Wednesday, April 8, 2009

West looking East

by Tayce McQuaid


Although for many years, the west has persecuted Shamans all over the world, it would seem that, in a twist of irony, those who have been persecuting are now desperately reaching out to those indigenous ‘magic-men’ from around the world. In such uncertain times, offering balance in an unstable environment is proving to be increasingly alluring to those who, not long ago were made uneasy by that which they didn’t understand. Could it be that the west is opening her eyes to new possibilities, or is she characteristically grabbing what she wants and destroying centuries old methods in her path? What are the implications of looking at the east through the eyes of the west? This review will look at three articles, with three examples of ‘east meets west’ scenarios in an attempt to make a judgement on this topic.


In this article, Rittner describes the time she spent with the Shipibo tribe of the Amazon. In total, staying with three tribes, she was able to work with ten shamans and participate in their healing rituals as well as interview them. She was interested in the use of ayahuesca in healing along with the use of Icaros (songs used to heal during ayahuesca ceremonies) (Rittner 2007).


The Shipibo tribe, like other South American tribes, use ayahuesca, a hallucinogenic plant to enter an Altered State of Consciousness, however unlike other tribes, the Shipibo embrace the strict idea that only the Shaman himself is to consume the ayahuesca. They believe this is important as the Shaman has control of this altered state of consciousness (la concentración) and can guide himself through the vision and, ultimately, heal the patient. Along with ayahuesca, the Shaman will use Icaros, often specially crafted for the individual, to clean the patient, and remove the dark mist known as the níhue (Rittner 2007).


While she was in Peru studying the Shipibo, she came to realise how few Shamans (known to the Shipibo as medicos or ayahuesqueros) were left among the Shipibo with the traditional training. Traditionally the Shipibo were a self-sustained people, surviving off plants – fruit and vegetables they had grown themselves along with fish and meat that they had hunted. But due to the population growth in Peru, these resources became unavailable close to cities, and the Shipibo became entirely dependent on money. The women’s beautiful patterned arts are sold and men are forced to work – one of the best-paid jobs available to them is as a Shaman, and therefore there are many self-appointed Shaman’s practising, especially due to tourist demand (Rittner).

Unlike the traditional Shipibo Shamans, these self-appointed Shamans, aiming to please the western tourists allow their ‘patients’ to experience ayahuesca first hand, often guiding forty people at a time (Rittner).


In this article, Winkelman discusses a recent interest in western medicine, involving shamanic drumming to treat patients, generally (but not exclusively) recovering drug-addicts with evidence from his own observations of these drumming circles, along with interviews with the directors of the programs (Winkelman 2003).


In each programme, the activities each have an emphasis on self expression, but differ slightly in presentation. While Mikenas uses simply the drums, introducing more complex rhythms along the way, Seaman adds chanting and singing activities with the drums, along with call and response activities to connect the group. Eshowsky however involves much more than just singing, with a combination of storytelling, journeying, and healing, dancing and spiritual divination, along with group ceremonies. He teaches others to journey by themself, as well as using shamanic journeying himself to find out information about the patients (their power animals, their spiritual intrusions), which can later be used in rituals with their family. Smith also uses a wide variety of activities in the treatment of his patients, including yoga, breath work, work with music, mask-making and addressing family-dynamics. He also practises soul retrieval, exorcisms and work with power animals, focusing on the idea of ‘re-birthing’ the person (Winkelman 2003).


While the activities of each of these sessions are varied, the effects are incredibly alike. After a drumming session, patients have achieved a sense of calm through an altered state of consciousness and have often achieved insight, allowing them to assess their problems and work through them. There is also an emphasis of feeling ‘at one with the earth’, spiritually awakened or changed (Winkelman 2003).

>> Hybrid Shamanic Therapeutic Rituals

In the article, Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism, Metzner writes about a modern phenomenon in the west, which he describes as, “Hybrid Shamanism” or “Neoshamanism” (Metzner 1998).

In such rituals, the basic elements of the drug-induced Shamanic ritual remain the same, such as the circle structure of the group, an alter and fire in the centre along with low light, music, drumming and an experienced leader or guide. Most of the participants are experienced in some form of shamanic meditation or journeying. The aim of the circles are varied however those with experience in the use of entheogens spend great amounts of time before a ceremony in order to make clear their intentions of the journey, which is followed by a sharing of intentions by those in the group. Following the ritual, often the next morning the group will share their experiences and the outcome of the trance the night before (Metzner 1998).

Metzner explains that many of the westerners who continue with these ceremonies, while not completely disregarding western science and medicine, come to accept the reality of nonmaterial spirits and beings, and the concept that we live in multiple worlds of consciousness (Metzner 1998).


These three articles each discuss a different example of how the west is incorporating eastern concepts into its day to day life. In Peru, westerners are influencing the young men in the Shipibo tribe to allow their unique traditions in order to survive physically. Back in the west, drumming circles are allowing patients who once had no hope for recovery onto that very path and in small groups all over the western world; people are practising their own hybrid versions of shamanic rituals in order to heal. It seems that while the west can certainly benefit from eastern healing traditions, care needs to be taken to make sure ancient traditions live on for the world to enjoy in the future.


