The Modern Shaman-Figure as Psychotherapist and
Within the nexus of many traditional societies, the shaman plays the dual roles of both a "supernatural personage" who is the vehicle of the spirits, and of a "sympathetic human" who is doing the best s/he can to facilitate the healing of a suffering patient. "In a practical way, the shaman is a skilled therapist, utilizing principles that, although unidentified in his own mind as such, are among the basic concepts of psychotherapeutic treatment. " (Rogers, 1982, 92)
"Ahead of his time in history, the shaman may have been aware of significant principles in healing." (Ibid., 131) Common therapeutic principles in traditional and modern shamanistic practice include:
1)"symbolic manipulation" through playing with meaning and numinosity;
2 ) "relaxation" which increases receptiveness to information and re-adjustments in orientation;
3 ) "hypnosis and trance" derived from limited sensory input, fixation of attention, repetition of monotonous stimuli, and the development of an emotionally reciprocal relations between the subject and the therapist/shaman;
4 ) "suggestion and reinforcement" of past-trance directives;
5) "persuasion" through reasoned instruction based on logical relations: A leads to B, etc.;
6 ) "catharsis-abreaction" often involving confession and great emotional release;
7 ) "transference" to assist release of repressed authority issues;
8 ) "shock" that" "breaks the cycle of psycho-physiological interaction that progressively deteriorates the condition of the patient;"
9 ) "group support" in which the individual experiencing treatment finds that s/he is truly important to the well-being of the community which facilitates and encourages a sense of responsibility and interpersonal connectedness;
10) "breaking a psychological cycle" of vicious influences,
11) "confusion and conflict" between a sense of self (personality) and a Higher-Self (super-ego), or what we are and what we think we are supposed to be; and
12) "emotional flooding" which facilitates the disorganization of mental constructs and a refashioning into forms that work better than previous models of self-awareness and personal behavioral tendencies. (Ibid., 142-151)
As both a teacher and negotiator with the spirits, the shaman shows her patient that s/he is responsible for her or his ailments, and that these may be healed through a set of ritual procedures, herbal remedies and perhaps a "visionary journey." This approach shifts the mental and emotional preoccupations of the patient from troubles to solutions, there-by empowering her/him to get well. Shamanic healing is often a kind of "reality therapy" that generally increases the feelings of self-worth and confidence of both the patient, who is receiving powerful affirmations of inner harmony, and the shaman, who is pleased with the validation of his or her abilities. (Ibid., 151)
As a "psychological symbol" for traditional cultures, the shaman "represents the spirit in the world of" human beings. (Ibid., 138) A true homo-religiosus, the shaman brought the "dread mystery of the unknown into a positive and perceptive relationship" to his or her people. Through manipulations of ecstatic trance, the shaman brought the invisible supernatural world into a "sensory, cognitive realm" which reduced anxieties through understanding and confidence in the relationship of sacred to profane. (Ibid.)
In both traditional and modern societies, the shaman's approach to healing is both "synthetic and wholistic." "He must concern himself with the human being as an entire entity, not as an assemblage of structures--but as an integrated system, with interrelating channels of sensitivity and response." (Ibid., 131) The sense of the human being as an integrated system included the environments in which the individual lived, both internal, social, and natural. The shaman, therefore, assisted in the healing of not only individuals, but also of societies and bio-regions. The achieved this through the use of symbols of the sacred that re-align the individuals with the needs and goals of the community and ecosystem, as well as with personal needs and aspirations. Symbols in shamanic work are often drawn from the deep reservoirs of the collective unconscious by both the shaman and the patient. Hence, their influence penetrates those who delve into realms of the human unconscious, and their expression through shamanistic healing.
An example of the wholistic approach to self-healing common to shamanism is the rite of passage known as the Vision Quest. This personal ceremony has played an important role in the development of a maturing personality in several Native American societies, notably the Lakota, Dakota and Paviotso. The Vision Quest was often performed between adolescence and adulthood, but it was possible make the pilgrimage at any time during one's life journey. The Quest also symbolizes and enacts a transformation from a dependent, non-self-directed social role to one of an interdependent, self-volitional being ready for the responsibilities that a maturing member of society may encounter.
The Vision Quest is commonly performed alone in a desolate, wilderness area, and involves fasting, prayer, chant-song, and possibly the use of psychoactive agents. During this time of solitude, the quester asks the world for some kind of sign or direction for the future. This indicates a life path to be walked with honor, and challenges to further empower the spirit. This sign often takes the form of a meeting with a "power animal," tutelary being, or powerful place where the visionary connection occurs. If the "vision" happens for the seeker, then that is understood as the deep message of one's life purpose, and in the modern world, as a choice of career and/or life mate.
The Vision Quest is not easy to perform and does carry with it some elements of personal risk. Risk, however is an ever present phenomenon in both traditional and modern societies, though it seems that the element of risk has drastically increased in the modern world. The possibility of ecological and nuclear destruction, as well as the myriad daily events that carry potential dangers in the modern world makes the shaman's use of hallucinogens, drumming and other methods of attention adulturation. seem quite safe and proper in comparison. In traditional societies, this risk has been partially mitigated by pre-quest training, and preparation as well as post-quest assistance in interpretation and the integration of the new self-identity into the symbolic value structure of the community. In this process, the shaman played a key role.
