nor the physical disciplines (physics, chemistry, physiology, physical anthropology), can claim to be complete explanations of the full breadth of human experience (as demanded by central-state materialism). Furthermore, consciousness does not neatly divide itself into spiritual (non-causal) and mundane (causal) attributes (as required for the new epiphenomenalism). For instance, calming meditations and other spiritual techniques (mental processes) are known to produce a change in the autonomic nervous system balance in the body (physical processes).

Anthropologists, as human naturalists, have been understandably reluctant to buy into behaviorism during its heyday in psychology. Nevertheless, anthropologists have commonly been more than a little behaviorist in their approaches to things cultural, including religion. Whole volumes are written about religious ceremonies as sets of behaviors and mythologies as texts that contain little or no information pertaining to the experiences of people involved in those institutions. More unfortunate, the ethnographer frequently will mask his/her ignorance of (say) shamanic experience by the glib use of labels such as "trance," "vision quest" or "dissociative state" that appear to have descriptive power, but which to the transpersonalist indicates that the fieldworker has not actually experienced these states. We would suggest that a good bit of the resistance to the transpersonal project becomes more understandable if one looks carefully at attitudes pertaining to the mind-body problem prevailing in the discipline and in the enculturation lying behind the personal lives of ethnographers.


Our traditional view of science demanded that the results of research be totally available to public scrutiny and replication, and not be dependent upon private observations. In those days a clear and formularized distinction seemed possible between what constituted a public event and what constituted a private event. The existence of objective perception was taken for granted and ideally formed the observational ideal of all science. An event was public and of relevance to science if it could be shared by any and all observers. Any event that could not be shared by all observers was considered "subjective" and of no relevance to science. "Subjectivity," of course, included any truths about the nature of consciousness derived from introspection.

However, with an increasingly reflexive psychological and sociological perspective in the critique of science, researchers have begun to show that there exists a reciprocal feedback relationship between cognition and perception. Many explorations of the scientific enterprise now include the process of observation in their analyses: To what extent does theory as ideology produce a controlling influence upon what a scientist can or does see, and of equal importance, what a scientist cannot or does not see?

State-Specific Science.

The serious examination of the role of conditioned perception in establishing the limits of scientific inquiry has led to (among other issues) the consideration of state-specific science. Is it possible, as theorists like Charles Tart have suggested, that the nature of reality being observed is determined to some extent by the state of consciousness of the observer? Is it not one of the functions of a scientific education to limit the scope of reality perceived and incorporated by any scientific perspective? If so, does not science in its best and broadest sense require scientists to be trained to enter all relevant states of consciousness so as to observe reality in its greatest perspective?

Certainly, what constitutes a "public", as opposed to a "private" event must now come under serious question: If an event is readily observable by those capable of entering a particular state of consciousness, even when most scientists are in fact incapable of entering that state, then does that not still constitute a "public" event? If members of another society routinely experience an alternative state of consciousness, is it not then a public event? And is not knowledge derived within that state publically available, whether or not the anthropologist is able to attain that state? Yet from another point of view, are not all observations ultimately "private?" Is there not a great deal of enculturation required before people in whatever mindstate come to agree upon exactly what reality they are experiencing?


Amidst the hue and cry against the traditional view of science are to be found the writings of Paul Feyerabend who (among other things) brought into serious question the idea, implicit in objectivist science, that observational descriptions retain the same meaning bereft of their original theoretical context. In other words, the nature of our theoretical (we might also say conceptual and cultural) point of view stands in a reciprocally causal relationship with our descriptions of experience. Feyerabend was thus posing the philosophical equivalent of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis: not only does perception influence language and thought, but language and thought to some extent influence perception.

This hypothesis has profound implications for transpersonal science, for the transpersonal enterprise is nothing less than the exploration of the fullest possible range of human experience. In order for this enterprise to flourish, we must come to understand clearly the relationship between our point of view and both our experiences and the description of our experiences. The days are long gone when we as scientists can naively presume to offer "objective" observations somehow magically unaffected by our conceptual, perceptual, affective and somatic orientations. And this is especially true in the case of anthropologists who offer observations and interpretations of their fellow human beings.

Transpersonal Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Comparability.

As if inter-theoretical comparability of meaning was not enough trouble, there is for anthropologists the additional problem of establishing transcultural comparability of transpersonal experiences. To what extent do peoples of different societies practicing similar (or even different) ritual techniques encounter similar experiences?

