February 14th, 2011 | Published in Articles
Wreathed in flame, the twin screens either side of the auditorium show a fast cut montage of images of Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat and Osama Bin Laden while the audio recording of the minister’s wife’s prophetic intercessions reaches an Old Testament fever pitch worthy of Jeremiah, 80’s period Nick Cave or Jah World/I Can’t Go To Sleep era RZA/Ghostface. The flame anthropomorphizes into a winged demon which flies towards the camera as though it’s about to break though the screen and into the congregation. You’re a guest in your father’s church, he’s not there but you don’t want to cause a scene for the old man. The absurdity of the situation knocks you off balance so you start to mumble guttural encrypted prayers, outwardly inscrutable but inwardly remaining enough of a Charismatic Christian to want to pray against the right wing fundamentalist weirdness coming from the platform. With the benefit of nearly ten years hindsight you have a grudging respect for the amount of work that must have gone into the video presentation… enough to wonder what they’d be able to achieve these days using 3D.
Rewind three years. You play drums in the worship band nearly every Sunday. The words ‘shaman’ and ‘incorporation’ are a couple of years away from entering your vocabulary but nonetheless you’re feeling possessed by the Holy Spirit and drumming at a level that you won’t attain through practice until your early thirties. You couldn’t cut the atmosphere in the room with a chainsaw; the air is warm and vibrating, as though charged with an electrical current; time has slowed to a crawl. An invisible switch is flicked and the entire congregation begins wordlessly singing in a kind of numinous aphasia. It’s infectious, you could resist but you want to chase the wave as far as it will take you. Lost in devotions, two hundred people sing with one indecipherable voice.
Five years later. You’re less of a Christian, within sight of atheism but without quite the head of steam to get beyond belief. You’ve gone to your old church to check out a prophetic minister who spoke suspiciously hyperbolic prayers over your Hindu mate from college. Strongly suspecting that the prophet is cold reading, you resist his manipulative altar call and hang out at the back of the hall, where he singles you out and starts ministering to you specifically. Jamming the signal, you take on a serene countenance, holding out your hands as if to receive, moving slowly in time to the worship band’s devotional meandering and softly giving unintelligible utterance to your inner reservations. Your poker face causes the minister to slip as though he were on ice; caught without usable biofeedback he leaves you standing there while he ministers to the rest of the congregation, returning to you several times but unable to find purchase.
Fast forward another four years. You’re behind the wheel of your Ford Transit, anticlockwise on the M25. It’s 3am, the rain is torrential and the road lighting has blurred everything into a pale grey-orange liminal zone of zero visibility. Every now and then an articulated lorry takes form in the spray, you can’t see the road markings so you hope there’s enough room to overtake. You’re exhausted but kept alert by fear. Instinctively you reach inside yourself, deeper than the fear, and start to give utterance to what you find. You let loose a nonsense prayer to your ancestors, to your Nana, a woman who was both unstoppable force and immovable object. You feel her DNA twist and writhe within you, giving you strength. You make the connection and drive on into the unknown.
And in between all those memories, there are those times at which you just feel lost for words, often precisely at the moment when you most need to talk. While this last context may not be the most superficially impressive for the career glossolinguist, it is certainly the most useful.
THE FERAL CHOIR SING KUMBAYAH
I learned to speak in tongues in church. I grew up in a Charismatic Evangelical Christian denomination that subscribed to the non-cessationist/continuationist belief that the charismata – or ‘spiritual gifts’, described in 1 Corinthians 12 (including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, discernment of/distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues) – did not cease in their usage in apostolic times, but are accessible to Christians today. Charismatic Christians believe that God bestows these gifts in order to facilitate the spreading of the gospel with displays of divine power. I’ll leave the reader to speculate as to the wisdom of a god that would splice Ned Flanders with the X-Men.
Taken together, the various strands of the Charismatic movement amount to the second largest Christian denomination in the world (behind Roman Catholicism). In England it exists largely unnoticed, meeting in school halls, homes and community centres rather than purpose built facilities (if you ever felt as though you lived next door to a kumbayah version of Phil Minton’s Feral Choir then this may be one potential explanation). I grew up in Southampton, a small city on the south coast of England, in which the membership of the three main Charismatic churches totalled around a thousand people. Beliefs ran the gamut from fairly liberal and progressive to peculiarly well-meaning attempts to drive demons out of epileptic teenagers. If you believe you’re engaged in an ancient cosmic battle between the invisible forces of good and evil and find yourself frequently resorting to The Matrix for spiritual metaphors then you’re already living in an alternate reality in which exorcising sick children seems almost like common sense.
In America the movement is larger and wields more political influence, with wealthy churches having congregations numbering in their thousands and engaging in services that resemble Peter Gabriel concerts (only without the face paint, UFOs and members of King Crimson). The story I told in the opening paragraph took place in a relatively small church in California, and in their defense the leadership was absent during the screening of the video in question and say they would have pulled the plug had they been there. Other churches aren’t so lucky. Right wing politics, repressive beliefs and an anti-science epistemology often seem to go hand in hand with a belief in the immanence and power of the Christian god.
American Charismatic/Pentecostal churches are often at the centre of worldwide networks. As of 1993 an estimated fifty seven million people belonged to the World Assemblies of God Fellowship, which boasts around three hundred thousand ministers with churches in over two hundred countries, including Cuba, Haiti, India, Indonesia and Nigeria. As fast-paced progress sweeps across the developing world, it will be interesting to see how the countries that have hosted Charismatic missionaries continue to integrate or reject those missionaries’ primitive, superstitious and fundamentalist North American brand of Judeo-Christian religion.
