Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review Article

by Kellee Uhr

Driver and ritual as social change

The transformative power of rituals and their role as an agent for social change is the key argument this chapter. Driver defines his use of terms such as ritual, transformation, magic and religion and sees these four elements as interrelated tools to assist in the dynamic of social change (1991, p.166). He argues that the key goal of religion is to transform human desire of the external or literal world and through the processes of ritual this desire is acted out. The term magic is defined broadly as an application of knowledge and is quickly argued that it exists within the socio-cultural frameworks of reality (1991, p.168). Driver explains this as “one person’s magic is another person’s religion” (1991, p.167). Ritual, by utilising magic, assists societies and the individual in a process of change by transforming individual subjectivities, society and the natural world (1991, p.172). Driver uses Van Gennep’s position of linking magic and religion as a powerful tool for spiritual existence as a supporting point to his argument.

To give his argument context, Driver uses two case studies from Korea and South Africa. It is important to remember that Driver’s own socio-cultural framework is that of a western paradigm. Considering this, Driver’s recount of the Korean healing ritual looks at the behavioural traits of the participants (a family) and likens the possession element to a process of role playing. Driver is not negative towards this ritual, but analyses it from a perspective that is not the same as the participants. Driver then explains the South African ritual of exorcising apartheid. This Christian based ritual with an expressed socio-political context is more broadly community orientated than that of the Korean ritual. Driver argues the South African ritual supports his argument of transformation as a tool for social change in the face of political issues. Using these examples, Driver places ritual as an important tool in the continued survival of cultural difference and the history of a community in the face of social change and progress.

Hume and Australian Aboriginal worldviews

The key theme in Hume’s article is the concept of timelessness in Australia Aboriginal cosmology portrayed through the central theme of The Dreaming. The Dreaming is a spiritual reality to which historical and cultural significance is attached (2004, p.238) and provides the link between humans, land and living elements of the land (2004, pp. 237-238). The timelessness of The Dreaming is what pertains to the Aboriginal worldview.

Hume outlines the translation of the word ‘dreaming’ and explains that due to various regional dialects the word itself is a common English translation. This translation brings Hume to argue that there is a relationship between dreaming in sleep and The Dreaming. Through dreaming in sleep, Aboriginals are able to move into another reality and Hume backs this argument up with references to academic research. He claims that an individual’s own worldview and cultural positioning can allow interpretation of a dreaming experience to not be specific to an Aboriginal Australian and claims that Westerners may one day experience this concept under certain circumstances (2004, p.249).

While not using the term ritual, Hume describes ceremonial performance as a medium to access The Dreaming. Through music and dance, the ceremony becomes a process by which the invisible is given material embodiment (2004, p.250). The re-enactment of histories and ancestors is a way for Aboriginal communities to “live again” (2004, p.251). Hume’s uses Csikszentmihalyi’s flow experience and the lack of distinction between self and environment and past, present and future and Schutz’s ‘mutual tuning in’ concept as frames of reference for his argument.

Hume’s article does not specifically use terms such as ‘ritual’ and ‘transcendence’, instead taking a heavily referenced approach to language and theory. While I find Hume’s lexical approach to the concept very linear and one dimensional, the argument gets stronger when using examples of how ritual performance is used to access spiritual power. Hume’s closing point is that ritual acts are a means to access indigenous spirituality that is intrinsically tied up with the environment.

Rountree and issues with authorship in feminist witches’ rituals

Rountree’s chapter ‘Ritual as artefact’ begins with an outline of a Winter Solstice ritual in New Zealand. Rountree describes many aspects of the ritual including drumming, personal meditation, sacrifice and costumes. Rountree’s participation in this ritual leads into her main argument – the embrace and appropriation of cultural ritual in the New Age Goddess movement and specifically feminist witches’ rituals.

Rountree argues that through the use of many historically recognised myths and mythologies (caves, drumming) the New Age ritual invokes and imaginative connection to early goddess-worshipping societies (2004, p.164). Through this connection participants have an emotional response to the ritual, personifying imagery and experience. The extraction of a diverse number of sources, especially indigenous cultures from non-Western traditions, can be seen as outright appropriation. Rountree argues that this extraction not only removes the cultural significance of the act but also removes the act from the intended religious meaning (2004, p.166). Rountree frames this argument with many contemporary witch and Pagan responses to this issue ranging from ‘universal human heritage’ and a colonialist position (2004, p.167). Rountree points out that often the inclusion of ‘other’ cultural artefact into ritual of new age movements is a mix of nostalgia, ignorance and naivety.

Rountree’s argument towards the issues of authorship and the decontextualising of religious cultural elements highlights the need for sensitivity when developing rituals in any neo-religious movement. Rountree’s own involvement in rituals makes her argument strong and provides an insight into ritual that is experienced, not watched or researched like Hume or Driver.

The continued survival of cultural difference and history in the face of Western progress is a constant theme when researching shamanism and altered states. Ritual practice allows communities to continue tradition and celebrate cultural difference. Hume and Driver take a Western-dominant view of the importance of ritual in indigenous communities and argue the significance of the practice is important for future communities. The issue of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation is key to Rountree’s chapter on the neo-goddess movement.

Reference list

Driver TL 1991, ‘Transformation’ in The Magic of Ritual: Our Need for Liberating Rites that Transform Our Lives and Our Communities, HarperSanFrancisco, New York.

Hume L 2004, ‘Accessing the Eternal: Dreaming ‘the Dreaming’ and Ceremonial Performance,’ Zygon, vol. 39, no. 1, pp. 237-258.

Rountree K 2004, ‘Ritual as Artefact’ in Embracing the Witch and the Goddess, Routledge, London.

Summary of Readings

RELN2110 Trance, Shamanism, Body & Soul
Summary of Readings – Catherine Mackenzie

Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism, written by Larry Peters and Douglas Price-Williams examines shamanism and the role that it plays and the form it takes in various communities. Throughout all the practicing shamans that Peters and Price-Williams examine, the fundamental term that applies to all they do is ‘control’ (p. 397-399). This control is over an ecstatic state, over trance or over spirits amongst other things. The article emphasises the importance of control in shamanic practices, if one is to achieve the goals of the ritual (healing etc). Although the control is on the part of the shaman, it is important for the community to maintain the singing or the interaction throughout the trance or ecstasy or there is a belief that the trance will end prematurely (Peters, p. 400).

While there are fundamental similarities between shamans, there are many differences between shamans as it can be fairly cultural specific to each tribe, town or community. One noticeable difference is the way in which a shaman will induce a trance (Peters, p. 399). Trance can be induced by fasting, dancing, steady drumbeats, or even quiet contemplation (Peters, p. 399). Discussed also, is the idea of disassociation in shamanic practice. With shamanic rituals involving elements such as shaking, seizures and speaking in a language not known, it is not a stretch of the mind to think that disassociation plays some role (Peters, p. 402). Disassociation can be used as a healing tool for relieving repressed thoughts or feelings or even to produce creative inspiration or expression (Peters, p. 402). In Haiti for example, possessive disassociation is used to enlarge the field of the self, give relief to the practitioner or even satisfy the needs of the individual (Bourguingon 1965, in Peters, p. 402).

Lynne Hume’s article; Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities Through the Senses examines the important role that the senses play in shaman practice. When the senses are trained to be completely receptive, shamanic ritual or practice can be attained or entered into in a more complete and successful manner (Hume, p. 4). Robert Desjarlais, an anthropologist who when situated in Nepal became an apprentice to a healer during the time of his fieldwork. Once he became aware of his senses and surroundings, the trance and the visions that he achieved were much more controlled and steady than anything he had accomplished before (in Hume, p. 4).