Let us develop a rather elaborate example: Richard Katz (1976, 1982) describes for the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa a "transcendental experience" called !kia, an extraordinary state of consciousness during which:

...a !Kung experiences himself as existing beyond his ordinary level of existence. !Kia itself is a very intense physical and emotional state. The body is straining against fatigue and struggling with convulsion-like tremors and heavy breathing. The emotions are aroused to an extraordinary level, whether they be fear or exhilaration or fervor. Also, a !Kung practices extraordinary activities during !kia. He performs cures, handles and walks on fire, claims x-ray vision, and at times says he sees over great distances, He does not even attempt such activities in his ordinary state.

(Katz 1976:287)

The !kia mindstate is attained through the mastery of n/um, an "energy" that the Bushmen say dwells in the pit of the stomach. Individuals are known to master this energy which may be evoked by repetitious dancing. "As the master of n/um continues his energetic dance, becoming warm and sweating profusely, the n/um heats up and becomes a vapor. It then rises up the spine, to a point approximately at the base of the skull, at which time !kia results" (Katz 1976:286). According to one of Katz's informant-adepts:

You dance, dance, dance, dance. The n/um lifts you in your belly and lifts you in your back, and then you

start to shiver. N/um makes you tremble; it's hot. Your eyes are open but you don't look around; you hold your eyes still and look straight ahead. But when you get into !kia, you're looking around because you see everything, because you see what's troubling everybody... Rapid shallow breathing, that's what draws n/um up... then n/um enters every part of your body, right to the tip of your feet and even your hair. ...In your backbone you feel a pointed something, and it works its way up. Then the base of your spine is tingling, tingling, tingling, tingling, tingling, tingling, tingling...and then it makes your thoughts nothing in your head.

(Katz 1976: 286-287)

Now, a similar phenomenon has been described among Hindu yogis who recognize the existence of a primal, infinite source of psychic energy called kundalini which is considered by them to be the font of all religious states of consciousness:

Thus the rousing of the Kundalini is the one and only way to the attaining of divine wisdom, super­conscious perception, realization of the Spirit. The rousing may come in various ways: through love for God, through the mercy of perfected sages, or through the power of the analytical will of the philosopher. Wherever there has been any manifestation of what is ordinarily called supernatural power or wisdom, there a little current of the Kundalini must have found its way into the Sushumna [central channel].

(Vivekananda 1956: 58)

The goal of yogic practice is to open the central channel (which runs up the center of the body just in front of the spine) of the psychic energy body to the kundalini energy. "When the current begins to rise through the Sushumna, we go beyond the senses, and our minds become supersensuous, superconscious; we go beyond even the intellect, where reason cannot reach" (ibid:63). There exist a number of major energy centers lying along the central channel, but the most important are the kundalini center at the base of the spine and the highest center in the head. The energy must pass from the lower center to the higher center for the highest state of consciousness to arise. To this end yogis practice a number of techniques involving breathing and rhythmic physical exercise to loosen and direct the kundalini energies.

The question is, to what extent are the !Kung n/um and the Indian kundalini experiences comparable? Are they essentially the same experience coming to us via different cultural filters, or are they essentially different experiences with apparent commonalities only at the level of cultural coding? Furthermore, how can we know for sure? Again, how one encounters this issue depends to some extent upon how one conceives of the mind­-body relationship. Obviously if one denies any causal interaction between mind and body -- in this case between direct experience on the one hand, and reports, legends, myths, and other cultural artifacts coming to us via language and other symbolism on the other hand -- then one is limited to time honored historical and structural-functional interpretations of commonalities, for there is no compelling reason to raise questions about the precise qualities of direct experience. However, non-dualists will likely conclude that commonalities found in cultural description may point to essential similarities in experience.

Competing Explanations for Cross-Cultural Similarities.

We would suggest that there are available in anthropology today at least three approaches to comparisons such as the !Kung and Indian cases, and they grade from the most common, but least powerful and persuasive, to the least common, but most powerful and persuasive: (1) Comparative Method. Methods like Fred Eggan's (1954) controlled comparison and Goldschmidt's (1966) comparative functionalism recognize common features in cross-­cultural comparison and offer explanations for these on the basis of social and cultural dynamics (like previous historical contact or joint origin, or on the basis of functional necessity). (2) Structuralism. Methods such as Levi-Strauss' (1964) myth analysis recognize common features and principles in textual material cross-culturally and deduce an explanation based upon universal properties of the human mind. (3) Phenomenology. Methods like Paul Ricoeur's hermeneutic phenomenology (see Rasmussen 1971) recognize common features in cultural materials and explain these by reference to similarities in direct experience. Only when one has experienced the reality intended by the text can one claim to truly understand the meaning of the text.