Metzner, R 1998, ‘Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism’, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, viewed 26 March 2009,

Rittner, S 2007, ‘Sound – Trance – Healing – The Sound and Pattern Medicine of Shipibo in the Amazon Lowlands of Peru’ Music Therapy Today, VIII, viewed 26 March 2009,

Winkelman, W 2003, ‘Complementary Therapy for Addiction: “Drumming Out Drugs”’ Journal of Public Health,

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Reflection: Campbell Ray

The idea that we have not just the ability, but the right to take and pillage whatever spiritual goods we desire from groups that we have disempowered or outright destroyed, can be seen to be very much a part of spiritualities within western culture, however from personal experiences and understandings there are a vast amount of problems in such an approach, primarily from issues surrounding cultural appropriation.

Whilst "... admiration of a foreign culture or a foreign aesthetic system can connote broad-mindedness" (Root, p. 21) this is problematic as "...native people have come to stand for an abstract, stereotypical quality called spirituality, in which consumers imagine that they can know in advance what this spirituality would look like". (Root, p.92) This can be seen to be reflected in the consumerist way Western cultures in general may view spirituality, as an identity that can be adopted rather than an inherent part of any given community that cannot be bought, sold, or even given. The term shamanism itself is even awestern invention, imported from a very narrow group of tribal societies with little relation to the contemporary definition of the word (York, p. 81) and a large amount of debate exists as to if applying this term to spiritual healers of all types across many different cultures is acceptable or even desirable. (Winkelman, p. 394)

Therefore, it can be argued quite strongly that the adoption of shamanistic practice in a western context by individuals devoid of any cultural connection to such spiritualities inherently has little to do with shamanism. All such activity consists of, in essence, little more than draping oneself in the corpse of entire civilisations as an excuse to bang drums and get high, devoid of any actual connection to the philosophies and spiritualities that created and evolved these experiences in very specific contexts. Root (p. 31) supports this by stating that "…exotic images and cultural fragments do not drop from the sky but rather are selected and named as exotic within specific cultural contexts; certain fragments of a cultural aesthetic are selected and rendered exotic, whereas others are rejected".

Altered states of consciousness are extremely common across most societies, possibly even universal (Winkelman, p. 393), and this by no means excludes our own. Shamanistic practice in general can be seen to still be very common in our society, regardless of feelings of disconnection from mainstream spirituality. This can be evidenced in examples such as Evangelical Christians who frequently engage in altered states of consciousness during services as they are possessed by spirits and speak in tongues, more liberal Christians such as the Religious Society of Friends, more commonly known as Quakers, militant pacifists who engage in meditation as a central component of their worship. Such states can even apply to the activities of other modern groups who may act as shamans within their own specific context, entering into altered states of consciousness through other methods.

Shamanistic practice undertaken by many westerners can therefore be seen to be out of a belief that shamanistic practices are unavailable within their own culture. This in turn results in a wish to engage in cultures outside of their own in an attempt to feel more connected, without actually bothering to actively engage within the traditions, religions or symbology of the culture of their birth. This, in turn, results in many westerners trying to flee their own culture in order to engage with the cultural and spiritual traditions of others given that they, for whatever reason, seem to believe that these other cultures may be closer to nature, deeper, or hold all the answers. (Bevir, p. 748) This results in giving us "... an aestheticized taste for societies far removed from where we actually are can become a way of never having to put the assumptions of our own culture into question". (Root, p. 21)

In conclusion, whilst shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent experiences can be seen in many ways to be important things that are lacking within contemporary western society due to the prevailing materialist philosophies, they are by no means absent, and it is perhaps on many levels preferable to engage with one’s own culture than dabbing on some war paint and dancing around a fire, at the expense of disenfranchised and marginalised groups, in order to feel more connected to nature and the world in general.


Bevir M, 1994, West turns eastward, Journal of the American academy of religion, v.62 no.3

Root D, 1996, Cannibal Culture: Art, Appropriation and the Decommodification of Difference, New York, Westview Press, USA

Winkelman M, 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’ in Glazier S, Ed. Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press

York, M, 2005, Shamanism and Magic, in Berger A. (ed), Witchcraft and Magic: Contemporary North America, Pennsylvania University Press, USA

critical review - steve columbia darvall


In Richard Noll’s Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism, the cultural role of mental imagery within traditional, non-literate societies is discussed, with a specific focus on shamanistic practices. Noll argues that all humans experience some form of mental imagery, which is an inherent trait, and as with all human traits, can be adapted and developed.

He describes how mental imagery within a shamanistic framework is cultivated and developed by increasing the vividness and the control of visions. It is through the use of mental imagery that shamans can commune with the spirits, gain insights, heal and divine through altered states of consciousness and trance. These are all vital to the health of a society. He also suggests that mental imagery is used as a mnemonic strategy within non-literate societies to retain cultural mythology and practices. As with all things, there are many uses and meanings for mental imagery, not simply as a tool to enter altered state of consciousness.

Noll’s examples of shamanistic practices clearly show the pivotal role mental imagery has within a shaman’s training, social and individual worlds. By showing that aspects of shamanism seem to be universal on Earth, such as magical flight, altered states of consciousness and visionary travel, his argument that mental imagery is shared by all human beings holds up to scrutiny.

From a scientific viewpoint, Noll’s argument is effective and thorough but by no means complete, as he admits. With encouragement the article is finished with nods towards sources where mental imagery is found in societies other than those that are non-literate, such as parts of Western society.

