Sunday, January 13, 2019

Alterity & Embodiment in Afro-Cuban Caribbean Spiritualities

Two seemingly contradictory elements of experience which none the less in Espiritismo are experienced as closely related are what we call alterity and embodiment. This is in part so because, as Espiritista, the individual is constantly challenging the definition of both the self and the other. For the Espiritista this sounds something like "where is the boundary between me and my muerto(s). Even though the average Espiritista might not consider describing their activities using these words, they will intuitively find themselves in agreement with the explanation that follows.
Becoming both familiar and if not always comfortable with, at least accustomed to sharing their living space with a variety of often distinctly individual spirits is something which Espiritistas must contend with early on. The degree to which they are successful or not will determine their recognition as a good or poor medium. This is where the issue of embodiment comes in.
The reason for that is that the living space being referred to here is not a room or a home, but rather the body of the medium itself. The presence of multiple entities identified to varying degrees as distinct personalities necessitates accommodation. No example is more dramatic than the case of that phenomenon we call "fully unconscious possession" in which the "person" or personality of the medium is totally but temporarily replaced by that of the spirit.
While this form of mediumship is common in Cuban Espiritismo and is the norm for the overwhelming majority of African Traditîonal and African Diasporic Religions, in Espiritismo and some variants of Brazilian Umbanda there is also a form of semi-conscious possession, in which the medium is present during possession but the spirit is in control, leaving the medium merely an observer.
These possession experiences may require emotional or psychological adaptation on the part of the medium. Many report that they were reluctant to undergo possession of either variety. While I have only experienced fully unconscious possession, for me the only sense of anxiety I experienced at the onset of what anthropologists and psychologists classically called "the crisis of possession" was the worry I might not succeed. The actual experience has only ever been accompanied by a sense of calm detachment and occasionally a mild sense of amazement. I also felt more energized afterwards rather than the sense of depletion that is often reported by mediums. 
I draw no other conclusions than that the experience is highly individual, and note that the literature discussing this worldwide experience probably includes no more than a handful of direct interviews with mediums. Many of the interviewers came to those encounters with a lot of preconceptions and theoretical biases as well.
Not insignificantly though, while possession is a common phenomenon in Espiritismo, possession mediumship is far from the only type of mediumship and as common as it may be, there are other kinds of mediumships that may make up a greater percentage of the spirit interactions that mediums have to adapt to and develop.
Precisely because possession requires little more of a medium than surrender, these other forms of mediumship can actually be seen as challenging the medium to adjust and adapt in relation to evolving new and different understandings of self, other (spirit), and those shared spaces, most notably body, but also experiences of "not body" more than does possession.
It doesn't require much imagination to conceptualize how experiences of multiple simultaneous consciousnesses, and unconsciousness with reports of possession activity later could raise issues which might give a medium's ego cause for struggle. What however am I referring to as more subtle bodily and "not body" experiences, and how could they potentially be more challenging?
Those other most common forms of mediumship include audencia, videncia, sentencia, and telepática. These terms vary across languages and different times and places offer minor variations in classification. Videncia is psychic vision or sight, sentencia may be any sense such as touch, smell, even temperature changes. Telapática refers to the receipt of knowledge, which may also be referred to in English as clairsentience. These refer to the medium who receives messages from spirits through sight, images internal or external, or feeling touch, smell, or environmental or personal changes of temperature. Other mediums receive information as complete knowledge, they simply know.
These, at first glance "lesser" mediumships, may in fact require more struggle, more dis- and re-integration of self and other, of medium and spirit, than does possession. Two distinct challenges face a medium in the making that may slow their development.
The first is that the medium to be may have expectations of how spirit communication will be experienced as that may not be how spirit will communicate with them. The person who expects or wants to hear a voice but who is clairsentient, may not recognize spirit communication when it arrives. Similarly, if the voice a clairaudient medium hears sounds like their own rather than that of an ancient seer, he or she may question its validity. Learning to discern other within oneself is not always easy.
The challenge then is to be able to alter the awareness of self and other in order to identify inner experience as originating in self or not, and thereby identify and access non-local information. In this process, what is self, where it may reside, and even whether our bodies are solely our own in the purely western sense of self and other is brought into question. The medium as individual is altered, fractured, and ultimately reconstituted in a new, expanded and less bounded form.

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