In Mongolia in 2001, Corine Sombrun received the “shamanic spark” when she suddenly entered a trance state during a ritual ceremony. A totally unexpected revelation, followed by a long training process that she continues to this day, while collaborating with researchers in order to demonstrate that trance is a cognitive phenomenon. Beyond the quest for its therapeutic virtues, the author also questions its impact on our relationship to the living and the sacred.
Twenty years ago, journalist Corine Sombrun attended a shamanic ceremony in Mongolia as part of a news report for BBC World. As shaman Balgir’s drum resounded in her ears, her body started to tremble. The journalist began to strike her own thighs. “I felt a sound come out of my throat. Like a wolf’s cry. Very strong, very powerful…”, she writes in her latest book, La Diagonale de la joie [The Diagonal of joy] (Albin Michel, 2021). The author lost control of her gestures and the perception of her body changed. She had the sensation of having a snout, and claws. For the shaman who presided over the ceremony, there was no doubt: Corine Sombrun had just been designated by the spirits to become a shaman herself and received the “shamanic spark” that day. Balgir enjoined her to develop her gift with a Tsaatan shaman named Enkhetuya. While at first reluctant, Corine Sombrun finally accepted. She was trained for several years, at the end of which she attained the status of udgan – a term for women who have received the gift and initiation into Mongolian shamanic traditions. She quickly noticed common characteristics between her transformative experiences and the trance state, which facilitates access to an altered state of consciousness. Corine Sombrun wanted to inform herself, and sought to demonstrate, through science, that this was a cognitive phenomenon, rather than simply the expression of a cultural phenomenon linked to the shamanic tradition. In order to broaden the spectrum of her scientific knowledge, she underwent multiple studies on her brain, from electroencephalograms to MRI brain imaging, and learned to consciously trigger her trance states, eventually perfecting the method. In 2019, Corine Sombrun founded the TranceScience Research Institute with Professor Francis Taulelle, director of research at the CNRS, to assemble an international team of researchers specializing in different fields. After 20 years of research, it has been proven that trance corresponds to a potential mode of functioning of the brain, akin to the meditative state. The extent of its therapeutic virtues remains to be uncovered, however, as does its philosophical implications for self-knowledge and the relationship to living things.
ANTIDOTE: What memories do you have of your first trance in Mongolia?
CORINE SOMBRUN: Surprise, fear, shame, but also incomprehension. I wondered why my own culture had not been able to alert me to the fact that this was possible. This experience really unseated all of my expectations. The relationship that these populations have maintained to the invisible is extraordinary. In the West, we have totally lost it.
What is the role of the shaman in Mongolian society?
The shaman ensures the link between the human and spirit worlds. In the traditional Tsaatan ecosystem, this relationship with the invisible is fundamental. Trance grants access to this spirit world and to information that can be useful to the community. Spirits are considered guardians of the overall harmony; you don’t make decisions without consulting them first, at the risk of creating dissonance. Human beings are not capable of measuring the consequences of their actions on their own.
In your book Les Tribulations d’une chamane à Paris [The Tribulations of a shaman in Paris] (Albin Michel, 2009), you discuss your return to France after studying shamanic rituals. You claim that you felt like you had an “infrared port” capable of receiving people’s “vibrational” calling cards. At that time, did you feel like a shaman?
No, not at all. I have never identified with this term, and I feel that using it to refer to myself would be to usurp it. In fact, I don’t do consultations. My focus is on trance as a practice that allows for cognitive amplification. Our research has shown that these abilities are dormant in all of us, and are rarely, if ever, activated. Shamanism is inscribed in a specific culture and rituals.
When you returned, people close to you asked you all kinds of questions (how to find love, how to heal cancer, depression, etc.). What was your reaction at the time?
In France, my experience in Mongolia provoked two diametrically opposed reactions: some people thought I was crazy; others thought that I could help them solve all of their problems… In both cases, people either believe in it or reject you, without much reflection. It’s a shame.
What inspired you to learn more about trance from a scientific point of view? Was it because you were afraid of believing in something that was a priori not rational? In Les Tribulations d’une chamane à Paris, you write that “the less proof we have of the existence of something, the more we can believe in it”.
In my few years of practice in Mongolia, I understood how interesting the trance state was, insofar as I felt less pain, had more strength, and received more information. And then, a phenomenon of dissociation allowed me to access, on my own, something different from what I usually perceive. I thought it was time to take these phenomena seriously. In the West, there is only one way to do this: through science. In 2001, shamans were said to be frauds. At that time, this was the majority position of anthropologists, who affirmed that trance was a form of theatricalization. But I felt a profound change in my behavior. I knew it was related to the effect of the sound of the drum on my brain. I wanted people to stop spewing nonsense about it, so the only solution was to resort to “hard” science. I underwent several tests, including EEGs and MRIs, to observe and understand these phenomena.