On the other hand, as the article is coming from an anthropological viewpoint, its scientific approach leaves gaps. Understandably, it is not possible to fill in all gaps, but, the result is a dissection of shamanism and mental imagery into ‘tools’. This gives the impression of separateness. It is akin to saying that people use their heart to ‘achieve’, to move forward and to survive. The interconnectedness of shamanism within a culture, within it all, is lost, but then again, that is the result of definition and dissecting, tools themselves. This review would not be possible without them.

Noll R, 1995, ‘Mental Imagery Cultivation as a Cultural phenomenon: The Role of Visions in Shamanism’, Current Anthropology, 26, 4, 443-461.


Shamanism’ by Joan B. Townsend discusses that very topic. Townsend begins with a brief look at the history of the term shamanism and then continues with her own definition. This thorough definition incorporates ideas from various sources, but varies in its structure and detail. She classifies the criteria of shamanism into the essential and the related but they are all similar in that trance, altered states of consciousness and spirits are integral to the definition.

In discussing the origins of shamanism, Townsend looks at differing cultures, such as a tribal or agricultural economy and whether or not shamans exist as part of the culture due to the social, environmental and economic context. Particular universal characteristics of shamanistic practices are discussed and again, tend to focus on the use of trance and altered states of consciousness as a means to contact spirits and assist people within the society.

The definition of shamanism is the theme that carries through the entire article. These elements are used to discuss a shaman’s training, responsibilities, relationships, worldview, social role and individual role and their relation to each other.

This article accomplished exactly what it was intended to. Essentially it is a literature review focusing on shamanistic practices and roles and their relation to the world they inhabit. Townsend’s various conclusions are peppered throughout the piece and due to her own experience within the field studying shamanism, give it an angle that adds to the great amount of material that already exists.

Townsend points out the many gaps in the research that could be filled and why she feels they are indeed gaps. Often the case comes down to the perspective of the researcher in question. Essentially she is saying that objectivity and a more experiential approach is required.

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


The text, ‘Theoretical and Methodological Issues’ by Jean-Guy Goulet and David Young, focuses its attention on how, from an anthropological viewpoint, extra-ordinary experiences are studied in the field. The extra-ordinary experiences they discuss include dreams, rituals, visions and beliefs.
Four approaches of study are mentioned; the rational, psychoanalytic, content analysis and the experiential. Being the authors’ preference, the experiential is described in detail. Essentially, the experiential approach should involve one in the lives of the people they live with in the field in order to fully experience and understand another’s cultural perspective, or reality. The idea of multiple realities is broached to support the experiential approach, which is that humans move in and out of different realities of perception depending on their inner and outer surroundings.
The article does not define altered states of consciousness or trance states concisely but instead cites the experiences of anthropologists within these fields in order to show the effectiveness of an experiential approach. These examples develop the idea that experiences are interpreted differently depending on one’s cultural and social background.

The prevailing theme throughout is that of experience. The authors’ opinion is that in order to study something effectively, one cannot be removed from it, but must be immersed in the context within and without the experience. The argument is backed up by sources but seems to lack somewhat in reasons why the experiential approach is not effective. This may be a reason for the effectiveness of the argument. Philosophical viewpoints are not mentioned which is probably wise given the scope of a discussion of what an experience is.
Although a very analytical approach, within the discussion the authors do not separate ideas to a great extent. Understandably, in order to convey ideas, separation must occur, but after reading, a sense of openness in its discourse and its approach to the subject leaves the reader with that very sense of ‘experience’ the authors rally for. They bring you into the anthropological world of extra-ordinary experience and, perhaps with some encouraging nudging, we are then left to interpret the knowledge given as we see fit. The authors do not force their opinion down your throat, but acknowledge the very subjectivity of any type of study. We are all just perceptions perceiving others perceptions perceiving others perspectives and so on.

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

Friday, April 3, 2009

Reflection: Kristina Choo

From culture to culture there come vast amounts of different beliefs and rituals. The work of shamanism is evident in various societies around the world, but what is it that shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent experiences have that is of importance in today’s western urban society.

Hunting and gathering societies, where shamans are predominately found, seek to live in peace and harmony with the “more than human world” or “spirit world” that the community survives on. (Abram 1997 p 178) The work between the shaman and the spirit world is for the use of healing, divination, protection, and finding game animals to benefit the community. (Winkelman, p 394)

Shamans are used to mediate between the two worlds. To come into contact with the spirit world, he must induce himself into an altered state of consciousness (ASC) also known as ‘techniques of ecstasy’. Drugs such as hallucinogens, amphetamines, cocaine and marijuana are ways to induce oneself into an ASC, though not a ‘worldwide’ method. (Townsend, p442). Many nondrug procedures are practiced. These rituals involve drumming, chanting, dream states and meditation, extensive motor behaviour such as long distance running, sleep loss, hunger and thirst and sensory deprivation. (Winkelman, p397)

ASC also known as ecstasy or trance are often thought to be a frenzied state because it is a ‘nonordinary psychic state’ however Shamans have described the feeling of ASC as pleasant and weightless. (Townsend, p441, p442) Research has proven that there are therapeutic aspects of ASC such as relaxation of the body, reduced tension and anxiety problems that can mentally and psychically improve health.

Therapeutic aspects of hallucinogens are also evident in data collected in non-Western societies. Research shows LSD has the aptitude to relieve memory blocks and ‘provide a profound sense of interconnectedness, unity, and meaningfulness’ to psychotherapy patients (Winkelman p408). LSD in psychotherapy allowed alcoholic or depressed patients to feel freedom in themselves. ASC connects with part of the brain that is responsible for self preservation, sense of personal self, feeling of conviction, sense of authenticity.

