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 et.al., 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.