FIFTY SEVEN MILLION MONKEYS AT TYPEWRITERS
The word glossolalia comes from the Greek word ‘glossa’ (γλώσσα), meaning ‘tongue’ or ‘language’ and ‘lalô’ (λαλώ) meaning ‘speak’ or ‘speaking.’ Charismatics believe it to be a devotional and intercessory prayer language and an important indicator that a Christian has been baptised by the Holy Spirit (an event which is believed to be almost as important in a Charismatic Christian’s life as salvation, the acceptance of Jesus as their personal saviour), with some going as far as to say that it is the Holy Spirit speaking through them. Baptism in the Spirit is itself a reference to the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2: 1-6) in which the apostles appeared crowned with tongues of spiritual fire and were heard to speak in all the native languages of the onlookers, regardless of whether they had prior knowledge of that language.
A Charismatic Christian, when speaking in tongues, will sound as though they are speaking a random stream of vowel and consonant sounds. William J. Samarin, a linguist from the University of Toronto, concluded that the utterances he examined were constructed of phonemes from languages known to the speaker and that they frequently contained patterns common not only to the speaker but to other speakers from the same social context. Glossolalic utterances from different people in a single church often share similarities that aren’t apparent for speakers from different churches. Some people fake it to fit in; others are just impressionable. Conversely, it’s also possible for individual glossolinguists to speak more than one tongue. I’ve known several Christians who claim to have five or six. This matches my experience of the variety of results you get when you choose to grant utterance to different things (of which more to follow).
Speaking in a language unknown to the speaker (but recognised by the listener) is a related a phenomenon known as xenoglossy, xenoglossia or xenolalia, reported anecdotally by some contemporary Charismatics – particularly missionaries – usually without independent witnesses or means of corroboration. However, given the predisposition of the human mind to recognise patterns and the sheer amount of glossolalic utterances that occur in multi-lingual congregations it is unsurprising that some people believe they hear words in known languages, and much more likely that the words that are noticed will be those that appear to match the context (it is more likely to notice words for ’god’ than words for ‘dog’). With fifty seven million monkeys at typewriters in the World Assemblies of God Fellowship there will always be a significant proportion that will notice lines from Shakespeare.
The seemingly random speech of glossolalia is sometimes – although certainly not always – accompanied by heightened emotional or even ecstatic states. Contrary to some stereotypes, religious ecstasy is not a prerequisite for speaking in tongues, although the two are not mutually exclusive. It is a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. While speaking in tongues a person has no conscious control over the specific phonemes uttered, although many report that they can exert influence over pitch, volume and pronunciation, as well as when start and stop. Although this anecdotal data may be partially confirmed by SPECT scans of people speaking in tongues conducted by Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania – who noted decreased activity in the brain’s frontal lobe (associated with complex cognition and moderating correct social behaviour) and increased activity in the parietal lobe (associated with forming a sense of self from sensory information) – in practice it’s probably best not to read too much into such studies. Glossolalia is a long way from being awarded its Neuroscientifically Respectable Merit Badge (dubiously and desperately sought after by too many occultists whose disciplines have roots that stretch back into prehistory yet still feel the need for the latest fashionable validation), while the scientists with the most interest in helping it get there are usually the ones least suited to achieving robust and replicable data (and most suited to being redshirt boffins killed by monsters in episodes of the X-Files).
While much of the research into speaking in tongues – and a good deal of my personal experience – is one-dimensionally Christocentric, there is plenty of precedent for glossolalia in other magicoreligious traditions that involve incorporation, embodiment and possession phenomena (loosely defined here as practices that involve relinquishing varying degrees of conscious control to what are believed to be external forces). In his paper, “An Ethnological Study of Glossolalia” (Journal of the American Science Affiliation, March 1968), George J. Jennings refers to numerous other cultures in the context of speaking in tongues, although he admits that he has not experienced the phenomenon himself and is reliant upon accounts from other anthropologists rather than first hand experience. Some of his assertions seem spurious or confined to related phenomena, including uncorroborated accounts of xenoglossy, non-linguistic gurgling or groaning vocalisations and varieties of sacerdotal speech that are based on loanwords or language that has fallen out of usage. The most convincingly related examples he provides (outside of Christian subgroups including the Quakers, Irvingites, Shakers and Mormons) include the Shango worshippers of the Yoruba religion, the Chaco tribe of Paraguay, the Dinka of the Sudan and the curanderos of the Andes. Similar problems arise in L. Carlyle May’s “A Survey of Glossolalia and Related Phenomena in Non-Christian Religions”: the writer has broadened the focus to encompass all varieties of magicoreligious vocalisations, without first hand experience of either the cultures described or as a speaker of tongues. Mercia Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy contains also examples of incomprehensible speech, animal imitation and ventriloquist feats exhibited by shamans. These are perhaps the clearest evidence for a multiplicity of purpose in different instances of magical speech, as the rituals depicted often include theatrical elements intended to portray the shamans’ work in what they believe to be other planes of reality.
The article you are currently reading is drawn almost entirely from experience, which has taught me not to assume similarity when the process and intention of magical speech cannot be adequately discerned. It would be misleading for me to claim that my experience of 20th Century glossolalia has any ancient precedent going back to apostolic times. It is just as impossible for a Charismatic Christian to use Biblical accounts to claim with any degree of certainty that the processes and intentions behind their utterances are identical to those of the early Christians as it is for a scholar to use anthropological accounts when claiming that all magicoreligious vocalizations should be categorised together (unless the account specifically details a basis for the inclusion). Christa Tuczay, in “Trance Prophets and Diviners in the Middle Ages”, examines changing attitudes to glossolalia over the centuries, from enthusiast practice by the Montanists and an endorsement in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies in the second century to the cessationist beliefs of Origen and Augustine in the third century and Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (1274), with potential examples of speaking in tongues in the lives of St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179), Elisabeth of Schönau (1129 – 1165) and St. Catherine of Siena (1347 – 1380). Clearly, there is insufficient evidence for any Charismatic or Pentecostal to trace an unbroken line of transmission back to the Day of Pentecost.