Meditation has various benefits of an individual’s relief of stress. It is used to train ones attention to clear automatic human thought, step away from initial responses to reactions and block identification with everyday accounts. It allows the individual to observe from other perspectives relieving them of anxieties, creating a greater picture of understanding themselves and the reality around them and eliminating distorted identity. Mental processes and attention become controllable and are made aware to the practitioner. Meditation in some traditions focus is to gain transpersonal self, enlightenment. Individuals can achieve inner directedness and increased self-responsibility. (Winkelman)

There is large extent of scepticism towards ASC experiences from Western/indo-European cultures as their psychology regards shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent experiences to be ‘pathological or infantile’ (Winkelman). To the contrary, evidence indicates that transpersonal states of consciousness is a high level of brain activity used for energy, orienting, learning, memory and attention which can lead to objective perception of reality. The westernised society is filled with ambitions of power, need, greed, urgency and hatred which have lead many to feel empty, worthless shown in the vast amounts of depression cases. Shamanic experiences, which many westerners have already turned to, (as many psychotherapy turned to shamanic healing technique and self discovery workshops) therefore are an important to relieve the western urban society of the stress caused in so many of their daily lives.

As a practitioner of meditation, I can relate to Winkelman’s ideas of relaxation and self awareness. ASC at first also allows me to loose time and place and escape situations that are over thought and as a result increase self- awareness and awareness that allows you to re-evaluate situations in a more calm perspective.

Along side ASC, another important aspect of the shamanic experience is the reason for the rituals. As discussed earlier the shamanic practice is devised bring balance the two worlds. In David Abram’s ‘Ecology for Magic’ he openly writes about the western society as a non- reciprocal with actions causing extinction of animals, de-forestation, high number of non reasons for murder and suicides.

Reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve always been amazed by two important elements of fire and water. Around a fire I get caught dazing from minutes to hours into the orange, deadly flames. Anyone can see the powerfulness in a fire as they spit out the ash and burn the wood smouldering black. It is as hypnotic as sitting by the beach watching the waves break in, or relaxing on the back of a boat watching the engine churn the water into different layers or just watching a ripple expand in a pond.

One can see why these two elements are immensely symbolic is shaman practice. Not only can these elements put you into an ASC, they are part reason for shamanism. The use of shamans is partly for the community to reciprocate and respect the earth for allowing survival as being aware that the land is more powerful than themselves. Fire and water are so beautiful and a vital part of survival but can be so dangerous and can take life away in a flash. Shamanism is practised to give back to the land, and to ask for blessing in the future. Abram goes on to state that ‘our (westerner’s) attention is hypnotised by human technology that only reflect back on ourselves.’ This is where great importance of shamanic experiences can help contribute to the ways of thinking in western society. The reason for shamanism and the actual experience of ASC will allow western society to become more self-aware and aware of the world lived in.


“To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, to rob our minds of their coherence… Only in reciprocity with what is Other will we begin to heal ourselves.” (Abram 1997. p201)


Abram D, 1997, ‘Ecology of Magic’, Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More- than-human World, New York, Vintage Books, 1997, ch.1

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

Winkelman, Michael. "Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour", Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory. 1997. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 393 - 428.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Article Reviews: Tallulah Grey

The Ecology of Magic – David Abram

David Abram’s article The Ecology of Magic is a fascinating read. It seems to be more of a journey than an article. We follow David on his adventures through Indonesia, discovering along with him the wonders the world has to offer. The article begins with Abram “falling through space”. (Abram 174) His description of his vision is beautiful and surreal, but also grounded firmly in reality. He describes the universe that he experienced in both the logical manner of rice paddies and fireflies, but also as stars and weightlessness. When caught in a cave during monsoon rains, Abram entered a trance brought on by the thundering of the rain. He witnessed a group of spiders, each weaving their own single webs, but each becoming part of an overall pattern. “I had the distinct impression that I was watching the universe being born, galaxy upon galaxy.” (Abram 194)

Abram also writes about the shamans he studied with in Rural Asia, and the intriguing way they lived. These shamans worked as healers, but would also encourage rumours of their dark practices so they could ensure that “only those who were in real and profound need of their skills would dare approach them for help.” (Abram 177) The shamans would work as “[intermediaries] between the human community and the larger ecological field” (Abram 178), keeping the balance and working with spirits. Abram also speaks of the confusion using the word ‘spirit’ creates. In Western cultures, spirits are supernatural beings: ghosts or demons. But, as Abram discovered in Indonesia, these spirits could be a family of ants leaving a home alone in exchange for offerings of rice.

After returning to America, Abram was able to for a time continue on the sensory overload that he had been experiencing. But after being immersed once again in Western culture, he began to lose his ability to commune with the nature around him. He became more centred on the self rather than the surrounds.