In recent years, the Vision Quest has once again emerged as a valid rite of passage among native and non-native people. Such organizations as Sonoma State University's Psychology department, the Bear Tribe and the School of Lost Borders, as well as many outdoor wilderness survival skills programs have incorporated the Vision Quest format into their course offerings. The Vision Quest shows great promise as a form of shamanic self-healing in this time of increasing alienation the natural world, the collective unconscious and other human beings.
Another form of modern psychotherapy that integrates the shamanic model of personal and social healing is transformative/transformational psychology. Using the hypnotic suggestion techniques of guided visualization, this form of therapy works to invoke a light trance in the patient. The transformative technique involves the use of "active imagination" (C.G. Jung), "directed daydreams" (Desoille), "guided affective imagery" (Leuner), and/or "psychosynthesis" (Assagioli). (Peters, 1981, 107) Though the names may differ, the descriptions are of phenomena bearing remarkable resemblance to the experience of the shaman during "spirit flight" or "soul journeys."
While in a relaxed state, a light trance is induced and the patient is gently guided towards confronting some of the frightening images of the subconscious. (Ibid., 109) The shaman-therapist facilitates an "inner-dialogue" between the characters appearing in the non-ordinary state of trance perception, respectful of the "ways of knowing that are different, yet complimentary to consciousness." (Ibid.) By acknowledging the inner world of the patient, the shaman-therapist continues his/her own self-healing each time s/he participates in this form of semi-ceremonial healing. (Ibid., 110) Anthropologists like Michael Harner (1980) have done much to bring shamanic therapeutic forms into the modern world such that modernized people can relate to them in one way or another.
According to Mircea Eliade, "The shamans have played an essential role in the defense of the psychic integrity of the community. They are pre-eminently the anti-demonic champions; they combat not only demons and disease, but also the black magicians.... The military elements that are of great importance in certain types of Asian [and North-South American] shamanism (lance, cuirass, bow, sword, etc.) are accounted for by the requirements of war against the demons, the true enemies of mankind." (Eliade, 1964, 508) (my underline)
In the modern world, these "demons" may take the form of divisive, alienating mind-sets, fascistic and militaristic organizations and behaviors, and destructive, polluting, ecologically,and socially disruptive policies and actions. Running counter to this flow, but with the flow of nature are the new earth-healers, therapists-of both humanity and the planet. One such person is Ojibway Indian spiritual leader, Sun Bear, "medicine chief" of the Washington state Bear Tribe, an amalgamation of people of many ethnic and racial backgrounds who choose to live according to native ways.
Sun Bear teaches many apprentices and peoples of several continents how to walk their "path of power." As he puts it, when walking the path of power one discovers one's latent "medicine" and abilities. Through constant and persistent determination one will be rewarded through the process of "becoming a total human being." (Sun Bear, 1983, 205) Once one has embarked upon this path, there is often no way to return to one's old ways of life and "one-dimensional" behaviors and perspectives. It also becomes increasingly difficult to communicate one's progress to those who have not shared or experienced similar processes for themselves, yet this does not necessarily alienate one from one's fellow human beings. One soon realizes that each one of us is on our own path of power, whether knowing it or not, and we progress at our own pace. After a while, the path becomes self-sustaining, even though there is no "return" to so-called mainstream "normalcy." (Ibid., 206)
One of the ways that Sun Bear and the Bear Tribe assist the healing of "Mother Earth" is through "Medicine Wheel Gatherings" held several times a year in different places, often fairly near to metropolitan areas where industry and housing have taken over the environment. The "Medicine Wheel" is an ancient and widespread form of natural, circular altar. It is a "magic circle which encompasses all of our relations with the natural world. It is a sacred tool which can teach us how to eat well; how to heal ourselves and others; how to hear the songs and stories that the wind and the water bring to us. It can teach us, too, the most important lesson, which is that we are each a small, unique part of the universe, and that we are here to learn harmony with the rest of creation... to grow close to nature, and to the elemental forces." (Ibid., 183)
Sun Bear and the Bear Tribe, Steven Foster and Meredith Little's School of Lost Borders, Robert Greenway's "humanistic/tribal" wilderness trips (out of Sonoma State University), Rosemary Gladstar's California School of Herbal Studies, Wallace Black Elk's teachings of the sacred pipe, Brandt Secunda's Dance of the Deer Foundation (which is guided by 107 year old Huichol "Mara Akame" Don Jose Matsua), the Cross-Cultural Shamanism Network's publication of Shaman's Drum: Journal of Experiential Shamanism, and women's spiritual teachers O'Shinnah Fastwolf and Brooke Medicine Eagle, all represent and personify the resurgence of native, shamanic teachings. Many have focused their approach to healing on developing special relations with the planet in these times of "earth changes." Many, if not most, of these people draw strong parallels between their own worldviews and those of traditional shamanism, and have also been influenced by native prophecies. Such spiritual leaders as Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya express these visions fluently in such documents as the Book of the Hopi.