Likewise, while it is tempting to draw parallels with the work of vocalists such as improviser Phil Minton or composer Trevor Wishart, the comparison may be tenuous at best. The former considers his voice as he would a synthesizer; the latter is interested in the breaking down of language into syllable sounds and the immediate empathic recognition of the human voice in the act of listening. Both musicians have their own rigorously considered approaches; to naïvely assume that they are speaking in tongues because of some superficial sonic similarity would seem dismissive (at least, until either of them clearly state otherwise). The work of the Italian vocal ensemble Prima Materia is much more convincingly related; their nominal leader, Roberto Laneri’s interest was in “sound as the vehicle of altered states of consciousness.” The resulting long-form vocal drones – demonstrated on their seminal 1977 LP “The Tail of the Tiger” – are perhaps too conscious of form to be described as glossolalic in any classically unfiltered sense, although as I will come to describe the form of glossolalia can vary considerably depending on that to which you are granting control of your voice.
By now it should be clear that this article is not an attempt at a definitive study of speaking in tongues. That would require years and more money than I’m likely to have in a hurry. My aim is to be personal – and hopefully useful – rather than compendious; I will inevitably omit more than I can include. For the purposes of this article my definition of speaking in tongues is the deliberate ceding of vocal control to something other than the conscious mind. Over the years I have done my best to deconstruct my Charismatic Christian upbringing through the models offered by Shamanism, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Reichian and Bioenergetic psychotherapy and Chaos Magic, all of which have informed my thinking on glossolalia. I still find it of immeasurable value, and my purpose in writing this article is to detail why it’s useful and how to do it.
WILHELM REICH IN HEAVEN
Verbal communication is only one part of our expressive repertoire, and in my more cynical moments I wonder whether it evolved so that we could lie, misrepresent and confuse with just as much precision as we are able to communicate, describe and inform. Conventional language, despite its pervasive influence on cognition, exists as an abstraction away from our experience; we have to separate ourselves from our experience in order to describe it. Languages are models of reality, yet are frequently mistaken for reality itself. Most people would say that they prefer clear, honest, precise communication, but in practice the very nature of language can make it hard for a person to express themselves.
This is particularly prevalent when it comes to the hidden world of our internal sensations, experienced through our interoceptive and proprioceptive senses as rushes, surges, knots, swirls and cavernous depths of sensation in our torsos, the clenching or relaxing of muscles, heart palpitations, changes in circulation, etc. Our best-fit terms for these physiological phenomena are vague and abstract to the point at which they are often barely a description at all: fear, anger, love, hatred, confusion, peace. The result is an ambiguous and dismissive shorthand terminology that can be quite removed from the specifics of how anyone really feels, which may form many artists and musicians’ basis for resisting any kind of emotional framework for describing their work, as well as being evidence of a mind/body dualism that afflicts much of our understanding of ourselves. Buying into shallow emotional terminology causes us to leave our bodily experience of those feelings comfortably uninterrogated, the result being a lack of language for expressing how we really feel.
We do not experience the world; we experience the effect that the world has on our bodies. This could be one source of the human tendency to anthropomorphise: we have no choice but to experience the world in human-shaped chunks. We are our bodies: it is no coincidence that we speak with phrases like, ‘shouldering a burden,’ being ‘heavy of heart’ having a ‘sinking feeling’ or ‘biting our tongue.’ The physical manifestation of a belief, emotion or trauma is not merely what happens in our bodies when we believe, feel or relive those things: It is what we believe and feel. We relive our experiences in our bodies because that is where they are coded at their deepest levels. A sufficiently powerful memory of fear brings back that fear in its full physiological state; our eyes widen, our heartbeat quickens, our breathing becomes fast and shallow and rises to the top of our chests, we might shake and sweat. This is not just what happens to our bodies when we are afraid: this is fear. When you pay attention to the detail and variety of your internal sensations words like ‘fear’ are barely adequate.
One method of observing the details of our internal states can be found in the set of therapy models known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), defined here as the art of noticing and changing the structure of subjective experience. NLP practitioners sometimes refer to the senses as ‘modalities’ and the structural detail in each sensory channel ‘submodalities.’ NLP practitioners build detailed sensory models using sets of binary questions inspired in part by Aristotle’s ‘On the Soul’ (”The field of each sense is… determined as the range between a single pair of contraries, white and black for sight, acute and grave for hearing, bitter and sweet for taste…”), or like two extremes on a set of controls for a television, mixing desk or thermostat. Questioning in this manner presupposes that internal experience can be described. A practitioner might ask, “Are the feelings hot or cold? Pleasurable or painful? Soft or sharp? Hard or soft? Solid or fluid? Empty or full? Moving or still?” Each answer is referred to as a ‘submodality distinction,’ the main exception being questions about where the feelings are located in the body, which are usually best answered by pointing. Building a map of a person’s internal experience bypasses dismissive emotional language and helps a person pay attention to the specifics of what is actually happening inside them. For many it will be the first time they have paid attention to themselves in such a manner. As a practitioner operates they will discuss changes in the qualities of their client’s internal state, with the elicited representation offering useful clues as to the success of the interventions or forming the basis for the interventions themselves.
