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New Worlds of Shamanism

This article was written by Carl Llewellyn Weschcke
posted under Shamanism

"As if on cue, just when I am beginning to think that shamanism is the ground from which all religions spring, along comes this book. I cannot imagine a book that would be more helpful to me in thinking through this important subject." --Huston Smith, author of The World's Religions

New Worlds* of Shamanism

An essay-review of Dr. Roger Walsh’s The World of Shamanism by Carl Llewellyn Weschcke


After decades of being demonized by clergy, diagnosed by psychiatrists, and dismissed by academics, shamanism is thriving. So, what is fueling the West's new fascination with shamanism?


You'll find the answer and more in this objective exploration of shamanism and its place in contemporary life. Dr. Roger Walsh leaves no stone unturned as he examines shamanistic traditions throughout history, and how they intersect with modern psychology and metaphysical studies.


Are shamans enlightened or psychotic? Decide for yourself as Dr. Walsh unveils the life and mind of this revered figure. Delve into shamanic practices—healing, altered states of consciousness, journeying, channeling, vision quests—and discover if, how, and why they actually work. This cross-cultural, all-encompassing perspective will help you understand shamanism-its impact throughout history and its significance today.



* ‘New Worlds’ is a way of looking at things that places the reader/user at the center of understanding and application of the subjects we study while incorporating the perspective of contemporary science, language, and world-view to make a difference in the life we live. The New Worlds perspective is both practical and transformative in contrast to the merely academic or ‘popular.’ The New Worlds attitude is forward looking, just like the New Worlds of the Americas – the whole of the Western Hemisphere -- where people came from the Old World to make new discoveries, to be free of old prejudices and limitations, and to make a truly new world for humankind.

Shamanism, for example, is generally perceived as a subject for academic study and research, and the shaman is seen as a ‘professional’ working the mysteries on behalf of clients who do not actively participate. That’s an ‘old world’ approach. The ‘New Worlds’ approach involves people who want to actively participate on their own behalf, and many of these prefer to work solitarily – investigating the work and worlds of the Shaman on their own and for themselves.


Now, having given definition to the New Worlds ‘attitude’ towards a subject, we need to give definition to the subject of our immediate study: Shamanism.


In this new book, The World of Shamanism, author Walsh points out the important elements of shamanic practice. In doing so he quotes Mircea Eliade, who wrote, “A first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: Shamanism = technique of ecstasy;” he then explores the Random House Dictionary definition of ecstasy as “being taken or moved out of one’s normal state and entering a state of intensified or heightened feeling” (14). Dr. Walsh concludes:

  1. The shaman can voluntarily enter altered states of consciousness.
  2. In these states, he may experience journeys to other worlds.
  3. These journeys are used to acquire knowledge or power and to take helpful actions on behalf of others.

  4. In addition, following Michael Harner2, he notes two further elements:
  5. The shaman contacts an ordinarily hidden reality.
  6. The shaman has one or more “spirits” in his service.


"The World of Shamanism is unquestionably the most rounded compact introduction to shamanism, particularly the inner world of shamans, available today. A door-opening book for students of consciousness and spirituality." --Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., M.Litt. Author of The Yoga Tradition


As he points out, these elements focus on practices and experiences rather than beliefs and dogma, and – in such context – shamanism is not a religion but a spiritual and healing discipline involving altered states of consciousness.

Whether we call shamanism a religion, a magical practice, a tradition, or a discipline, it is the oldest religious-magical-healing practice known. Cave paintings dating back twenty thousand and more years show the shaman at work.

Our interpretation of the “evidence” varies considerably by the person making the study. The non-shaman may see the evidence of worship, whereas a magician may see evidence of magic, and a healer may see evidence of a mind-body cure. Another non-shaman focuses on the hallucinogenic use of drugs and perceives the shaman’s ‘other worlds’ as hallucinations. (This was sometimes called “tripping,” but it’s a far cry from journeying!) Yet another non-shaman notes the common signs of ancient shamanism all over the world as evidence for visitors ‘from the sky’ – aliens from other planetary civilizations, proof of ‘ancient astronauts’ and UFOs, or visits from deity.

