Tuesday, March 31, 2009

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.

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