Shamanism - The Psychic Descent

The word shaman comes from the Russian and ultimately Tungusic saman which pervades into Sanscrit as samana ascetic. Shamanism is a form of communication with natural forms of conscious energy which may effect health and disease luck and misfortune and one's state of awareness in relation to natural phenomena, trance states and the souls of natural entities such as power animals and allies.

Shamanism is very widespread across human cultures, but has a distinct strong historical tradition sourcing from the Mongol areas from Siberia south. These traditions are very old, and run back into the paleolithic, having a roughly contempraneous emergence with the earliest fertility goddess figurines, and representing the skills of the hunt as seen in caves such as Lascaux. From this Mongol source area shamanistic practice spread west to Eastern Europe, south to Tibet, where Bön shamanism underlies Tibetan Buddhism and ever east and south, down the Americas. The correspondence between shaman and the ascetic in Sanscrit illustrates the deep relationship also between shamanism and Eastern mysticism. However the world over, in ethic tribal societies, shamanistic practices have been commonplace.

Tikuna shamaness referred to by Schultes as "Old Tikuna Hag"
(Schultes 1988)

Intrinsic to Shamanistic practice is the idea of an interaction with nature spirits in ways which can heal, cause other people to become ill or protect the user in battle. Some shamanistic practices involve the use of a power animal or a second soul. For example in Aztec cosmology one has a birth soul called the tonal which represents the persona, and your astrological destiny. To really become a person of pwer, one also has to adopt or become possessed by a second etherial soul, manifested as a power animal ally called the nagual. By relating to the naugal very surprising things may happen. The tonal represents the ordered, bright clear aspect to existence and the nagual the dark, chaotic uncertain, undefinable aspect. This in no way equates with good and evil. Rather the entire cosmology of God good and evil are part of the island of the Tonal. The nagual reigns supreme as the eagle's gift.

Common to shamanistic practice is entering a trance state, which may be indiced by repetitious drumming, dance, hardship and deprivation, illness, madness or a variety of plant substances including the hallucinogens. The Siberian shamans both use drumming and the intoxication of Amanita muchrooms. Every Amer-indian culture which has come in the ecosystemic domain of hallucinogenic plants has adopted them for sacred use in the shamanistic tradition. Mircea Eliade in his seminal work on shamanism made a serious misjudgement which was the product of an academic not being in the subjective condition of the shaman. He then proceeded to describe drumming as the principal source of the shamanic trance and hallucinogens as a degenerate forn of shamanism.

A Kunama magician leads entranced women in a ritual dance after consuming a brew believed to contain among many other plants datura.

The reverse is clearly the case. With the possible exception of the Tibetan Bön, the fullest, deepest and most subtle expressions of shamanism route through the experiences gained on power plants. These include the Shivaic swathe of the Indian sadhu tradition with its sacred ganga, European witching herbs, the diverse varieties of hallucinogens from the ayahuasca and epena snuffs of the Amazon, through peyote and teonanactl, flesh of the Gods of the Mexican tradition. Although these substances are used for casting good and bad spells in ways which can promote conflict and retribution, virtually all of these power plants are also used to give access to deeper strata of conscious experience, accessing the 'spirit world', to heal illness, perceive far of places as if in flight and to discover the path of wisdom.

A central theme of the shaman coming of age is the vision quest, which may be a hardship or a vigil of endurance in which the shaman descends the axis mundi into the abyss. Sometimes, in becoming a shaman, the initiate if they are male takes on a Dionysus-like feminine persona and clothing, but in other cultures the shaman is the traditional spiritual head of the tribe and a central father figure. Often shamans are treated as medicine men - spirit healers who live somewhat apart from the main group and are respected and sometimes feared for their powers.

Shamanism is something sometimes associated with the hunt and with the male hunting figures for example in European cave paintings as opposed to the obvious feminine aspects of the ancient goddess figurines, and with the meditative vision trance associated with stalking and hunting game, however shamanism is not at all confined to men and 'medicine women' have been a recurring feature of widespread cultures, as is illustrated in the pictures.

Finno-ugrian shaman-priestess in an amanita trance, Mbiri worshippers taking iboga to meet the ancestors, Maria Sabina in a sacred mushroom velada (Schultes).

Shamans often display significant psychic faculties of clairvoyance, dreaming of actual events, becoming aware that a relative has died or having uncanny visions of future events or far away places. Some of these 'siddhis' are very similar to those expressed in the traditions of Indian mysticism and Tibetan Buddhism which is founded on the earlier shamanism of the Bön.

A key aspect of shamanism is that it is a way which embraces a deep relationship with nature. It respects nature and the power of natural vision. This tradition is especially valuable in a time of crisis between humanity and nature. If we can learn to rediscover the way of the shaman it may make a critical difference to how we cherish the Earth.