There is a peculiar taboo against investigating how our personality manifests in our bodies. Psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich (and his less controversial student, Alexander Lowen) examined the long-term effects of thwarted expression on the body, including how speaking – or not speaking – changes the shape of our bodies over time. People develop a well-rehearsed silence, even on important issues, when they are afraid of being ignored, judged, or provoking anger or ridicule. After years of biting their tongue and pursing their lips a person’s mouth may lose its flexibility and become hardened through the constant tension of keeping themselves in check. Decades of choking back the desire to sob can cause a rigidity of the neck and a hardening of the chest, as the intercostal muscles are held tightly against unwanted feelings. Voices can lose their expression and become monotonous, as though all feeling had withdrawn. Reich and Lowen called this character armour, their term for habitual muscular tensions that restrain self-expression. The more people speak honestly and express themselves freely, the more the tension in their chests, throats and lips subsides and relaxes. The notion of character armour is no more esoteric than the manner in which a body builder develops their musculature; indeed many people who exercise or engage in physical activities such as dance or martial arts notice a change in their personalities as a result, and it is common for masseurs to experience unexpected emotional reactions in their clients as a result of their work.
Listen to the voices of people you meet. Do they sound healthy, strong and sonorous, drawn from deep within? Do they sound as though they are constantly questioning themselves with every sentence? Do they mumble or speak so softly that you wonder whether they even intend for their voice to be heard? Is their voice glassy and detached, as though it’s floating free and without anchor? Are they biting back their words with every sentence as though they’ve caught themselves before revealing too much? Do they sound as though they are performing or repeating a script? While it would be misguided and unfair to use such information to draw any definitive conclusions, details such as these can be illuminating when put into an overall holistic context.
Physical problems are often best resolved using physical levers. Movement, often of any kind, can bring the quickest release. When we speak freely and it mobilises our torsos; moves the diaphragm at the base of our ribs; our intercostal, pectoral and abdominal muscles expand and contract in ways that move our internal organs and circulation; our throats, tongues and lips become flexible and expressive; and we change our body chemistry through breathing, energising ourselves in order to facilitate the expression. The more involved a person in what they’re saying, the more their entire physiology becomes mobilised. A person’s eyes might become fixed, lively or seem to shine from within; they might gesticulate with their arms or even stamp their feet and move around. These movements have an inevitable and immediate effect on our experience of our internal feelings. While it would be wrong to go as far as calling this our ‘true’ self expression – our reservations and inhibitions are as much a ‘true’ expression as anything unfettered – a persons life would be immeasurably impoverished if they never once involved the whole of themselves in the expressive act. However, the manner in which we are socialised to maintain respectful control of ourselves when we communicate makes it much harder to achieve any kind of release through conventional language; and in order to translate our feelings into communicable language we first have to understand them.
Sometimes it feels as though you contain a thousand conflicting voices clamouring to be heard. One particular feeling can be so overwhelming that its magnitude is too vast to fit into conventional language, and to say anything would be to do it an injustice. You might feel jammed when you try to speak, as though a hundred people were trying to leave at the same time through the same small set of doors, only to get wedged together and stuck in the doorway. The more traumatic our experience, the harder it is to maintain self-control and find the right words. Glossolalia offers a means of release in these situations, provided a person can find an appropriate context in which they can unleash their psychobabel. The minister Nicky Gumbel spoke in tongues as his first support mechanism when he was told that his mother had died; despite no longer being a Christian, I would probably do exactly the same thing. Practitioners of Neuro-Linguistic Programming or Reichian therapy/Bioenergetics will be familiar with methods of therapy that are ‘content-free‘, meaning that a therapist does not always need to know all the specific details of a client’s problem in the same manner as a psychoanalyst. Often practitioners find that the content of a client’s experience can actually be a distraction from the therapeutic process; their therapeutic narrativising can sometimes form a roadblock to any kind of change. A person’s experience can be so traumatic that operating in a content-free manner is significantly kinder than forcing them to put it into words in order to make it operable using the therapist’s preferred model. A good therapist changes their approach to fit the client just as much as they work to change the client to fit an agreed model of what they believe to be ‘health’ or ‘wellness.’
One way to think about glossolalia would be to consider the range of unconscious involuntary noises we make. Sighing, whimping, screaming, roaring, laughing, sobbing, moaning, crying out… these are the frequently unconscious yet purposeful behaviours that bring release to what is going on inside us. You could position glossolalia as an extension of that repertoire, a learnable skill that can be consciously accessed for an immediate cathartic result. Often all we need to do when we are at our most lost for words is to make a simple heartfelt sound, released from ourselves like sonar, to remind us of the shape of ourselves and of the world. When speaking in tongues there is no need to consciously consider any relationship between your words and what is physically expressed, and no need to understand why you feel the way you feel or what those feelings mean. Understanding is less important than the effect on your experience. In conventional language you must stand separate from your experience in order to describe it, whereas glossolalia is the experience.
Our need to understand everything can be little more than the desire to control the uncontrollable. It may be more honest to admit that it is the unknown that defines our existence. Analysis and critical thinking have their place, but to apply them in the same way to every experience can leave us chasing our tails, unable to transcend the logical traps we create for ourselves. The need to understand, to describe, to know everything can make us mere historians, becoming the experts of our own static histories and inert theories. Psychoanalysis often seems like driving away from a car crash in reverse; you get nowhere fast; you’re constantly facing the scene of your past disaster; and your limited visibility increases the likelihood of another collision. Analysis is a fine thing. But what would you rather analyse? A narrative that you are telling yourself (or worse: being told) about your past or a state of change that is already in operation? What would life be like if you spent less time analysing your problems than you did your solutions?
The greatest asset of glossolalia is the realisation that we do not always need to understand our pain in order to ease it, we do not always need to have everything figured out before we can feel a little better and we do not always need to scrutinise ourselves in order to change. Occasionally, the best way to heal our inexplicable selves is with an inexplicable cure, to deploy a fresh mystery in order to solve an old one. Acausal change – or effecting change in a manner by which it is impossible to prove the link between cause and effect – is the essence of magical thinking, and magic is as useful today as it ever was.
