Modern Forms of the Shaman-Figure
In modern societies, the shaman-figure has taken on several "new" roles. Because of the prevalence of specialization and professionalism, the shaman-figure has tended to either remain a folkloric practitioner, or to upgrade his or her approach while down playing the aspects of the calling which might otherwise have marginalized him or her, thereby reducing the value and impact of what s/he has to offer.
Traditionally, artists, poets and musicians have drawn heavily upon unconscious processes and experiences of ASC's. The artist-shaman formulates an aesthetic communication of a "personal vision of reality-- a vision arising from the roots of the unconscious, and not dependent upon public consensus, in fact, often actively opposed to it." (McKenna & McKenna, 1975, 16) By delving into the depths of the creative process, the artist challenges his/her society to continue to evolve while maintaining powerful connections to previous forms.
More recently, the figure of the scientist has become aligned with many of the aspects of reality interpretation formerly exercised primarily by shamans and priests. The modern scientist, like his alchemical forebears, "charts the unexplored levels of organization to be found in nature, from the bizarre paradoxical realms of quantum physics to the staggering vastness of the metagalaxy, [and] has much in common with the shaman who journeys through the magical topography of the spirit world." (Ibid.) It is no co-incidence that many scientific discoveries have been predicated upon such intuitive problem-solving elements as dreams, "hunches," and certain vague suspicions. Some modern scientists are keenly aware of the importance of the non-rational in their highly rationalistic methods of problem-solving.
As explorers of the roots of cognition and personality development, psychotherapists and psychoanalysts also participate in the shamanic realms of consciousness and their expression in human attitudes and behaviors. The therapeutic process may be envisioned as a "psychopompic journey through the collective unconscious" led by the skilled therapist. (Ibid.) As shamanically trained observers like Michael Harner (1980) and Joan Halifax (1982) have pointed out, "where the unconscious is concerned, all people are 'primitives.'" (Ibid.) As experts in the interpretation of visions and techniques of ASC's, the shamans have much to offer their counterparts in the fields of psychology and mental health.
The Value of Hallucinogens and Shamanic Ecstasy
to Modern Society
In his Notes on the Biology of Religion (1979) Alex Comfort maintains that the shamanic experience is a core religious experience that features a "dialog with nature." He compares this with the worldview common to the Kalahari Bushpeople and Australian Aborigines for whom a "dialog with nature... is an important integrator of their whole selfview in relation to the world and its activity." (Comfort, 1979, 70) Though perspectives between societies may differ in relation to the environment, we all live in a world "where the non-human may suddenly appear to address us, often to our great alarm." (Ibid.)
Becoming engaged in an active dialog with nature is often discouraged in Euro-American culture. This is to the detriment of "the individual who has a shamanic experience [and] makes no use of it (though, like the shaman, he may be profoundly altered by it, he gets no social support) and will go to the doctor if it persists." (Ibid.)
For the past thirty years, however, there has been a growing prevalence of shamanistic experience among peoples in modern-techno-bureaucratic and industrialized societies. Much of this is the result of a popular exposure to the shamanic practitioner through the works of well known anthropologists, psychologists and philosophers. These scholars have made the existence of cultures for whom shamanic experiences are socially acceptable and in some cases highly valued a subject matter open to public understanding. Though not net required for graduation from high schools, such experiences as Vision Quests and Yogic trances have come into the public consciousness, but are not yet sought after by large numbers of people seeking personal insight and growth.
Recently, however, some schools have sponsored wilderness solos as part of their senior programs, and personal development seminars are offering "Shamanic Journeys" into deeper-self consciousness for greater awareness of the magic of life. It is hoped that these developments signal a genuine interest in shamanism for what it is, rather than as a new marketing technique or subject of cocktail (or herbal tea) party gossip. This seems to be the concern of many legitimate shamanic practitioners and students of shamanic ways.
