Shamanism is a method or technique practiced by a "shaman", most often associated with the animistic religions, but distinct from them. " A first definition of this complex phenomenon and perhaps the least hazardess, will be: shamanism = technique of ecstasy." [Eliade] Shamanism usually coexist with various religions in different cultures all over the world, but it is not the religion. Shamanism is more properly classified as mysticism and therefore represents the mystical tradition of the particular religion. Shamanism existed during the Paleolithic era (50,000-30,000 B.C.) in North Asia and somewhere around 25,000 B.C. in Europe. These are merely the earliest documented occurrences and it may actually date back much further.
Shamans have a powerful influence on ideology, mythology and ritual, but the shamans were not its creator. In fact shamanic ecstasy is not always in agreement with religious ideology. Shamans are generally men, although in specific cultures such as Japan, they were mostly women. Shamans are unique in the community and stand out by the depth and intensity of their experience. The shaman not only directs the community's religious life but is also the guardian of its soul. The shaman alone is the great specialist in the human soul; he alone "sees" it, for he knows its "form" and its destiny. Therefore when the fate of the soul is not at issue, such as at death, illness (due to soul loss) or some great religious rite involving ecstatic experience, then the shaman is not absolutely essential. Much of religious life occurs without him." [Eliade}
The main distinguishing characteristic of a shaman used by Mircea Eliade and anthropologists who study this phenomenon worldwide is that he or she is someone who enters an altered state of consciousness (ecstasy) usually produced by a monotonous drumming or other percussion sound, in order to make journeys for various reasons into what are technically called the Lower and Upper worlds. These other worlds are considered alternate realities, and the shamans purpose for entering other realities is to interact with the spirits, often "seen" as power animals, in order to help other people.
The shaman is a magician, medicine man, pyschopomp, mystic and may even be a priest or poet. There are medicine men and women, priests and mystics who are not technically considered shamans unless they can journey to the Lower and Upper worlds.
As I mentioned, the shaman is also the psychopomp or "conductor of souls to the other world", but he goes even further than that and helps them to get situated in the afterlife, in circumstance that will be to their benefit.
There are also those who practice shamanism for destructive purposes but they don't last long because "sorcery is extremely self destructive and this is common folk knowledge all over the world." [Harner]
The shaman's costume itself establishes a sacred presence and represents a microcosm qualitatively different from the space around it. It has been endowed with various spiritual forces and spirits themselves. By merely putting it on, the shaman transcends profane space and prepares to enter the spiritual world. The shamanic costume is not present in all societies, but there is usually some article of clothing or object without which it would be impossible to shamanize. The masks worn by the shaman fulfill the same role as the costume, "manifestly announcing the incarnation of a mythical personage (ancestor, animal, god)." [Eliade]
The shaman's purpose is to help others. The are not concerned with self-realization for its own sake, although they realize that in helping others by acquiring spirit helpers and seeking knowledge, they also receive help themselves. Although the shaman was originally sought for such problems as location of sources of food for the tribe, their most common function was in healing.
In the shamanic cultures "health is harmony with the worldview, an intuitive perception of the universe and all its inhabitants as being one fabric."[Achterberg] Illness is not caused by external elements as is believed in modern medicine but from a loss of personal power and disharmony, from being out of balance with the universe. Healing therefore results in establishing this harmony, restoring balance and not just isolating one part of the being which is diseased and trying to fix it. The modern reductionistic concept of health is counterproductive to establishing a sense of the whole integrative system.
"Shamanic healing is basically done in two ways. These involve either putting something which is lacking back into the person who is ill, or removing something that does not belong in the persons body." [Harner] The latter does not require a journey, it usually involves going into an alternate state to "see" the problem and the use of specific methods to remove the problem. The first case does involve a journey, retrieving a persons "vital soul" and putting it back into their body. This is often used in more severe cases such as being near death or suicidal. The journey is also used in more common cases in searching for lost power, usually perceived as a power animal and restoring this to the person. This helps energize and strengthen the person's resistance to illness, dispiritedness and generally help them lead a good life.