MAGICAL WARRIORS AT THE ASTRAL SOCIAL CLUB
The methodology for speaking in tongues remains consistent regardless of whether you’re a monotheist, polytheist, animist, atheist or agnostic. In all cases you’re handing control of your voice over to something other than your conscious mind; whether or not you believe yourself to be handing that control to an external force doesn’t make a lot of difference. Even if you’re handing control over to an unconscious part of yourself it’s worth treating that part as a separate entity in its own right. Subscribing to the conscious/unconscious model is already an acceptance of a bifurcated self-conception, so you may as well access the benefits (even something as simple as the linguistic formulation “my unconscious” is an ultra-compact dwarf star of assumptions of separation, hierarchy, ownership, control, dualism and a life lived beyond awareness). Experience has a plasticity that allows it to conform to the beliefs you prefer to use.
You can grant anything control of your voice and experience entirely different results, whether that’s the Holy Spirit, members of the Norse pantheon, complex or confused inner feelings, an ancestor, your genitals, a character from one of your dreams or your internal representation of the recycling bin at work (I’ll leave you to guess which ones I’ve tried). How rewarding you find the experience will depend on how you have cathected that to which you’ve granted utterance. I find it just as rewarding as an atheist as I did when I was a Christian or a dabbler in Shamanic methodology, and I’ve noticed no difference in the technique between those contexts. Some speakers may have internalized the process so much that they might not even describe it as process or technique, or may not realize that they have options concerning that to which they are offering control of their speech. The author Alan Moore once said, “The one place gods unarguably exist is in the human mind.” The common denominator that unites everything to which we might grant utterance is its existence inside us in representational form, regardless of how abstract, vague or indescribable that form might be. In that context, perhaps any perceived control options are actually not options at all.
Implicit in the act of choosing to lose conscious control of your voice is the impossibility of knowing what will happen, especially if you’ve never done anything like it before. When was the last time you spoke without an audience? Where were you? What happened? Choosing the right context is vital, whether you want privacy or a friend in case you need support. A space that’s free of noise and distractions can be helpful, as well as enough time to devote to it. That can be difficult to estimate; speaking in tongues can vary considerably from person to person, occasion to occasion. Although it’s commonplace for instances of glossolalia to last nothing longer than a few minutes or even seconds, at the height of the Toronto and Pensacola movements (specific periods in Charismatic church history in which there were lots of unusually visible and relatively uncontrolled phenomena associated with religious ecstasy) it was common for people to lose control of themselves for hours at a time. Shaking, laughing, crying, shouting, physiological contortions, dancing, whirling on the spot, an inability to remain standing, acting out birth pains… I’ve seen all of these things take hold of people on one occasion or another (and even faked by those who didn’t want to feel left out). Speaking in tongues is one inroad into ecstatic, incorporation and possession phenomena. Regardless of your beliefs regarding partnering with or being controlled by external forces, all human beings have the undeniable potential to lose control of themselves.
If you’re a performer, it’s worth asking yourself whether stages, galleries, streets or the upstairs room of a pub are good venues for glossolalia. Consider the kind of people who might be present: they might find it as unengaging and self indulgent as a dream journal recital, and you might find yourself uncontrollably sobbing in a room full of disinterested drunks having babbled nonsense for an hour and a half. We’ve all been there; most of us don’t want to trade on it. A musician who merely juxtaposes performance and magicoreligious or therapeutic contexts may well have an overreliance on exoticising phenomena that are totally normal elsewhere. When surrounded by socks’n’sandal sporting, tambourine-wielding god-botherers, speaking in tongues won’t make you anything more than another face in the crowd. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t explore glossolalia in performance contexts; more that you should ask yourself some searching questions about your motives and what you’re trying to accomplish. As the composer and scholar of musical esoteric practice Peter Michael Hamel writes in his book Through Music to the Self, “It is the responsibility of spiritual music to learn from all musical traditions, to track down long-forgotten sources and to bring back into the limelight the original function of music – its links with the deepest in human experience – without, in the process, falling into naïve eclecticism.”
Bristolian multi-intrumentalist and methodological scavenger Matt Williams (more recently Loveridge) could be seen as one exemplar of an approach that successfully integrates speaking in tongues into live performance. Exposed to a startling variety of musical strategies via annual childhood visits to Sidmouth Folk Week in its more cosmopolitan days, Williams, under his Team Brick moniker, integrated overtone singing, improvised hymns and glossolalic utterances into performances that combined noise, free improvisation and flexible structures that allowed for maximum maneuverability. Describing his approach, he disarmingly attributes it to “Singing too slowly and too melismatically to be understood, and being too nervous to remember any words.” Giving free reign to whatever form the results happened to take, he says that “The only conscious part of the process was the ‘GO button,’ apart from that, I would rarely have any idea where I was or what I was doing.” Williams’ use of glossolalia is too compulsive, too natural to be viewed as a conscious performance strategy, and by contextualising it as part of a larger repertoire of unfiltered/barely filtered expression he sidesteps any concerns of appropriation or exoticisation.
A final word on context: glossolalia’s effectiveness as a form of self-therapy shouldn’t be considered as a replacement for talking about your problems. There are too many self-help enthusiasts whose self-exploration only extends to the walls of their bedroom; one of my friends who mixes in occult circles uses the term ‘Doley Crowley’ to describe people who fantasise that they’re magical warriors on the astral plane but are unable to get a job or relate to the opposite sex. It’s impossible to know yourself without having relationships other people, and if you deny yourself that kind of contrastive analysis then you can lose touch with reality at a worrying rate.