“Magic, then, in its perhaps more primordial sense, is the experience of living in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every natural form one perceives – from the swallows swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass and indeed the blade of grass itself – is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.”
(Abram 183)

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

Mental imagery cultivation, by which Noll means “traditions devoted to the deliberate, repeated induction of enhanced mental imagery”, (Noll 444) can be both spontaneous and cultivated. Spontaneous visions brought on by bursts of passion are common throughout history and often given religious significance. Noll believes there is a very strong link between mental imagery and “magico-religious” traditions, but that “the importance of this link is often overlooked”. (Noll 445)

While Noll references visions from medieval Europe, the Vajrayana Buddhists and a medieval Islamic ritual practice, the majority of his article focuses on shamanism, which he refers to as “an ecstatic healing tradition”. (Noll 445) Shamans “[exist] in two worlds”, (Hultkrantz in Noll 446) and not only acknowledge both worlds as being valid, but do not confuse the two. Noll describes a twofold training process in mental imagery where the apprentice shaman focuses on the vividness of his visions, and then moves on to learn to control them. “‘Vividness’ and ‘controlledness’ are, furthermore, the two imagery parameters most commonly examined in the experimental literature of psychology.” (Noll 446)

The most effective method to increase vividness of mental imagery is, according to Noll, through altered states of consciousness. “The ability to experience altered states of consciousness is universal to the species… I contend that the shaman’s goal is enhance mental imagery and the induction of an altered state of consciousness is a means to that end”, (Noll 447) that end being the healing of the community. Noll goes on to say that the important part for shamans is “not that consciousness is altered but that mental imagery is enhanced.” (Noll 447) Controlling mental imagery aids the shaman in many things, some of which being dream recall and the mastering of spirits. These spirits are teachers, guides and give aid to the shamans. “The shaman is the man who knows and remembers.” (Eliade in Noll 450) Another feature of mental imagery is the cultural memory stored. Shamans are the stores of these memories, and are the ones who keep the community in balance and on the correct path.

Noll concludes by saying that mental imagery cultivation is “a construct that unifies an immense and disparate body of ethnographic and historical evidence… Mental imagery ability is part of the ‘generic human personality structure, shared by all human beings’”. (Noll, & Bourguignon in Noll 451) We all have the ability, it’s how we choose to use it that makes all the difference.

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

During the nineteenth century, occultism became popular in western culture. An obsession with Egypt and India became popular, and a fascination with exotic religious practices and rituals swept through the western world. There were many famous and interesting figures involved in the occult movement, but Bevir focuses in this article on Madame Blavatsky, a mysterious woman who lived a magnificently full and amazing life.

Madame Blavatsky married a General at seventeen, returned to her family three months later before disappearing for seventeen years. When she returned to Russia, she was well-versed in occultism. She began to write articles and teach her particular brand of occultism and magic.

Bevir goes into great detail about the Victorian crisis of faith and its causes. The war between science and religion was at its height, with new theories such as Darwin’s Evolution causing conflict. Madame Blavatsky showed herself to be aware of the implications of this war, and while agreed with the theory of evolution, would not accept other theories about the origins of life, believing in natural magic. “There is a visible, objective nature; an invisible, indwelling nature, the exact model of the other, and its vital principle; and above these two, spirit, source of all forces, alone and indestructible.” (Blavatsky in Bevir 754)

Blavatsky’s teachings focussed on India, particularly Brahmanism. “In India, magic has never died out”. (Blavatsky in Bevir 762) She believed Indians to still hold on to ancient wisdom and a moral code much simpler than that of Christians. “A man [who believes that] he has no scapegoat to carry the burdens of his iniquities for him [is more likely to behave morally than one who believes that] murder, theft and profligacy can be washed as white as snow” simply by confessing and being forgiven by a priest. (Blavatsky in Bevir 756) Blavatsky taught that Hinduism “encouraged people to turn inwards and find the divine within themselves.” (Bevir 764) There was less of a focus on a God, and more of a philosophy of the divine.

Blavatsky was one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, which Bevir does not focus heavily on. He does, however, refer to it as the “grandparent of the New Age movement” (Bevir 765) with many groups stemming from it still today. These groups “try to reconcile religious life with a modern world dominated by a scientific spirit”, and often adopt Blavatsky’s methods of bridging the gaps between religion and science.

Abram D, 1997, ‘Ecology of Magic’, Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More- than-human World, New York, Vintage Books, 1997, ch.1.

Noll R, 1995, ‘Mental Imagery Cultivation’, Current Anthropology, 26, 4, 443-461.

Bevir M, 1994, ‘West turns Eastward’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 62, 3, 747- 767.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Alex Stevenson Article Review

Bevir M, 1994, West turns Eastward, Journal of the American Academy of Religion,62,3, 747-767.

Bevir (1994), seems to see the adoption of Eastern mysticism and occultism into a conventional Christian Western culture as an inherent product of cultural and spiritual appropriation – one in which most cases lead to an amalgam of conventional liberal Christian ideology and the more appealing and spiritually enriching concepts of Indian religion lacking in Western belief with little regard for the intrinsic paradox this might create. Bevir, however, outlines a second option in the form of Madam Blavatsky who quite successfully attempted to fully understand Indian mysticism and its various occult practices and transport them into Victorian England, while at the same time, adopting the various dogmatic and cosmological approaches of Hinduism and Buddhism to engender a much more meaningful ideological shift towards the East. Blavatsky seems to have stood counter to her contemporaries’ conventional ideas of spirituality within Western culture, seeing her new notions of occultism and magic as not entirely separate to spiritualism, but rather a greater transcendent whole of which spiritualism, nature and even science were parts.

In this sense then, Blavatsky can be seen as an integral and necessary step in the integration of Eastern mysticism and occultism into the greater consciousness of Western society. She attempted to rationalize beliefs which were essentially culturally disconnected from the West with already burgeoning forms of pseudo-Christian and Eastern European ritualism to form an identifiably uniform ideal of spiritualistic religion. This in turn, according to Bevir, provided an existing framework for further development of Eastern mysticism within a conventional Western society in which elements of both Eastern and Western spiritual ideologies could be traded back and forth to provide a much fuller form of religious fulfillment, conveniently able to navigate around various scientific and sociological problems which could not be wholly addressed by either belief system.

