This piece will aim to show the importance of the shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent experience is still of importance even in today's western, urban society. The focus will be on altered states of consciousness and how these are a fundamental part of the shamanic experience, and the importance of knowledge and respect for these altered states, whether they are induced physically, or pharmacologically. A comparison will be made, to show the importance of the role of shaman, in today's world, with respects to the taking of psychedelic substances without the necessary knowledge or framework to deal with the psychological aspects these substances can make an individual deal with.
If we look at Winkelman (1997) or Maslow (1964), they view altered states of consciousness (ASC) in religious behaviour—almost certainly—as something that is universal to human societies (Winkelman 393, Maslow 19). Taking this inherent idea of ASC, Maslow looks at the issue of religious experience as 'peak experiences', something that is not restricted to merely theistic frameworks (Maslow xi, 19). Maslow's ideas can allow one to take the view that religious, mystical, or peak experiences are inherent to the human condition and that all of these experiences are the same at the core and this has always been the case (Maslow 19). Not only are these experiences similar world over, but the core role of the shaman, who uses these ASC or "techniques of ecstasy" (Eliade, 1964), is as well. Maybe it is important to view these experiences as fundamental to the wholeness of an individual, and the health of a society? Whether these experiences come down to the naturalistic or preternatural may not really have an effect upon how intrinsically important they are to the human condition. However, what is important is that there is someone that acts as a guide or mentor, showing a participant how to journey through these ASC safely and what to expect from them.
To access ASC there are many different ways a shaman or individual can do this: through fasting, water deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, rigorous exercise ("dancing" and "long distance running"), sleep deprivation, drumming and chanting, social and sensory deprivation, as well as taking of sacramental entheogens, or psychedelic substances (Winkelman 397). A shamanic trance, whether induced by an entheogenic substance or not, is characterised as an ASC during which the shaman's soul "is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld" (Eliade 5, sic). The idea of set and setting is a profound one when thinking about psychedelic substances. Set and setting has an extremely powerful control over the type of experience an individual may have while under the effects of a psychedelic, in this way the substance "plays the role of a catalyst or trigger" (Metzner 3). Within a traditional psychedelic, shamanic experience one would guide the experience in a "carefully structured" (Metzner 5) way with the intention of either healing or divination. A group of six to twelve "come together with respectful, spiritual attitudes to share a profound inner journey of healing and transformation, facilitated by these powerful catalysts" (Metzner 5), this social framework supports the shaman in what can be quite powerful, traumatising, and stressful psychological experiences.
The ritualistic use of psychedelic substances, by the shaman, reaches back into prehistoric times (Metzner 2). These substances were always used in a respectful way, wary of the power they contained as shamanic divinational tools and as medicines (Metzner 2). Drug interaction in individuals is no longer viewed as a simple physiological action with the same effects in all people (Becker 67). There are many variables which effect the way a drug will interact in an individual and this is very important with regards to psychedelic substances that can alter perceptions in time, body, and vision. In today's world, most uses of psychedelic substances are taken recreationally without the shamanic framework, with a lack of knowledge of how the substance will effect mind and body, and a lack respect of substance's power to shift perception and present psychological challenges. Thus, people can be thrown into "bad trips", which, classically, are part of the shamanic journey; typical experience is one of death and rebirth, a destruction of the current 'self' or 'ego' to be rebuilt during and after the experience, thus becoming reborn.
However, used with respect and in the proper setting and framework modern psychedelics, like LSD, have been shown in the past to be effective in psychotherapy; this type of therapy is know as "psychedelic therapy" which refers to the "mind manifesting" powers of the substance (Winkelman 408). Studies that were done showed that LSD could "ease memory blocks, promote catharsis, and to shorten the course of therapy" (Winkelman 407). And so it can be seen that within the right context these substances ("entheogens") along with a psychotherapist ("shaman") can be used as a medicinal remedy for psychological traumas, much like in the way of old, though there are significant differences between psychedelic therapy and shamanicentheogenic ceremonies (Metzner 5). But it is very important to have an individual that can act as the shaman, to guide and support with knowledge of previous experiences.
The way in which any drug is taken has its effects influenced by set and setting, this being the case proper time and effort should be placed in making sure this can be achieved for the desired goal (Becker 75). The role of the shaman is central and essential in these settings, the knowledge they have is necessary in guiding others that may be undertaking an entheogenic experience or inner journey (Metzner 5). These psychedelic substances are powerful, mind-opening tools and psychic medicines, they should not be dealt with lightly and with disrespect. Even in today's world, to undertake a journey into the inner realms without experience or knowledge is asking for trouble, prehistoric people knew that these substances were powerful and dangerous and only the initiated (shaman) in their cultures would lead others through these healing mindscapes.
Becker, Howard S. "Consciousness, Power and Drug Effects", Journal of Psychedelic Drugs. 1974. Vol.6 (No.1) Jan-Mar.
Eliade, M. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. 1964. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Maslow, Abraham. Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. 1964. Columbus: Ohio State University. Pp. xi-19.
Metzner, Ralph. "Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism", Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 1998. Vol.30 (No.4) Oct-Dec.
Winkelman, Michael. "Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behavior", Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory. 1997. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 393 - 428.