WHAT KIND OF NOTHING?
Relinquishing conscious control can be a frightening notion. Most of us have been socialised to maintain constant self-control since infancy. According to Sigmund Freud, our ego exists as the semi-permeable barrier between the outside world and ourselves (to paraphrase the author Grant Morrison, it mediates between you and whatever you left on the outside when you designed the box called ‘you’). It can be cheerfully and helpfully insidious in the manner in which it seeks to protect you from losing control. One of the most common ways in which the ego operates is encouraging you to prejudge your experience: to you think your way through it. If you can account for everything that could possibly happen then you can erect a virtually impregnable defensive position. That’s why so many people spend so long punishing or criticising themselves; it hurts a lot less when you’re punishing yourself than it does when you’re blindsided by someone else. We put ourselves in the shoes of the observer, looking at ourselves from the outside, and imagine what that hypothetical person might think. That’s a large part of why so many of us find it so difficult to dance in public, and why so many of us have hang ups concerning sex. The inability to lose control can be debilitating in some contexts; glossolalia is one way in which you can practice.
If you find yourself unwilling or unable to lose control then it’s worth thanking yourself in whatever way feels natural, then asking yourself for permission to continue. Your ego is shielding you from what it perceives to be a threat. It’s only doing its job. It can be useful to presuppose that all behaviour has a positive intention, regardless of the truth of that presupposition in practice. Again, if you find it useful to believe that you have an id, ego and superego then you’re already subscribing to the notion of a divided self and you may as well access the benefits. I’d recommend approaching yourself with kindness and acceptance if you can, or at least good manners if you can’t. Greeting parts of yourself, asking for their permission, negotiating with them, thanking them; these are the seemingly absurd parts of self-help manuals that make all the difference when you actually start applying them. The alternative is to be at odds with yourself, which makes everything a lot harder.
If you’re using glossolalia to give utterance to your inner feelings then it can be useful to have as much of an awareness of those feelings as possible – otherwise how will you know that it’s worked? Some people will never have directed their attention inward in this manner. It’s very common to look inside yourself and find nothing, or at least nothing that can be easily put into words. It’s much less common – and much more productive – to ask yourself, “What kind of nothing am I experiencing?” It’s unlikely that you’ve fluked yourself into a state of pure nothingness; there are people who have been training in meditation for years without coming close to achieving that. Presupposing that a person’s individual flavour of ‘nothing’ can be described can yield interesting results: one person with whom I conducted NLP work once described their ‘nothing’ as “a yawning black chasm trapping all light and sound.” If it helps then use the Aristotelian questioning technique described above to elicit the details – or submodalities – of your internal representations. It may make it much easier to gain a kind of conceptual purchase on that to which you are about to give utterance.
Often the very act of observing your experience will change it in some useful manner. I knew one NLP practitioner who achieved results simply by asking, “Now that you have paid attention to what it looks like, how has the feeling changed?” Experience conforms to our expectations; asking questions that presuppose that a persons’ experience is changing or can be described will more often than not elicit those results. The more presuppositions you build into a question, the harder it is to reject the premise (and the harder it is to deliver without being incapacitatingly mealy-mouthed). Therapeutic questioning is just as much of an art as the kind of questioning used in political polling. However, in the context of overcoming objections even a rejected premise can give useful feedback and hint at a way forward.
TALKING IN CIRCLES, TALKING IN SPHERES
The more familiar glossolalia is to some contexts, the more useful it becomes. I opened this article with two examples in which speaking in tongues enabled me to encrypt my prayers. I used to speculate about how many people in my church were using it as a means of hiding their real feelings from the rest of the congregation in order to maintain an illusion of compliance. In my more mischievous moments I used to imagine my church as a farce resembling G.K. Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ or James Robertson’s ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’, with every supposed believer being an atheist or agnostic in disguise. If the benefits of practicing religion, magic or fringe psychology in a church, order, coven or therapy group outweighs the downsides then speaking in tongues can offer an essential means of letting off steam without throwing the group into turmoil every time you happen to harbour doubts.
Attentive readers will be forgiven for thinking that glossolalia-as-encryption is made complicated by the Charismata referred to as ‘the interpretation of tongues’ (also known as ermeneglossia). In practice that particular spiritual gift doesn’t offer anything approaching a literal translation (if such a thing were even possible) and is seldom encountered even in Charismatic congregations in which speaking in tongues is commonplace. My main experience of the interpretation of tongues was as a group exercise; the group co-ordinator would ask one of us to speak in tongues, after which they would point out others and ask them to interpret (often three or four interpreters for each utterance). The interpretations could vary wildly, even to the point of being diametrically opposed. This was seldom discouraging. By way of metaphor, glossolalic utterances are viewed by Charismatic Christians as a three-dimensional spirit language compared with the interpretations, which are seen as two-dimensional utterances in human language. Any three-dimensional shape can be reconstructed by stacking enough two-dimensional shapes (to paraphrase Grant Morrison once again: English speaks in circles, glossolalia in spheres). Even the disparate or outright contradictory can be reconciled in an interpretive discipline for which there’s no equivalent to the picture on the front of the jigsaw puzzle box.
While it’s easy for a skeptical, rationalist mind to laugh at an exercise that seems farcical, it’s worth noting that this is merely the same process that operates behind many divinatory frameworks. It’s neither unique to Charismatic Christianity nor without merit; anyone who has engaged in dream interpretation will have attempted something similar. The glossolalic interpreter believes they can reconstruct sense from the seemingly senseless; the dream interpreter believes they will find meaningful symbols in their sleeping thoughts. Both testify to the power of confirmation bias in making experience conform to expectation; both can achieve satisfying results. One just happens to be a lot more socially acceptable than the other. Even arguments about the relative quality of source material for drawing interpretations are suspect; a person engaging in ermeneglossia has access to information about volume, pitch, speed and duration or speech, the speaker’s perceived emotional state, physiology, breathing and sometimes even specific details about the speaker’s life. In that context the interpretation of tongues seems as robust and considered a divinatory framework as any.
