01.05.2013 Spirituality

The New Shamanic Journey

Dr Rafael Locke explores how ancient Shamanism is evolving in our modern world

Until the 1960s in the Western world, the topic of shamanism was either ignored or regarded as unworthy of serious attention. However, with the growth of new and radical ideas about health and healing through the holistic health movement, riding on the wave of the broad counter culture, professional interest began to change.

Until that time, shamanism had been largely the preserve of anthropologists and related researchers in the Eastern Bloc. But the holistic health movement and counter culture served to focus attention on two important areas.

The first of these was the realisation that many cultures had established and effective ways of dealing with health maintenance and healing and that many of these methods had a spiritual foundation. Traditional Chinese Medicine and Yogic medicine were good examples.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, there was a renewed interest in the nature of human consciousness, states of consciousness and their involvement in healing and other human potentials such as ESP, psychokinesis, out-of-body experiences, and so on.

The value of these developments derived significantly from the needs of mostly urban people searching for a meaningful, self realised existence and, along with that, a more humanised and personal approach to healing. Shamanism seemed to offer just that possibility. In 1979, Michael Harner published The Way of the Shaman and its immediate success opened the door to public, professional and scientific interest on a large scale. The re-discovery of shamanism was enlivened by published accounts and photographs of cave art throughout the world, and especially in the Pyrenees. The famous Dead Man cave in this region seemed to depict a person (shaman) in a 'trance', body rigid, penis erect (indications of extreme arousal) in close communion with animals and with a 'wand' that had a bird mounted on it. Could this indicate the flight of the soul which is one of the core features of shamanism? Discussion continues to this day.

The cave discoveries, dating back almost 40,000 years, indicated the development of symbolic consciousness and perhaps the ability to induce altered states for purposes of divination, at least through art. Cave art and its shamanic connections has become a major interest in archaeology, cultural and biological evolution. Of particular interest are the paintings and rock carvings of the South African Bushmen found in the Drakensberg Ranges. There are very clear indications of journeys taken out of this world and into other worlds beneath the earth and in the sky. These paintings also indicate a very strong connection with nature and especially with animals that are important food sources.

From these factors and an intense 50 years of research, a picture of shamanism emerges: the shaman is a visionary practitioner who is able to cultivate a range of states of consciousness which, in cultural terms, allow the exploration of the mythological cosmos, to take journeys to discover resources which are beyond ordinary, everyday access, and to bring them back in the service of the community.

Individuals may become shamans spontaneously, as in a transformative and unexpected transcendental experience, a vision, a 'trance', an opening to other worlds and other non-human beings. But most are trained, apprenticed by established shamans who teach their students the technologies of consciousness change, healing, divination, ritual practice and magic, amongst other things.

The technologies of consciousness change are many and varied. They include fasting, thirsting, extreme physical and emotional stress, social and physical isolation, sensory deprivation and drug ingestion. The last form of state change induction is very popular in our society now where there is widespread, but sequestered, use of Ayahuasca, San Pedro cactus and other botanically derived hallucinogens.

Shamanism: a link to the past and future

Shamanism is the oldest form of transpersonal or spiritual practice on earth. Its history stretches back at least 40,000 years and possibly up to 100,000 years ago. It is a testament to the abilities of human beings to explore consciousness through inducing state change and entering into the worlds which open up in this way. The fundamental element in this is the shamanic journey. Shamans may sing, dance, drum, take drugs, fast or use a wide range of other methods to open the door to other worlds to which they travel and pass through, encountering spirit beings which can be the source of knowledge, wisdom, healing and access to the past and future. The idea is to bring these gifts back to the community in service to its needs.

Spirit beings take many forms, depending on the culture in which the shaman operates. But from a psychological and medical point of view, these are powerful images or symbols which allow access to both individual and collective unconscious processes and can change key physiological and psychological factors involved in health and wellbeing when used in rituals. In this way, they are akin to hypnosis, meditation, imagery healing, and narrative psychotherapy, for example.

The future of shamanism is now assured. Whereas once it was considered to be a 'primitive' residue of pre-literate cultures, it is now taken a whole lot more seriously. The drugs taken in shamanic journeys in North, Central and South America, as well as Africa, are now being examined from the point of view of their healing value in addictions, in particular, and a wide range of other disorders.

Of particular interest is the growing connection between shamanic practices and psychiatry. The World Health Organisation (WHO) began this hybridisation of what appeared to be these two very different approaches to human suffering in 1972 under the guidance of Dr Lambo, a Nigerian medical doctor. However, these early attempts faded by the 1980s only to be resurrected in the last decade. What we now have are ways in which Western psychiatry and medicine can join with shamanic healing to produce new and effective treatments that are culturally relevant.

A good example of this is a program in which I was professionally involved in the Western Desert in Australia. It was established to deal with the difficulties associated with extreme alcohol abuse and derivative illnesses in Aboriginal communities. AA, Western medicine and psychiatry had not made any impression on the scale or severity of the problem.

This changed with the involvement of Aboriginal shamans (Marban) who worked with doctors, social workers and psychiatrists to create a program of healing. What was distinctive about this program was that it was implemented around the shamanic diagnosis of soul loss where alcoholics were considered to have undergone serious soul damage leading to soul loss - the loss of connection with life, passion for life, and a corrosion of the desire to live, replaced by a drive toward death. Shamans combine myths (Dreaming stories), rituals expressing these myths and specific healing journeys to find the lost soul and restore it - and life - to vitality.

Of course, many would claim that this is irrational, unsustainable and a step back into a past best forgotten. However, worldwide, the results from all continents cannot be ignored. A new profession is emerging: it is the shamanic practitioner who is taught and mentored in traditional healing, shamanic journeys and ritual techniques, as well as being able to access the latest in research about psychotherapy, counselling, consciousness and psychiatry.

Rafael Locke

Dr Rafael Locke is a leader in Shamanic practice in Australia