Questions

And, what are we to make of these ‘other worlds?’ Are they actual ‘dimensions of space or time,’ or mental constructs, or ‘archetypal-like’ places in the Collective Unconscious? Are the shaman’s journeys like the ‘path workings’ of the Kabbalist traveling the Tree of Life, or psychic ‘distant viewing’ of other planetary civilizations, or views of ‘alternate dimensions’ accessed through the shaman’s alternate states of consciousness?

It is important to note that there is not one, but multiple states of consciousness, each leading to different but specific experiences. And, while the shaman speaks of three worlds, are there possible ‘worlds within worlds?’

And, what are we to make of these ‘spirits’ that accompany the shaman? Are they the same as or different from ‘guardian angels,’ ‘spirit guides,’ archetypes, gods, fairies, ghosts, elementals, or any other apparently non-physical beings found in other traditions?

Dr. Walsh addresses the common belief that such widespread occurrences of shamanic evidence can be accounted by migration as “unlikely” when the “shamanic practices remain so remarkably stable in so many cultures, while language and social practices changed so drastically. Migration alone can hardly account for shamanism’s far-flung distribution.” (page 17)

The early shaman appears as a ‘jack of all trades’ – healer, magician, counselor, visionary, community leader – in pre-agricultural nomadic societies. However, once agriculture stabilizes the societal unit into specific geographic locations and the community becomes stratified into classes, the role of the shaman is fragmented among ‘specialists’ – healers, sorcerers, priests, etc. With such specialization, the priest leads social rituals and makes prayers on behalf of their community. “Yet unlike their shamanic ancestors, they usually have little direct experience of altered states.” (19) And “none of the shaman’s successors focus on journeying.” (19) One of our key elements of shamanic practice is lost, and the “vision” is frozen in time and dimension. To quote Nietzsche: “God is dead!”

Social stratification seems to lead to organized social functions that suppress the shaman’s role and replace it with institutional expression and legalism. Direct experience of the ‘unknown’ is replaced by myth and then history leading to structured theological teachings of the ‘approved religion’ and suppression of shamanic practices that might offer contrasting visions and new information about the non-material worlds.

Dr. Walsh notes that today we have an unprecedented richness of resources relating to the world’s religious and spiritual traditions available to a wide public with the freedom to explore and practice those of interest regardless of the dominant religion. At the same time, it becomes apparent that each tradition requires a disciplined approach to its development. Here we find the contradiction of the notion that the mere imbibing of a ‘sacred’ drug will result in enlightenment. Rather, every tradition has its own curriculum of practices, and their experiences indicate not a single common end vision but that different states of consciousness lead to different worlds, and that each tradition further involves a curriculum of ‘virtues’ to balance visionary experiences with psychological maturity.

The real goal of all spiritual disciplines is that of “the knowledge and conversation” with the authentic Self (big S), one’s Holy Guardian Angel. Not all journeys end there, but are generally steps along the way. Shamanic practices may themselves be more authentic and may rip through the conventions of organized religion, but each may lead only to a partial vision or a tiny victory on the complete journey to wholeness. The Kabbalists note there are many paths on the Tree of Life, and each must be traversed.

Essential Practices

Still, these spiritual visions are only part of the whole trip. Dr. Walsh points to seven essential practices (28):

  1. Living Ethically so that healthy qualities become instinctive.
  2. Transforming Emotions, reducing negative and cultivating positive emotions to develop equanimity.
  3. Redirecting Motivation to reduce craving and change desire to self-transcendence.
  4. Training Attention to avoid distraction.
  5. Refining Awareness to see only that which is real.
  6. Cultivating Wisdom, and thus transforming knowledge to the ultimate meaning of life.
  7. Serving Others to make the world a better place.

It is these seven principles that “constitute a ‘technology of transcendence’ for awakening our potential and living life to the fullest.” (35)

Awakening

Whether called Nirvana, Self-transcendence, Knowledge and Conversation with one’s Holy Guardian Angel, Enlightenment, Ascension, or Satori, its accomplishment starts with Awakening. It is the journey of the Fool who becomes the Hero. Awakened, we step out of the sleep of the ordinary with its pre-occupation with money, sex, and power, the trance induced by entertainment and sensory satiation, the mind blinded by packaged answers of church and state. The fully awakened person seeks his own answers using previously latent mental and psychic abilities to gain knowledge and perceive other worlds.