One part of the chapter is concerned with the use of caves in ancient spirituality. Caves can be seen as a very physical realisation of a portal to Mother Earth, an underworld or a spiritual haven (Hume, p. 6). Throughout the history of humanity, caves have played a prominent part of religious worship, as can be demonstrated by the countless number of instances of rock art in caves all around the world (Hume, p. 8-9). Caves were seen in some cases as the ‘vagina’ of the Earth Mother, and to enter the cave would be considered to be a “return to the womb of the Mother” (Hume, p. 7). Caves were considered to be other-worldly and to enter a cave would be synonymous with transformation through a journey (Hume, p. 8). Modern shamans are still using caves as places of power today. Caves are thought by some to be the home of spirits, and cracks in the rocks are seen as places of entrances and exits for spirits (Hume, p. 9).

The third article examines the differences between the use of hallucinogenic drugs in psychotherapy and the use in shamanism. It is written by Ralph Metzner, a Psychology Professor from California who throughout his career has investigated the uses of psychotherapeutic drugs and ancient shamanistic practices for a modern application. He starts by examining the history of using drugs as a treatment for psychological problems, especially after the discovery of LSD with its perceived usefulness. The scientist who first synthesised LSD described it as a “psychic loosening or opening” (in Metzner, pg. 2). After the military examined using it as a weapon, it was investigated as a powerful tool to be used in therapeutic practices. LSD was thought to open the senses and take a patient into unconscious emotional thoughts as well as back to birth and pre-birth times, allowing them to resolve conflicts that may be unknowingly stemmed from these early experiences (Metzner, pg. 2).

Although using hallucinogenic drugs in therapy is a practice that now would be dismissed as outdated or risky, it was done in a way that was thought to be careful and respectful. In particular, the importance of ‘set and setting’ was an important step for finding a place for psychoactive drugs in therapy outside of shamanistic cultures. Set and setting refers to both the external conditions of a therapy session (a ‘homely’ environment perhaps, or even the presence of a guide or therapist), as well as the internal conditions decided by the individual (having intention and being motivated) (Leary 1963 in Metzner, pg. 3).

Metzner describes the main differences between a shamanistic ceremony and a psychotherapeutic session. The three main differences are that shamanistic ceremonies will typically involve a lot of singing, there will be little or no talking, and the lighting will be minimal (Metzner, pg. 5). These are important in many shamanistic rituals in order to remain focused, and the success of the ritual may depend on this. Metzner sees the future application of hallucinogenic drugs for therapy, predicting a “cultural transformation movement” where western psychology practices may be returning to the shaman for guidance (Metzner, p. 8-9).

Sources (in order of the review)

Peters, Larry G. and Douglas Price-Williams, “Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism,” American Enthnologist 7, no. 3 (1980).

Hume, Lynne. Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses. Oxford: Berg, 2007.

Metzner, Ralph, “Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism,” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 30, no. 4 (1998).

The Mythical and Experiential Process of Ritual

Three articles have been examined in this essay with the key themes between them being ritual and altered states of consciousness. The first article Towards an experiential analysis of Shamanism written by Larry G. Peters and Douglass Price-Williams examines the ritualistic practice of a shaman, and the ecstatic state that can be reached during these ritual practices. The authors have provided different anthropological interpretations of shamanism, and what the ecstasy experienced constitutes in these rituals. It can be believed that ecstasy in ritual involves the possession of spirit, and extreme control by the shaman (Peters, Price-Williams, p. 398). This allows the shaman to become a part of the natural and metaphysical worlds at the same time, through extreme control over a dual-world experience. Common themes of ritual are explored such as the intensity of involvement in the ritual, the ability of control of this intensity and ultimately the memory of the disassociated state, which is discussed following the ritual process (Peters, Price-Williams, p. 403). Techniques of trance in these rituals vary, but are similar in many different elements. This includes fundamentals such as fasting by the shaman, dance, chanting, music and at times hallucinogenic drugs will be used to assist in the ritual process. The rhythmic progression of music, dance and chanting allows the ritual to go for extended periods of time, allowing a shaman to hold a trance and continue his ecstatic state for the healing process. Trance and ecstasy experienced by the shaman can be considered as the possession of spirits through the control of the dual-world experience, viewed as a disassociated state subject to the cultural beliefs of the community.

Ralph Metzner’s article Hallucinogenic drugs and plants in psychotherapy and Shamanism differs to that of Peters and Price-Williams, as Metzner explores the roles of hallucinogenic drugs in ritual, and the relationship between psychotherapy and shamanism. Metzner looks at the use of drugs in psychotherapy, as a way for patients to open up to their therapists to resolve issues that stem from their individual worldview and upbringing. The study of drugs within psychotherapy influenced anthropologists to look at the use of drugs within cultural communities and shaman rituals, to analyze how hallucinogenic drugs assist in the healing process of the shaman (Metzner, p. 4). Anthropologists summarized through their case study that the “intelligence associated with plant medicine in Shaman rituals communicates to the individual who ingests it,” allowing for an experiential link to a metaphysical world (Metzner p. 3). Metzner reflects on the different elements of shaman rituals, similar to the previous article discussed. These include elements of dance, music, singing and rhythmic beat which contribute to an overall energy expressed during the ritual. Metzner touches on the Huichol culture and the Peyote ceremony. It is believed that the use of plant drugs within these cultural ceremonies allows for the shaman to access the spiritual world through visions and conscious dreaming (Metzner p. 3). To summarize Metzner’s article, he looks at the comparison and similarities of the shaman and psychotherapist. The common elements of these rituals is they both have a guide to lead the healing process, the importance of set and setting applies to each, and the process of healing is shared (Metzner p. 5). The significant difference outlined between these two processes of healing, is that shaman rituals include the exploration of a metaphysical world with the incorporation of spirit guides, whereas psychotherapy is purely based on the natural worldview (Metzner p. 5).

These two articles differ to anthropologist Penny Bernard’s article Fertility Goddess of the Zulu, which looks at a case study of the Fertility Goddess in Zulu culture and reflects on Bernard’s own personal experience with the feminine fishtailed deity, Inkosazana (Bernard, p. 1). Bernard gives a brief history of this divine healer through mythical narratives that are embedded in the Zulu culture. It is the belief of the Zulu’s that the Inkosazana calls individuals to specific water locations through their dreams, and she is believed to have powers that allow her to transform and manifest herself in any shape or form (Bernard, p. 1). Bernard speaks of her own personal calling that came in her dreams, to find a specific pool in which she journeyed to with her Father and four diviners (Bernard, p. 2). The diviner’s stood back from Bernard during this process, and she was encouraged to pray to the water and the fertility goddess. It is within the Zulu culture that they believe the fertility goddess will take an individual underwater for long periods of time in the form of a snake, as she wraps her body around theirs and holds them under the water (Bernard, p. 4). The Zulu’s truly believe this to be a physical experience, in which Bernard struggled to personally understand. In Bernard’s experience, she was called to the pool through specific dreaming in relation to the deity, and the people with her during this experience were certain she would be taken underwater (Bernard p. 2). She in fact was not, and explored this phenomenon through asking individuals from the Zulu culture about their experience of being physically taken underwater (Bernard, p. 8). Bernard concludes that the physical submersion does not occur, but the use of hallucinogenic drugs during this ritual can ultimately place the individual within a trance, allowing them to believe that they are physically being held under water by the deity (Bernard, p. 8). It is physically impossible for a human being to be submerged underwater for hours at a time, which reinforces that this cannot be a physical experience, thus emphasizing previous use of hallucinogenic drugs during the ritual. It is believed that Inkosazana is a mythical figure connected to the rain, fertility and water (Bernard, p. 19). Her presence is experienced by the Zulu’s, and was personally experienced by Bernard. The personal experience of the author reinforces to readers that the mythical goddess does exist, despite that she was not physically submerged underwater during the ritual.