According to Comfort:
The advent of psychedelic drugs profoundly altered this [cultural tendency to avoid the alternate perspectives of the shamanic worldviews and experiences of non-ordinary consciousness] and a whole generation deliberately explored this method of shamanizing at a cheap rate. Primitives who have had access to psychedelics have used them in the same way, though with a more structured background to support them-- they are, as it were, a phone line to the not-self enabling us to see the inner colors of rocks, the spirits of trees, and occasionally, if we are susceptible (or lucky), the Unity of All Things, without the use of exhausting and unreliable techniques such as fasting, whirling, over-breathing, dancing to exhaustion, or lying tied up in a dark igloo while relays of assistants drum in one's ears. (Ibid., 71)
For perhaps the first time in the history of occidental "civilization," a highly evolved technologic society has at its disposal the means of tapping some of the deepest recesses of the mind, yet the average person has remained largely unaware of the importance of this except for legal and sensationalist propaganda. Many people are relatively ignorant of the fact that shamanic experiences can "occur spontaneously in some people and can be invoked by art in many, and that these experiences may "totally alter the [mind-] 'set' of some individuals who undergo them." (Ibid.) Shamanic experiences have been likened by some researchers to the"peak experiences" described by Maslow (1971) which are characterized by accelerated learning and information processing, often along non-ordinary lines. (Peters, 1981, 53)
Research into such environmental-control-devices as sensory deprivation chambers and isolation tanks as well as reports from astronauts and Arctic lab-station personnel have revealed provocative insights into the norms and mechanisms of human consciousness. "It appears to have been experi-mentally proven that each one of us is capable of having visual and auditory experiences which we would not count as 'real.' They can be induced under certain conditions which are not connected with sleep, hypnosis, hysteria or the effects of intoxicants. These experiences are always equally surprising, frightening and shocking to the one who is not prepared. For lack of another name, we must still call these cognitive experiences 'hallucinations.' They occur as a result of regulating cerebral functions, when the brain otherwise has a small variety of sensory impressions to react to." (Nordland, 1967, 173-174)
Responses to "hallucinatory experiences" vary among people. Expectations and environmental factors play a crucial role in the perception and interpretation of these experiences. Personality factors also figure highly in the hallucinatory, ecstatic equation. Those with a clearly developed sense of identity "will fluctuate least from normal behavior and experiences. A clear understanding of the ego carries with it a strong feeling of being the same person in every circumstance... [There is] an inner harmony which, in itself, activates and makes [one's sense of self] less dependent upon external sensory influence." (Ibid., 173)
Self-experimentation with alternate states of consciousness is not everyone's cup of tea. It is not recommended for the nervous, flighty, emotionally imbalanced or potentially mentally unwell person. Though "recurring strong emotions might... be one of the prerequisites for easier access to the non-verbal level of motoric reminiscences," (Ibid., 185) the potential for heightened emotional intensity in some persons may invoke experiences which have a profound influence upon their entire state of being in the world. If they are not prepared or willing to accept the responsibilities that willful exploration of alternate brain-mind states entail, it is best that self-experimentation by these persons not be done.
In traditional societies within the shamanic complex, experimentation with ASC's and other methods of reality manipulation are often highly controlled through ritual and given meaning through established symbolic interpretation by experts in the field, the shamanic practitioners. Shamans in many cultures are seasoned veterans of the "inner-trip" and are well aware of the implications and complications of different methods of achieving ecstasy.
One of these methods, the careful use of hallucinogens, has been practiced by shamans since time immemorial. Shamanic practitioners who have employed psychedelics have done so with full knowledge of the consciousness enhancing and transformative properties of hallucinogenic agents. "Any man [or woman] who dared to enter these portals had to be properly prepared for the Journey. The sacred nature of plant hallucinogens in non-Western society can only attest to the maturity and the experience of individuals in such societies who dealt with hallucinogenic plants in their rituals, integrating realms of inner experience and feelings with their interpersonal milieu." (Dobkin de Rios, 1984, 219)
The hallucinogenic, ecstatic experience seems to have a disinhibiting function upon human mentation. While entranced and in "spirit-flight," the shaman is detached not only from physical sensations at times, but also from personality blocks and cultural taboos which often prevent "concentrating on the problem he has to solve." (Nordland, 1967, 177) With the new perspectives the ecstatic state brings, the shaman perceives an increased range of options, choices and avenues for action upon return from the "journey." This facilitates, if necessary or desirable, a far reaching re-orientation to life on the part of the shaman and/or his/her patient.
Because of the disinhibitory nature of ecstatic states, they seem to be highly useful toward the development of intuitive problem solving skills necessary for the survival of peoples with limited technological development. "It is not un-reasonable, on the contrary, it seems to be probable that the shaman, in his trance, employs mental resources to which a modern person no longer has access, to the same extent." (Ibid., 178) The means of attaining access to the mental resources among shamans is part and parcel of their training in the "techniques of ecstasy", and their ecstatic capacity is exercised for the benefit of their communities, and therefore usually appreciated and respected.
Though "lately in disuse, ...the capacity for altered-consciousness experiences... does appear important" for human growth and development, both socio-culturally and intrapersonally. (Comfort, 1979, 71) Understanding the basis for and expression of ASC's is of great value to the fields of psychology, philosophy and behavioral sciences. According to Alex Comfort, "What we now need is rational investigation of the mind as a perceptive and analytic system, and if odd experiences throw light on this, they are a source of information too." (Ibid., 46)