Comparative methods are weak because they virtually deny the existence of mind in their formulations, and little reference is made to the importance of individual experience. Analysis remains at the level of artifact, and there is little recognition of the symbolic function of artifacts. Structuralism does recognize the relevance of mind, but is strictly a deductive exercise geared to uncovering universal logical principles operating in the symbolic process. No reference is made to the relationship between symbolism and direct experience. Finally, phenomenology both recognizes the existence of mind and lodges explanations of meaning in the tension (or "dialectic") between artifact and experience.

The Power of Phenomenology.

The power of the phenomenological approach, particularly to

transpersonal states of consciousness, is in the independence gained from text in carrying out our analyses. The approach recognizes the finger-moon relationship so commonly encountered in esoteric disciplines: the finger points to the moon, one may need the finger to find the moon, but the meaning of the pointing is the moon, and when the moon is seen, the finger is no longer required. The person who has not seen the moon may be confused by the different forms of pointing (stick, finger, arrow, line, tower, etc.), and may even build typologies of pointers, develop theories to account for similarities and differences among pointers, develop methods to recover the "meaning" of pointers. However, once the moon itself has been seen, then the seer becomes independent of the pointer and at the same time can readily comprehend any and every form of pointing-to-the-moon. The knowledge of the moon, as it were, recognizes itself in the symbolism of diverse cultural systems. The phenomenological method, then, is simply participation in pointing-at-the-moon until the moon itself is seen. This is the kind of research referred to as the "hermeneutical" method in phenomenology.

The author has done fieldwork among Tibetan monastics in Nepal, India and elsewhere, and has himself practiced their form of tantric yoga for years, including some work on dumo yoga. Dumo is the Tibetan equivalent to kundalini, and is considered in some versions of Tibetan Buddhism to be the fundamental practice for all higher forms of yoga. Experiences have arisen during the course of dumo yoga practice similar to those described by various authorities for kundalini (indeed, the Tibetan form of the yoga originated with Hindu tantrism), and as described by Katz for !Kung. Please notice the recognition is based upon knowledge gleaned from direct experience of dumo work, not by reading about it, or analyzing the reports of others who have experienced it (although these sources are of considerable scholarly value).

An advantage of direct experience is that one can see through the cultural filters of style, metaphor and custom to the essence of the experience in virtually any circumstance. For what one has done is work back through the cultural filters as media (or "pointers") to the direct experience (the "moon") produced by structures that are universal to humanity. Having had the experience of being engulfed in firey light, bliss, visions and illumination while carrying out dumo yoga retreats, the author can intuitively sense the essential commonality between the description given of the experiences had by Indians and the !Kung noted above.


An issue allied to that of cross-cultural comparability of

experience is the problem of the "phenomenological typewriter."

Presuming that anthropologists, by means of participant observation, successfully attain the experiences intended by mythic drama, ordeal, vision quest, ritual and other aspects of an alien culture's esoteric symbolism, how then do they describe those experiences so that the experiences become publicly available data? There are those who argue that the higher the state of consciousness, the more ineffable the experience. Others would argue that no experience is outside the capacity of linguistic description. We would like to steer a course between these extreme positions, for the former is both too cut-and-dried and cultish to be scientifically useful and the latter seems pretentious and naive.

The Problem of Transposition.