Fully awakened and made whole through re-birth in a higher spiritual body freed of the karma and personal garbage of past lives, the truly enlightened person turns to awaken others to their true mission in life: Transcendence. Many are the ways, but single the goal.


"The World of Shamanism is unique in bringing together the full range of anthropological, psychological, and psychiatric literature on this vital subject. It does so with admirable scholarship yet still manages to be sensitive and clear." --Christie W. Kiefer, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of California at San Francisco


Inner Journeys

It requires an inner journey of consciousness exploration to become all that a person can become. It involves work with dreams, visions, and spirits in order to map and understand the inner worlds and know their flora and fauna – the beings who can be called to help and defend that future hero on his journey. It’s a journey that culminates with the experience of Inner Light enabling the hero to see the inter-connectedness of all with the one, to perceive hidden cause and effect, and to describe the Vision as a map for others to follow.

The World of Shamanism
describes the modern world’s encounter with the shaman who once was seen variously as ‘devil,’ ‘madman,’ or ‘saint’ – even as divine incarnation. The shaman today is seen as a once less-than-whole ordinary person who has become whole by being ‘born again,’ as a “sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself.”1

As a result, “shamans are often the most functional members of their community, and according to Eliade, ‘show proof of a more than normal nervous constitution.’1 They can display remarkable energy and stamina, unusual levels of concentration, high intelligence, leadership skills, and a grasp of complex myths and rituals.” (107)

We are not intended to remain ‘ordinary.’ “The mind is designed to grow, and the drive powering that growth has been variously described. . . . The result is a dynamic tension between these forces of growth and the seductiveness of stagnation, between the pull of transcendence and the inertia of the familiar. . . . ‘Spiritual work is the attempt to liberate this dynamic energy, which must break free of its suffocation in old forms.’”3(109)

Dr. Walsh concludes that many of the shaman’s healing techniques are similar to contemporary physical and mental medical therapies, and we gain by understanding them side-by-side. We gain as we study the shaman’s other worldviews and see them increasingly in relation to new views of modern science and psychology.

"The World of Shamanism is eminently useful and inspiring. A brilliant integrative work that pushes the frontiers of consciousness in insightful, practical, and powerful ways." -Angeles Arrien, Ph.D. Cultural Anthropologist and author of The Four-Fold Way and The Second Half of Life


Other Worlds

The shamanic cosmos comprises an upper, a middle, and a lower world that are interconnected. The shaman is able to journey between these worlds, and to bring about interaction between them through his powers.

Walsh says that Westerners tend to regard the shaman’s Other Words as ‘mental constructions,’ while the shaman regards them as ‘independently existing realities’ accessible by the mind. For others the shaman’s worlds are mythic, but for the shaman they are directly experienced. Through these experiences, the shaman maps the alternate realities and then uses these ‘road maps’ to acquire information and power.

While the established cosmology may be expected to condition some of the shamanic experiences, it is still the role of direct experience to transcend myth to reshape it with new roadmaps and new perceptions of realities.

The Nature of Spirits

In order to communicate with and to control spirits, the shaman must first learn to “see” them, and it is this that forms the foundation of the shaman’s training. Much of this training involves finding patterns in visual imagery, whether that seen during altered states or those seen in the shadows and phenomenon of the natural world. But are spirits ‘objectively real but only seen subjectively’ or are they subjective fantasies that assume an objective importance?

