Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Mental Imagery, Transcendence, and Ritual as Cultural Survival by Rebecca Lockyer

‘Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism’ by Richard Noll

In the article ‘Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism’, Noll (1995) takes a broad, academic, and cross-cultural approach to mental imagery cultivation. He uses a cultural evolutionary standpoint to argue that mental imagery cultivation is a cultural phenomenon and a human universal ability which is used to ensure the survival of a culture.

Noll (1995:443-444) argues that all societies and cultures throughout time have, and still do, practice vision and mental imagery cultivation. These experiences are ascribed different, yet important, cultural, social, and religious roles and meaning. These ascribed meanings are used by societies and individuals to interpret their different realities. This whole process mimics the organizational processes of the human memory; allowing cultural memory to be continuously enacted in the present and thus ensuring the survival of a culture (Noll 1995:443-444, 449-450).

Noll (1995) makes reference to many different mental imagery cultivation practices from different cultures and time periods; however, he particularly focuses on shamanism as he believes it can provide the best documented examples of mental imagery cultivation (Noll 1995:445). According to Noll (1995) shamans do not alter their state of consciousness in order to reach ‘trances’, instead they simply enhance the visual and mental imagery of the ‘vision’ they are experiencing. This is done by diminishing particular sensory perceptions in order to enhance the vividness of the mental imagery and by controlling and manipulating that image. Through this ‘two-phase process’ shamans experience controlled visions were they enter different worlds or levels and establish contact with and manipulate forces or agencies (Noll 1995:446-449). This ability of the shaman is heavily depended upon by individuals and the wider society so that they may better understand their own social, physical, emotional, religious, and psychological realities (Noll 1995:450).

Noll (1995) draws from an extensive range of academic disciplines and includes historical, anthropological, scientific, experimental, soviet, and psychological literature. However, he is critical of the literature he uses and openly identifies to the reader the theoretical and practical flaws of previous works.

Through his extensive research and understanding, Noll (1995) has successfully explained the cultural phenomenon that he sees is mental imagery cultivation. He has effectively used the mental imagery cultivation of shamanism to portray to the reader its universal, mental, and societal importance to the survival of a culture.

‘Education for Transcendence’ by R. Katz in Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbours’ by B. Lee and I. DeVore

Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbours is a collaboration of ethnographic works which is aimed to holistically understand the way of life of the !Kung San of Southern Africa. However, only chapter twelve, ‘Education for Transcendence’ by R. Katz, will be critically reviewed for this reflection.

Katz (1976:282) observed that the !Kung San regularly experience heightened states of consciousness which he termed ‘transcendence’. Katz (1976) introduces and critiques many different definitions of ‘transcendence’ from a wide range of literature; however fails to formulate his own definition. This is due to his focus on the experience of ‘transcendence’ and not on a conceptual theory of that experience. As a result, he uses his ethnographic work with the !Kung San to argue that there is a human universal search for an ultimate level of being which is gained through the experience of ‘transcendence’.

Katz (1976) emphasizes two aspects which are extremely important to the !Kung San’s experience of ‘transcendence’ and to the !Kung San culture. These are the contextual framework and educational processes which surround their experience of ‘transcendence’. In collaboration, these aspects allow the !Kung San to express their religious experience, cosmological perspectives, aid in maintaining social cohesion and solidarity, and in the growth and transformation of individuals. This means that the experience of ‘transcendence’ is a means of participating in the !Kung San’s culture and thus ensuring its continuation and survival. In this respect, Katz (1976) is expressing the same cultural evolutionary theory of the survival of a culture as that of Noll (1995).

Although Katz’s (1976) ethnography of the beliefs and practices of ‘transcendence’ of the !Kung San fails to add to the body of academic theory surrounding the experience of ‘transcendence’, he does shed new light on the way that ‘transcendence’ can be viewed from within a culture.

‘Transformation’ in The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities, by T. F. Driver

The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities (Driver 1991) offers an extensive understanding of the nature and transformative power of rituals. Driver (1991) argues that rituals provide three gifts to social life; the establishment of social order, the deepening of communal life, and societal assistance through dynamic social change. It is the latter gift which chapter nine of his book focuses on and which will be the center of this critique.