In a very real sense all experience entails an ineffable quality. No matter how skilled one is in communication, one always recognizes a discrepancy between direct experience and experience communicated vicariously to others using some form of symbolic expression like language, pictures or mime. As George Herbert Mead taught, communication between people, even of the same society, involves a process of adjusting cognition ("attitude") of all participants in relationship to an exchange of symbols. The interest of the communicant is the transmission of experience vicariously to other communicants, and must inevitably contend with the discrepancy between the relative richness of experiencing and the relative poverty of expressing what has been experienced. One way to conceive of this discrepancy is in terms of transposition:

...we are all quite familiar with this kind of transposition or adaptation from a richer to a poorer medium. The most familiar example of all is the art of drawing. The problem here is to represent a three ­dimensional world on a flat sheet of paper. The solution is perpective, and perspective means that we must give more than one value to a two-dimensional shape. Thus in a drawing of a cube we use an acute angle to represent what is a right angle in the real world. But elsewhere an acute angle on the paper may represent what was already an acute angle in the real world: for example, the point of a spear or the gable of a house. The very same shape which you must draw to give the illusion of a straight road receding from the spectator is also the shape you draw for a dunce's cap. As with the lines, so with the shading. Your brightest light in the picture is, in literal fact, only plain white paper: and this must do for the sun, or a lake in evening light, or snow, or human flesh.

(C.S. Lewis 1965:75ff)

The key to our understanding the problem of transposition is to be found in the phrase "adaptation from a richer to a poorer medium." This is because in order for an adequate transposition from a "rich" to a "poor" medium to occur, there must be knowledge of the former as the intended meaning of the latter - or as Lewis says, "It is clear that ...what is happening in the lower medium can be understood only if we know the higher medium" (ibid:82). The issue of the phenomenological typewriter arises precisely because all symbolic expressions may be considered as "poor" media relative to the experiences being expressed, or the experiences being evoked, by symbols. In other words, symbolization in natural human communication is never more than finger-pointing, never the moon itself.

This point must be repeatedly emphasized: the intended meaning of symbols is never greater than the optimal cognitive and experiential associations evoked by the symbols in the individual mind. Yet the cognitive and experiential reality unfolding in any human mind is far richer than any symbolic medium can possibly describe. The exclamation, "Swimming is fun!" has relatively little meaning to one who has never been in the water, relatively more to one who has swum, and a great deal more to one who is an Olympic-class swimmer. There are severe limits to how much information about the experience of swimming can be communicated by a professional swimmer to a person who has never been near the water, no matter what symbolic system is being used. And yet remarkably little symbolic communication is required between swimmers to evoke the intersubjective awareness of a shared experience.

This is not a trivial matter. In fact the So of Northeastern Uganda, among whom the author once did fieldwork, live on mountains in the midst of the East African plains. There exists no body of water in their environment large enough in which to swim. As a consequence, the So do not know what swimming means. They have never experienced swimming, and their language - quite rich in many other domains - is devoid of any terms referring to swimming. The best they can do is talk about "bathing" which means standing ankle-deep in a shallow stream and sloshing water over ones body to remove the dust. For the So, swimming is virtually an ineffable experience.

The irony seems to be that we must rely heavily upon symbolic reports of experience for data in the social sciences. For example, Calvin Hall (Hall and Nordby 1972:12), the noted dream researcher, makes the distinction between experienced, remembered and reported dreams and points out that dream researchers must rely largely on the latter as data referring to the former two classes. Likewise the anthropologist must often rely upon the reports of informants about what they remember about what they experienced in the past. And if the anthropologist has not had comparable experiences (eg., "trance," "possession," "vision," and the like), then the meaning of the report intended by the informant may differ markedly for the anthropologist.

It would be preposterous to suppose that experiences, particularly those occurring in higher states of consciousness, can be so competently described using symbols that the experience and expression become equivalently rich. On the other hand, it is a copout to science to take refuge in the claim of ineffability and attempt no description of experience whatsoever. To throw up one's hands in frustration and claim ineffability is in effect to commit the same methodological error, for implicit in the claim of ineffability is the presumption that there exist other experiences that can be fully described in symbolic mode. Scientists must never confuse data, facts, descriptions, or models with experience. There is always the problem of transposition in the movement away from direct experience to description and theory construction. In effect we must come, with the great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, to distinguish what we can say - and say as clearly as possible - and what we cannot say and must "pass over in silence."

Transpersonal Methods.

With full recognition of the process of transposition between direct experience and symbolic expression, the solution to the problem of the phenomenological typewriter suggests itself in two ways: (1) Broaden the range of experience of anthropological fieldworkers as much as possible, and (2) become as clever as possible when creating modes of symbolic expression of experience. Recognizing the facts that enculturation places constraints upon the range of experiences that a fieldworker may be capable of having, and that some people are more open to extraordinary experiences than other people, it seems reasonable for anthropology to nurture a cadre of transpersonalists within its midst who are capable of speaking to the fullest range of human experience. Such a cadre would operate as a check against some of the more extreme misunderstandings that arise in interpreting native experiences. As noted earlier, a transpersonalist who has worked on the organization of "psychic energy" in his or her own body would immediately see the relevance of Indian kundalini to an understanding of Bushman n/um, and visa versa.

