Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ecstatic States in the Modern Day

Shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent experiences have formed a crucial part of cultures all around the world since the beginning of time. Rituals, both solemn and celebratory have brought communities together, and Shamans have employed a variety of techniques which induce a transcendent state as a means of healing, divination and protection. While the Western World in general has little time for that which lies outside of cultural norms, there are still people who recognise the importance of the spiritual development that these powerful experiences can offer. I will discuss here some of the ways in which Shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent experiences are still significant in contemporary western society, as well as the wider community benefits of these practices.
Meditation is recognised by many as a powerful and beneficial practise which can improve mental and physical health, decrease stress and support evolutionary insight. In fact, even experts in Western medicine have acknowledged the many health benefits of regular meditation. What many do not realise however is that when in deep meditation, we experience an ‘Altered State of Consciousness’ (ASC). Grof (2007) coined the term ‘Holotropic State of Consciousness’ to describe the enhanced state often achieved during “forms of systematic spiritual practice involving meditation, concentration, breathing, and movement exercises” among other things.
Studies into the benefits and healing potential of holotropic and transcendent experiences have produced amazing results. Meditation appears to be especially beneficial for people with stress disorders. Results have shown that mindfulness meditation (most commonly used in Buddhist teachings), can assist those with insomnia, eating, anxiety, panic and phobic disorders (S. Shapiro, Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998). Additionally, it has been shown to enhance perception as measured by perceptual sensitivity, processing speed, empathy, and synaesthesia (Murphy & Donovan, 1997). Transcendent meditation (originally a Hindu practice) is reported to alleviate anxiety, aggression, and recidivism in prisoners and to reduce the use of both legal and illegal drugs (C.Alexander et al., 2003). Several other studies also found that meditation resulted in an increase in empathy, and that consequently, interpersonal functionality and marital satisfaction increased (Tloczynski & Tantriells, 1998). It has been suggested also that meditation is a significant factor in personal development and maturity, with several studies finding that those who meditate regularly score higher on measures of ego, moral and cognitive development, self-actualization, coping skills and defences and states and stages of consciousness (C. Alexander & Langer, 1990).
Outside of the academic realm, personal experience has proven to me that meditation is a incredibly beneficial practise. On days when I meditate, I find myself feeling happier and more energized. I have improved concentration and am better equipped to deal with any obstacles that the day may present. As an energy worker and crystal healer, I often find that I achieve a meditative state far more easily during bodywork and healing practice. My connection to the Divine is never as powerful as when I am participating in the process of healing with energy, and time and time again this practice has proven to be to be beneficial to all involved. In this case, the transcendent state reached serves not only to support mental and emotional growth, but also facilitates significant healing on a physical level, overall improvement of health and minimisation of pain from various ailments. This serves as an example of one of the ways in which meditation can benefit not only the practitioner, but also the wider community.
Members of the general public in general remain unaware of the importance and benefits of transcendent, ecstatic and shamanic experiences. Terms such as Shaman have been known to invoke fear, with images of dark sorcerers and a world of the unknown. This fear is also common at the mention of things such as hallucinogens. What many don’t realise is that these substances have been used since ancient times, in ritualistic shamanic practise, as spiritual tools for healing and divination. The Huichol use Peyote, the South Americans, Ayahuasca. In urban western society, substances such as psilocybin (in magic mushrooms), LSD and DMT serve a similar purpose for some individuals. While these substances are technically illegal, and sometimes used recreationally without the proper respect, those who have experienced their powerful effects often speak of spiritual insights, changes in perspective and profound experiences which have changed their lives for the better.
Controlled studies into the benefits of such substances have yielded amazing results. One such study of the effects of psilocybin noted that for many it “can occasion mystical-type experiences [of] substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance” (Griffiths, Richards, McCann & Jesse, 2006). This study also found that the significant majority of volunteers “attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behaviour that were consistent with changes rated by friends and family.” (Griffiths, 2006)
My personal experiences with psilocybin and LSD were consistent with these findings. I believe very strongly that the spiritual benefits of these substances far outweigh the physical toll on the body when used with respect and in moderation. The ecstatic state alone, experienced during intoxication, I believe has powerful healing properties and has often left me feeling increasingly positive and at peace for weeks and even months after the fact. Additionally, there is the wealth of knowledge to be gained while in a transcendent state. Grof (2007) based on his research, suggested that “we can obtain information about the universe in two radically different ways: Besides the conventional possibility of learning through sensory perception and analysis and synthesis of the data, we can also find out about various aspects of the world by direct identification with them in a holotropic state of consciousness.” Psychoactive drugs are just another means of achieving this state, and while meditation is the ideal method, these chemicals are able to support a more prolonged and enhanced transcendence which can lead to profound spiritual insights and personal growth. They are a powerful tool chosen by some in the western world and they assist in ensuring that more people reap the benefits of the ever important transcendent and ecstatic states of consciousness.
In conclusion, the importance of shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent states has certainly not decreased with time. If anything, it is more important now that ever that practises such as meditation and respectful use on entheogens be encouraged, not prohibited, as we live in a time where theologies of separateness, individualism and materialism are commonplace, at least in the western world. Ecstatic and transcendent states enhance our connection to the Divine, bring people together, and facilitate healing as well as personal and spiritual development. It is time we spread the word so more people can reap the benefits of these profound and powerful practices.