Driver (1991:166-176) clearly defines his implied meaning when he uses the terms ritual, transformation, magic, and religion; and explains how these four categories are intertwined and enacted to help a society through dynamic social change. He believes that magic is an application of knowledge and that religion is a by-product of magic. The main goal of religion is to transform the human desire of the external world and this is enacted through rituals (Driver 1991:169, 172). These rituals, along with their magical nature, assist individuals and societies through dynamic social change as they have the power to transform subjectivities, ordinary life, and social and natural worlds (Driver 1991:172). In using the term ‘transformation’, Driver (1991:190) refers to a ‘culture-invariant transformation’, the effects of which he has coined ‘social magic’.

Driver (1991) uses academic literature and two case studies from Korea and South Africa to contextualize his argument. The case studies are used to explain the adaptive nature of rituals and their important role within the historical processes of a society. As such, rituals not only fabricate a social world but bring history into the here and now of individuals and societies. This part of his argument can be viewed along side of that of Noll (1995) and of Katz (1976) as he argues that rituals ensure the practice and continuation of a culture and its history. As a result, rituals not only provide assistance but can help ensure the survival of a culture in the face of dynamic social change (Driver 1991:189-191).

Driver (1991) has successfully linked the concepts of ritual, transformation, magic and religion to explain the true nature and transformative power of rituals. His argument is logically portrayed to show that the transformative power of rituals can aid a society in the face of dynamic social change.

Driver, T. F.
1991 The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Katz, R.
1976 Education for Transcendence. In B. Lee and I. DeVore (ed.) Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: studies of the !Kung San and their Neighbours, pp 281-301. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Noll, R.
1995 Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural Phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism. Current Anthropology 26(4):443-461.

MAC WHITE - Student No. 40653680

RELN.2110: Theoretical and Methodological Issues

According to Goulet & Young (1994, p.300), any rationalist interpretation of cross-cultural rituals, ceremonies and belief practices usually represent traditional pro-western beliefs, concepts and values. Anthropologists in the contemporary world are seeking to avoid historic ethnocentrism. Whilst the analysis of dreams remains in the psycho-analytical area, anthropologists have pursued explanations in how dreams and visions can inspire activities as therapy to enhance the social life of certain cultures. The core of this enquiry goes to the heart of a culture's way of life that can be interpreted more accurately by anthropologists who are prepared to participate in rituals to gain an understanding of their belief systems. Those who are prepared to experience mind-altering states, are more qualified about how the event affects them, and whether it is in unison with what their hosts describe. There may be spiritual values that contain the underlying motivations as to how a community and its culture lives and survives.

Goulet & Young (1994) present the paradox of how a participant anthropologist is to give an independent account of his/her experiences once embedded in the culture they are studying, which as an experience is highly subjective for all involved. This is the anthropologists' dilemma; how to be objective and how to present their accounts so that there is credibility for reasonable comprehension and understanding (pp.312-3). For this outcome it would seem critical, and in line with the authors' convictions, that anthropologists need to avoid ambiguity with their interpretations regarding spirit forms that arise independently and externally to those produced in visions induced by the experiences of rituals or dreams (pp.324-5). Whilst "shared experiences" of dreams and rituals in any culture allow for "hands on" participation, the nagging questions for scientific evidence will always arise to challenge the explanations of their spiritual claims. Perhaps any form of credible knowledge could be at least corroborated by the participation in "shared experiences" by many anthropologists who study in collaboration (p.329).

Townsend's (1997, p.430-1) account of Shamanism poses similar problems as does Goulet & Young's (1994) in choosing between studies that achieve objectivity and subjectivity when in fact it may well be a combination of both, depending on the cultural conditions that are present. As Shaman practices the spirit to material connection for the well-being of the community, resultant outcomes may well represent the reality of receiving material benefits even where this may have coincidentally arisen without Shamanism (Goulet & Young, 1994, p.327). It is feasible for Shamans to have expertise in weather forecasts (for hunting and harvests), herbal remedies (health), and an understanding of placebo effects. All of these factors would justify a community's foundation for beliefs. It is clear that Shamanism has limitations of access for participation or joining in any collective practices for altered states of consciousness, which remains the exclusive preserve of the practitioner, known as Shamistic States of Consciousness (Townsend, 1997, p.432).