One must be clever in one's search for an appropriate means of symbolic expression in order to avoid the uncritical presumption of ineffability. For instance, it has long been supposed that there is no way for a dreamer to directly communicate information about the dream state to researchers while the dream is in process. This presumption has now been shown to be highly conditional. Lucid dream researchers are now learning methods by which the dreamer can communicate information about dream events directly to researchers so that they may be correlated with electronic measures of physiological events during sleep. To give another example, it was long presumed that the congenitally blind cannot experience dreams and fantasies involving developed color and form, yet recent research with the use of haptic drawing and other techniques is indicating that this is not the case, that there exists an innate component to vision operating in the blind.

The author's impression is that the time has come in science to pay credence to reports of transpersonal experiences as presented in the ethnographic, folkloristic, theological, mystical and mythological literatures pertaining to peoples around the world. It now seems methodologically reasonable to presume some form of direct, personal or transpersonal experience "laying behind" even the most bizarre reports found in myth, legend, and "superstition" -- until demonstrated otherwise. As Thompson (1935:201-202) suggests for tales of psychic powers attributed to saints in the Middle Ages, as Hufford (1982) shows for the so-called old hag phenomenon, as Jilek (1982:22ff) describes for Northwest Coast healing ceremonies and spirit quests, as Grindal (1983) describes for the raising of the dead, as Wambach (1978) claims for knowledge of past lifetimes, and as Greeley (1975) has noted for a variety of paranormal phenomena, including deja vu, clairvoyance and contact with the dead, we must carefully consider the possibility that our informants have indeed experienced a non-ordinary reality that has given rise to the tradition being examined. We are not saying that the informant's interpretation of his or her experience need be accepted as an objective description of reality. In fact, we doubt that any such description is possible by either natives or anthropologists. And in the end we also may be incapable of discerning the truth value of the native interpretation. Rather, every attempt should be made to ascertain in the greatest possible detail the elements of the informant's direct experience; fully realizing of course that there is likely to exist a causal interplay between experience and our very culturally-loaded interpretation.


A dynamic that we have repeatedly touched upon above is the way that direct experiences may be evoked by the presence of symbols. The author and his colleagues have worked for years on this relationship, and have reached certain conclusions with regard to the mechanisms by means of which the symbolic function operates in cognition. That set of mechanisms we have termed symbolic penetration: the process by which activation of a relatively limited sensory event comes to communicate with, evoke, and become associated with a more ramified, complex, and far less limited set of cognitive structures operating within the nervous system.

It is not our intent to repeat here what has already been written about the symbolic penetration hypothesis, but rather, presuming it to be true, to explore some of its methodological implications for transpersonal fieldwork. For there is one factor implied by symbolic penetration that has yet to sink into the general awareness of anthropologists: that is, at the level of basic principle, the cognitive system of the fieldworker operates exactly like that of the native. To the extent that the anthropologist comes to understand how symbols operate in the mind of the native, to that extent he/she comes to understand how his/her own mind works - and visa versa. Moreover, if he/she understands the mechanisms of mind operating among the natives, the fieldworker can use his/her own mind as a laboratory to experiment with the symbolic processes that appear to be operating in the institutions being observed.

The novel and occasionally exotic conditions of fieldwork have been both the strength and the weakness of anthropology. The draw to experience the adventure of living in an alien cultural milieu is often the initial motivation that leads one to become an ethnographer. There is a selection in favor of individuals who appreciate the varience in cultural form, and who are predisposed to see the exotic features around them, and to record features in a sort of "oddities and quidities" manner - all of which was well and good during the "science of curious customs" phase in the development of the discipline.

But anthropology seems to be entering its maturity, and is doing so at a time when all of science is, as we noted above, in subtle crisis. A mature science is always a structural science. Its models, theories and explanations are always formulated using elements and relations, some of which are non-observables (eg., black holes, quarks, binding forces, not to mention principles of mind, schemes, slots, etc.). A mature science codes the structural commonalities underlying the apparent diversity of phenomena, and the principles uncovered are always conceived to be finite in number, universal to the phenomena being observed, and operating in an orderly, lawful manner.