Rebecca Caine.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Shamanism - Universal or Not? Three Article Reviews by Louise Cosgrove

Article # 1

In “Entrances and Exits” Hume examines various shamanic practices used to access alternate states of consciousness (ASC) via “portals”. Spanning the beginnings of recorded history to the present time, and sampling cultures and religions from around the globe, Hume aims to underscore the common threads found in shamanic techniques which utilize the senses to transcend the bodily realm. Simultaneously, Hume acknowledges that interpretation of the altered state experience remains firmly rooted in the shaman’s subjective cultural context.

The concept of sacred portals appears to have begun in pre-historic times. Anthorpologists consider caves to be sacred pre-historic sights - spaces symbolising transition from one reality to another. Markings differ over the cave entrances from markings within the caves across Africa and Europe, signifying the crossing of a threshold to an alternate reality. In the modern day, we know that cross-culturally, techniques which engage multiple senses are prevalent. These include repetitive sound (eg. music, drumming, singing), movement (eg. dance, rhythmic swaying), and strong smells (eg. burning incense). When combined with a deep concentration, it is suggested these trigger a sensory overload (a neurobiological response) which in turn creates a sense of stepping through the portal into an ecstatic state. The means of opening the gateway to another dimension have much in common. It appears that the effect or ends are similar also, though reported contextually - what a magician may call “conscious union with the indwelling self” a Sufi calls “lifting the veil”.
Hume adds to existing literature by discussing the important role of emotions in ecstatic shamanic experiences. It is suggested that rather than downplaying the emotions experienced by anthropologists due to their “unscientific” nature, these emotions should be analysed as an integral component of understanding and participating in the ASC. At a time when drugs are so problematic in Western society, used as a means of escaping negative emotions, perhaps it is time for shamanic techniques to come out of the fringe and closer to the centre. Hume has laid a solid foundation for those seeking “how to”.

Article #2

In “Shamanism Today” Jane Monnig Atkinson critiques the current modes of Western academic discourse regarding shamanism. In contrast to Hume above, Atkinson’s disdain for the oversimplification of shamanic studies to fit into a universal and hence logical, rational and scientific western paradigm is unambiguous. The dominant Western approach in recent studies has been multi-disciplinary wherein unifying principles are sought. According to Atkinson, these reductionist pursuits have undermined understanding of the diversity of shamanic practice. Since the 1980s there has a renewed interest in the study of shamanism across many fields. Each has vied shamanism through their own lens and rendered conclusions accordingly. For example, psychologists have categorised shamans as dysfunctional personalities or conversely as serving some psychological function within their community. Comparative approaches have viewed shamans only as healers. Parallels drawn with western doctors and psychotherapists, have legitimised the study and hence facilitated Western acceptance. Atkinson emphasises the losses resulting from these convenient approaches – appreciating the broad spectrum of culture, ethnicity and social groups which engage in shamanic practices for a range of reasons.

On a more positive note, Atkinson praises the new age theatrical study of shamanic practice as it emphasises that meaning derived from ritual is “negotiated jointly by performer and audiences”. This epitomises her argument - subjective meaning takes place in its specific context. Thus, drawing parallels and making generalisations diminishes the individual significance of the practice. In her conclusion, Atkinson implores ethnographers to counter the universalists and “devise new ways of being heard”.