What follows is a technique for speaking in tongues, culled from over twenty years of using it and experimenting with it in different contexts, be they religious, musical, magical or therapeutic, by myself or in a group (or any combination of the preceding). Despite that experience, it’s a good idea not to take everything I write as gospel. Disciplines such as Chaos Magic and Neuro-Linguistic Programming can be parasitic, reconfiguring and appropriating techniques from their original contexts in accordance with their criteria for what is important or should be included, with very little thought for what might be lost in translation. The following technique may appear to be a simple step by step process or recipe; in practice it may need considerable adaptation for individuals depending on their background or level of experience. Never trust a ritual, technique or recipe that claims to work for all people in all contexts (it’s worth bearing in mind the NLP presuppositions ‘The map is not the territory,’ ‘If what you’re doing isn’t working, do something different’ and ‘Choice is better than no choice’). I’ve tried to account for that as much as I can, giving avenues for further inquiry wherever possible. However, social context is irreplaceable. I first spoke in tongues in a supportive group environment, surrounded by people who were already fluent. If all you’ve ever done with your voice as an adult is communicate in a clear and controlled manner in consensually agreed terms then you might have a number of reservations about even attempting such an exercise, and it can be difficult to communicate in mere writing why it’s worth trying and how you might go about it. If there’s ever a context in which I can show you first hand then you’re welcome to ask.
Why do people get so ashamed of things? Cultural anthropologist Ruth Benedict defined shame in terms of the perceived violation of cultural or social values; in NLP methodology this would involve occupying Second Position, otherwise described as seeing, hearing and judging oneself from what one conceptualises as the position of another person or group of people. This explains why our sense of shame operates independently from actually receiving negative feedback from others; at various points in our lives (not confined to infancy) we internalise certain ‘lessons’ concerning how we should and shouldn’t behave and continue to apply them, sometimes in contexts in which they no longer belong. The critical, imagined ‘other’ stays present and tells us how to behave in contexts that can be very different from the one in which they originally spoke.
Our parents may have spent years telling us to be quiet. So might our employers, our church leaders, our partners, our families, our constabularies (add to or subtract from the list as appropriate)… but the older you get, the more you can shape the contexts in which you can have whichever experiences you want. While it would be a cliché to cite the wisdom of infants, running around naked, screaming and smashing things with sticks never stops being fun. I’m not suggesting that’s what your experience of speaking in tongues could or should be like, merely positioning glossolalia as existing somewhere along the Fully Clothed and Reserved/Naked and Screaming axis. If you’ve only ever spent time at one extreme it can be fun to visit the other from time to time, along with all the positions in between.
A final word on the subject of letting your self-consciousness rule too much of your life. When coaching relative newcomer Yukari Fukui for the singular demands of a particular role, veteran voice actor Noriko Hidaka’s most important instruction was to “Throw away any sense of shame.” The simplest advice is often the best.
No one’s watching. Do what you want.
Who cares if you look foolish? That can be fun, too.
Relax, and enjoy yourself.
The following technique should not be used if you have any doubts about your mental wellbeing. If you’re in therapy then I suggest showing this article to your therapist in its entirety and discussing it with them in detail before you try it yourself. They know you, I don’t. If they suggest to you that I should be the one in therapy then that’s a clear indication that they don’t recommend my particular take on glossolalia. Trust them, not me.
Find a context in which you’re comfortable, without distractions.
Set your intention. It could be something like, “I will allow myself to give up control of my voice” or “I will allow whatever happens when I hand over control of my voice.”
ESTABLISH A RELATIONSHIP
Pay attention to that to which you want to grant utterance, whether it’s complex, painful or confused inner feelings, a god or spirit of some kind, an ancestor, a family member or friend, a character from fiction or something else entirely.
Make it as real as possible. Notice what it feels like, what it sounds like, how it looks. If it’s something abstract (i.e. your internal state) then it can help to use the NLP submodaility elicitation self-questioning technique mentioned above. Don’t be afraid to add sensory details from other modalities it feels right; in NLP time line techniques it’s very common to spatialise a person’s conception of time (which has no sensory reference points) and add visual, audio and kinesthetic qualities to the representation, a practice that might seem strange until you remember that the various designs of diaries, year planners, clocks and graphs already do exactly that. Having access to a sensory representation can give you a user interface for relating to otherwise ephemeral or ineffable aspects of experience.
Trust your instincts. If you feel like doing something that seems a little bit mad to your rational, conscious mind then do it. Unaccountable compulsions are usually a sign that you’re on the right track. People use icons, symbols, mandalas, shrines, altars and churches as a means of directing their awareness and attention. You could assemble a collection of art, photographs, books, CDs, DVDs, ornaments, incense, or whatever feels right for mapping out the co-ordinates of what you’re conceptualising.
When you feel ready, greet this conception in whatever manner feels appropriate. Notice what happens. Some people will have a more complex relationship with whatever they’ve conceptualised than others. There isn’t enough space here to detail all the ways in which you can relate to yourself or whatever else you’ve chosen to grant utterance (that deserves an article in itself). Shamanic literature contains endless accounts of negotiations and bargaining with gods and spirits; if that seems too esoteric then the NLP techniques known as the Six Step Reframe and Negotiation Reframe may offer some useful ideas. It’s always good practice to remember your manners. Please, thank you and asking permission all go a long way.