Recognizing that at the level of cognitive functioning all human minds operate on the same fundamental principles, the transpersonal anthropologist is in search of those principles underlying the apparent diversity in the content of surface symbolism. And this is inevitably a reflexive process: the ethnographer him/herself ultimately becomes the object of scrutiny. Transpersonal experimentation in an alien symbolic milieu carries the method of participant observation to its ultimate extremes. The transpersonal ethnographer among the Bushmen would not only participate in the action and significance of the hunt, but also in the practices leading to the experience of !kia. And in either situation, one eye of the ethnographer is upon the hosts, the other is on his/her own phenomenology.

The old dictum that "you can't ever experience the world like the native does" is, like the claim to ineffability, a blend of a modicum of truth with a lot of copout. Taken at its most commonsense meaning, it recognizes no common structural underpinnings to human experience whatsoever. It is a naive view devoid of any information from the psychology and physiology of perception. Of course it is quite true that the meanings of an alien symbol system will be different for the ethnographer than for the native - and for that matter different from native to native. This is the natural result of having been enculturated in different societies and having undergone different life experiences. But one must also recognize the structural, or archetypal, ground upon which culturally variant cognition is based. There will always be a structural-loading on any experience, no matter how exotic and pervasive the cultural-loading. Furthermore, it seems that, beyond a certain point in maturation, the higher the state of consciousness attained, the less symbolic and cultural loading is experienced. The ethnographer who attains higher states of consciousness working within the alien symbol system may expect to find less and less discrepancy between his/her experiences and those encountered by natives mastering the same techniques. As always, however, one must maintain a clear distinction between direct experience and interpretation of experience. Any culturally controlled interpretive tradition will bear a heavy symbolic-loading, regardless of how advanced the state of consciousness experienced, and the cultural interpretation may be at variance with the ethnographer's own interpretation. An experience of flow that for the native may be interpreted as due to (say) grace from the gods may be for the ethnographer interpreted as a retuning of his/her autonomic nervous system, or whathaveyou.

To utilize symbolic penetration techniques in order to gain direct insight and experience of the sort that enriches and vivifies the native cosmology, the ethnographer must have attained some degree of transcultural freedom in his/her own consciousness. In other words, the researcher must be able to "suspend disbelief" sufficiently to enter the alien symbol system, accept it as so many "fingers" pointing at perhaps extraordinary and culturally salient experiences, and enter fully into the field of ritual practices (including in some cases physical ordeals) intended to evoke those experiences.

And this brings us right back to the issue of state-specific science. Obviously not all ethnographers are capable of "letting go" into the alien milieu to that extent. In fact, if the ethnographic record is any indication, very few researchers have been able to do so. The number who are currently attempting transpersonal explorations is, of course, on the increase due to popular interest in transpersonal phenomena. However, no one should ever be forced into such explorations, for such work often requires years of preparation, arduous self-confrontation, and advanced spiritual maturity (usually requiring a slow developmental seasoning), to say nothing of possibly dangerous ordeals, encounter with fearful "supernatural" entities, radical loss of ego-boundaries, and the like. The very best we can hope for, we believe, is to sensitize the discipline to the existence and legitimacy of transpersonal experiences, and the significance of an understanding of such experiences to an explanation of alien symbolic and religious systems.

The reward for those who are able to "suspend disbelief" and fully enter an alien esoteric symbol system may be great indeed, for sooner or later during the course of the work the symbol system may come alive in dream, in trance or in vision. One may have the opportunity to directly experience the kind of powerful adventure that enlivens the natives' view of themselves and their cosmos. But this often requires great sacrifice and patience, for alien symbols (which paradoxially may actually include symbols found, historically at least, within ones own Euroamerican milieu) take time and energy to penetrate to a (usually heavily) defended cognitive-affective field. One must be willing to steep oneself in the symbolism, to live it to the full, and be lovingly acceptant of personal limitations and recurrent failures in the pursuit. And above all, one must nurture the confidence in the native methods and perseverence of practice without which little can be accomplished.


1. The author wishes to thank Sheila Evans, Sue Woollam, John Cove, Sheila Richardson, Ivan Brady, Bruce Cox and John McManus for suggestions and criticisms in the preparation of this chapter. Special thanks are given to Radhika Sekar who provided the Indian material.


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