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.