Walsh quotes Paracelsus: “everyone may educate and regulate his imagination so as to come thereby into contacts with spirits, and be taught by them.”4 (133)

Once the shaman learns to see spirits, he must learn to develop a “permanent visionary capacity in which the spirits can be summoned and seen or felt at will…this is the ‘challenge of stabilization,’ a challenge the faces spiritual practitioners of all traditions. The task – for shamans, yogis, and contemplatives alike – is to stabilize temporary gifts into permanent abilities, altered states into altered traits, and epiphanies into personality, or as Huston Smith so eloquently put it, to transform ‘flashes of illumination into abiding light.’”5(133)

Accelerated Evolution

Whether as ‘power animals,’ or ‘spirit guides,’ spirits help the shaman through:

  1. Teaching.
  2. Assisting with journeys.
  3. Providing strengths and abilities.
  4. Possession, as in mediumship.


Spirits may travel with the shaman on ecstatic journeys, may defend the shaman, or allow the shaman to merge with them and partake of their powers and abilities. Such spirits and allies are found in nearly all traditions (including, perhaps, the saints of Catholicism), but for some they are “real” and for others “mental creations.” For the Tibetan yogi, they are “a projection of one’s own as yet unrecognized transpersonal potentials, which the visualization will allow the yogi to recognize and claim. The impact of these visualizations is suggested by the fact that Tibetans regard Deity yoga as one of their most powerful practices. In one of the world’s most dramatic claims for effectiveness, they claim that Deity yoga allows practitioners to become a Buddha in a single lifetime, rather than in the ‘three countless eons’ it would otherwise take.”6(135)

Whatever a ‘spirit’ is, “it is an interaction with what is felt to be an intelligent, nonmaterial entity separate from the ego or self. In the shaman’s case, the entity may provide information or power that the shaman believes she cannot access alone.” (143) They may seen outside or sensed inside. Encounters with spirits may be troublesome or beneficial. As beneficial, they may be experienced as transcendent beings, or they may be ‘inner teachers’ transcending the ego accessible with inner dialogue.

The Shamanic Journey

In a trance, the shaman believes his soul leaves the body to roam the other worlds. It is thus that the shaman acquires a power animal, gains a spirit guide, encounters teachers and deities, and perceives the flora and fauna of other worlds as realities. These astral journeys also may access our familiar material world, including visions of past and future.

“The ability to journey therefore gives the shaman a measure of power over the mysterious forces and spirits that rule the lives of ordinary mortals.” (156) It is these encounters that may have been the source of the great religious traditions.

While most journeys are to external otherworlds, those of Taoism in particular are within the body as a micro-cosmos, wherein the shaman may encounter gods and goddesses residing both within the body and in the starry heavens. For the Taoist shaman of the Highest Clarity Tradition, the body becomes a ‘sacred meditation chamber’ through which the practitioner travels to absorb “the essences of the stars and guides them to remain in certain parts of the body.” (161)

“Adepts visualize the pure energy of the sun or the moon, then imagine a goddess in its midst. The goddess grows stronger and more vivid with prolonged practice until she is present in the flesh. Pressing her mouth to his, she dispenses celestial vapors to increase the adept’s vitality. After a long courtship and regular visualizations, she will even lie with him.” 7 (162)

Unbroken Awareness

Over the centuries, shamanic techniques become increasingly subtle, internal, and focused on mental training and control. The original reliance on entrainment (trance) by powerful external stimulation (dancing, drumming, etc.) is replaced by inner mental processes (visualization, meditation). (163)

A further refinement occurs when the practitioner enters a ‘fourth state of consciousness’ of continuous, unbroken awareness twenty-four hours a day. 8

“According to contemplative traditions of both East and West, our usual waking state is distorted, constricted, and deluded, so that we live in . . . illusion . . . a collective psychosis.” (268) Simply stated, we need to truly wake up and look to the far horizons beyond consumption-driven satiety.

Real, and UnReal

The Westerner is conditioned to perceive the “Other Worlds” of mystic and shaman as “unreal,” while the shaman believes the journey to be real, objective, and independent of the shaman’s mind. Even though it is an inner journey, it is real and the Other Worlds are “repeatable” - consistent from one vision to the next. “Specific spiritual practices evoke specific experiences, and these experiences can be insightful, valuable, healing, and even liberating.” (175) Nevertheless, the “reality of one world” is not necessarily the same reality of another world. Driving in England is different than in America, and if you drive on the right side of the road in England you will be in trouble because there right is incorrect and left is correct.

