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

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