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?

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