"The shamanic journey starts with an experience of going through a tunnel of some kind, usually with a light at the end, this is very similar to the description of the so-called near death experience. Bu the shaman goes all the way through the tunnel and explores the world to which it opens at the end, the world people feel themselves passing into at the time of death." [Harner]
Almost all the methods ever used to alter consciousness have been used in the shamanic rituals at one time or another. Most of these techniques include either hyperstimulation or hypostimulation of the various sensory systems. Some of these include the use of intensive temperature conditions, such as the sweat lodge. "There is a biochemical component to high body temperatures during fevers which reflects the natural reaction to toxins and is correlated to the immune system in action.." [Achterberg] The high temperatures of the sweat may induce this reaction. The sweat may also sterilize bacteria and viruses that can live at body temperature but are eliminated by the heat. The growth of tumors may also be eliminated by the heat when the body temperature rises. Heat directed at tumors has been used in the treatment of cancer in experimental medical centers in this country. "Results have shown that the heat is not only effective in killing cancer cells, but also makes the surviving cancer cells more vulnerable to radiation and chemotherapy." [Achterberg] Shamans have the ability to self generate internal heat, which is essential for shamanic healing.
Physical or sensory deprivation techniques such as fasting, sleep deprivation, abstaining from sex, dancing or chanting for hours or days are also used to alter consciousness and enter the (SSC). The shaman's seem willing to push their bodies to the limits, in order to awaken their minds.
Sacred plants with hallucinogenic properties are used for shamanic healing and journeys, but they are not considered necessary for shamanic work.
The most common method for entering the (SSC) is through the use of repeated, monotonous percussion sound, most often produced by drums or rattles. Chants and songs are also used but the drum is the most commonly used instrument. The steady, monotonous sound at a specific number of beats per second has the effect of producing a shift into the (SSC). The journey time can be controlled without any physical side effects, unlike with psychedelics. The drum seems to activate the brain on similar wavelengths of the EEG to those of altered states. The deerskin drum used shamanically by the Coast Salish Indians of Western Canada has been found to produce a frequency of 4 to 7 cycles per second and corresponds to the theta range EEG. Theta rhythms have been found to be associated with creativity, unusual problem solving, vivid imagery, and states of reverie. [Green and Green] " Strong, repetitive neuronal firing in the auditory pathways and ultimately in the cerebral cortex, such as would be experienced with the drums, could theoretically compete successfully for cognitive awareness. Other sensory stimuli from ordinary reality, including pain, could thus be gated or filtered out. This mind would then be free to expand into other realms." [Achterberg]
'Shamanic work is typically different from the so-called possession cults, such as those found in West Africa, Brazil, or the Carribean, because there the "gods" come and "ride" the dancer, who feels their power but does not remember afterwards what happened. In some parts of the world shamanisn overlaps with the possession cults, for instance in the Himalayas. But where you have true shamanisn generally you do not have this. Instead the shaman is the "master of spirits." The spirits work for the shaman, he or she possesses them rather than the reverse." [Harner] Therefore left brained faculties are not impaired at all.
The shaman usually views the universe itself as the ultimate reality. Most shamans believe that the universe is "just the way things are." In this universe everything is alive and interconnected, much like modern physics quantum theory. Since shamanism is only a method, not a dogmatic religion, individuals form their own conclusions about the universe based on their own experience. Each person has a spirit or vital soul which is in contact with that reality. The views on the nature of reality differ from one culture to another. The Jivaro of South America say that what we call alternate reality is the only reality and our ordinary state of consciousness is just an illusion or lie.
The shamans conceive the universe as having three regions or levels, the sky, earth and underworld, connected by a central axis. "This axis passes through an opening, a hole; it is through this hole that the gods descend to earth and the dead to the subterranean regions; it is through the same hole that the shaman in ecstasy can fly up or down in the course of his celestial or infernal journeys." [Eliade] This axis is symbolized as the cosmic mountain, pillar, tree, bridge etc. It represents the center of the universe, the place through which sacred time and space become manifest.