Personally I found this article somewhat difficult to digest. It was unbalanced in that it failed to discuss ritualistic similarities in shamanic practices and the universal role of shaman as mediator with the divine realm. A middle path approach could have acknowledged both Western bias as a device to facilitate understanding shamanism through Western eyes and that the meaning derived occurs within its own particular socio-cultural context. The quest for meaning is surely universal regardless of context.

Article # 3

In their 2005 article “Shamanic Journeying Imagery, Constructivism and the Affect Bridge Technique” authors Rock and Baynes pose the fascinating question of whether the images a shaman observes during a shamanic journey are wholly dependent upon the shaman’s subjective life experiences, or are there common elements devoid of the context in which they arise? Previous research advocating both perspectives was examined. They ventured further to ask how could a researcher empirically tease the two apart? To this end they advocated a modified hypnotic technique (stripped of embedded commands normally found in hypnosis) which allows the participant control over the process, whilst being guided to find the original source of the images found during the shamanic journey.

Previous research in this domain begins at one of the end spectrum with “constructivists” who believe that the images experienced by a shaman during trance or journeying are wholly context dependent. That is, the images are a construct arising from of the participant’s religious bias, background, beliefs and culture. For example, ecstatic Christians may report seeing the face of Jesus, Sufis tend to engage with Mohammed, and Buddhists a vision with Gautama. This view fails to explain common elements reported across cultures, time and history. If a parsimonious explanation of this phenomenon exists, perhaps it is a combination of both. Hence the authors discussed their proposed experimental design aimed at disentangling these two aspects – a modified time regression hypnotic technique. A replicable script is provided in text as the basis for future research.

This article left me wanting more. I wanted to know what the research findings were, but they were yet to be conducted. It was well balanced in its presentation of a spectrum of theoretical viewpoints. Rather than proposing a theoretical solution to this “chicken and egg” dilemma, instead a sound practical tool was offered. Could this potentially form the basis of an Honours project?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Shamanic Practices and appropriate ASC in Today's Western Urban Society

An Exploration of the Importance of Altered States of Consciousness in Today’s Western Urban Society
A Review and Reflection by Toby Coates

This paper is focused on the effects of altered states of consciousness (ASC) within shamanic practices, and the use of such methods in today’s western urban society (TWUS). The first section is an exploration of the common themes and messages within three key writings on this subject; being Hume (2007), Peters and Price-Williams (1980), and Winkelman (1997). The second is a personal reflection on this message, and the importance of shamanic ASC experiences in TWUS.

Through this exploration, I will show that the three central readings portray a similar idea: the observation that utilising ASC through shamanic practices is important not only to the wellbeing of the individual, but society as a whole. We must remember this potential, or our disassociation from nature will continue, and a healthy relationship with this planet will move further out of our reach.

Before diving too deep into the topic at hand, it is important to identify my use of the term ‘shaman’. It is used here to illustrate anyone intentionally seeking out an ASC, in which they hope to spiritually mature by enhancing their perceptions of existence beyond that which they are normally accustomed to. ‘Shamanic practices’ are therefore anything intending to induce this state. A further distinction that must be made stems from the fact that we use the term ‘altered’ for many states of consciousness possible within the human mind. The connotations of such a term do not do justice to the ‘heightened’ state of consciousness relevant to shamanic practices. To avoid such undertones, and provide clarity, the form of ASC reached by an effective shaman will be referred to as a ‘shamanic state of consciousness’ (SSC). A similar distinction is made in Noll (1983).

As stated earlier: the three key readings under discussion possess a central theme and send similar messages to the readers. The message to be explored here is that ASC can have irreplaceably positive effects on the human soul and on societies connection with nature, when used with shamanic principles. Shamanist approaches to the positive effects of ASC should not be seen merely as an aspect of the past or other cultures, but something of great importance to spiritual health and our life on this planet.

Winkelman (1997: 393,395) notes our universal and biological attachment to ASC, and along with Farmer (2003) and Noll (1983: 444), mention its importance in healing. The type of healing that can be enjoyed through appropriate ASC – particularly SSC – covers more then the usual consideration of ‘healing’ in TWUS. Rather, it truly encompasses all levels of healing, from spiritual to physical, conscious to subconscious, and individual to communal. As Hume (2007: 5) points out, ASC can generate “union with the divine or deeper levels of consciousness”. Winkleman (1997: 405,416) observes its ability to improve “psychological and physiological well-being in a number of ways”, and generate heightened awareness of the nature of reality. Hume (2007: 3,7) also mentions the ability to use it to better understand the earth and all life on it, and to gain knowledge beyond that attainable in the ‘ordinary’ state of consciousness.