Shamanism is for me a more natural meditative tradition than the rituals of the Eastern tradition. Shamanic trance can be entered into very much as types of mind-brain state which form a natural spectrum through, meditative samadhi, dreaming, hypnogogic trance, hallucinogenic vision and so on. Natural wilderness settings are very evocative of deep reverie and wordless states of sensory awareness, listening to the winds in the grass the crickets and wildlife calls. One may interact with wild animals or have coincidental experiences in the synchronicity of natural events. Some shamanistic techniques use the intensification of senses in the veiled atmosphere of the night to induce vision, even through fright or panic. Shamans often display feats such as jumping dangerous chasms and rain-making in which consciousness and circumstance are attuned.

Eastern techniques also embrace the shamanistic approach particularly Tantric methods of the left-hand path, which includes meditating in dangerous out of the way places, in graveyards and at a variety of Himalayan pilgrimage spots. However Eastern meditation methods often relate more to recitation of mantras, repetition of prostrations and elaborate visualizations. The end is the same but the natural approach is well-tuned to the natural conditions of trance the mind is capable of. Insect song is both synchronous and mesmerizing, as is the chaos in the breezes and the water lapping on the ocean. All these factors combine to a form of conscious merging with nature which has an implicitly different aim than the transcendental meditative path, for instead of surpassing nature, we are merging with it.

The shamanistic path is also a path which embraces and pays respect to the most diverse cultural traditions of any psychic tradition. It thus acknowledges a deeper more universal description of reality which gathers in its orbit the diverse creation myths of many cultures and pays proper respect to the way cultures across the globe have come to terms with existential reality in the natural context. It teaches the major traditions a sense of humility toward so-called 'primitive' cultures and a much deeper intimacy with and reverence for nature and the natural expressions of consciousness.

Shamanism is also implicitly the interaction with the quantum realm in terms of the relation between subjective awareness, free-will and circumstance. Many of the techniques of shamanic trance could also be interpreted as entering into relationship with quantum-nonlocality. In the broadest sense shamanism is the natural science of the subjective condition, a position it shares with gnosticism.

For me shamanism is a continuing state of existence. Everywhere I go I am interacting with the karmic flow. This is something occurring on endless fractal scales. At the same time as often being lost in thought, I try to leave a part of my mind which is somewhere out in the 'atmosphere', echoing with the distant sounds. Both at work and in reverie, the shamanistic state of mind is like a cat ready to pounce, and an eagle soaring , an extended awareness of oneself in the existential flow. Listening, if you like to the sound of quantum non-locality.

In many ways one descends into the inner reality that subtends everyday sensory experience, lying at night listening to the fridge motor chaotically whirring, deep in the eucharistic trance of velada, visions come to a climax of both focus and abandon, losing conscious deeply within its own disembodied vista of existence. Suddenly one exists and are perceiving as from eternity, compassionately as if looking back in on incarnation from the God's eye view, as if a door had swung open and cast you out and back into the totality.

The same abyss expresses itself in dreaming, in precognitive intimations in nightmares, in lucid dreams where the will begins to assume limitless power, and the body floats up almost violently driven by an insatiable psychic levity. And in the gaps between sleeping and waking.

Most of us in the post-modern world are trained to invest all our attention in the 'island of the tonal' and pay hardly any attention to the abyss of the nagual. Modern electronic media are preoccupied with materialistic fantasy. The scientific description of reality omits the subjective state altogether. Careers and fortunes in the everyday world require an absolute committment to the tonal. Many aspects of consciousness which are quite familiar to a so-called 'primitive' shaman are thus esoteric or unavailable, and people have to re-invent such methods by degrees, working from the superficial back down towards the abyss.

The dilemma of post-modern existence is in fact the crisis of free-will. People have been lulled by deterministic science into half-believing that free-will is an illusion, that we are really machines struggling through a sea of randomness. The first step of shamanism is assuming free-will. Once will is assumed - and here I mean actively adopted, it is immediately recognised as the source of historicity. Will is world-changing. This is a fundamentally new and different creative situation.

Aspects of the shamanistic descent trance can be seen in many traditions from Tibetan Buddhism to Sufi and Gnostic illumination. It is also the descent of Orpheus, Dionysus, and of Inanna and Dumuzi.

Shamanism Pages:

  1. A Tribute to Ramon Medina Silva, Carlos the Coyote and Maria Sabina
  2. Life, the Universe and the Unveiling - Chris King
  3. Twelve Sacred Plants
  4. The Reality of Dreaming
  5. The Transmission of a Tradition: Maria Sabina
  6. The Dance of Tantra Cosmogenesis in 13 Steps
  7. Scholaring the Prophetic Mind
  8. The Nagual of the Apocalypse
  9. Ecofeminist Ethic of Shamanism and the Sacred - Gloria Orenstein
  10. Witchcraft and Women's Culture - Starhawk
  11. The Shamans of Eden and the Goddess of Gaia
  12. The Gnosis of Homo sapiens