Furthermore, the three articles discussed explore different elements of ritual. The first with focus on the experiential element of the shaman, the second with an analysis of the use of hallucinogenic drugs within ritual, and finally the third article outlines an experiential case study of the Zulu fertility goddess, Inkosazana. Despite the differences between these three articles, there are common themes that occur between them which include the different processes of ritual such as rhythm, dance, music and singing, the experience of the dual-world process, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs as a way for the community to further immerse themselves within the mythical and experiential processes of ritual.

by Arnikka de Kort

Works Cited

Bernard, P, ‘The Fertility Goddess of the Zulu: Reflections on a Calling to Inkosazana's Pool,' In Sylvie Shaw and Andrew Francis, Eds., Deep Blue: Critical Reflections on Nature Religion and Water, London: Equinox Publications, 2008.

Metzner R. 1998. ‘Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism,’ Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 30, 4, 1-10, 1998, 22 Mar 2010.

Peters, L and Price-Williams, D, ‘Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism,’American Ethnologist, 7, 3, 397-418,1980.

Importance of Transcendent experiences in Western Urban Society

Transcendent experiences are important in today’s Western urban society. By reflecting on rituals, and shamanic and esoteric practices in the articles of Humes, Peters and Price-Williams, Myerhoff, and Bernard, it will be proposed that transcendent experiences are essential in connecting with the cosmos, developing one’s propensity to enter altered states, and healing emotional and mental distress.

Shamanic practices and trance states are imperative because they teach humanity to utilise their bodily senses in order to strengthen and re-establish a connection with nature. The globe faces an ecological crisis--a crisis which Western society is consequently desensitised to. Accumulation, possession, and material advancement are prioritised and used as a measure of worth--in order to advance and accumulate then, humanity turns to Earth and strips it of its resources. As a product of human advancement, nature is being destroyed; it has lost its sense of sacredness. Hume notes that if humans can learn to broaden their awareness through transcendent experiences, “they can achieve an intimacy with non-human nature” again (Hume 3). Rituals and Shamanic practices can create this intimacy; for they induce, through a variety of techniques (such as repetitive sounds, rhythmic movement, focused attention, and heightened emotion) altered states of consciousness that expand the human awareness (Hume 15). Through these components of trance then, a heightened awareness can be achieved when all the bodily senses--touch, taste, sound, emotion, smell-- are engaged with. Bodily senses “influence conceptions of self and cosmos”; they are the media through which we perceive the world (Hume 10). Trance states are therefore important for they develop all the senses, helping reshape how one perceives and feels about the world. Through these senses then, humanity is able transcend, and in this transcendence, sensitise and connect with the universe. Thus, trance opens one up to different realms of existence, and it is through these different states that we can spiritually grow and learn to respect the world and recognise it as ‘alive, awake, and aware’ (Hume 4).

Humanity has the psychological capacity to enter altered states; as such, it is integral to experience, develop, and understand because it is a part of being human. According to Sufi Arabi in Hume’s article, ‘there is a spark of the divine in human beings’ (Hume 21). Everyone has this divine spark, the propensity to transcend reality--it is “universal, and its utilisation, institutionalisation, and patterning” (Peters 404) is able to enrich the human experience. The Huichol civilisation in Mexico revolves around a ritualistic Peyote Hunt. Every year the Huichol citizens journey to their ancestors homeland to cultivate and eat the peyote, inducing a transcendental state (Myerhoff 66). This ritual, and its significance in shaping the Huichol civilisation, creates for the individual, and the community, a sense of wholeness and fulfilment--a wholeness that the Huichol states is essential “and all a part of being human” (Myerhoff 72-73). As today’s urban Western society favours rational and logical thought (Hume 4), there is a lack of emotional and spiritual awareness that civilisations such as the Huichol possess. Thus, any sense of spiritual wholeness is limited because the majority of Western society does not engage with, or explore, their capacity to transcend reality. Trance and ecstasy are thus important for Western society because it teaches one to reach and learn all that the human experience has to offer--that is, the rational and logical, as well as the spiritual and intuitive components of life. While rituals and transcendent experiences may also be culturally defined, it isn’t a culturally exclusive. Indeed, as Penny, a European researcher initiated into the mystical rites of the African Zulu culture, rituals and trance states aren’t culturally specific--it is universal, and an essential capacity that all humans have (Bernard 8).

Experiencing altered states promotes and helps create emotional and mental wellbeing. Mental illness is prevalent in Western society. While there is awareness of mental illness, it is still largely silenced and unjustly perceived as a form of failure. Shamanic trances are ‘typical types of ecstasy that have therapeutic potentials’ (Peters 406). Indeed, the very first and initiory stage of Shamanic possession is predominately attributed to mental illness--the ecstasy experienced is not interpreted as a disease, ‘but a way of being healed’ from it (Peters 398). Shamanic ecstasy is defined as a dissociative condition (Peters 402). According to Bourguignon, this dissociation benefit’s the self--it is a creative outlet that releases and gives expression to ‘repressed thoughts, feelings, and desires’ (Peters 402). Thus, it is a way of relinquishing, and giving relief to, any emotional and mental distress. In esoteric teachings, transcendent experiences are developed only when one learns to ‘focus on the interior world of the self’ (Hume 21). This method of delving into the self helps uncover and closely examine personal anxieties and problems. In shedding light into this interior world, and taking the time to discover and understand the nuances of one’s inner self, a sense of peace and wellbeing can be found. Even ritualistic figures, such as the South African fertility goddess Inkosazana, promotes wellbeing when she is ritualistically worshipped and obeyed. She tends to the physical wellbeing of her people by looking after their crops and waters, as well as the emotional and spiritual; for, as the South African Lindiwe documents, Inkosazana revealed herself to Lindiwe, counselling and saving Lindiwe from committing suicide (Bernard 13). Thus, transcendental experiences, whether through shamanic or esoteric practices, and rituals are cathartic and have the potential to heal.

Trance, ecstasy, and rituals create different realms of existence. Thus, it is through, and by, this transcendence that Western urban society can understand the importance of the cosmos, their capability to spiritually grow, and explore their inner self to find wellbeing.

Amanda Warren

Works as Cited

Bernard, Penny. “Fertility Goddess of the Zulu: Reflections on a Calling to Inkosazana’s Pool.” Deep Blue: Reflections on Nature Religion and Water. Ed. Sylvie Shaw and Andrew Francis. London: Equinox Publications, 2008. 1-20.

Hume, Lynne. Portals. Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses. New York: Berg, 2007.

Myerhoff, Barbara. “The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex Among the Huichol Indians of Mexico.” Anthropological Quarterly, 43.2 (1970): 64-78.

Peters, Larry G. and Price-Williams, Douglass. “Towards An Experiential Analysis of Shamanism.” American Ethnologist, 7.3 (1980): 397-418.

Reflective Blog

The importance of ecstatic and transcendent experience in western culture––and from my own perspective the importance within Brisbane’s culture––is quite simple: to clear the mind of the overwhelming ‘noise’ (such as those nagging thoughts of bills, exams, medical tests, insults, etc) that is placed inside our heads on a daily basis is the only way a person can ever truly relax. In western culture, just as in shamanic culture, drugs (or in their shamanic context, ‘entheogens’) and music are essential to achieving a trance-state where one can, albeit briefly, free themselves from the sometimes suffocating grip of the physical world.

I can see many parallels between certain shamanic rituals and, frankly, the way some teenagers might spend their free time on the weekends, the key differences being of course the vey sacredness of shamanic rituals; what constitutes as music or dance; and the distinction between drugs and entheogens, the latter being the term for a drug when it is expressly used for religious or spiritual purposes.