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.

Winkelman (1997) essentially argues, much like Bevir, that mysticism provides an avenue for exploring fundamentally inaccessible forms of spiritual and emotional advancement for those of a conventionally Western Christian tradition. He argues that where conventional Western religious tradition has failed to provide paths to alternative views of being and altered states of mind, other forms ritual and spiritual worship have filled the gap, creating alternative possibilities for people to transcend cultural norms and engage with their own inner development via foreign methods of contemplation and mysticism.

Winkelman accepts that this approach is not wholly feasible to most members of Western society, and cites the steadily increasing use of alcohol and drugs as a means of people attempting to connect with their inner selves and gaining transcendent experience. This leads him to the conclusion that humanity is essentially reliant on specific forms of spiritual enrichment, eventuating in an examination of global shamanism and its origins and purpose. He argues that its inherent connection with healing and divination indicate a link to essential needs of human development, and as such, shamanic and ASC experiences are inevitable consequences of societal growth.

To further this argument, he cites physiological studies which map brain responses to various stimuli and ASC experiences both drug and non drug related resulting in similar reactions, suggesting an inherent common underlying neurobiochemical pathway.

Unfortunately, Winkelman’s studies do not fully explain the role or necessity of shamanism in ASC based spirituality or indeed its spread into Western conventional religion. Rather, it provides an integral initial point for further study, discussing the means and needs for ASC neglected by traditional Western religiosity, but lacks further context to fully explain its usefulness in a broader academic sense.

Driver, T. F. 1991, The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Driver (1991) attempts to explain the amalgamation of ritual, magic and alternate spirituality from a modern Western social cultural context by examining the means by which understanding of these foreign spiritual concepts are performed and acted out. He explores the means by which participants are made essential to the process being carried out by the spiritual guide and the ways in which their involvement lend credence to a service which may be entirely governed by ritualistic involvement.

To explore this further, he examines a Korean healing ritual in which communal harmony is achieved via a ceremony to cure a particular individual of their ills. This illustrates the need for shamanic practice as a shared form of spirituality rather than an individual one. This is further heightened by comparisons to Christian masses in which collective spiritual energy is harnessed to combat greater social problems, even on an international basis.

In this sense then, Driver provides a framework by which modern collective spirituality may be discussed and examined, providing a valuable means to appraise and explore ASC and shamanic practice as a valid form of spiritual and social enrichment. It is through this mode that we as academics are able to discuss various greater social and spiritual interactions by developing a greater understanding of the means by which different religious values are informed and continued into daily use.

Literature Reviews by Brent Cross

Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour

In this article Winkleman examines cross-cultural studies of the various altered states of consciousness (ASC) techniques of cultural groups and compares them to the western notion of the physiological processes of the brain. Winkleman (1997:393) states that while the procedures to enter an ASC differ dramatically between groups, the physiological effects these ASC techniques have on the brain are quite similar. This effect is described as a ‘state of parasympathetic dominance in which the frontal cortex is dominated by slow wave patterns’ (Winkleman 1997:397). From this it is argued that shamanic experiences and ASC are the origins of religious experience and thus religious behaviour. A shaman is described as charismatic political leader in hunter-gatherer societies, whose primary role is often that of conducting healing and divination (Winkleman 1997:394).

Winkleman (1997:396) states that ASC states are breaking down ‘natural’ functioning of the brain. For example ASC techniques may replicate the brain functions that occur during sleep however this state is induced by the practitioner whilst remaining awake. This state and many others can be induced through extensive motor behaviour, sensory deprivation and stimulation, hallucinogens and auditory driving. Winkleman (1997:404) also demonstrates how these ASC practices also have very positive effects for normal brain functioning such as memory, learning and attention.

This article provides a great overview of ASC practices and effectively demonstrates the physiological processes which occur during these states that allow people to access another state of mind different to the normal waking state. The paper also provides a point of reference for the beneficial effects ASC techniques can have on communities.

Winkelman M, 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’, in Glazier S, Ed. Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 393 - 428.

Stalking with Stories: Names, Places, and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache.

Stalking with Stories by Basco (1992), looks at Western Apache cultural structure and how placenames and the stories associated with these spaces serve to reinforce cultural expectations. The places names, unlike many western placenames, are non-arbitrary and are embodied with an enormous amount of meaning and significance to the Apache people. To an outsider these names and the information inside them may be not obvious or clear. However these stories and names to Apache people are powerful enough that they consider themselves to be ‘stalked’ by them (Basko 1996:100). By this, it is thought that once there are informed about the deeper meaning of places and their names, they are forever reminded of the lessons that are contained within the land.

Basco (1992:92) argues that placenames and the associated stories are primary to western Apache culture as story telling is a fundamental aspect of socialising. Stories are separated into various categories but those of historical tales are considered to be the most effective at reinforcing cultural expectation. This is done so through stories which are always directed at an individual and never told for the sake of telling. These stories essentially describe how an individual who did not act accordingly and respectfully as an Apache person, was punished either by a powerful being or by their own people. These stories, when recited to an individual, are considered to reveal the error of their ways and help guide them back on track They refer to this process of ‘shooting someone with a story’ which is then considered to stalk them for their remaining days to ensure they ‘stay good’(Basko 1996:100).