When ASC is used for these positive effects and achieves SSC, it fully awakens ones senses and creates an environment through which one can truly experience the universe. For example, Hume (2007: 3,17) comments on the ability of SSC to expand the shaman’s field of awareness and grant them the “power to see with closed eyes”. As Harvey (2003: 367), Mayes (2005: 330) and Peters and Price-Williams (1980: 398) observe, through SSC, shamans achieve a state of pure ‘ecstasy’. Just as a blind man learns to harness his other senses to ‘see’ in his own special way, a shaman awakens all of his senses to their potential. He does not ‘alter’ his consciousness in the negative sense, but gains his consciousness in the complete sense.

I see this message of the potentials of constructive ASC through shamanic focuses as vital to TWUS. I believe we are losing our relationship with the world we walk on, making this message more vital then ever before (Harvey 2003: 368). Even with the potential effects of appropriate shamanic practices, there still appears to be “a cultural resistance to ASC experiences” in TWUS (Winkleman 1997: 404, 421). Within initial discussions of ASC and shamanic practices, many within TWUS may brush it off as a product of uncivilized or barbaric peoples. Others may fear it, as they perceive it to be against nature or their beliefs. Perhaps these premature conclusions arise from being told that shamans are “weird” (Harvey 2003: 368), “wildly disturbed” schizophrenics, or “mentally deranged” (Peters and Price-Williams 1980: 398). An underlying cause of most resistance to shamanism and relative ASC is a lack of understanding of such practices.

Winkelman (2007: 421) argues that there is a biological need within humans to experience ASC at some times. As society has changed and grown overly complex, people have found alternative methods to cater for this biological urge. For an example one merely needs to remember the effects of alcohol in inducing ASC. Here, we attempt to feed our biological need for an ASC, yet we have forgotten the true potential, and purpose, of this desire. We primitively alter our states of consciousness, rather then following shamanic practices to bring about a heightened state of consciousness, a true SSC.

The issue that lies at the heart of the discussed readings, and at the base of my own heart, is our disassociation with the purpose of ASC. What makes appropriate ASC truly important to the wellbeing of people, and effective as a tool of spiritual harmony and guidance, is an understanding of its purpose and the desire of SSC. We have let go of the journey to SSC and of its true potentials, and in so doing, we have also let go of shamanic practices and our harmonious relationship with nature.

With our unrivaled communication and massive web of information, we are the most informed; yet at the same time we are the most sheltered. It seems that the more we learn, the more we forget. Yet even with these bars in our way, we are the luckiest of all. In other times and other places, it was designated shamans alone who were given the privilege to seek out the spirits and enter an intensely individual ASC. We, on the other hand, have the choice to be ‘mini-shamans’ within ourselves. We have the choice to seek out SSC, using ASC as a means of opening our senses and strengthening our relationship with the nature that is around us – nature that is not just a pretty backdrop, but a connection of living organisms. The experience of opening our minds to the universe through such ASC, and harmonizing our soul with this planet, must be one of the greatest powers of the human spirit.

According to Harvey (2003: 371) the “shaman remains a connection to the pulse of the living world in all the running stream of change.” If we let go of such an invaluable connection and forget the potentials of ASC, we let go of our existence with this planet. We will become separate beings, not only distinct from nature, but truly alone, stranded on a world we have forgotten.

Reference List

• Atkinson, Jane Monnig. 1992. ‘Shamanisms Today.’ Annual Review of Anthropology 21(1): 307-330.

• Farmer, Steven. 2003. Shamanism and the Shamanic Journey. Accessed 30 March 2010. Available at:

• Harvey, Graham. 2003. Shamanism: A Reader. London, UK: Routledge.

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

• Mayes, Clifford. 2005. 'The teacher as shaman.' Journal of Curriculum Studies 37(3): 329-348.

• Noll, Richard. 1983. ‘Shamanism and Schizophrenia: A State-Specific Approach to the “Schizophrenia Metaphor” of Shamanic States.’ American Ethnologist 10(3): 443-459.

• Peters, Larry and Douglass Price-Williams. 1980. ‘Towards an Experiential Analysis of Shamanism.’ American Ethnologist 7(3): 397-418.

• Winkelman, Michael. 1997. ‘Altered States of Consciousness and Religious Behaviour.’ In Anthropology of Religion: A Handbook of Method and Theory, ed. S. Glazier. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press.