According to the "World Myth" found in many cultures, the earliest stage of human life was one of total harmony and wisdom. The planet was connected to the sky, which was always a place of light and the focus of human devotion, by the bridge, tree, mountain etc., thought to be the "axis mundi", the center of the world. "Humans could effortlessly communicate with the gods above."[Eliade] They could pass between heaven and earth without obstacle because there was no death yet. This easy communication was cut off by a "fall" from grace similar to that in the Christian bible. Since this "fall", the only way to cross the bridge is in "spirit", ie. as dead or in ecstasy. This bridge is full of obstacles, demons and monsters, and the way is as narrow as a razors edge. The crossing is dangerous and only privileged persons succeed in passing over it in their lifetime. " In the myths, the passage emphatically testifies that he who succeeds in accomplishing it, has transcended the human condition; he is a shaman, a hero, or a spirit and indeed this passage can be accomplished by only one who is spirit. "[Eliade] The shaman in crossing by way of his ecstatic journey proves he is spirit, and attempts to restore the "communicability" that originally existed between this world and heaven. What the shaman succeeds in doing today through ecstasy, could be done at the dawn of all beings "in concreto" ie. without trance, in the physical body. 'The shaman reestablishes the primordial condition of all mankind."[Eliade]
The main methods of becoming a shaman are: hereditary transmission of the shamanic profession and spontaneous vocation (a calling). There are also cases of self appointed shamans but they are usually considered less powerful than the former types.
However the shaman is selected, he is not officially recognized by the community until after receiving two types of teachings: ecstatic experiences, and traditional techniques and information regarding spirits, mythology, clan mythology, secret language etc. "This two fold course of instruction given by the spirits and the old master shamans, is equivalent to an initiation. The ecstatic experiences that determine the future shaman's vocation, involve the traditional schema of an initiation ceremony: suffering , death and resurrection. The content of these first ecstatic experiences although comparatively rich, almost always contain one of the following themes: dismemberment of the body, followed by a renewal of the internal organs and viscera; ascent to the sky and dialogue with the gods or spirits; descent to the underworld and conversation with the spirits and the souls of the dead shamans; various revelations, religious and shamanic (secrets of the profession). All these themes are clearly initiatory." [Eliade]
The ecstatic type of shamanic initiation manifests in many ways. The aspirant may become meditative, seek solitude, sleep a great deal, appear absent minded and have prophetic dreams or sometimes seizures. All these indications are merely the antecedent of the new life that awaits the unsuspecting aspirant. His behavior indicates the beginning of a mystical vocation, which is the same in all religions. There are also "sicknesses" attacks, dreams, and hallucinations that determine the shamans career. Shamans sometimes fall ill and the sick man who succeeds in curing himself, by personal power and the aid of the spirits is recognized as passing an initiation, these are often called the "wounded healers". "Most shamanic traditions take the position that refusal to follow the spirits notification will result in sickness, insanity or even death." [Kripner]
In some shamanic cultures "magical power is concretized in an invisible substance that the masters transfer to the novices, sometimes from mouth to mouth."[Eliade] The master shamans or spirits may sometimes stuff the novices with invisible arrows, thorns or crystals. These objects materialize the shaman's power; the crystals used are often seen as solidified light.
Another common form of shamanic initiation involves the disciples acquisition of the experience of "lightening" or "enlightenment", which gives the disciple an inner or spiritual sight, previously unknown. An excellent account of this is found among the Iglulik Inuit of the Hudson Bay area recorded by the arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen (1929)
"Inner Heat' plays an important part in the technique of shamans everywhere in the world; acquisition of "inner heat" is seen as a sign of mastery over fire and the transcending of physical laws. This is similar to the Yoga aspirant's ordeal of having to dry a certain number of dry sheets on his naked body or sit for long hours naked in the snow, thus giving proof of the physical heat that he is capable of producing in his own body.