This state is controlled by the Shaman as the acknowledged source of his powers alone, with all others in the ceremony acting as recipients. This event is known as a Shamanic seance (Townsend, 1997, pp.442,452). Underlying belief systems are no different to those in western societies and need to be understood in terms of how they specifically apply to each different community. Townsend (1997, p.459) highlights his experience and apprenticeship to Shamanism which relates to Goulet & Young's (1994) "experiental approach" which only tells us about the community through the eyes of Shaman. Individual apprenticeships cannot be shared with others, hence the mysticism surrounding Shamanism and which attracts negative responses from western societies, as outlined by Goulet & Young (1994, p.300). This bias is no different to that which mirrors similar fears and ignorance attached to mental illnesses within the developed world. Any knowledge that is derived from experiences and observations within cultures which explains individual or collective spiritual practices, needs to be assessed within the contexts that are compatible with that culture. Written interpretations need to be expressed with equality for comparative values both within and across all cultures.

THE MAGIC OF RITUAL. Our need for liberating rites that transform our lives and our communities.

Driver (1991), unlike Goulet & Young (1994), and Townsend (1997) attempts to avoid issues of subjectivity by focusing on rituals as agents for social change (p.166). He focuses on various interpretations of magical practices which are subtly segregated by their cultural association, yet these cross-cultural accounts are assimilated with those that are pro-western. To maintain clarity in this review, it is suffice to accept magic for what it is, which is just the skill of conjuring tricks as is used in commercial advertising (pp.167-8). A more dramatic presentation for television entertainment uses the example of a car being driven whilst the driver is blindfolded (lecture video).

More significantly, Driver (1991) explores the power of ritual which raises questions with consequences for those participating, and whose actions are influenced. He reports on a healing ritual in a Korean cultural setting whereby communal harmony is achieved as a by-product of this process, whether it achieves a cure or not (p.176). In describing this event, Driver (1991) goes into great detail about the behavioural traits and actions of the participants. His introduction of the term to "speak respectively of our own religion" (Christian) within the context of his observations, could influence a pro-western comparison in the interpretation. This aspect becomes more obvious in his second account from South Africa. Whilst he calls this a different example, he is still demonstrating the influence of ritual to transform actions of a community. The stark difference is that this time the process is Christian. The aim of the ritual is to counter anti-apartheid laws and, in this instance, contrasts as a nobler cause, above and beyond the demonstrated human frailties of the Korean community.

Both accounts are accurate reflections of transformations within their respective communities. The fault lies in the presentation of knowledge with built-in assumptions for cross-cultural negativity. This is what Goulet & Young (1994) and others wish to avoid within anthropological studies.

Driver, T.L., 1991, The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform our Lives and our Communities, New York, HarperSanFrancisco, Ch. 9, Transformation, 166-194.

Goulet, J-G. & Young, D.E., 1994, 'Theoretical and Methodological Issues', in Young, D.E. & Goulet, J-G, Eds, Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience, Peterborough, ON, Broadview Press, 298-335.

Townsend, J., 1997, 'Shamanism' in S. Glazier, Ed., Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook, Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, 429-469.

Reflection: Shamanic, Ecstatic and Transcendent experiences

Shamanism originated atleast four thousand years ago. It was initially a common practice in many of the indigenous communities around the world (Townsend, 1997). However, western societies today are again showing an interest in mystical ways and ancient traditions, and Shamanism is one of these. Trance states are obtained through various behaviors. The most common form in tribal cultures focused on breathing exercises and the use of drugs. Fasting, withdrawal, meditation, vision quests, drumming, exercise, ecstatic dance and music are all familiar practices (Townsend, 1997). The shaman was said to have undergone a "crisis period" most typically severe suffering or death. Shamans use altered states of consciousness in training, healing and divination, hunting, gathering (Winkelman, 1997).

Winkelman (1997) states, that a shaman’s biological features alter when entering into an altered state. The hippocampal-septal region in the brain allows researchers to focus on the brain activity when an altered state of consciousness begins. The limbic system is the central processor of the brain controlling emotion and memory.

There appeared to be resistance in the Western European cultures in regard to Shamanistic practices. People educated in the West think that these practices are used by cultures less enlightened then them (Driver, 1991). According to Winkelman (1997) psychology and culture have tended to consider shamanic and mystical experiences to be pathological or infantile. There are two realities, the material and the alternate or spiritual reality. We live in the material reality. Entering into an Altered State of Consciousness can lead into the alternate reality (Townsend, 1997). Modern society dismisses what cannot be seen and exists around the Ordinary Waking State (OWS) (Winkelman, 1997).

