Wednesday, March 31, 2010

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).

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