The shaman's experiences of dismemberment by mythical beings and the reduction to the skeleton, marks the passing beyond the profane human condition, that is, a complete renewal or rebirth. I found it interesting that "this symbolism has remained alive even within Christian mysticism. Which once again shows that the ultimate attained by the earliest conscious awareness of archaic man, remains unalterable." [Eliade]
"Ritual death can be achieved by extreme fatigue, tortures, fasting, etc. Seeing a spirit either in dream or awake is a certain sign of having attained some sort of spiritual condition, that is, one has transcended the profane condition of humanity. The chief function of the dead in granting of the shamanic powers is less a matter of taking "possession" of the subject than of helping him to become a "deadman", in short, of helping him to become a spirit too." [Eliade]
Cross culturally, spirits are subjectively described as those transpersonal forces that we experience as moving in us or through us but are not entirely moved by us." [Noll] This means that the spirits have their own purposes and normally cannot be approached through our ordinary consciousness, but are experienced in altered states. " They seem to represent the forces of transformation that can either enhance growth or inflict illness or even death." [Noll] The shaman is the master of the altered state and the master of the spirits. "To possess the "strong eye" is to have the faculty of seeing the spirits, of the living and of the dead." [Noll]
"Spiritual guides and teachersare ancient human experiences that have endured the span of centuries and are the legacy of every society known to man." [Noll] These spirits contain the "collective repository of the wisdom of our species". The shaman draws upon the wisdom of these spirits and without their aid can do nothing.
The shaman's helping spirits are called familiars, guardians or helpers. These are spirits that the shaman has control over, they are not as powerful as the tutelary spirits and these are not as powerful as semi divine beings. The majority of familiars have animal forms but can also be phantoms, wood spirits , earth spirits etc. The tutelary spirit is usually the soul of a dead shaman and can be an animal or minor celestial spirit, it is in a way his alter ego. "This alter ego is one of the shaman's souls, the soul in animal form or more precisely, the life soul. Shamans challenge each other in animal form and if his alter ego is killed in the fight, the shaman very soon dies himself." [Eliade]
"The theory that shamans are neurotics, probably comes from the imperfect observational methods of the early anthropologists, who were usually content with using summary data. Noll (1983) showed that this "schizophrenia metaphor" of shamanism is unfounded. He says that the scholars were viewing the human experiences narrowly through what he called the "abnormal/normal" dichotomy, the either/or box into which every human experience had to fit. The shaman , however, exists in two worlds both of which are equally valid. The shaman's mastery comes from being able to move freely, with complete control form one world to the other. In fact the shamans have shown a more normal nervous constitution and can achieve a degree of concentration greater than most. They are able to sustain exhausting efforts during healing rites that sometimes last for days. They manifest amazing physical prowess and are able to self regulate many bodily functions. They master complex systems of knowledge through instruction and direct experience, and are able to apply this wisdom properly in the appropriate situations. The shaman is sometimes the guardian of the oral heroic literature. According to Kali Donner who has studied shamanism in Siberia "the poetic vocabulary of the Yakut shaman contains 12,000 words whereas the language of the ordinary tribesman contains only 4,000 words." During the shaman's calling there may be chaotic feelings, seizures and psychotic type experiences, but these experiences must be viewed from within the proper cultural framework in order to fully understand them. The shaman's psychotic type experience is a therapeutic one because it breaks down rigid ego structures, (often seen as death or world destruction), broadens them and reintegrates then as a more adaptive ego (often experienced as rebirth). In fact a lot of the shaman's training is in various techniques to guide the chaotic experiences into what Spiro calls a "culturally constituted pattern."
There is a resurgence of shamanism in society today. Jean Huston the religious historian, feels it is because shamanism is pre-political, the hierarchies are for levels of experience instead of for priests and bishops. Every level and dimension of reality is available through direct experience, for those who put in the effort and practice the methods for making the spiritual journey, without the mediation by priests or religious doctrine of the churches. The fragmentation, the lack of meaning and the dehumanizing conditions of #shamtoprn society has had deleterious effects on the health of the individuals and society. The ecstatic experience is the source of meaning and harmony needed to make man and nature, healthy and whole again. Rowena Pattee calls these people, "whose experiences of dying to the limited self and of the resultant ecstasy which lead to self empowerment and sacrifice for the benefit of his or her community, the neo-shamans'"
Many neo-shamans searching for personal transcendent experience, don't feel drawn to a particular organization, church or cult-like group. They differ from the traditional society in which the shamans were few in number and underwent rigorous training. Almost everyone in the neo-shamanic network of people tries to attain a state of transcendence, communicate directly with spiritual teachers and power animals and try to help each other, the society and the world. Each individual forms their own belief system based on their personal eclectic experience. There is some basic ground in neo-shamanism such as: belief in more than one reality and the journey into one of the alternate realities to acquire help and direction from the spirits and other entities that dwell there. They also believe that action in an alternate reality can affect ordinary reality. The neo-shamans share many beliefs with those who follow the yogic traditions from the East.
