Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Healing a Mechanized World: Shamanism in Western Society

By Heather Ehrlich (s4228649)

Cars rush by at speeds that early humans would have thought unfathomable; overhead, planes hurry by even faster. In a world that is dominated by machines and skyscrapers, any thought of communion with nature or contemplation of the spirit is often quickly swept away with the speed of the passing technologies. However, this is not to say that there is no place for inward reflection in Western society, for perhaps it is in a busy world that shamanic practices become not only helpful but necessary for a functional human psyche. Transcendent and shamanic ritual and ideology serve healing functions in modern society in holistic, religious, and scientific forms.

My background is Jewish in nature, so perhaps that is the best place to begin. Judaism puts very heavy emphasis on education and knowledge of the past such as the study of prophets such as Balaam and Ezekial. They were ecstatic dancers who used symbolic body movements and heavy ritual to bring people’s problems to life and communicate with God for answers (Porterfield 1987). Stemming from these practices come modern versions of the dance as a holy act; on Simchat Torah we dance the glory of the Torah and are encouraged to use the time to contemplate the glory of learning and God. Amanda Porterfield says that “shamanism is a symbolic means of addressing psychological and social conflict”, and applies the idea of the shamanic ritual to preaching. Many of my memories involve the Rabbi walking through the aisles of the synagogue during services as he gives a sermon, usually discussing some factor of social justice or modern issue and how it relates to the torah portion. This was to me very much an experience with trance, watching him move rhythmically about the synagogue while connecting important current issues with a world that I can only learn about; it brought about a sense of connection with the past and a simultaneous desire to be a productive member of society. This is far from my only experience with trance in the Jewish community. At my coming of age ceremony, the cantor sang to me a song called L’chi Lach, meaning “go from here”, and I could not help but feel transported and elevated. During a regular Sabbath service, the congregants were given candles, and we sat on the floor and quietly reflected while listening to the musical cadence of the ritual, and again I found transcendence. It was in these moments that I found peace and healing along with a real sense of community that helped me through the rest of daily life.

By no means it Judaism the only practice in modernity that uses these shamanic practices as a mode of healing. Many groups worldwide practice ritual dance or other spiritual practices with the goal of correcting illness or psychological stress. Many of them also use psychedelic plants, such as several churches in Brazil that use ayahuasca as a ritual aid for healing. Their ceremonies can involve dance and song, and attendance has been shown to reduce problems such as alcoholism (Metzner 1998). The scientific world also has expressed interest in the use of psychoactive substances such as LSD in the use of healing. Psychotherapists argued that they had the capacity to give “insight into inner conflicts” from “an expanded state of consciousness” (Metzner 1998). They administered doses of mood-altering drugs to their patients, but not without aspects of ritual as well such as sitting on the couch, the therapist’s questions, the recounting of dreams, etc. It was also during this time in therapeutic history that Timothy’s “set and setting” hypothesis came out, in which it is important for one to take psychedelics in an environment that makes them feel comfortable as well as in a stable (and positive) mental state (Metzner 1998). This is not very different from the peyote rituals of the Huichol Indians, whose practice involves community and family, as well as positive thinking (Myerhof 1970). Leary also suggested that the therapist could act as a guide on a psychedelic journey, which is paralleled in the roles of the shaman as a leader in many tribal practices.
These psychotherapeutic encounters with psychoactive drugs are not only historical, but have found a modern base in holistic healing. Circle rituals of Europe and North America often involve plant-based entheogens and a ritual involving a guide, music, and ritual space. The participants of these practices suggest that they are not only engaged with a healing process, but that they find insight and knowledge. Other modern practices do not use any external influences. Tantric yoga, for example, focuses on concentration, meditation, and breath as a gateway to altered states of consciousness (Metzner 1998).

Many people of the modern world turn to science and medicine for healing, and consider this to be divorced from religion. However, Norman Goldman argues that modern medicine is essentially shamanic in nature, filled with rituals such as the wearing of the white coat, and making rounds. He argues that the placebo effect is in fact a powerful shamanic ritual that, through stress reduction, can physically speed the healing process. “Intrapsychic unease may and does contribute toward organic pathology,” he argues, which has become increasingly evident as scientists continually find new information on the consequences of psychological imbalances (Goldman 1985). Stress causes us to have decreased mental capacities, depresses our immune systems, and can bring on psychological disorders such as schizophrenia. He compares the rituals of the hospital to that of ritual healing from religion and faith, and argues that they are in many ways the same. The resulting calm or feeling of getting help physiologically allows the body to heal itself (Goldman 1985).

It is in these forms and many more that modern humans find healing through the ancient practice of shamanism. Despite the skepticism and realism that permeates our world, trance and transcendence are omnipresent through the clanking machinery of Western society.

Works Cited
Goldman, Norman, 1985. ‘The Placebo and the Therapeutic Uses of Faith,’ Journal of Religion and Health, 24, 2, 103-116

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

Myerhof B. 1970. ‘The Deer-Maize-Peyote Symbol Complex among the Huichol Indians of Mexico.’ Anthropological Quarterly, 43, 2, 64-78

Porterfield, Amanda, 1987. ‘Shamanism: A Psychosocial Definition,’ Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 55, 4, 721-739

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