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.
• 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: http://www.drstevenfarmer.com/shamanic-writing/78-shamanism-and-the-shamanic-journey
• 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.