When you tried to find out more about trance from a scientific perspective in France, your symptoms were initially considered pathological. You were met with radical skepticism. How do you explain the fact that science had not yet seriously studied the trance phenomenon?
At first, my doctor referred me to a psychiatrist! Trance is considered psychopathological; it is perceived as an oddity. It can also be frightening; I still receive threats. You have to go back 30 years ago, to when people talked about meditation as a sectarian practice. In France, the medical profession is particularly
skeptical, more so than in Switzerland, Belgium, or Canada, where the study of these phenomena is more accepted. However, this dubiousness can be beneficial: it invites us to call into question what we take as fact. I, myself, am very doubtful. But once hypotheses have been scientifically proven, we can be sure that we’re no longer operating in the realm of belief. To date, we have demonstrated many elements and my work consists in training health care professionals, including psychiatrists, in trance.
Besides self-induced cognitive trance, how else can one enter this state?
Through dance, percussion, breathing techniques, psychoactive plants (ayahuasca, iboga, peyote), or synthetic substances. Anthropological studies have shown that out of a sample of 480 traditional societies across the world, 90% have some kind of institutionalized trance practice. Only in the West is it no longer used, but this does not mean that it was not used in the past. Witches and druids probably used trance, but it’s been lost since.
Today, we consult horoscopes and psychics…
Humans need to believe in these things, it reassures them. It is a mechanism to maintain the illusion of control: when we fear we’re not in control of a situation, we put on our lucky T-shirt… it is part of our psychological build. Everyone needs to believe that something magical can happen when they are in trouble.
Why did the Soviet authorities attempt to eradicate shamanism in Siberia?
Shamanism, like Buddhism, was considered unfit for modernity. During the communist period, Buddhist shamans and monks were murdered or imprisoned. The practice of shamanism was totally forbidden.
Since then, scientific research you have organized has shown that although trance produces a form of dissociation, it is in no way pathological.
Yes, that’s correct. In 2007, I met the neuropsychiatrist Pierre Flor-Henry, from the Alberta Hospital in Edmonton, Canada, who performed the first electroencephalograms of my brain in a trance state. Ten years later, he presented the results in a scientific publication. According to his data, trance modifies circuits of cerebral activity, without being pathological.
Why did it take so long to reach this conclusion?
We had to shift away from the idea that trance was either pathological or performative. The advances made in studies on meditation and hypnosis facilitated a change of perspective. Then, we managed to demonstrate that the majority of people could access trance via the tools we had developed.
How were you able to prove that?
In Mongolia, it is estimated that about 0.001% of the population can access trance states. These people, about 30 out of 3 million inhabitants, are considered shamans. Since studies showed that my brain was within the norms, I thought that the sound of the drum, used in ceremonies intended for the shaman to access the trance, would not be effective enough for most people to provoke a trance. So, I decided to develop more efficient sonic tools.
The ones you call “soundloops”?
Yes, that’s right: they are soundloops modeled with the help of researchers that don’t sound like drums at all. They were developed in such a way as to produce an effect on the brain. The first time we tested them was on an uninformed public: students at the Beaux-Arts de Nantes. 80% of them experienced a trance state like the one I had experienced in Mongolia, of varying intensity, of course, because everyone experiences trance differently. We’ve since improved our tools, and today 90% of the subjects we play them for reach a form of trance. Some brains are resistant, but we’re not sure why yet. The few possibilities we have explored still need to be tested and proven.
Do you teach self-induced cognitive trance?
Yes, through the Trancelab Training Institute, which is dedicated to providing training in self-induced cognitive trance. Very few of us can provide this training. We mainly train doctors, researchers, and psychiatrists; by experiencing the trance state, they can study its therapeutic applications.
In concrete terms, what can self-induced cognitive trance be used for?
The use of trance is specific to each person, but there are two main applications: first, it can incur a transformation of internal processes. If one has experienced trauma, trance can enable a person to emerge from it, to relive it, and to transform it through this new experience in order to, in the end, repair it.
Trance also facilitates access to a different perception of the environment. This is the “interaction” application. As the brain is less focused on reflection, the feeling of connection with the environment is amplified, a bit like when you go for a walk in the forest and suddenly have the impression that everything is opening up around you… This can help us realize the importance of collaborating with all living things. Everything that surrounds us can teach us something. The egocentric Western vision according to which we are masters of the world is transformed when we experience these altered states of consciousness. The more we amplify them, the more we can develop a horizontal relationship with our surroundings. It is humbling.
