Harnessing “the Trance”

In traditional Candomble, a Brazillian religion influenced by the religions of Africa, drums play, practitioners dance, energy (axé) builds and if conditions are auspicious, a dancer is visited by an orixa – an incarnation of divine personality. Anyone can be “mounted” thus, not just the priest or the elite. An old woman, barely dancing, hobbling, suddenly is filled with incredible vigor and the whole dancing crowd receives this blessing and returns it until the moment passes.  I’ve been fortunate enough to witness portions of a ceremony like this, and it is a moving thing to behold.

Recently, the human gene for graying hair was located. Some scientists predict that within the next decade, we will be able to locate the genes for not only for health conditions, but also for personality attributes — some of the most “human” traits we can imagine.

I believe that we will discover another human legacy which connects people to the very foundation of civilization: namely, that the human capacity to enter trance. But I also believe that the selfsame human legacy which allows for the divine to dance among humans also allows us to sit, transfixed, tears streaming down their faces as our deepest sadnesses are dramatized before our eyes. Or as a violin is played, music soaring to the heavens. Or as a tribe huddles around a fire, and one elder retells the old stories, all faces lit by the orange glow.

candombleThis capacity allows individuals not only to hear their origins retold, but also it allows plans to be made, jokes to be told, instructions to be given, and ceremonies to be performed. Just think about it: people grow quiet, maintain eye contact, and give their attention (or at least appear to) to a performer, simply because “that’s what’s happening now.” It’s incredible that it happens at all. On the other hand, at a certain level, the “audience trance” has powered civilization since its earliest days.

Some teachers believe that when students are quiet, they are in “audience trance” – absorbing the message of the instruction. Not necessarily so. That may be simple conformity at work. Audience trance in a classroom is a rare thing, and it’s different from “students being quiet.” You can hear audience-trance descend on a room, even a theater, when something is incredibly fascinating. When genuine emotion (often fear, anger, or sadness) is expressed. When something profound is taking place. You know the sound of “audience-trance.” It sounds like a pin – not dropping.

In my classroom, like any classroom, there is a modicum of shushing that must happen in order for me to give the daily instructions. And no speaker is immune. A student raises her hand to speak, and while talking, the I sometimes need to shush the class.

However, like the dancer visited by the orixa, something amazing happens when students stand up before the group to pitch their ideas: the trance. Students listen, rapt attention, exploring  nuances of the students’ designs. I would claim we are witnessing something sacred – not the visitation of a spirit, per se, but the gathering of inspiration. And this influx of creative breath silences us. Students, like inspired dancers, no longer sound or look or act like students. They sound and look and act like architects. Designers. Artists. Managers. Consultants. Coaches. The are participating in a sacred ritual of transformation.

They are visited by their future selves. And everyone’s jaw hangs open. And you can hear a pin drop.

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