The rules may be different, yet knowledge is transferable. But like visions seen in dreams, they may require translation, and symbolism may be the means to do so. In turn, symbols in rituals “penetrate into the mind-body system and elicit powerful psychological responses. These in turn can cause a cascade of corresponding biological responses throughout the body.” (209) “This spiritual element, so often overlooked in contemporary medicine, is central to shamanism and probably crucial to thoroughgoing healing.” (210)

“Shamanism continues to offer today what it has offered for hundreds of thousands of yesterdays, a relatively rapid means, and for the most part of human history perhaps the only means, of controlled transcendence. As such, shamans can be considered the founders of the ‘great tradition’: the sum total of humankind’s religious-spiritual wisdom.” (261)

That which is “real” is comprehensive – the ‘big picture’ – in contrast to the limited awareness of ordinary life. We have the capacity to be extraordinary, and we have the ability of individual motivation to become so. We may be driven to do so by the crisis brought about by the many challenges we face today – environmental, political, and the immanent danger of religious war.

Planetary Crisis

In the modern renaissance of interest in shamanism, indeed of spirituality in general and paganism too, “there is also a desire to honor the earth and respond to the alienation from nature that is so much a part of modern life and that is producing ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in both individuals and ecological disaster for our planet.” (266)

We have covered the earth so deeply in concrete that we have difficulty re-connecting with our natural roots and have to make conscious efforts to do so. But it requires much more than going camping for a weekend, or planting a few flowers in a pot, or eating organic. The effort must involve mind and spirit as well as body.

Believing in a declaration of global warming is minimal compared to living in spiritual awareness of our interconnection with all life and all consciousness, in all worlds. Can the human mind comprehend so much? The shaman demonstrates that it can – but it takes effort and discipline, and a guiding belief in human purpose and destiny.

“What is remarkable about this era is not only the awesome scope and urgency of our problems. It is that for the first time in millions of years of evolution, all of our major threats are caused by humans. Problems such as overpopulation, pollution, poverty, and nuclear weapons stem directly from our own behavior. The state of the world, in other words, reflects the state of our minds. The conflicts outside us reflect the conflicts inside us, and the insanity without mirrors the insanity within.” (270)


“The challenge is to optimize our individual and collective maturation. How best to do so is no longer an academic question but an evolutionary imperative. We are in a race between consciousness and catastrophe, the outcome remains unsure, and we are all called to contribute. How spiritual practices in general, and shamanic practices and studies in particular, can best contributed is a crucial question of our time.” (271)

“The more we explore shamanism, the more it points to the unrecognized potential of the human body, mind, and spirit. For untold thousands of years the world of shamanism has helped, healed, and taught humankind, and it has still more to offer us.” (271)

It is not that we all should take up traditional shamanic practices, but rather that we need to understand what those practices are intended to do – to open and extend our awareness to comprehend the greater universe that is our true home: the Body of God.

 

All quotations, unless otherwise credited, are from Walsh, R. (2007), The World of Shamanism: New Views of An Ancient Tradition, Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications. All credited quotations are extracted from Dr. Walsh’s book with page numbers given in parentheses.

1Eliade, M. (1964), Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (W.Trask, trans.), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
2Harner, M. (1982), The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing, New York, NY: Bantam Books.
3Perry, J. (1986). "Spiritual Emergence and Renewal." ReVision, 8 (2), 33-40.
4Noll, R. (1987). "The Presence of Spirits in Magic and Madness. In S. Nicholson (ed.), Shamanism (pp47-61). Wheaton, IL: Quest.
5Smith, H. (1976). Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition. New York: Harper & Row.
6Hopkins, J. (1984). The Tantric Distinction: An Tntroduction to Tibetan Buddhism. London: Wisdom.
7Kohn, L. (Ed.) (1993). The Taoist Experience: An anthology. New York: SUNY Press.
8Walsh, R. & Vaughan, E. (eds.). (1993). Paths Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

 


The World of Shamanism, by Roger Walsh, MD, Ph.D., 336 pages, 7 _ x 9 1/8, US $ 18.95. Published by Llewellyn Publications, 2142 Wooddale Drive, Woodbury, MN 55125, www.llewellyn.com.


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