What cannot be directly experienced is unfortunately either viewed as not being worthy of their time, or more commonly as make believe or wishful-thinking. According to Bevir (1994), an increasing number of westerners throughout the twentieth century turned to India for spiritual fulfillment. However, this was based on romanticized concepts and views.

Today, the practice and importance of shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent states is no longer restricted to traditional indigenous groups. In today's western and urban society, people are gaining a greater understanding of how spiritual practice can enhance quality of life in this demanding and fast-paced world. The elderly, the middle aged and even the young are looking for a "way out," a temporary escape from their day to day lives, a time and space where their mind is free of thoughts.

Western society has developed into a materialistic society which is based on money, possessions and power. Day to day lives are based around competition in the working environment, with often shallow personal relations and the headlong pursuit of wealth. With these habitual worries, modern western society is yearning for a spiritual dimension to life. Previous research has shown that there is a relationship between Altered States of Consciousness and healing and divination. These practices help with relaxation, reducing tension, anxiety, phobic reactions and overall improve a persons well being (Winkelmen, 1997). Westerners are most probably drawn to these practices as they are different from the norm.

Gradually a small number of medical practices are offering or including meditation, relaxation and healing options as part of their approach to an overall holistic dimension to healthcare. These options are being appreciated for their therapeutic, calming and healing properties. There is growing information on these techniques as many academics, psychologists and anthropologists have had life altering experiences and have thus chosen to continue research and study them in greater detail and more objectively (Goulet &Young, 1994).

Personally, I have found that practices such as meditation, deep breathing and listening to music are extremely relaxing. They allow me to free myself of unwanted thoughts. I have not experienced extreme altered states of consciousness. However, meditation and breathing are the two main exercises which work for me. These practices are not easy to master and the benefits do not come instantly.

When I start these exercises I begin by sitting on the floor, cross legged. I feel that this posture allows me to feel the breath entering and exiting my body. I close my eyes so I have no distractions and focus purely on the breath. The sensation that every inch of your lungs is being filled with air and then being released is very cleansing. It allows me to eliminate my thoughts and enables me to experience a feeling of not being in my body. I cannot communicate and allow myself to let go as well as a shaman could do. However, focusing on my breathing does give me great relaxation. The heights I reach may be the equivalent of small hills only compared to the Himalayas of the shamans but they are my Everests and give me great comfort and peace.

by Niharika Kapadia


Bevir M, 1994, ‘West turns Eastward’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion,62,3, 747-767.
Driver, T.L. (1991). "The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities," HarperSanFransisco, 9: 166-194.
Goulet J-G. & DE Young, 1994, ‘Theoretical and Methodological Issues’, in DE Young & J-G, 293 – 335.
Townsend J, (1997) ‘Shamanism’, in S. Glazier, Ed, Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook. Westport, Conn, Greenwood Press, pp. 429-469.
Winkelman M, 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behavior’, in Glazier S, Ed. Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 393 - 428.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Wholeness - Chris Alford

It is strikingly clear that a growing disharmony exists between the Western world and the Earth. In a personal sense, the reality of this statement strikes a deep chord of truth, resonating with an increasingly fierce need to rediscover this lost harmony. As a Westerner, my journey is but an individual manifestation of a wider search for lost wholeness and harmony. I believe that transcendental experience is a vital link between the Earth and her wayward human offspring.

Hallucinogens can be the awakening of a dormant realisation of truly being of the earth. They can enable one to realise that aspirations for developing intelligence, as the precursor to understanding life, are fundamentally limited. I think that most people in Western society are brought up to feel that knowledge and technology are the only tools for the evolution the individual and human society. This is reinforced by systems of education which predominantly stress a scientific understanding of our relation with the natural world. Winkelman’s (1997) Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour provides that the use of LSD triggers the transcendence of established psychological functioning, resulting in peak experiences of interconnectedness unity and meaningfulness. This can manifest in realising, through an intuitive knowledge, that one is an organism growing within the bosom of the earth. Moments of lucidity driven by this realisation are contrasted by the deep bewilderment at the grossly fragmented understanding many people have of their existence .