The Western Apache system of placenames and stories may seem rather confusing to westerners as often placenames used in the west contain little or no deeper meaning associated with them. Having said that, this system appears to be extremely useful in ensuring social stability and harmony. Through the stories embodied in the various sites and places people are reminded of their connection with, and responsibility to, their community. This cultural practice while not being a form of ASC, has very similar intentions and outcomes of those of ASC. That being the promotion of community ideals and expectations.

Basso KA, 1996, Stalking with Stories: Names, Places, and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache’, in Halpern, D and D Frank, Eds., The Nature Reader, Hopewell, NJ, The Ecco Press, 84-105.

Education for transcendence

Education for transcendence looks at the !Kung San people and their cultural practice of transcendence. Katz (1976:282) describes this transcendence as non-comparative to ordinary psychological states. There are many complex processes through which individuals are educated on how to bring about transcendence. This education begins at a very young age simply through children observing their community in the practice of !kia. !Kia is the name given to the altered state once achieves whereby n/um energy is cultivated in the pit of the stomach and then through ritual practice it rises to the base of the skull at which point the individual transcends the ‘ordinary’ state of being (Katz 1976:286).

The practice of !Kia is a large part of !Kung culture with over half of total adults males being masters and more than two thirds of adult females being masters (Katz 1976:285). The primary focus of !Kia is for the purpose of healing and fulfilling various religious functions.. This state is induced through a lengthy ordeal made up of singing and dancing. At the point in which an individual’s n/um begins to rise they may experience fear and pain. The teacher will aim to maintain the student in a state without fear and if intense fear is expressed the teacher is able to bring the student back to their body. One of the key experiences of this practice is the death and rebirth experience. This may be perceived in various ways but outcome of the experience for individuals is very similar.

The practice of !kia is considered beneficial for both the individual and the community as a whole. All people are encouraged to become masters as it is thought that with more masters comes increased community wellbeing (Katz 1976:285). While being an overwhelming experience for people, the !Kung believe that only beneficial outcomes can occur.

Education for transcendence provides a good overview of the techniques used by !Kung San people to obtain an altered state of consciousness. These ASC techiniques, similarily to other ASC techniques, help to promote community harmony and stability. While all members of the community may not be !kia masters, the process involves all people of the community. The possible mental benefits that a group may gain from such practices can be seen in Winkleman’s (1997) paper.

Katz R, 1976, ‘Education for Transcendence’, in R Lee & I DeVore, Eds, Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers, Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 281-402.

Reviews - Raph Jensen

The West turns Eastward, Journal of the American Academy of Religion written by Mark Bevir.

The West Turns Eastward by Mark Bevir (1994) is a fairly unbiased account of the life and work of Madame Blavatsky, a controversial figure in the 19th century who was a champion for the occult, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, and a major influence on the New Age movement we see today. This article could be recommended to any broad-minded person interested in spiritual matters. Although it is not directly related to trance or shamanism, it does bring up some issues of interest, such as the impact of science on western spirituality and the subsequent widespread pursuit in the west for new religious or spiritual beliefs and experiences. There is also brief discussion of some forms of natural magic, such as that of Ayurvedic healing in India, which ties in with some indigenous shaman belief.

As the title suggests, the article is to do with the west turning to eastern religions for alternative answers to spiritual problems encountered with the theological clash Christianity has with science. For example, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species offered the theory of evolution in 1859, which contradicted the Christian account of creation, causing the problem which Bevir (1994) refers to as the Victorian crisis of faith. He concentrates on the occultist contribution Blavatsky has had on the west, how she transformed the occult tradition and pointed to India as its spiritual homeland.

Madame Blavatsky offered an alternative, which was a belief firmly grounded in the occult and based upon ancient Indian wisdom, which she argued, blended with western science. She interpreted the major Indian religions, which were already romanticised in the west, and tried to integrate them into her own brand of occultism, claiming that the occultist tradition and perhaps all religion had originally stemmed from India. The main inspiration she drew from India was from the Vedas, and believed the most ancient form of Brahmanism contained a lost truth, tied up with the mystical monotheistic set of beliefs held by occultists, firmly grounded in Indian cosmology. Bevir (1994) explains how Blavatsky concentrated on the esoteric, dogmatic and cosmological, with a special interest in natural magic. This provided more than a romantic view of India’s spirituality, but a set of beliefs that had a more acceptable view of morality through the notion of karma, and one that falls in with science and evolution. As Bevir puts it, “Just as the cosmology of the Vedas resolved the scientific dilemmas facing religious belief in the west, so the ethics of the Vedas resolved the moral difficulties of such belief.”(Bevir, 1994:761)

The way Bevir (1994) was able to present the thoughts and arguments of Blavatsky on the topic clear and concise, without arguing for or against them, was well done, although at times he did hint at there being some contradictions. It was a little disappointing that Bevir didn’t offer more commentaries of reactions to Blavatsky, and it would have been very interesting to see an Indian perspective of the way their beliefs were interpreted.

One idea of Blavatsky’s that Bevir (1994) presented of particular interest, was the way she linked science with religion and natural magic, and hinted at the next step of human evolution being that of a spiritual realisation and harnessing of that natural magic, maybe even through science. It is through such scientific efforts as Michael Winkelman, the author of our next article, which gives this idea hope.

