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
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
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,
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