My own experience has fuelled a need in me to continually evolve my experience of reality. I have thus been deeply drawn to particular kinds of experience which facilitate the advancement of perception, discrimination and intuition. I have found this primarily through my immersion in the spiritual system of Yoga. My practices, both physical (asana) and mental/metaphysical, (Laya Meditation) are awakening a greater sense of connectedness and clarity, my outlook being less influenced by a feeling of separation and wholly more a part of the music of earthly rhythm. At least a part of this experience has been qualified by clinical studies on meditation. Winkelman’s (1997) analysis shows that alongside various positive psychological benefits (ego regression, accessing unconscious material, greater understanding of psychological functioning) there is also a tendency for transcendent experiences, arising from meditation, to lead to long-term beneficial changes within the practitioner.

Transcendental experiences or ASC offer us access to subconscious material, giving us the ability to realise insights beyond normal cognition. (Grov n.d.) Thus, in the context of the current state of global ecological disharmony, transcendental insights can be a force for instigating a major shift in consciousness towards rediscovering a harmonious relationship with the Earth. Anthropologist Keith Basso is working towards this goal by trying to invest in the Western mind the intrinsic relationship of indigenous cultures and the land. Basso’s (1996) work with the Western Navaho; Stalking with stories: names, places, and moral narratives among the Western Apache explores the power of the land as a force for regulating the harmonious functioning of Navaho society and the preservation of their cultural identity. It was enlightening for me to realise the active role of specific places or landmarks in mitigating the collective moral judgement of the Navaho. A place such as 'big cottonwood trees stand spreading here and there', plays both the roles of a setting for a story of moral significance and as a constant reminder to a person who has done wrong, of accepted social behaviour.

Dr Tom Pinkson is another Westerner deeply involved in developing a shift in Western thinking towards harmonious ecological living. His experiences related in The Flowers of Wiricuta: A journey to Shamanic Power with the Huichol Indians of Mexico have this key theme throughout; people seeking the knowledge of indigenous cultures in order to rectify their own disharmony can only truly do this with respect for the authority the indigenous worldview. (Pinkson 1995) Pinkson makes clear the nature of our participation as outsiders to indigenous cultures:
We should not seek to copy them (Indigenous peoples) and become something we’re not, but instead, endeavour to learn from them, and with them, in cooperative partnership with sensitivity, humility and respect. (Pinkson 1995)
Pinkson (1995) is involved in sharing and guiding people through Shamanic practices such as quests for vision in the mountains and the sweat lodge. He makes these experiences available to people because:
I see they are also hungry for deeper connection with Spirit. They too are lost and are looking for a way that speaks to their deeper being. I share with them what I know, what Spirit has taught me, and some are helped by this. I ask on my quests if this is what Spirit wants me to be doing. The answer so far always comes back yes. (Pinkson 1995)
He sees the role of the transcendent as an “exploration of consciousness that existed on this land (North America) before its violation” and goes further in saying that:
We can then use this consciousness to guide us in blending with appropriate technology and strategies of sustainable development. (Pinkson 1995)
What then is the most fundamental insight of transcendent experience for the Westerner? It is a call to acknowledge where our collective consciousness is going.(Grof n.d.) The work of Pinkson and countless others is moving Western people towards understanding how this insight can determine the harmonious future of humans and the Earth. I feel that experience of this transcendental insight has most definitely changed the way in which I respond to the macrocosmic environment. Thus the most important task in the West is to transcend the separation of human and environment and realise the truth of our interconnectedness. In the words of a Huichol Indian:
They must learn that when they hurt the Earth, they hurt themselves, and when they hurt themselves, they hurt the Earth. (Pinkson 1995)
Reference List
Basso, K.A. 1996. Stalking with stories: names, places, and moral narratives among the Western Apache. In The nature reader, eds. Dan Frank & Daniel Halpern, 84-105. Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press.
Grof, S. n.d. Holotropic Breathing, YouTube.
Pinkson, T.S. 1995. The Flowers of Wiricuta: A journey to Shamanic Power with the Huichol Indians of Mexico Mill Valley, CA: Wakan Press.
Winkelman, M. 1997. Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour. In Anthropology of religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory, ed. Stephen Blazier, 393-428. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review and Reflection Michele Walters

Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour
Michael Winkelman

This chapter by Winkelman (1997) looks at the phenomenon of altered states of consciousness (ASC) from a cross cultural, physiological and cognitive perspective and asks the question of its relationship to the origins of religious behaviour. From Winkelman’s investigations he concludes the evidence points to the fact that religion has been an institutionalised base for meeting a common human need to experience ASC and where modern legitimated religious organisations have failed other institutionalised forms of behaviour have been developed. He argues the ’bar scene’ and alcohol consumption,the prolific use of illegal drugs and the increase of people in Western culture participating in Eastern religious and meditative practices can be seen as an alternate to transcendence (Winkelman, 1997, p. 421).

To substantiate his claims Winkelman explores the worldwide distribution in hunter gather societies of the shaman, whose common characteristics and functions include that of the healer, diviner and mediator of his community through the use of ASC and interaction with spiritual entities. His investigation into the similarity of the shaman found cross culturally suggests that shamanism originates from sources associated with the psychological makeup of humans, while taking its specific form from adaptation to environmental conditions and the complexity of the society.

He identifies three major types of ASC traditions with the major difference being the manifestations of ASC, the first being the soul flight tradition of the shaman, the second the mediumistic or possession trance tradition and the third the yogic or meditative tradition. He believes these differences are based on social and physiological conditions and the intent of the actors involved. He concludes that in all three traditions the physiological response to ASC, whether drug or non drug induced, results in a similar brain response based on a common underlying neurobiochemical pathway (Mandell 1980, cited in Winkelman 1997). This is manifested in high-voltage slow wave electroencephalogram (EEG) activity commonly referred to as a transcendent, transpersonal or mystical state.

Winkelman’s (1986b, 1992) cross cultural studies do not indicate a decline in religious ASC which he argues would further indicate an innate drive within humans to seek ASC. Even though Winkelman establishes the anthropological perspective of classing ASC experiences as parts of other larger, socio-cultural and/or psychological systems he does not explore the experiential dimension of ASC fully which would assist the reader to better understand the complex role of the shaman. I would suggest that the concept of ASC cannot always be so easily classified or categorised as In the experience of Ronald Barnett (2008) an anthropologist who examines the mystery of perception following his participation at a fiesta at Teotihuacan, Mexico.

The West Turns Eastward: Madame Blavatsky and the Transformation of the Occult Tradition
Mark Bevir

Bevir (1994) examines the presence within Western culture of Eastern mysticism and its increasing popularity in the West for spiritual enlightenment. His argument focuses on the use in the West of alternative religious practices in order to make sense of the conflicting ideologies of Western scientific thought and religious context. Bevir demonstrates this through examining the nineteenth century occult doctrines of Madam Blavatsky and how she justified and interpreted the esoteric teachings of India in order to suggest they contained answers to the dilemmas confronting religious believers in the West. One such theory was Darwin’s theory of evolution which Blavatsky stated was incorporated in Indian religion.

Bevir emphasises the important influence Blavatsky had on the occult tradition and suggests her popularity was mainly a result of the crisis afflicting Christianity. I would argue that her reconciling of the Eastern teachings into a Western paradigm was also an answer to the lack of the Christian religions to fulfill what Winkelman (1994) describes as “the innate human need for altered states of consciousness (ASC)”.

Blavatsky combined her own monotheistic and mystical cosmology with the ancient wisdom teachings of Brahmanism which she believed revealed to those who were ‘pure’ an understanding of a spiritual type of magic. This magic was said to be a natural magic which did not contradict the laws of nature but was a type of science governing the laws of the visible and invisible world. The individual was able to understand divine wisdom by practicing an inner contemplation that led them to recognise their essential unity with the whole universe. In Gems from the East Blavatsky states “By perfection in study and meditation the Supreme Spirit becomes manifest; study is one eye to behold it, and meditation is the other.” For Blavatsky the Indian Yogi’s had developed their soul power and will force to communicate with the supernatural worlds. This is described by Winkelman (1994) as “a deliberate manifestation of a transpersonal state” and is part of the shamanic tradition.

