Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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.

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