Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Importance of Shamanic and Transcendental Practice in today’s Western Urban Society by Freya Whitehead

In today’s western urban environment, many people are in a constant state of stress and unhappiness. In this busy lifestyle of trying to juggle long work days with family time and domestic chores while worrying about having to do it all again the next day, one often doesn’t get the chance to take some time out to relax and recuperate. High stress levels can often lead to physical or emotional illness and the western way of treating these ailments is usually to prescribe some form of medication and send that person on their way (Chrousos 2000; DeLongis Lazarus & Folkman 1988). These means of living and healing are far removed from the traditional ways in which people of ancient cultures have lived with good health and in harmony with nature for many tens of thousands of years. This essay will explore the importance of shamanic and transcendental practice in today’s western urban society and the importance of the renewal or continuation of traditional practices for indigenous people that live in these areas.

Psychological stress, which is endemic in western urban societies, is widely known to be detrimental to health and wellbeing (DeLongis Lazarus & Folkman 1988). Findings of various academic studies suggest stress, and thus an increased functioning of the sympathetic “flight or fight” division of the nervous system, may play a role in the development of many mental physical and emotional complaints. A few examples include increased inflammation, impaired immune function, fatigue, peptic ulcers caused by Helicobacter pylori infection, depression and sleep disorders (Chrousos 2000). Increased levels of circulating pro-inflammatory cytokines, as observed in cases of chronic stress, can lead to metabolic disturbances which, when combined with immune dysfunction, may contribute to osteoporosis, hypertension and risk factors of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes such as dyslipidaemia, glucose intolerance and insulin resistance (Chrousos 2000). There is even evidence to imply an increased risk of developing autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis in people exposed to high stress compared with those with less stress in their lives (Hagglof et al. 1991; Warren Greenhill & Warren 1982). Many people from western cities are beginning to realise the effects that stressful, busy living has on their health and happiness. In turn, a rise in the popularity of shamanic and transcendental healing practices has been seen, especially those such as meditation and Qigong which are used to promote relaxation, decrease stress and improve one’s overall wellbeing.

The scientific uprising in the western world triggered in many people the idea that if something cannot be proven or explained scientifically then it should not believe in as it is not ‘real’. Though science works to satisfy our hunger to understand things and has unravelled some great mysteries, it could also be seen to have contributed to the rejection and cynicism that many people express towards shamanic and transcendental practises in western society. Shamans were, up until very recently, considered charlatans, mentally ill or possessed by a demon or the devil (Jilek 2005). However, this outdated fashion of thinking is slowly becoming less common and people are beginning to be more open to shamanic and transcendental healing practices, especially as they experience the benefits for themselves.

As mentioned previously, Qigong can be used to promote relaxation and increase health and happiness. It is believed to do so through tuning into and working with the flow of life energy known as ‘Qi’. Qigong involves various body postures and deep-breathing techniques, through which the liminal space can be accessed and balance within oneself and with nature or the cosmos can be accomplished (Harowitz 2009). That taking part in Qigong can be very healing and can markedly enhance health and happiness has been accepted by many people of Chinese origin for generations. In current times these claims are also supported by results of scientific studies and this evidence is likely contributing to the increased popularity of this practice in western society. Some benefits of Qigong which have been observed in scientific trials include: significant decreases in blood pressure of hypertensive individuals, improved glucose tolerance and lower blood levels of triglycerides and cholesterol in diabetics, decreased risk of osteoporosis, enhanced immune function, enhanced quality of life in cancer patients and better psychological health including the successful treatment of anxiety and depression among many more (Horowitz 2009; Liu et al. 2010). As many of these ailments are rife in urban centres of the western world, people living in these areas could potentially benefit enormously from participating in ancient healing practices such as qigong.

Another reason why shamanic and transcendent practice is extremely important in urban western society is that it is here that many people live who have been isolated from their own cultures and traditions. In many cases this separation has come about through horrible and traumatic incidents such as having been forcibly removed from their homelands and prohibited from practising their traditional shamanic healings and rituals. Therefore, these people not only feel traumatised by what they have been through but also disconnected from their culture (Wong & Wong 2006). Reuniting one with their culture and traditional practises has the potential to help heal emotional and perhaps even physical illnesses in these people. An example of this is the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction in Australian Aborigines and Native Americans through incorporating traditional healing practices and cultural elements into the western ways of dealing with these diseases. Many successful intervention programs focus on restoring or strengthening the cultural identity of the individual and employ traditional spiritual healing techniques, rituals or ceremonies as part of the treatment targeting alcoholism and drug addiction in these people (Brady 1995). The success witnessed through programs such as the one described, supports the argument that re-establishing a connection or balance with ones culture or spirituality may be fundamental to healing on all levels and to wellbeing as a whole.

Countless cultures around the world include in their traditions various shamanic and transcendent practices. Depending on the culture, these may include entering the liminal space in an altered state of consciousness and seeking healing or insight through transcending energies, or ritual and ceremony to maintain balance and connection within one’s own body, with their gods, ancestral spirits or with nature. In Australian Aboriginal culture, an example of this is that of the ‘clever man’ attaining a state of altered consciousness in which his spirit leaves his body to travel into the sky and commune with ancestral spirits or visit sacred sites. Through doing this it is believed the connection between oneself and his homeland and culture are reinforced and strengthened (Hume 2004).

It is apparent that in today’s Western urban society many people have become disconnected with their cultural traditions and healing practices. Whether this separation occurred in an individual’s lifetime or in their ancestral past is not necessarily of great importance. Either way, in most cases knowledge has been lost, once-important rituals and ceremonies are no longer being performed and traditional shamanic and transcendental healing techniques are second-place to westernised medicine. As described in this paper, many ancient cultures deem ceremonial participation or ritual practice of some type as being vital to maintaining the connection between themselves and the gods/ancestral spirits/cosmos. Shamanic and transcendental practices of healing such as that of Qigong are becoming increasingly accepted, even by the scientific community, as being beneficial to ones overall wellbeing. In summation, as discussed in this paper through partaking in shamanic and transcendental practices whether it be to re-establish cultural connection and identity or to seek healing of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self, balance and wellbeing can be attained. Through reaching this equilibrium, the balance and connectedness within oneself and with the cosmos can be strengthened or regained and this has the potential to benefit the individual and the western urban community as a whole.



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