Blavatsky’s argument was that India had a practical and spiritual knowledge that was lacking in the West and her teachings continue from the initial Theosophical Society established in 1875 to their presence today in over sixty countries. Bevir (1994) writes that Blavatsky’s style of reconciling different ideologies established a platform for New Age figures and groups to continue a superficial approach to religious beliefs without a full understanding of the alternate religion. I would argue that regardless of a full understanding of the alternate religion, the participation of such practices of ASC have often procured an alteration in the a priori assumption that certain phenomena cannot have existence. In the experience of Bill Brunton the exploration of ASC by Western culture is seen as a natural, even predictable development in democratic post-industrial societies (Brunton, 2003).

Ecology of Magic
David Abram

Abram argues that in many studies of shamanism the focus has mainly been on the shaman’s ability to achieve an altered state of consciousness (ASC) and his connection with spiritual entities and has often overlooked the ecological aspect of the shaman’s skill. He proposes this oversight is the Western researchers assumption that nonhuman nature is largely determinate and mechanical and that which is regarded as mysterious and powerful must be beyond the physical realm, in other words “supernatural”.

In this article Abram argues that the shaman’s main role is not as healer or diviner but is to act as intermediary between the community and the natural world, the intention of which is to maintain a harmony and balance. He believes that magic lies in the shaman’s ability to communicate and be aware of these ’natural intelligences’ rather than what is assumed to be “supernatural” powers. Abram believes it is only by achieving this balance that the shaman can act as healer for his community and states that the main cause of illness and disease is seen as being a disharmony between the human society and the natural world. He concludes it is not by sending consciousness outwards towards the heavens or inwards towards the psyche that the shaman acts as healer but by sending his consciousness laterally into nature that entry into other dimensions is possible.

He concludes that the malaise of the West lies in their disconnection with their natural environment and misunderstanding of the human place in nature. He makes special mention of the West’s use of the shamanic methods as a tool for self discovery and healing but notes at best this is a superficial understanding and far from the indigenous shaman’s curative methods and knowledge of the nature spirits and their relations with the human community. As Bevir (1994) highlights in Blavatsky’s appropriation of Indian esoteric knowledge, Abram confers that Western culture’s defining of other traditions in terms of their own preferences often leads to a superficial understanding and ignorance of the indigenous perception of ASC. I would confer with Bevir’s understanding of the shaman’s connection with the natural world but argue that this is but one construct and that it is seen as a gateway to many worlds and many spirit forms. This can be seen in the mythology of the world tree found in many cultures which is described as having three main parts or worlds with many layers. I would also argue that although the West’s approach to shamanism and its methods may involve a level of superficiality, often the benefits of such practice can be very profound and perception altering as described by anthropologist Edith Turner in her article The Reality of Spirits (Turner, 2008).


Abram, D. 1997, 'Ecology of Magic', in Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World, Vintage Books, New York, pp. 174-201.
Barnett, R.A. 2008, Shamanism and the Problem of Consciousness, MexConnect, viewed 29 March 2009, .
Bevir, M. 1994, 'West turns Eastward', Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 62, no. 3, pp. 747-67.
Blavatsky, H.P. 1890, Gems From The East
A Birthday Book of Precepts and Axioms, Theosophical University Press, London, viewed 28 March 2009,
Brunton, Bill 2003, ‘The Reawakening of Shamanism in the West’ Shamanism, vol.16, no. 2.
Endersby, Jim 2007, "Creative Designs?" Times Literary Supplement, March p. 3.
Gresham, H.K. 2007, ‘The Spirit World and the World Tree’,
Harner, M. 1999, 'Science, Spirits and Core Shamanism', Shamanism, vol. 12, no. 1, .
Turner, E. 1997, 'The Reality of Spirits', Shamanism, vol. 10, no. 1.
Winkelman, M 1997, 'Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour', in S Glazier (ed.), Anthropology of Religion, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, pp. 393-428.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Merlin at Work

A small Burmese cat called Merlin exploring the neighbourhood. Enjoy, Sylvie

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Trance, Shamanism, Body and Soul

This is the course blogsite for the University of Queensland's fabulous course. Here students present their ideas, thoughts, analyses of the compelling and exciting issues surrounding shamanism and shamanic practices, trance experiences, neurotheology, cultural and ecological issues involving shamanic and tribal cultures, rave and doof culture, sport, spirituality and the mystic athlete, and spirit possession. Enjoy the material you find and let me know if you require any additional information: sylvie.shaw@uq.edu.au