Frank Lawlis is the co-director of four pain clinics in Texas and has adopted the shamanic concepts of spiritual transformation. By spiritual transformation they mean a change in how one sees the world, and their own role and relationship within it. The nature of pain itself demands a change in perspective. Rather than using the Cartesian/ Newtonian mechanical model within which the therapist is seen as a person who fixes the human body to its previous level of understanding, the clinic's team strives for the person to be better than before. Transformation is produced through the incorporation of a variety of shamanic techniques into an integrated, holistic medical program. The techniques used are imagery, drumming, touch, isolation, music and chanting.
" The use of imagery is probably the oldest method of transformation in recorded history, discovered and employed by ancient shamans millenia ago." [Achterberg] Imagery is utilized by the power of the imagination to expand the boundaries by which we limit ourselves. This has been effective in controlling physiology but also in contacting transpersonal planes of reality and deeper levels of wisdom and understanding about the origins of the pain.
Shamanic drumming has also proved effective. "From a physiological standpoint we know that constant audio or visual stimuli at certain frequencies will drive brainwave functions toward a harmonic." [Neher] Shamanic drumming opens people to new levels of perception and relaxation. Experiments have been performed at the clinic measuring relaxation response on biofeedback equipment, of patients listening to a shamanic drumming cassette. The regular beat of shamanic drumming has proved effective for most of their clients, in "facilitating greater peripheral vascular flow, as measured by the temperature probe, and reduced muscular tension, as measured by the EMG." [Lawlis] The drumming tape has also been used for the control of headaches and the reduction of blood pressure.
'The most important finding concerning drumming is its facilitation of imagery and the resolution of depression." [Lawlis] Depression and a type of dwelling on one's problems is a major issue with pain patients. Regular verbal counseling tends to focus on the patient's issues and makes the problems worse. Listening to the drumbeat for extended periods of time seems to help these patients move beyond their repetitious and cyclic thought patterns.
They use some touch therapy to facilitate the flow of energy throughout the body. Shamans have known for centuries that the body has various currents of energy and that emotional and physical events can disrupt these flows. It is the constant disruption of these energies that is the cause of disease.
Isolation has been a common practice in many cultures, as evidenced in the use of sweat lodges, or going off into the wilderness on a "vision quest" for power and understanding. The modern facility for isolation is the sensory deprivation chamber, called the floatation tank. While in the tank one's usual sensory framework is suspended allowing for new ways of perceiving old patterns of relationship with one's pain and also with oneself. One of the preferred methods for working with depressive and schizophrenic patients is the isolation chamber, perhaps for different reasons. The depressive is allowed to work with conflicts in a new reality without verbalization and rationalization, and the schizophrenic finds relief in the decrease in sensory stimuli and a safe place for relaxation. The fears of darkness or closed spaces in some patients are of course respected and they choose other methods, but no one has yet reported a bad experience.
Group chanting has been the most effective in alleviating depression. There are a number of reasons why this is so beneficial. Chanting helps a person to breathe, in more appropriate cycles, thereby increasing oxygen content throughout the body. It is a form of exercise which, possibly because of neurotransmitter changes, has been shown to be a powerful cause of relief from depression. Also, the group chanting helps to facilitate a powerful feeling of group energy and oneness in which the patients are able to recognize within themselves feelings of peace and transcendence, that will often elicit a spontaneous expression of emotion and confession of love.