Just as the native Huichol people of Mexico travel a great distance to take part in an annual ritual that involves eating peyote and hours of rhythmic dancing, Brisbane suburbanites might, in ritualistic fashion, dress-up and travel into Fortitude Valley every Saturday night to take MDMA (a stimulant known for euphoric effects) and dance to music well into the next day. Acknowledging again the different level these rituals are on, the parallels are nonetheless rather obvious.

Even the purpose and end result of these two rituals are not that far removed. While the former intends to get in touch with their ancestors and themselves, and be forgiven for their past wrongs, the latter can intend to get in touch with themselves, their fellow man and release the bad energy from a stressful week.

The human brain is a powerful thing so naturally it does take a powerful influence to derail it from its usual path of thinking about anything and everything. Drugs are that powerful influence, and they can make our brain do what it needs to do or, for therapeutic purposes, gain a completely different perspective or world-view, or even just switch-off.

Music is intrinsic to rituals, and is a recognised form of therapy in western psychology; interestingly it does not have the stigma attached to it that drug therapy does. In a tribal ritual, the music, and thus its power, comes from everyone: people might clap, stomp, sing, shout or hum and through the twofold effect of cacophonous noise drowning out your thoughts, and the calming and hypnotic effect of the repetition, a trance-state is usually reached.

If we were to go into a popular nightclub in the Valley, we would undoubtedly see many people caught up in this exact same state––and who is to decide it is any less fulfilling? The constant stream of loud music is there to provide a powerful distraction to any thoughts that might dwell in a patrons mind and furthermore render verbal communication practically impossible. There is still the rhythmic dancing; anything from jumping on the spot to head banging to grooving to the beat. This is also likely done in a dense crowd, so there is definitely a sense of community. On the point of community, the effect of drugs becomes apparent again, as many drugs popular with club-goers (like MDMA) produce feelings of empathy and compassion for other people.

I believe that ecstatic and transcendent experiences are important to western culture in the same way they are important to the much more ancient cultures that discovered such experiences. It is a way to release and unwind. I also think that the spirit in which people in the western, urban world go about experiencing them is much akin to the rituals of their originators. I think it also shows that the emotional and mental needs of humanity are unchanging regardless of time or distance.

by Rhys Dwyer

Review and Reflection

Hoekstra, E

Transforming the Shaman: changing western views of shamanism and altered states of consciousness
Jilek, WG 2005

This article documents the changes in Western perception of shamanism, the shamanic healer and the role of altered states of consciousness (ASC).

The social roles of the shaman include ‘healer, spiritual leader, ritualist, soul guide, sacrificer, song reciter, and dramatic performer’ (Jilek 2005, p. 9). In order to fulfil their role, shamans enter into an ASC to ‘communicate with supernatural beings through vision experiences, to summon helping spirits, or to embody supernatural entities for the purpose of acting with their special powers’ (Jilek 2005, pp. 10-1).

ASC results from the ‘involuntary experience of severe stress in a physical, psychological or social crisis situation, or from undergoing stressful ASC-inducing somatic and psychological conditions during the quest for shamanic spirit power’ (Jilek 2005, p. 11). The induction of ASC is facilitated by the experimentally known somatopsychic effects of specific conditions which are created through arduous spirit quests or through special techniques employed in the initiation process and in later ceremonies. These conditions include hyperventilation, hypoglycaemia, dehydration, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, pain stimulation, temperature stimulation and rhythmic acoustic stimulation (Jilek 2005, p. 11).

According to Jilek (2005, p. 11), it is possible to enter into an ASC due to the ‘physiological capability of the central nervous system to dissociate the mental apparatus of the self into two or more systems of relational experience’. Shamanic ASC are associated with focussed attention, heightened suggestibility, analgesia, involuntary behaviour and non-organic amnesia. Other frequent concomitants of such states include an altered sense of time, illusional perceptions, body image changes and intense emotional experiences (Jilek 2005, p. 11).

The therapeutic ability of shamanic practitioners and the psychotherapeutic efficacy of shamanic healing rituals are now recognised by Westerners (Jilek 2005, p. 9). Shamanic healing practices facilitate effective management of neurotic and psychosomatic disorders, reactive depression and alcohol and drug dependence (Jilek 2005, p. 13).

Portals: opening doorways to other realities through the senses
Hume, L 2007

This chapter describes the possibility of moving from the ordinary or mundane reality into an alternate reality, or union with the divine, through the portals of the senses.

Hume (2007, p. 1) states that ‘the everyday reality that we perceive through our senses can be altered dramatically by “working” the senses using a variety of somatic stimuli, creating a paradigm shift in perception’ (ASC). Trance (ASC) is defined by Lewis (in Hume 2007, p. 11) as ‘a condition of dissociation, characterised by the lack of voluntary movement, and frequently by automatisms in act and thought, illustrated by hypnotic and mediumistic conditions’.

The main components of trance induction that lead to extraordinary experiences include repetitive sounds, such as drumming and chanting, rhythmic movement, such as dancing or swaying, heightened emotions, focussed attention and cultural immersion or knowledge (Hume 2007, p. 15). The key to bringing about a change in consciousness lies in the continuous and sustained use of any method (Hume 2007, p. 12). Other components of trance induction include wearing a mask, painting the body, inflicting pain, using aromas such as incense and ingesting drugs (Hume 2007, p. 16). It is noted that this sensorial ‘formula’ for trance induction appears to be universal (Hume 2007, pp. 15-6).

The autonomic nervous system, consisting of the sympathetic (ergotropic) and parasympathetic (trophotropic) systems, plays a large role in the alteration of consciousness (Laughlin et al, in Hume 2007, p. 13). Laughlin et al (in Hume 2007, p. 14) states that ‘[t]he normal state of balance within the autonomic nervous system breaks down under intense stimulation of the sympathetic system, leading to a collapse into a state of parasympathetic dominance’. This pattern of parasympathetic rebound or collapse is a fundamental mechanism used by shamanic practitioners to induce an ASC. The parasympathetic system energises vegetation, repair, growth and development and is experienced as bodily relaxation, calm and tranquillity (Laughlin et al, in Hume 2007, p. 14).

Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behavior
Winkelman, M 1997

This chapter reports that ASC in religious behaviour is a universal phenomenon and that ASC reflect normal brain functioning.

The most widely recognised institutionalised use of ASC is the shaman (Winkelman 1997, p. 394). Shamanism involves the use of ‘“techniques of ecstasy” in interaction with the spirit world on behalf of the community, particularly in healing, divination, protection, and finding game animals’ (Eliade, in Winkelman 1997, p. 394). Shamanic ASC are generally labelled as involving soul flight, journeys to the underworld and transformation into animals (Winkelman 1997, p. 396).

Shamans are selected and trained through a variety of auguries and procedures. These include involuntary visions, receiving signs from spirits, serious illness, undertaking vision quests and the induction of ASC (Winkelman 1997, pp. 395-6). Techniques employed by shamans to induce ASC include auditory driving, extensive motor behaviour, fasting and nutritional deficits, sensory deprivation and stimulation, sleep and dream states, meditation, sexual restrictions, endogenous opiates, hallucinogens, alcohol and community rituals (Winkelman 1997, pp. 398-401).

Physiological evidence indicates that consciousness is systematically altered in similar ways by diverse ASC induction procedures (Winkelman 1997, p. 393). ASC are characterised by a ‘state of parasympathetic dominance in which the frontal cortex is dominated by slow wave patterns originating in the limbic system and related projections into the frontal parts of the brain’ (Winkelman 1997, p. 397). The limbic system is the ‘central processor of the brain, integrating emotion and memory, and interoceptive and exteroceptive information’ (MacLean, in Winkelman 1997, p. 397).

