27 September 2009

Transcendence and Tongues

A little earlier tonight I sat at my desk listening to a CD from First Aid Kit, who I’ve mentioned a couple of times prior. One of their more interesting works is their cover of “Jagadamba (You Might”). I have no idea what the lyrics mean, but at several points in the song the singers do a sort of chant. You can see what I mean by clicking here and waiting until the 1:31 mark. On their CD, the semi-chant periods are a bit longer, and the more I listen to the CD the more I enjoy participating in that part. Tonight, while I was singing along, I started thinking about the way the semi-chanting made me feel: it was almost as if I was losing myself in something more primal than myself -- bigger. I wanted to lose myself more.

A little later, I thought of the sect in which I was raised and its emphasis on “tongues”. If you want a demonstration, click here. I don’t especially advise it, but…. There were two kinds of tongue-talking. The first happened to people who were screaming at YHWH, and that is what is happening in the aforementioned video. This tongue-talking is also proof of one’s being saved. If you have not done so, you may be in for a grisly fate -- and if you have, you are still in for a grisly fate, because the Pentecostal god is a brute (so much so that I renounced him privately as a Pentecostal). When I was a believing Pentecostal, tongues was a stress point for me because I couldn’t do it. I could fool myself into thinking I could do it, and I could fool other people unknowingly -- but I never experienced the ecstasy other people seemed to feel. When I "talked in tongues", my mind detached from my body, so to speak, and let it gabber on while it sat nearby and thought. It would observe what “I” was doing and what other people were doing, particularly if they were about to approach me. That part of me knew that I wasn’t speaking in tongues. Tonight, when I thought of this, I reflected on my semi-chanting. That felt ecstatic. The same thing happens with other songs by other artists, particularly Johnny Clegg: when I start singing along, I feel that tug to transcendence.

Could that be what the tongue-talkers are experiencing? Are they losing themselves in the chanting, creating a religious experience out of music and their minds? I don’t know what happens in my body when I feel that tug to transcendence, but I suspect it may have something to do with my brain and glands producing some sort of hormone or other mood-changing chemical internally, as they do when I am having “fun”. This feeling doesn’t just occur with chanting: I feel it when I hear certain symphonies, am caught up in a star field, or become aware that I am experiencing a uniquely fantastic moment in my life, the way I did earlier in the year when snow covered my university town. This is quite rare, and I was able to spend the entire day with a good friend. I can vividly remember standing on a snow-covered hill with my friend, watching a snowball fight and feeling the snow blow in my face, knowing the moment would pass and yearning for it to be otherwise. I wanted to possess the day wholly, and yet I wanted it to possess me wholly. I wanted to be lost in that wintry glory.

Given this, I’m going to start poking around at the subject of transcendence -- the biological and psychological events that may cause the feeling, as well as its interpretation in cultural traditions.


Baley Petersen said...

So, I have a couple comments here. First of all, when I was in chamber choir freshman year at college, we sang Verdi's Requiem. A beautiful piece of music, but very difficult--especially for a large ensemble choir. As difficult as it was, there were moments when we resonated the music with the singing and it felt like my entire head bursted open with light. It was an indescribable feeling, one that I've never been able to find. Hearing a choir perform majestically can give me goose bumps, but nothing compares to the feeling of singing along with a group of people who are all experiencing the same musical vibrations at the same time.

I use the term vibrations in reference to translation. One of the things I learned in translation was that words are a translation of emotion or experience that we have boxed into vocabulary we can share with each other. The reality is that "horse" will conjure different images in everyone's mind. I think that when the choir was singing, we were transcending the limited means of communicating and experiencing the same emotion at the same time.

I feel like people who speak in tongues experience the same thing. They are experiencing an emotion or feeling or something that can't be described with our limited vocabulary. The transcendence that is happening is just something beyond words. I still think it's crazy, but I don't think it's completely unreasonable for a person to be tuned in to the emotions of others to the point that they may be open to vibrations of translation that we can't put into words.

smellincoffee said...

When I was attending Pentecostal meetings as a skeptic, I would often think about what was causing the tongues. It seemed to me that people worked themselves into emotional frenzies until they achieved some sort of release. I referred to it as emotional masturbation.

Now I'm thinking of those dervish dances and mysticism in general..