Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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.

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