The physiological changes of ASC facilitate the typical shamanic tasks of healing and divination in improving psychological and physiological wellbeing in a number of ways. These include physiological relaxation, reducing tension and anxiety, inducing and eliminating psychosomatic effects, facilitating extrasensory perception, accessing unconscious information, interhemispheric fusion, cognitive-emotional integration and social bonding (Winkelman 1997, p. 405).


This review and reflection demonstrates the fundamental role of ASC in shamanism and the universality of ASC. The social roles of the shaman are defined similarly and include healer, spiritual leader, ritualist and soul guide. Shamanic ASC is reported similarly, and results from the involuntary experience of severe stress in a physical, psychological or social crisis situation, or from undergoing stressful ASC-inducing somatic and psychological conditions. Techniques employed by shamans to induce ASC correspond and include auditory driving, extensive motor behaviour, sensory deprivation and stimulation, meditation and community rituals. The therapeutic aspects of ASC are comparable and can be linked to the physiological changes associated with ASC induction conditions and procedures.

List of References

Hume, L 2007, Portals: opening doorways to other realities through the senses, Berg, Oxford, UK.
Jilek, WG 2005, ‘Transforming the Shaman: changing western views of shamanism and altered states of consciousness’, Articulo de Investigacion, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 8-15.
Winkelman, M 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behavior’, in SD Glazier (ed), Anthropology of Religion: a handbook, Greenwood Press, Westport, USA, pp. 393-428.

Article Review

Winkelman M 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’, in Glazier S (ed.), Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, pp. 393 - 428.

In the chapter titled “Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour”, Winkelman (1997) focused on demonstrating altered states of consciousness (ASC) as the origin and foundation of religious experience and behaviour. Through a cross-cultural, physiological and cognitive perspective, Winkelman employed shamanism to illustrate ASC’s physiological and functional factors since shamanism contain universal and cross-cultural characteristics like in hunting and gathering societies shamans are leaders who uses ASC to interact with the spirit world on behalf of the community (Winkelman, 1997, pp.393).

Winkelman discusses the physiological bases of ASC. The brain’s physiology when entering into ASC through induction procedures (examples: fasting, hallucinogens and alcohol) is altered as the brain’s “…frontal cortex is dominated by slow wave patterns originating in the limbic system and related projections into the frontal parts of the brain” (Winkelman, 1997, pp.394). Additionally, ASC’s functional basis is addressed. Through induction procedures, common ASC therapeutic functions includes facilitating shamanic tasks such as healing and improving well-being psychologically and physiologically such as relaxing stress. Furthermore, three ASC traditions (soul flight/journey, possession and meditation and mysticism) are outlined to identify ASC’s origin in religious experience and behaviour. Lastly, Winkelman points out social influences such as banning hallucinogens have on shamans in hunting and gathering societies.

A strength of Winkelman’s chapter is its consistency in linking cross-cultural and physiological perspective with ASC arguments by using words such as “cross-cultural” and “physiology” (Winkelman, 1997, p.393, 395-398). To reduce bias and reductionism, definitions of terms and concepts are presented with contrasting ideas followed by using a neutral definition. For example, the term shaman was firstly put forward from a cross-cultural perspective followed by opposing views and lastly using an empirical definition from cross-cultural research of shamanism where the term shaman is “…restricted to those practitioners empirically sharing similar characteristics” (Winkelman, 1997, pp.395).

Weaknesses within the chapter include limiting the ASC’s induction procedure functions to physiology and excluding its psychical aspects. For example, the auditory driving induction procedure containing rhythmic auditory such as drumming and chanting “…impose a pattern on the listener’s brain waves…[and] produce a driving response” (Winkelman, 1997, pp.398). However, as Metzner (1998, pp.5) identify, rhythmic auditory also “…give support for moving through the flow of visions, and minimizes the likelihood of getting stuck in frightening or seductive experiences”. Another limitation is addressing ASC’s therapeutic function as healings for psychological and physiological purposes only. In ASC, the shaman also performs spiritual healing by diagnosing and discovering the person’s sickness and restoring the person’s spiritual powers (Horrigan, 1997, pp.2).
Atkinson MJ 1992, ‘Shamanisms Today’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 21, pp. 307-330.

In Atkinson’s article titled “Shamanisms Today” (1992), an ethnographic perspective is utilised to discuss shamanism and avoid reductionism by understanding shamanic practices as “…historically situated and culturally mediated social practice” (Atkinson, 1992, pp.309). Atkinson firstly discusses two studies which removed shamanism from it contexts in search for rational (physiological, psychological or medical) explanations of shamanic practices. The first study is studying the shaman’s behaviour in psychology, physiology and psychobiology. The terms “altered states of consciousness” and “trance” was developed to identify shamanic mentality (Atkinson, 1992, pp.310). Atkinson argues psychological studies has silenced shamanism’s social and cultural context and reduced its symbolism and ritual to psychobiological and neurophysiological bases. In addition, the second study is shamanism as therapy. Therapeutic functions of shamanism was explained with psychotherapy classifying shamanism been primarily based on healing.

Subsequently, shamanism is analysed in cultural and social frameworks by discussing political, gender and textual contexts. Atkinson argues that shamanism cannot exist in isolation since it is underpinned by political influences on shamanic practices. In gender context, it is argued that shamanism contains deep gender assumptions where the “classic” shaman is a male (predominant gender in shamanic societies). Lastly, shamanic texts is another context discussed where shamanic ritual is analysed through shamanic texts since textual material on shamanic rituals (verbal and non-verbal), thought and practice are underpinned by its social and cultural context.

Atkinson’s article strength in explaining ASC and trance is putting forward various definitions to demonstrate understandings that both terms are applicable to various cultural practices (Rock & Baynes, 2005). As Atkinson (1992, pp.310) states, “…the term “trance” …can apply to a vast range of cultural practices, including possession states”. Another strength is presenting opposing viewpoints to minimise bias and reductionism. An example is presenting different definitions of the shaman’s state of consciousness such as “shamanic ecstasy”, “…a single kind of trance state” or “…a religious or ritual state of consciousness” (Atkinson, 1992, pp.310).

A weakness identified is the use of the ethnographic perspective. Although trance and ASC is understood in its social and cultural framework, it is limited since it is also necessary to consider the role of ASC and trance in shamanism where the ASC facilitates the shamans to serve the community, perform divination and healing and promote collective experiences with the community (Jilek, 2005). Another limitation is the view that “Understanding the neurophysiology of trance is valuable, but it does not explain the associated structure or ritual, knowledge, and society” (Atkinson, 1992, pp.311). Trance and ASC does explain its knowledge and society since “…the mental imagery encountered in shamanic states of consciousness is shaped by one’s “cultural cosmology” and experiential knowledge from myths” (Walsh, 1990, pp.90, as cited in Rock & Baynes, 2005, pp.58).

Peters L & Price-Williams D 1980, ‘Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism’, American Ethnologist, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 397-418.

In Peters & Price-William’s article (1980), “Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism”, the focus is discussing the shaman’s psychological and experiential factors with ASC in ceremonial ritual performances. Through a cross-cultural psychological and psychiatrical perspective, the article focuses on trance influenced by cultural beliefs called “shamanic ecstasy” (Peters & Price-Williams, 1980, pp.397). Shamanic ecstasy is “…voluntary control of entrance and duration of trance”, memories after trance and communication with the audience.

Furthermore, psychiatric concepts called role play and dissociation is presented to discuss the shaman’s experiences of ASC. Peters & Price-Williams (1980, pp.401) argues against the view that shamanic trance is hypnosis, a term also defined as “role playing”. However, drawing on Shor’s (1962, as cited in Peters & Price-Williams, 1980) view of two types of role playing (hypnotic and role playing involvement), the authors insists that shamanic ecstasy involves role playing involvement since it is controlled interaction with the audience rather than following the directions.