Altered Sates of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour by Michael Winkelman

In this article, Winkelman (1997) argues that the occurrence of Altered States of Consciousness or ASC across many different cultures shows a biological predisposition to spiritual experiences. The amount of effort and research put into this article is impressive, if a little daunting. A fascinating look into the way the shaman and the brain have evolved together, the article would most benefit one with a prior knowledge of the physiology of the brain, as it can be quite technical. Still, his arguments are clear and he is able to support his main points with empirical scientific research quite convincingly. He explores the universality of trance and the shaman through cross-cultural, physiological and cognitive perspectives.

His first main point is that of the origin of shamanism and the use of trance or ASC. Winkelman (1997) explores the role of the shaman, how one is selected to be a shaman and explores possible definitions and typologies of shaman through cross-cultural research. He is able to show the worldwide distribution of the shaman, the important role of ASC and the fundamental use of ASC in shamanic practices across all such cultures. He states that, “Shamanic practices have substantial similarities cross-culturally as a result of the interaction between the innate state of the brain and certain ecological and social conditions.” (Winkelman, 1997:396)

Next he explores the physiological basis of ASC, and argues that because the psychophysical aspects of ASC are almost identical across different types of trance, that ASC is actually a type of normal brain functioning. I found this point to be particularly fascinating, as sceptics usually write off this type of experience as just ritual. He shows that the wide range of ASC share physiological characteristics, and describes the physiological similarities of the brain while under some type of ASC. He is able to show that, “A wide variety of ASC induction techniques lead to a similar alteration in the biology of consciousness, characterised by a state of Para-sympathetic dominance in which the frontal cortex is dominated by slow wave patterns originating in the limbic system and related projections in the frontal parts of the brain.”(Winkeman, 1997:397). He then goes on to show the way the various forms of ASC fall into this para-sympathetic dominance, and argues that this proves that ASC is a natural, biologically based mode of consciousness, and not a primitive mental state.

Throughout the rest of the article he demonstrates the functions of ASC to the shaman such as therapeutic ones, and goes on to discuss the phenomenological and physiological differences in the various types of ASC. He also explores how and why ASC has been left out of most modern organised religious practice, and argues that in the modern western context, due to a biological predisposition and therefore drive to pursue ASC, many are turning to alcohol or other drugs and even suggests that this is a possible reason for the west turning to Eastern religions for spiritual practice, and the fulfilment of ASC or transcendence. This article was very informative and his conclusion ties into the previous article nicely, suggesting an alternative reason for the west to be leaning away from Christianity and other organised religions in the search for spiritual enlightenment.

“Stalking With Stories:” Names, Places and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache by Keith Basso 1996

Written in a personal narrative style, anthropologist Keith Basso (1996) tells the endearing story of his friendship with Nick Thompson, Western Apache elder, who instructs Basso on Western Apache language and culture. The article starts off with five spoken statements from various members within the Apache community of Cibecue, Arizona. The statements all share the common theme of land, and only after reading on do we find the true meaning of what’s being said. Basso’s aim then throughout the article is to try and understand these statements in the context of the culture, which as he discovers involves language, morality and the land.

The Western Apache are shown to have a deep connection with their natural landscape, and the major theme of this article involves what is referred to as place-names. (Basso, 1996) He explores the concept of language to the Apache, and states, “in acts of speech... Apaches negotiate images and understandings of the land which are accepted as credible accounts of what is, why it is significant, and how it impinges on the daily lives of men and women.” (Basso, 1996: 87) In order to better understand the statements introduced, Basso goes to his friend Nick Thompson for help, and so begins to learn all the names of the local places of significance around Cibecue, and ends up naming almost 300 places. Basso (1996) notes the utmost importance of the place-names to the Apache, and finds that when someone tells a story, the place-names they encounter along the way are as important as the story itself.

After the names of the places were learnt, Basso (1996) is then tutored by Thompson on the stories of place-names, which is what makes them culturally significant. Basso (1996) shows the depth of storytelling within this society, and identifies four main types of narratives used by storytellers. The narrative he is most concerned with is ‘agodzaahi which translates to long ago. (Basso, 1996) These stories are directly linked to the place-names, and Basso refers to them as historical tales. He explains how they are short and simplistic stories, with the main purpose of carrying a moral theme, which is used to criticise or apprehend those breaking social or moral customs and makes several references to people describing these stories as being shot like arrows. (Basso, 1996) This concept was clearly described as follows, “just as ‘agodzaahi stories are “about” historical events and their geographical locations, they are also “about” the system of rules and values according to which Apaches expect each other to organize and regulate their lives.” (Basso, 1996:94) He goes on to examine some of the historical stories that are connected to these places, and considers how this relates to the statements we read at the beginning.

Although this article doesn’t relate directly to Winlkleman or Bevirs work, being more of an anthropological study, it is still an incredibly fascinating reading on how this culture relates socially to their natural landscape. The way the author introduced the statements from the community members at the start as abstract and not particularly profound was very clever, because upon rereading them once the article was finished, one is elated to see their true meaning.


Bevir, Mark. The West turns Eastward, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, v.62 no.3 1994

Blazier, Stephen (ed.), Anthropology of Religion, Altered Sates of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour by Michael Winkelman, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1997

Halpern, Daniel & Frank, Dan (Eds.), The Nature Reader, “Stalking With Stories:” Names, Places and Moral Narratives among the Western Apache by Keith Basso, Hopewell, N.J., The Ecco Press, 1996