For shamans, the religious edifice or sacred space is nature. In La Diagonale de la joie, you write that “we have become too noisy, too showy, too arrogant to have the humility to simply listen to the living.” Does the practice of trance, at a collective scale, have a role to play in our reconnection to the living?
Analytical thinking leads us to make decisions whose consequences are not well understood, especially from an ecological point of view. Intuitive forms of intelligence can be a kind of compass to better discern the consequences of our actions. We can then take stock of the absurdity of our society that no longer has its feet on the ground, because trance grants us access to the meaning of life. On a global level, it would allow us to have a less egocentric society that is therefore more open to its environment.
In Les Tribulations d’une chamane à Paris you write: “I discovered that my Western dreams, my notion of social success, were of no interest to Enkhetuya.” You question the very important place of the ego in our society and our dependency on consumption. Do you think that Westerners lack spirituality?
Yes, but it’s not our fault, since we have nothing else but this pleasure, consumption. We talk about isolation, but in what way are we isolated? We are isolated in our minds, in our egocentrism. As soon as we are in a state of trance, we become connected to the whole. If I spot a handbag in a store and bleed myself dry to buy it, what will happen to me afterwards? What will be the consequences of this compulsive purchase, which is merely a form of compensation for the malaise I am experiencing? I have had extraordinarily ecstatic and spiritual trance experiences, so of course, that’s brought my priorities into perspective. After that, you can’t possibly care about the handbag, because you’ve experienced such beautiful things, such rich things, that you can only feel gratitude for your environment, for yourself. This gratitude is really the source of joy. The joy you feel when you see an aurora borealis. We are all connected, interdependent, and it is beautiful to feel this connection.
Do you sometimes feel out of step?
No, insofar as everyone evolves at their own speed. I understand this gap, because our society has formatted humans according to this logic, but now it is time to move on, to expand all our forms of knowledge.
You describe the fact that the shaman Enkhetuya started building a camp in 2010, with small cabins rented by Westerners who came to “do shamanism.” Today, more than 3,000 shamans are competing for the windfall from this tourism. Hasn’t Enkhetuya herself strayed from the principles she taught you?
No, she has not strayed from them, because she still practices the rituals in the same way for herself; on the other hand, Mongolians have adapted to tourism, they have not resisted the desire and the need to earn money. In turn, they’ve become dependent on consumer products. Globalization is at the root of this. They continue to honor the traditions for themselves but have also adapted to tourism and embraced the godsend of money it represents. Their children want to have cell phones, they want more comfort, houses, cars… It is inescapable, no culture has resisted this! It’s the same thing in the Amazon. The place where I received my shamanic initiation has totally changed. There are tourist camps all over, jet-skis darting across the lake. The whole landscape has been decimated. When I saw this, I cried for two days.
What do you think of the younger generation that is interested in ecological and spiritual issues? Are we moving in the opposite direction of what is happening in Mongolia, deconstructing the material with which we have been formatted?
Young people have understood that we over-indulged in consumer society in the West; we are beginning to realize that this is not what makes us happy; on the contrary, it makes us dependent on material goods. They are on a quest for meaning and I am optimistic for the future, because they have understood something that Mongolians and traditional societies have not yet understood… Young people need to live for something meaningful and beneficial to the community, rather than just earn money. Something is changing. The health crisis is accelerating this awareness. It has made us realize how much we miss nature and how much we have missed real social relationships during this period. It has put a finger on what we have neglected for too long. Intellectually, we knew this already, but the pandemic allowed us to really experience it in the flesh. With perhaps the hope of a more conscious world.
Do people contact you to test self-induced trance? I can imagine that many people want to try it…
There are a lot of requests, but not enough trainers yet to be able to meet these requests, though that may come one day. What we want is to make sure that people discover this safely and do it within an ethical framework. I always say: “we are not going to teach you anything, because the trance state is one we’ve all already experienced, at least in emergency situations or in moments of inspiration.” We can’t make you discover this state of consciousness, we can only teach you how to access it at will – that is the principle of the training. Then you have to practice. It takes on average two months to be able to easily induce a trance. People are also taught how to exit this state risk-free.
Can science still explain everything?
Science is still far from being able to explain these phenomena! While we can observe changes in the brain’s cerebral signatures that demonstrate that something is happening, we do not yet understand why it is happening. It will take years of research, as many as for meditation and hypnosis.
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