In addition, the second psychiatric concept is dissociation. Understanding difficulties in defining dissociation, psychiatric literature from psychoanalysis, anthropological and psychological is reviewed. It is identified that while shamanic ecstasy such as soul flight is not a dissociated state since the shaman controls the content and length of the shamanic state, spirit possession is dissociation due to memory loss. Soul flight is also identified as a therapeutic technique like psychotherapy’s “waking dreams” (internal process where visions are interpreted symbolically) (Peters & Price-Williams, 1980, pp.405). The shaman in soul flight is conscious of visions and remembers and interprets them objectively as symbolic events.

In defining and explaining the shaman’s experience in ASC, the article’s strength is stating its focus in the introduction and throughout the body to maintain logical flow of arguments. For instance the article states “…we concentrate upon the altered states of consciousness (ASC) experienced by the shaman during ceremonial performances [and]…certain experiential characteristics of the shaman’s trance” (Peters & Price-Williams, 1980, pp.397). In addition, maintaining the use of the cross-cultural perspective and shamanic ecstasy as the focal trance reduces misunderstandings or confusion about the shaman’s experience of ASC.

A weaknesses identified in the article is its contrasting idea around dissociation. When discussing dissociation and shamanism, it was firstly addressed spirit possession involves memory loss and is dissociation while soul flight is not. However, subsequently it is stated that soul flight “…and spirit possession are not dissociative states” (Peters & Price-Williams 1980, pp.406). Another weakness is stating shamanic trance been influenced only by cultural ideas. As Atkinson (1992) argues, shamanic practices should be understood in its historical, social and cultural contexts.
References Cited

Atkinson MJ 1992, ‘Shamanisms Today’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 21, pp. 307-330.

Horrigan B 1997, ‘Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone’, Shamanism, vol. 10, no. 1, pp.1-4.

Jilek, WG 2005, ‘Transforming the Shaman: Changing Western Views of Shamanism and Altered States of Consciousness’, Articulo de Investigacion, vol. 7, no. 1, pp.8-15.

Metzner R 1998, ‘Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism’, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 1-10.

Peters L & Price-Williams D 1980, ‘Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism’, American Ethnologist, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 397-418.

Rock A & Baynes P 2008, ‘Shamanic Journeying Imagery, Constructivism and the Affect Bridge Technique’, Anthropology of Consciousness, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 50 – 71.

Winkelman M 1997, ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour’, in Glazier S (ed.), Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory, Greenwood Press, Connecticut, pp. 393 - 428.

A Closer Look at Entheogens in Shamanism, Religion and Society

The three articles “Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses” by Lynne Hume, “Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism” by Ralph Metzner, and “The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex among the Huichol Indians of Mexico,” by Barbara Myerhoff consecutively seem to focus, moving from the general to the specific, on some active themes in trance and the place of the shaman. However, though the use of entheogenic substances provides an important facet through which to study shamanistic practices, Atkinson points out that psychedelic shamanism only constitutes a minor section of the wider body of literature on ASC. These articles discuss the processes around trance and ASC scientifically, religiously, and socially and in fact, Hume incorporates the factor of emotions into her analysis. She differentiates between light, medium, and deep trance as well as mentioning the difference between trance through repetition of movement and trance through stillness and meditation. Metzner additionally highlights the shamanic perception of multiple realities and points out the common theme of journey or travel between these realities or ASCs, as even among recreational drug users experiences are often called ‘trips’. Myerhoff simply gives the Huichol account of experiences with ASC being precious and beautiful in the context of their culture and society.

Hume begins examine the critical place of portals, an obvious necessity when discussing multiple frames of consciousness as one must, by definition, have a threshold dividing the mental states so as to define each state and those around it by comparison. She describes studying sensorial anthropology because trance requires utilizing all the senses and not just the heavily promoted Western-style “seeing” and “hearing”, as well as focusing on the prevalence of transition terminology (such as “door”, “gate”, “passage”, “veil”, “bridge”, etc.) throughout religious texts and ritual descriptions. According to Hume, myths and religious rites universally have incorporated caves as a link to the Mother, birth, death, and rebirth, and thus a place of spirituality, faith, and, judging from some rock-art, altered states of consciousness. Caves also instigate darkness or dimness, a popular environment for ASC and trance rituals as seen in the other articles. Her analysis of sensorial trance states and various methods of achieving ASC relates a broad basis for the method of using entheogenic substances to facilitate the ‘ontic shift’, which involves, when one is conscious of it, a mental passage through a portal.

Metzner narrows in on the use of hallucinogens in the previously discussed terms of shamanism as well as when used in western psychotherapy, syncretic folk religious ceremonies, and, what he calls “hybrid shamanic therapeutic rituals”, which incorporate features of the former two distinctions. He makes an important point about the significance of the set and setting in psychedelic psychotherapy, though it is clear from Hume that the setting is also key in religious trance experiences. A critical aspect of mind-altering chemicals remains, in nearly all cases and situations, rooted in the body (thus, it is the movement and breathing and sensory organs of the body that can bring about a trance state without the use of entheogens). Though the portal aspect of shamanic rituals involving drugs and certain plants seems to be tied in more so to the accessing of hidden knowledge (such as relating to death, birth, and rebirth) and prophecy, Metzner notes a connection between psychotherapy and shamanic rituals of healing. Making little to no distinction between physical, psychic, and/or spiritual healing, often times shamans or healers will take the drugs or plants themselves in order to “see” the causes of the illness to better remedy it. Interestingly, though the personal experience of the therapist or guide is necessary in the Western paradigm, the patient more often takes the drugs in order to amplify the process of internal self-analysis rather than the guide.

In his third distinction, Metzner discusses syncretic folk religious ceremonies, which focus less on healing per se and more on community bonding and celebratory worship. The symbolism of the Huichol people fits within this category I believe, as the presence of the deer, the maize, and the peyote create a self-contained circle for the entire religious calendar. Far from social however, Myerhoff describes the experience of peyote as essentially private without contributing to social solidarity. She mentions though that there is a camaraderie often accompanying the shared experiences. Contrasting to previous conceptions, these Indians do not use peyote for healing necessarily nor illumination, and yet it provides a critical foil for the ordered life of these people tied to the maize-centered present and focused on the deer-worshipping past. The egalitarian distribution of peyote and its ritualized place in religious ceremonies and symbolic worship make it a key player in these folk religious ceremonies, and yet is used as an independent mechanism to bring balance and matrix to the society.

In nature-based religions where shamanism is prevalent, the religious works determine not only how to live but how to continue living, that is to say, it often dictates not only how to act, but within the stories and prayers and worship it propagates cultural knowledge on when and how to find or harvest food, build shelter, and do the things a people need to survive. The Huichol model illustrates a place for entheogenic substances in this religion just as other cultures mentioned by Metzner and Hume utilize them as a long-established part of their own cultures. Atkinson disabuses the notion of shamanic behavior being a result of a mental disorder, though allows that it could be associated with it. However, from the three articles addressed heavily in this report, I would not question the existence of “mental illness” as either a naturally occurring phenomena or something induced by drugs, but I might question the negative stigma associated with the term disorder. Linguistically it simply seems to mean something not ordered, perhaps a chaotic even, and yet this lack of order seems to be a key dimension of culture for these people in Mexico to bring balance to their heavily ordered society.


Hume, Lynne. Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses. Oxford: Berg Publishing, 2007.

Atkinson MJ. 1992. Shamanisms Today. Annual Review of Anthropology. 21, 307-330.

Metzner, Ralph. 1998. Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 30(4), 1 – 10.

Myerhoff, Barbara G. 1970. The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex among the Huichol Indians of Mexico. Anthropological Quarterly 43(2), 64 – 78.