Further expression of the shamanic complex finds its form in mind-body healing sessions featuring psychedelic or visionary counseling and therapy. In this realm,.the shaman-figure plays a crucial role. The shaman's "healing is partly cunning, partly practical psychology: he must develop an empathy with the client, the patient, and the understanding of the personality of the latter.... He acquires a particular relation, in the course of his training, with his mental world, in which he masters the techniques of inducing a state of trance in himself and others." (Krader, 1978, 183)
Psychotherapy often involves exploring the regions of human being that are products of non-ordinary mental and emotional processes. "One approach to such shamanic psychoanalysis could be through the controlled and judicious use of psychotropic drugs" and other shamanic techniques of changing consciousness. (McKenna & McKenna, 1975, 16) Not unlike the transformative psychological approach found in Michael Harner's "shamanic counseling," psychedelic/ visionary therapy relies on the exploration and mapping of alternate states of consciousness with the intent of assisting in the development of the "whole person." An understanding and ability to direct unconscious processes emerges guided inspirational voyages into the deep spaces of mind and nature.
Because this form of therapy offers the option of psychoactive agents. it is not recommended for the general practitioner. Hallucinogenic experiences have very powerful influences upon human personality formation and development, and, once the "door" has been opened widely enough, or often enough, there is no closing it without great loss. It is important, therefore, that those who choose to use these powerful tools be fully grounded in their intent, and be on good terms with the symbolic system used to "channel" the energies released by many forms of psychoactive substances and ecstasy inducing practices. It cannot be stressed too strongly that these techniques and tools are not toys, and should be treated with respect and caution. Much can be learned from traditional use of these powerful tools, and the sacred manner in which they have been appropriated into healing and human relations.
Within the hallucinogenic drama of the psychotropic drug trip, the psyche plays an emerging role. The shaman acts as the primary guide and stage manager using song, chant, poetry, story, music, percussion and symbolic paraphernalia to facilitate movement through the dramatic journey of the psychedelic experience. (Dobkin de Rios, 1984, 10) S/he assists the "traveler" at each step of the journey by carefully arranging the environmental "settings," while attending to the "inner sets" through which the client moves. Above all, the shaman is a master of arranging environments, both inner and outer.
Psychedelic/visionary therapy is being practiced in such places as modern Peruvian, Amazonian cities. In these places of rapid techno-industrial and population growth, men and women practitioners use the ancient Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis Cappi) formula to assist in the diagnosis and treatment of "witchcraft" related diseases. "Witchcraft" is a common form of envy related anti-social behavior often functioning to maintain social equality status. (Sharon, 1978, 31) In the urban areas, fortunes are made and lost with such rapidity that envy over the success or bitterness at the failure of enterprises frequently results in "witchcraft" curses through the assistance of less than scrupulous sorcerers. (Ibid., 30) (These practices are not to be confused with the "Wiccan" tradition of North Western Europe, whose "witches," though occasionally ecstatic, are more oriented to worship of the "life force" and preservation of ancient pagan traditions than they are to casting hexes upon unsuspecting persons.) The role of the "curandero" is to make the bewitched aware of the destructive influences of the bewitcher, and to assist in liberating them from the disempowering effects of such psychic attacks. (Dobkin de Rios, 1984, 17)
In costal villages and mountain towns another Peruvian healer uses ancient shamanic techniques, symbols and hallucinogens to assist in the healing of his patients. Such shamans as Don Eduardo Calderon use a variety of ancient and modern tools, such as the "mesa," a symbolic tableau representing the many levels of human experience, and yogic breathing and meditation techniques. He and others use the mescaline containing San Pedro cactus, and sometimes preparations of tobacco and Datura. Don Eduardo is notable for his elegant blending of traditional Peruvian shamanic beliefs and practices with modern medical, cross-cultural techniques of healing. He also has an admirable ability to explain this synthesis in a way that makes sense to the average person as well as the astute student of shamanic lore. (Sharon, 1978, 9-62)
Another visionary healer worthy of almost saintly status is Maria Sabina, the Mazatec "curandera" who has used the Mexican varieties of Psilocybin mushrooms for over fifty years. Through R. Gordon Wasson, Maria Sabina inadvertently introduced the sacred mushrooms to the modern world and ushered in the "psychedelic revolution" that found its first flowerings in the early to mid-sixties. Relatively untouched by all the hysteria surrounding the "drug using counter-culture," Maria Sabina still lives in her humble Mazatec village where, for 80 years she has chanted the songs of the "little ones" to assist the healing of those who have come to her for help. (Estrada, 1981, 18-19 citing "A Retrospective Essay" by R. Gordon Wasson, 12/1/76)
In addition to these sub-cultural leaders in the field of modern shamanism, there are countless unknown "warriors of the spirit" who have chosen to explore and become more familiar with the mysterious realms of consciousness and space-time that have been the playgrounds and workshops of shamans and shamanic practitioners through the ages. We should welcome such divergent self-expression in our societies, communities and families, and seek understanding and inclusion rather than prejudice and alienation. Both neo-shamans and non-shamans have a lot to gain from each other. It seems that this has always been the case. One hopes it always will be.