Christians or those who speak in tongues in other magicoreligious contexts may not be consciously aware of this part of the process. That’s probably because it’s already built in to their religious experience. Don’t let me teach you how to suck eggs; if you already do some of these things then pay attention to the things that you may not know (and contact me on the Bang the Bore forum regarding things I may have missed).
The more you practise glossolalia, the more these first two steps become internalised. A Charismatic Christian who is used to speaking in tongues will happily babble away given the slightest opportunity, with no apparent preparation. Of course, they will have prepared; they will be able to access the required state at will because of the years they have spent praying. Closing your eyes, bowing your head, folding your hands, kneeling: these are all examples of what NLP calls physiological anchors (based, in part, on Ivan Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning) that can provide an instant shortcut to certain kinds of experience.
In whatever way feels natural (and remembering your manners), ask whatever it is that you have conceptualised to speak through you.
Relax. Trust what comes. Let it come in its own time.
When you feel ready, open your mouth and start to speak.
If you feel yourself trying to intellectualise what you’re doing then thank the intellectualising part of yourself and ask it if it minds doing something different for a while. Then refocus your attention on what you’re allowing to speak.
Do what feels natural. Closing your eyes, kneeling, lying prostrate, moving around, changing your breathing, leaving your mouth hanging open, slouching, stretching, gesticulating, dancing, massaging parts of yourself, masturbating: if it feels right, do it. Just be careful about the context in which you do it. “Seth Cooke told me it was OK” will not stand up in court. I don’t want to be liable if you expose yourself in public.
If you feel something, express it. Cry, even sob if you need to. You might find yourself laughing, or shaking, or unable to stand. That’s fine. Allow yourself to experience it, it won’t last forever. Something else will come after you allow yourself to express whatever needs expressing.
No one’s watching. Do what you want. Experiment.
Let it go on for as long as feels natural. If you feel as though you’ve run out of things to say then stop; don’t continue for longer than you need to, or you’ll run the risk of falsifying the experience.
Glossolalia can vary hugely from person to person: if you enter an ecstatic state then you’re already well beyond what any impoverished little manual can tell you. Ecstasy lasts as long as it lasts. Full blown possession phenomena are comparatively rare; it’s more likely that speaking in tongues will feel more akin to incorporation phenomena. A good example for this is surfing. A surfer can choose to come off the wave any time they like; most of the time, for the most rewarding experience, they’ll surf as far as the wave will take them. Incorporation feels like a voluntary partnership with something ‘other,’ a partnership that can be halted at any time by either party. Possession is the complete loss of control to that ‘other.’ I refer to them here as possession and incorporation phenomena because I don’t want to enforce a dogmatic position on whether or not gods or spirits are ‘real.’ Glossolalia’s usefulness isn’t effected either way. The ‘other’ may just be another part of ‘you’.
Neither incorporation nor possession are necessarily things to be afraid of. Popular culture can be revealingly diagnostic when it comes to our unconscious fears. The embellished and grotesque accounts in fantasy and science fiction, as well as the horror stories told by some Christians, are revealing in that they describe our pathological fear of losing control. They are much less accurate at describing what possession and incorporation are actually like.
When your glossolalic speech seems to have reached a conclusion then stop in whatever way feels natural to you. Some people like to say ‘amen’ or thank whatever it is that they’ve allowed to speak. That’s good practice; it’s good manners; it brings closure; and it gently reasserts the conscious control of the voice.
Re-entering the atmosphere can be different depending what you’ve just experienced. You might just need to shake yourself down a little bit and do some stretches, sit down or change your stance in some way. If you entered an ecstatic state and danced for three hours/days/years then you’ll probably want some water. Eating or going to the toilet are both excellent ways of grounding yourself. Brush your teeth, change your clothes, have a nap. The mundane, physical or banal work extremely well.
If you’ve been allowing a spirit or god to speak through you then you’ll probably have your own well-used technique or ritual for establishing and closing sacred spaces. If you don’t, it’s worth asking yourself why not.
Putting on some music can be a good way of changing the mood. You’ll probably know exactly which record to reach for. Chart pop can be a surprisingly good palette cleanser, whereas Acid Mothers Temple’s Absolute Freak Out: Zap Your Mind is likely to prolong the state (which is fine, if you’re using glossolalia as a starting point for another ritual).
How do you feel? Notice what’s different. If you built some kind of sensory conception before speaking, compare what it’s like now with what it was like then. Pay particular attention to the things that have changed. How have they changed?
Some people find that it helps to journal unusual experiences. If you feel as though you can interpret what you’ve just said then write it down. It doesn’t matter much whether or not you have an interpretation: understanding is less important than the effect on your experience.
I have no recommendations either way when it comes to recording yourself. Knowing that a recording device is capturing your nonsense for posterity can be a distraction; listening to what you sound like can reinforce self-conscious tendencies. It’s also important to realise that glossolalia isn’t really musical, despite the times I’ve heard it spontaneously arise in the context of church worship. Musical instruments and the human voice have ritual uses as well as musical uses despite the term ‘musical instrument’ being too narrowly prescriptive of one particular usage. The two contexts don’t always overlap; just because something other than your conscious mind can use your vocal chords, it doesn’t follow that you should award it a recording contract. I was once asked to sing in tongues at the end of a composition that was performed in a church, well after I stopped defining myself as Christian, to what was probably a predominantly secular audience. Reactions were mixed, and not necessarily in a way that suggested that my glossolalia had artistic value.
It can be useful to compare notes with people who have tried something similar, although those people are sometimes hard to find outside of a Christian context. You’re welcome to come to the Bang the Bore forum; whether or not you get answers quickly will depend on who’s around.
Article by Seth Cooke