Exploring Shamanic, Ecstatic and Transcendent Experiences in Western Urban Society
A Blog Reflection
By Jessica Allardyce
Many examples of shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent experiences are still present in today’s western urban society. Today, these spiritual experiences are most commonly regarded as self-induced and unaffiliated with religion. Recreational activities such as exercise, dance, music, fasting and sex are thought to bring about alternative states of consciousness (ASC) along with the usage of various natural and unnatural drugs. Because these states of consciousness are self-induced, the role of the shaman in facilitating the transition of individuals into periods of ecstasy and transcendence is less common in western culture and continues to decrease in practice around the world. Using knowledge from various articles, books and personal experience, I will discuss shamanic, ecstatic and transcendent experiences in today’s western urban society.
Self-induced ecstatic experiences continue to increase in popularity among western culture. Traditional holistic healing activities such as yoga, meditation and Tai Chi, are commonly practiced for a variety of purposes. These activities are thought to cleanse the mind and body of negative toxins and are widely accepted by scientists and doctors. It is disputable as to why these practices have increased so rapidly in popularity in western culture over the past decade. With regards to physical health, holistic healing in the form of yoga and tai chi can be linked directly to the large increase in obesity among today’s western urban society. Meditation has also increased largely in popularity over the past decade. A primary reason for this can be attributed to the increased level of research and recognition the practice has received by credible doctors and scientists. It has been proven to decrease blood pressure, relive stress and increase brain activation.
In my own experiences, ecstatic and transcendent experiences are very common in both younger and older generations. Both my grandmother and aunt frequently practiced meditation, claiming that it bought them to a level of peace and tranquility. Naturally I was intrigued, and in disbelief. It was not until I began frequently practicing yoga that I began understanding the effects of induced tranquility. The practice offers an all-inclusive alternative state of consciousness, promoting an out of body experience through synchronized harmony of the mind, body and soul. Peace, tranquility and reflection are promoted throughout the practice, allowing the body to enter into a state of personal ecstasy and ASC. It can be argued that the yoga instructor behaves as a shaman in an untraditional setting. The instructor acts as a facilitator to ASC, assisting individuals to a state of ecstasy.
The psychedelic movement of the 1960’s revolutionized the way individuals in western society incorporated ecstatic and transcendent experiences into everyday life. The movement popularized various substances known to stimulate ecstatic and transcendent experiences. Traditionally, natural herbs such as marijuana are common in the shamanic practices to facilitate ASC and the transportation of a being to a new spiritual plane of existence. Since the psychedelic movement, many unnatural substances such as LSD, acid and MDMA (also known as ecstasy) became common and widely recognized in western society for recreational inducement to ASC and physiological euphoria. These chemical substances, known for producing abnormally long periods of trance and ASC, are entirely unnatural and untraditional to shamanic practice. These substances are also quite harmful to the body and can be highly addictive.
Younger generations often associate ecstasy and trance with self-induced euphoria produced from various music and harmful chemical substance. I have never tried any of the unnatural substances previously mentioned such as LSD, Acid and MDMA, however I have been witness to the psychological effects they have on other individuals. The reason I have not tried any of these substances is not because I am aware of them to be illegal, but because the idea of becoming a prisoner of my thoughts and functions to the mercy of a chemical drug frightens me. Unlike in traditional shamanism and trance, the individual has no control over the length of their ASC, which can often last for long periods of time. Since the 1980’s, raves have become extremely popular amongst the younger generations of western society. A rave can be described as a blend of faced-paced music and light shows with the presence of a lot of drugs. Essentially a rave is an all-inclusive transcending experience where individuals can loose all inner consciousnesses for several hours at a time. The music acts as a stimulus to ASC along with any drugs consumed.
According to sociologists, 35-50 percent of the people in Australia, Britain and England have reported to have had at least one transcendent experience in their life (Louis Roy, O.P). As discussed earlier, these experiences are not inherently religions. Often, reports of transcendent experiences can be compared directly with acts of magic and witchcraft. The Archives of Scientists Transcendent Experiences (TASTE) is an online journal devoted to transcendent experiences that scientists have reported. Many of the reports on TASTE describe ASC experiences where individuals connect with ancestors or past loved ones both psychologically and physically. Other reports involve psychological manipulation. One male wrote that he believed he had mentally willed a bus to stop. Because of the direct affiliation between transcendent experiences and magic, transcendent experiences are generally associated with negative connotations in Western culture.
In conclusion, ecstatic and transcendent experiences are very common in western culture in an untraditional and non-religious sense. Most of these experiences are self-induced for a range of purposes such as recreation and physical and mental health. Although the role of the traditional shaman has little influence on western society, shamanic entities are still present in the role of facilitating transportation to a new plane of spiritual existence. Drugs and substance abuse is common in western society, primarily in youth, as a means of inducing individuals into abnormally long periods of ASC. Transcendent experiences have developed a negative connotation in western society as it is often affiliated with magic and witchcraft.
Avery, Samuel. 2003. Transcendence of the Western Mind: Physics, Metaphysics and Life on Earth. Compari
Howell, Julia. 1997. Sociology of Religion: ASC Induction Techniques, ‘Spiritual Experiences, and Commitment to New Religious Movements’. 58(2): 141-164
Hume, Lynne. 2002. Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities through the Senses. Oxford: Berg.
Roy, Louis: 2001. Transcendent Experiences: Phenomenology and Critique. University of Toronto Press
Tart, Charles T. 1999. The Archives of Scientists Transcendent Experiences. http://www.issc-taste.org/
Walsh, Roger. 1993. Journal of the American Academy of Religion: ‘Phenomenological Mapping and Comparisons of Shamanic, Buddhist, Yogic, and Schizophrenic Experiences’. 61(4): 739-769