The Renaissance of Shamanic Expression and Interest Therein; and Why Continued Exploration of Shamanic Ways Is Crucial to the Survival of Human Culture in Post-Technological Societies
"Recently... there has been a resurgence of interest in shamanism as an increasing number of scholars have realized that cavalier dismissals of the shaman as a neurotic or borderline psychotic, whose dreams and fantasies are only amenable to psychoanalytic interpretation, have been seriously in error, and have therefore begun to devote greater time and energy to a study of the subject. Consequently, there has been a greater awareness of the considerable shamanic content present in many myths, rituals and artistic productions from around the world." (Blackburn, 1975, 87)
Paralleling this interest in shamanism has been a reappearance of traditional and native peoples' ceremonials. The renewed interest in the "old ways" reflects a "renaissance and renewal of the best values in the old religion." (Hultkrantz, 1967, 39) The persistence of such practices ac the Arapaho "Spirit Lodge" and the emergence of the Native American Church's peyote ceremony "not only help human beings to have their health restored, or their lost and hidden things regained. [They] also create for them the contact with the reassuring world of the spirits which is the heritage of the Indian religions since time immemorial." (Ibid.)
To a large extent, the revival of shamanism is the result of attempts to reassert traditional ways under the onslaught of industrialism and modernization. The strong ties to the earth and the world of nature characterizing the "Shamanschauung" are juxtaposed with the sterile, mechanical worldview common to industrialized and economically oriented societies. (Covell, 1983, 92) Within this nexus of conflicting ideologies has emerged the crisis of modernity: the threat of nuclear and ecological destruction of the biosphere, economic instability and a progressive alienation from the natural world and traditional ways.
According to the McKennas:
There appears to be occurring in modern life a progressive alienation from the numinous archetypal contents of the collective unconscious, which has engendered a gradually encroaching sense of collective despair and anxiety. The archetypal motifs of the Western religious tradition seem to have lost their effectiveness for the larger portions of civilized humanity or, at best, have been depotentiated to the level of a "merely psychological" reality. Western man has lost his sense of unity with the cosmos and with the transcendent mystery within himself. This alienation of modern man from the numinous ground of his being has engendered the existentialist ethic and the contemporary preoccupation with the immediate historical situation. (McKenna & McKenna, 1975, 15)
Thus modern man stands today at the very edge of the abyss of death and nothingness, and it is precisely here that one can perceive a useful role for a modern shamanism... [with the neo-shaman acting as a] doctor of the soul, a figure who can bring mankind into close and fruitful confrontation with the collective unconscious, the creative matrix of all that we are and have ever been. (Ibid.)
[Because the] spiritual atrophying of contemporary culture may be due in large measure to its loss of sensitivity to processes in the collective unconscious, [a] ...reinstitution of the shamanic role in modern society might prevent its total estrangement from the collective unconscious, which remains the fountainhead of all human cultures, archaic or modern. (Ibid., 25)
There is a growing awareness of the importance of numinous sensibilities to the development and well-being of the individual within a cultural milieux. (Ibid., 17) Shamanism seems well suited to serving the individual within a socio-cultural context, (Covell, 1983, 103) as it tends to foster an wholistic perspective of life which seems conducive to greater interpersonal harmony. (McKenna and McKenna, 1975, 17)
At the core of this perspective we find a strong sense of "value and teleology in nature." (Ibid., 36) "Clearly, nature appears to our common sense to have purpose and value; it seems to evolve from simple to more complex, from primitive to more advanced, from less conscious to more conscious. Indeed, it appears to have direction, and it seems to have purpose, which guides it in that direction. Yet, we are asked by [a reductionist, mechanistic] science, in the face of all evidence, all reason, and all intuition, to regard nature as purposeless, meaningless, and valueless. If we admit mind as an agent of even the most primary organism, however, this vast complexity suddenly takes on an added meaning; a new and deeper sublimity replaces that sense of baffling futility and waste with which a blind universe confronts us." (Ibid.)
The alienation of the individual in modern, techno-bureaucratic societies from the processes of nature, intuition and intimate contact with other human beings parallels the sensory and social deprivation experienced by the shamanic initiate. This deprivation may induce a growing "drive," "need," or "tendency" to seek out meaningful contact with other intelligent life forms, particularly human and human-like entities. (Nordland, 1967, 175-176) As this need for contact grows, there may develop a relationship with an "imaginary entity," or "spirit-ally," "divine mate," "tutelary deity" or "ancestral guide" who facilitates return to a state of harmony with other, physical and psychical entities.
This process of developing relations with imaginary beings may be seen as a "regression in service of the ego," (Ibid.,189) a character trait prominent in shamans, mystics and artists. Through temporary, controlled regression, the artist-shaman calls up primary processes to enhance the creative potential and its expression. The "drawing upon these resources by the shaman, implies an even more intimate turning to primary processes in which intimations combine in the shadows and whispers of observations which cannot at present and perhaps never, will be brought forth to manifest consciousness. To activate these primary processes, more utilized in earlier stages in the development of our species, the shaman could use his special technique of regression and unconsciousness." (Ibid.)
Through "contact with his own stock of experiences, down to the nonverbal level, [the shaman developed] a power of untraceable combination at such levels, and the ability to accept the resulting combinations as problem-solving solutions." (Ibid.) This technique involves both logical-rational and intuitive-non-rational approaches to problem-solving which are not as apparent among modernized peoples as among their primal cousins. Yet with many of today's crises being an outgrowth of a mechanistic, rational approach to environmental interactions, human relations and socioeconomic development, perhaps it is time for a re-appraisal of the alternate, intuitive modes of perception common to many of our ancestors and surviving primal and shamanic cultures.
It "is probably easier for us to imagine that at every step in the saga of mankind both [intuitively- and logically-oriented] methods of problem-solving have been employed, but that we, in our world of symbols and abstractions, are more and more alien to what has been a less precise problem-solving, filled with intense experiences and strange, penetrating effects upon the relationship between personality and social milieu. The primitive, migratory society, with its elementary form of social organization, with incomplete equipment of thought and abstraction, cannot afford to risk life and security on our conscious methods of problem solving as the only method of procedure." (Ibid., 178-179) The shaman, as mediator between the intuitive world of the spirits and the rational world of social milieux, personifies the blending of both modes of thought, whether in traditional or modern societies.