Trance for Peace

Western urban society dictates that people must be future oriented. Every move that people make in the present must be conceived of in the context of the effect it will have on things to come. Due to this forward drive, people are taught to regard things such as meeting deadlines and adhering to social norms and constructions as extremely important. However, this lifestyle of doing things in order to become something, or someone, can put people out of touch with their current existence, or the something or someone that they are right now. The abundance of stress and pressure that plagues much of Western society is evidence of the fact that living in the future does not always create a pleasant present.

Transcendent experiences, in the Western cultural context, allow people to ground themselves in the present. Attending yoga classes, participating in a religious service, and using drugs and alcohol are just some of the ways in which people break away from the demands of society and focus on the here and now. As Hume (11) suggests, some transcendent experiences transcend even the present moment, leaving the realm of time, and perhaps space, altogether. Some may feel compelled to experience being of another world when existence in Western urban society means being very much of this world. No matter what the transcendent experience, trance is an important tool used by those living in the Western world to remove themselves from their fast-paced and demanding lives.

In order to understand why obsession with the future has become the Western way of life, it is important to grasp what concepts humans have employed to help them make sense of the overwhelming, stimulus-packed world around them. One example of these concepts is put forth by Rock & Baynes (51), who, borrowing Kant’s ideology, state that humans divide the world into sections, categories, classes, and types in order to understand it. With that in mind, it makes sense that many in the Western world are prone to living in the future. The present, as fleeting, is impossible to compartmentalize. The future, however, is an ever-present promise of things to come, and can thus be broken down into sections and rendered comprehensible. It can be anticipated and planned for. Perhaps the ease with which the future lends itself to this fundamental human construct of categorization is what keeps people so caught up in it.

Breaking away from social constructs to hone in on the present moment involves appealing to a Yogic framework that Hume (12) cites: “stopping the oscillation of the mind.” This notion is key because it implies not only a disconnect from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, but a fundamental slowing down of processing. Hume (12-13) explains that trance occurs only when logical thinking is abandoned. Rituals such as drumming, chanting, and dancing are essential to trance states, Hume believes, because they are stimuli very much anchored in the present moment. By focusing in on these stimuli, people can transcend their own ordinary waking state of consciousness and enter into an altered state.

While trance is an excellent way to momentarily escape from the future-driven Western life and revel in the present or some other world, it also serves a much deeper and more meaningful purpose for many people. Trance, in its separation from the ordinary waking state, offers many a new understanding of themselves and a unique perspective on life. It is as if the self that exists in the altered state is given the opportunity to closely examine the self that exists in the ordinary waking state. In this way, trance and everyday life are not completely disconnected. Rock & Baynes (51) affirm this idea by borrowing Scholem’s theory that trance is relative to the world that we know. This is, Scholem believes, why people that experience visions tend to encounter things within those visions that are more or less a part of their cultural context—things that they can more or less make sense of.

Peters & Price-Wiliams (406) argue that the ability to transcend the ordinary waking state is one that all humans possess. However, the extent to which this transcendence takes place differs across individuals. The variations in trance experiences that people partake in are a result of societal and environmental differences. This notion of trance is helpful in understanding why issues such as drug and alcohol addiction are so prevalent in Western society. When a trance state seems to far exceed the ordinary waking state in the happiness and tranquillity it provides, it can be hard to resist. Many people find the pressures of everyday life so unbearably stressful that they do everything they can to stay disconnected for as long as possible. Drug and alcohol addiction are a result of this obsession with trance, or rather this fear of the ordinary waking state.

The current literature indicates that trance can be an efficient way for people in Western urban society to escape from their busy lives. With that said, the literature also stresses maintaining, as much as possible, some presence in this world while the trance is occurring. This presence in two worlds at once is what allows people to engage in self-reflection and enlightened understanding. Using the knowledge they have gained during trance, people can return to their ordinary waking states with a renewed sense of ease and serenity.

Works Cited

Hume, Lynne. Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2007. 1-24. Print.

Peters, Larry G., and Douglass Price-Williams. "Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism." American Ethnologist 7.3 (1980): 397-418. Print.

Rock, Adam J., and Peter B. Baynes. "Shamanic Journeying Imagery, Constructivism and the Affect Bridge Technique." Anthropology of Consciousness 16.2 (2005): 50-71. Print.

The Importance of Shamanic, Ecstatic and Transcendent Experiences in Today's Western Urban Society

In today's society there is not much need or desire for shamanic experiences, there is however, a small amount of emphasis placed on both transcendent and ecstatic experiences. In western society there has been a lot of importance placed on fitness, both physical and mental, mainly due to the increasing number of obese people. To achieve the desired result of physical and mental fitness, people have begun exercising and removing the unwanted foods and drugs from their systems. People have also begun the idea of 'my body is a temple', this implies that only pure substances can enter the body. It is an eastern philosophy and as such incorporates activities like yoga, meditation, martial arts and tai chi. Another reference to transcendent behavior is that of 'being in the zone', this refers to an activity where one is completely focused and almost ignores their surroundings. This 'zone' can and does refer to anything, from a game (either physical or electronic) to writing. It is common for students to reach 'the zone' when writing assignments. When one is in this state it is possible for them to complete the task at hand in what feels like no time at all, the experience of timelessness is also common while playing electronic games. It is possible to 'get lost' in a game.

Recreational drugs can also be used to achieve transcendent or ecstatic experiences by transporting the user to an altered state of consciousness. Ralph Metzner (1998) in his article Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism describes these altered states of consciousness using LSD and Ecstasy as his examples. Metzner writes that LSD was originally used as a type of chemical warfare and when that failed they used to assist in 'curing' alcoholism. It apparently gave the subject an epiphany and they stopped drinking. Ecstasy on the other hand was used for trauma victims as it enhanced the feeling of being relaxed and calm. According to the Courier Mail studies have shown that some recreational drug use is on the decline specifically cannabis. They are being replaced by what is known as Meow Meow, Bubble, Bounce or Drone. The name Meow Meow comes from the abbreviated chemical name 4-MMCAT (4-methylmethcathinone). This is a fertilizer, sold legally in the UK online, and it is apparently one chemical away from ecstasy. There have been a few cases in England of people dying after consuming this drug. One case that is relevant to this essay is that of Conrad in Melbourne. He apparently went into a psychotic trance after taking the drug and it has been known to cause people to act like animals, specifically cats (

Drugs in the form of smoke, plant, and pill have been used during shamanic rituals for hundreds of years. Metzner speaks of some of the plants that are used during some shamanic rituals that produce a similar effect to that of LSD. It 'transports' the shaman to a different plane of existence so they can communicate with the ancestors or spirits to achieve the desired result. Shamanism is not and probably will not be a large part of western society. It seems to have more of an affect with within a small community were the leader/wise person would perform the rituals for the community. There is also the fact that today's western society is very much based on science rather than religion, and therefore western culture is aware of the affects of certain types of tools, such as foods, environment and drugs to help shamans transcend, on the body.

Winkelman (1997) suggests that the altered states of consciousness achieved in shamanic practice, either by internal or external means, are needed within today's society. There are many other religious organizations that promote this behavior, and according to his research this is a biological need within the human body. There are many ways to achieve this state: drugs, alcohol, meditation, and in many cases just plain old focus.
In conclusion it is the result from this paper that transcendence and ecstatic experience is very common and expected in western urban society, but that shamanic practice is not and most likely will not become popular in the near future. This is not because the practice is unfavorable in today's world, it is simply unlikely to assist or be well integrated into the western society at large. It is however, possible for smaller groups to become involved in the shamanic practice as it would have more of an effect.

The Courier Mail: Viewed Wednesday 30 march 2010.
Metzner R. 1998. ‘Hallucinogenic Drugs and Plants in Psychotherapy and Shamanism,’ Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 30, 4, 1-10.
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.