Lawlis believes as do some transpersonal psychologists that the use of drugs inhibits transformation. Medication confuses the patient about their pain and hinders the ability for spiritual perception. Thus there is no energy for transformation.
"Pain, either physical or psychological, is not a word that means the same from person to person. It is an experience. Words may help clarify the experience but treatment itself has to be on a nonverbal level. We have learned from our teachers the shamans and found the wisdom of silence and listening." [Lawlis]
Another use of shamanic techniques today has been in the area of counseling. Michael Harner an anthropologist and shaman, has developed the "Harner Method of Shamanic Counseling". The methods he uses are experiential, based on the journey technique of classical shamanism. "The Harner Method" is a system for permitting the clients to make their own shamanic journeys of divination to non-ordinary reality, where they personally obtain direct spiritual wisdom and guidance in answer to the questions most important in their lives." [Harner]
Although based on classical shamanism, there are specific modifications which distinguish the Harner Method form the traditional systems. One of these changes has been to allow the clients to become their own shaman, to make their own journeys, instead of the traditional way, of the shaman journeying on the behalf of the patient. This is intended to restore spiritual power and authority to the client without an intermediary, thus becoming a method for personal empowerment. "The whole idea is to return to people what was once taken away form them, when state religions began perpetuating monopolies on access to spiritual knowledge," [Harner]
Another innovation is the use of the tape recording of shamanic drumming, which can be listened to with headphones, and thus allowing people to journey without upsetting their neighbors, especially in the crowded urban areas. This also permits the shamanic counselor to record the client's verbal description of the journey while it is occurring, to be used later for reviewing questions that may have arisen.
The counselor's role is to describe the conceptual framework upon which the work will occur, and to help the client to clearly form the question, relating to the most pressing problem in the client's life at that time. The counselor is merely a facilitator, who helps the client get in touch with their own inner sources of guidance in non-ordinary reality. The counselors make it very clear that they are not psychologists, psychotherapists, or healers dealing with psychopathology. They don't even give advice about the clients problem. This is important because the shamanic system does not deal with personal problems based on the conceptual framework used by Western Psychotherapy, it uses it's own well established and effective system, which is still very applicable today. The advice or answers are given in the journey. "Resolutions of neurotic complexes" do occur, but that is not the terminology used by the counselors. Answers to the questions come through a wide variety of classical shamanic type experiences: symbolic representation of the problem by power animals, conversations with spirit guides, out-of-body experiences, etc. "The visionary material that emerges is typically of a mystical or transpersonal naturebecause of the powerful nature of these techniques, psychologists and psychotherapists who have studied this system, have expressed the view that shamanic counseling has the potential for significantly accelerating the process of personal growth, in many cases requiring far less time
Harner says, 'Shamanism is a fully autonomous system that works on its own; it is not necessary to help it. It has been time tested by humankind longer than any other mental/spiritual system and should be honored as such."
"Shamanism was almost eliminated in the West, due to the power of the Church, such as through the Inquisition, when many shamans were killed as "witches" or "wizards" etc. One reason it was eliminated, is that it weakens the authority of the state church. In shamanism everyone has the ability for direct spiritual revelation, from the highest source. There could be hundreds or thousands of prophets and this undermines the authority of a centralized state church based on the sanctioned right, of a select few in authority, who can interpret the words of a few prophets or holy books. "In Northern Scandinavia, the Lutheran missionaries still forbid the use of the drum among the Laplanders (perhaps because they know it works !)." [Harner 1988] Harner also believes that the growth of the city states and state religions was the reason for replacing drumming with a silent meditation in order to induce an altered state of consciousness. He feels that the use of the drum was the original meditation or meditative technique and yoga is an outgrowth of shamanism.
Now, at least in America and some other countries, the church states don't have such absolute power, and shamanism is once again legal and on the rise. There are a number of anthropologists, doctors, psychologists, neo-shamans etc. encouraging the existing traditional shamans to practice their techniques and teach their knowledge. They are not trying to revive an archaic culture, unsuitable to the modern world, but are simply trying to reestablish their "common human nature" and reconnect with their own hearts and souls.