Acculturation Ambitions and Ritual Objections: An Examination of Attitudes in Western Culture to Shamanism and Altered States of Consciousness

This essay reflects on ideas contained within four pieces of writing which discuss the physiological, psychological and cultural processes involved in achieving altered states of consciousness (ASC) in shamanic ritual. Hume (2007) and Jilek (2005) will be examined in some detail, followed by briefer analyses of findings by Goodman (1986) and Myerhoff (1970). It will be argued that the role of the shaman can be examined using multiple perspectives, including theological, psychological, post-colonialist, socio-cultural and somatic frameworks. Whilst each author takes a different approach, it will be shown they similarly argue that trance is culturally situated. It will not only be shown that the experience of trance is determined by culture, but also that culture shapes the trance experience. Nevertheless, when discussing culture, it is important to take into account that the nature of the Academy is that each writer has conceptualised alternative ways of knowing within a Western paradigm, and uses ways of thinking and verbalising that is embedded in dualism and framed within a cosmology that is essentially linear and generally antagonistic to Indigenous worldviews.

Jilek (2005) presents Western views of shamans and shamanic practices, focusing on European attitudinal shifts from the 16th to the 20th centuries. The author first examines the Church’s demonisation of the shaman, and then discusses 18th century medical and psychological findings which characterised the shaman as deviant. However, whilst denigration of shamanic practice appears to have been initially theological and latterly scientific, it is probably more appropriate to examine efforts to discredit the shaman within other frameworks.

Jilek (2005) argues convincingly that it is possible to examine the persecution of the shaman within a post-colonial framework. Taking this view, shamans were first demonised because they threatened the Church’s authority; later, they were condemned by medicine because they challenged the ‘new religion’ of positivist science; and were finally pursued by colonialists because they threatened the established power paradigm. However, in Jilek’s (2005) view, a quantum shift occurred in the latter half of the 20th century, bringing about a renaissance in Western attitudes towards the shaman, with “daemonization [and] psychopathology labelling...finally [giving] way to the acknowledgement of the[ir] therapeutic skills” (p. 13). Whilst this may be true in some part, Jilek fails to address 21st century exploitation of indigenous lands and subsequent protests by shamans against Western interference. Although Jilek (2005) acknowledges “centuries of oppression by governmental and ecclesiastic authorities” (p. 14), he is of the view that Western society has come to recognise the intrinsic value of shamans – and indeed, Indigenous peoples. However, it is this writer’s contention that shamanic values directly oppose Western ambitions of economic and political domination in the contemporary world – given that the shaman’s role is to maintain ecological balance both within and without their community, including their natural environment (Jilek 2005), elements of which are often viewed as family members (Myerhoff 1970).

Although the power paradigm provides context for understanding the oppression of shamans and their peoples by the Western world, it is furthermore illuminative to use a socio-cultural framework with which to examine ASC. Hume (2007) argues that cognition is culturally referenced, and thus affects sensory perception. She maintains that the sensory landscape of the shaman encompasses an acute awareness of all aspects of the environment and utilises all senses – unlike Western culture which tends to perceive the world primarily visually and verbally (Hume 2007). While conducting fieldwork in Nepal, anthropologist Robert Desjarlais (cited in Hume 2007, p. 2) discovered that for healing to take place, the person must first immerse themselves in a culturally prescribed sensory experience. Nonetheless, whilst Desjarlais emphasises the importance of culture, he stresses that it is not a precondition for experiencing trance. Desjarlais’ initial sensory experiences may have been predominately visual and/or verbal; however, he discovered he was able to perceive an expanded field of awareness beyond that which was determined by his own culture by assenting to a process of cultural acculturation. Indeed, Desjarlais found that honing his capacity to observe the totality of his environment aided him to fully experience trance in the same way as his teacher (cited in Hume 2007, p. 2). Thus, Desjarlais’ findings suggest that the sensory experience of trance is culturally bound and reflects the culture within which the individual is situated.

However, in as much as the study of culture is often undertaken from an anthropological perspective, many researchers stress that shamanism is located in sensory anthropology and thus should be examined using a somatic framework. Indeed, some writers argue that a universal characteristic of shamanic ritual is continuous and sustained rhythmic movement (Hume 2007; Jilek 2005). Hume (2007) also discusses the body as a keeper of knowledge, and refers to “bodily modes of knowing” (p. 2). Indeed, some rituals emerge from stories and the need to embed those stories within the collective cultural memory. In some cultures, for instance, the story behind the ritual may be largely forgotten, and only the ritual remains; however, for Indigenous cultures, storytelling is the means by which history is remembered and belonging established. Shamanic traditions are particularly concerned with maintaining the community’s relationship with the earth, and accordingly, rituals often involve re-building the cosmos through ritualised story re-enactment.

For the Huichol Indians of Mexico, the peyote ritual informs their entire worldview (Myerhoff 1970). Understanding of place, position in society and relationships are interwoven with the peyote ritual. Meaning and memory is lost if one element is removed, which is the tendency of Western people whose worldview places reduces objects to separate elements. Indeed, many Indigenous peoples share a similar understanding of the interconnectedness of the universe and do not view objects as being discrete entities that can be separated from the context in which they are situated. Myerhoff’s (1970) thesis emphasises this view, proposing that culture informs trance, and in turn, trance informs culture.

Whilst Desjarlais (cited in Hume 2007, p. 2) contends that differences in his initial and later trance experiences were due to acculturation, Goodman (1986) rejoinders that cultural differences are “surface phenomena” only (p. 83), arguing that bodily posture has a profound influence on the ability to move into ASC. Indeed, it is apparent in many cultures, irrespective of whether they are oral or written, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, that the re-telling of a shared event compels the storytellers to physically re-enact the event by allowing their bodies to take similar shapes as when the event took place (Shaw 2010). Thus, story re-telling moves to story re-enactment, and in so doing, the story is embodied in the physical bodies of the tellers. Each time the story is repeated, it becomes more deeply embedded in the somatic memory of the community, thus allowing for accurate remembering of stories over thousands of years to return order to the cosmos (Myerhoff 1970).

In conclusion, early attitudes towards shamans were shaped by religious leaders and their perception that shamanic practice challenged the authority of the Church. In the 18th century however, the patronising and diabolical ‘hand’ of the Church was replaced by the equally patronising and diabolical ‘hand’ of scientific rationalism, and the shaman was pathologised. Contemporary attitudes to the shaman are mixed; whilst the value of the shaman has been recognised, Western countries are unlikely to relinquish the advantages of economic and political domination of other nations without resistance. Whilst the post-colonial framework effectively explains how culture is shaped by history, culture can be situated within a larger context. Jilek (2005) and Hume (2007) both stress the universalism of the shamanic experience and the importance of rhythmic movement in achieving a trance state. Similarly, Goodman (1986) focuses on posture as a means of entering ASC. Nonetheless, all writers acknowledge the importance of sensory stimuli and cultural objects and emphasise the role of culture in shaping the trance experience. Myerhoff (1970) highlights the reflexive relationship between culture and ritual. In summary, shamanic practice can be examined using multiple frameworks, including theological, psychological, post-colonialist, socio-cultural and somatic, however, shamanism and ASC can also be viewed as an embodied experience constructed by multiple histories, cultures and ways of knowing.


Goodman, FD 1986, ‘Body posture and the religious altered state of consciousness: An experimental investigation’, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 81-118.

Hume, L 2007, Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses, Berg, Oxford/New York.

Jilek, WG 2005, ‘Transforming the shaman: Changing Western views of shamanism and altered states of consciousness’, Medigraphic, vol. VII, no. 1, pp. 8-15.

Myerhoff, BG 1970, ‘The deer-maize-peyote symbol complex among the Huichol Indians of Mexico’, Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 64-78.

Shaw, S 2010, Lecture, University of Queensland, 25th March, 2010.