Home Archives Spotlight on Teaching May 2004 Shamanism and Religious Healing

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Christopher Carr, Arizona State University, and Michael Winkelman, Arizona State University

Christopher Carr is a Professor of Anthropological Archaeology at Arizona
State University, where he teaches the archaeology of sociopolitical organization and belief systems, the analysis of style in material culture, mortuary practices, quantitative methods, material technological analyses, and Eastern U.S. prehistory.

Michael Winkelman is Director of the Ethnographic Field School and Head of the Sociocultural Subdiscipline Department of Anthropology at Arizona State University. His primary research and teaching areas include medical anthropology, particularly shamanic healing, and cross-cultural relations.

We address spiritual healing practices of shamanism in a multidisciplinary context. Our approach integrates the classic perspective of Eliade and Harner’s “core” shamanism in the context of cross-cultural research, prehistoric cultural-evolutionary research, evolutionary biology perspectives, and contemporary practices. We distinguish core shamans from other healing practitioners and address the bases for universal manifestations of shamanistic healers — practitioners who use ASC (altered states of consciousness) to interact with the spirit world to heal, divine, and fulfill other needs on behalf of their communities.

Course Goals and Content

Ethnography and archaeology deepen descriptions of shamanic practices, while the cross-cultural, comparative approach allows for identification of similarities and differences among shamanistic traditions and the social and other conditions shaping their particular forms. Our course objectives also include (1) providing an understanding of the empirical basis for the concept of the shaman; (2) exploring the social factors that produce differences in shamanistic activities; and (3) explaining the biological factors that have resulted in a worldwide manifestation of shamanistic phenomena. The experiential activities are designed to broaden student appreciation of non-Western cultures, to engage in shamanic types of experiences, and to expand student understanding of the nature of the self. We also recognize, however, that these experiential activities produce some personal and professional concerns (addressed below).

We begin by introducing ethnographic, cross-cultural, and interdisciplinary material to foster an understanding of the similarities and differences underlying diverse manifestations of shamanism. Material on both classic shamanic healers and contemporary shamanistic healers illuminate similarities and differences and the social conditions that produce them (e.g., the soul flight vs. possession). Some of our primary texts have included Harner, Doore, Nicholson, Halifax, Walsh, and Vitebsky. A recent edited publication by Winkelman can provide additional perspectives on contemporary “shamanisms.”

Systematic, cross-cultural research that identifies social conditions associated with different forms of shamanistic healers (core shamans, shaman/healers, mediums, and healers) serves the pedagogical function in distinguishing “core shamans” from a variety of other “shamanistic” healers to whom the term shaman has been overextended. Contextualizing shamanistic practices along socioeconomic differences also permits us to address issues of structural violence and the destruction of shamanic practices through political integration, class warfare, colonialism, and other forms of repression associated with the development of state-level political organizations. These historical processes of repressing shamanic spirituality are also related to contemporary attitudes towards shamanism and spirituality, particularly in the “helping” professions.

Theoretical Issues in Course Design

The cross-cultural frameworks reveal structural constants of shamanism and shamanistic healers, illustrating the universal principles of shamanistic practices that we then address from perspectives of human biology, medicine, and psychology.

(1) A cross-cultural approach establishes universals of shamanism and cross-cultural differences in shamanistic practices, while also illustrating social and cultural influences, as well as psychological healing needs embedded in a social-evolutionary framework.

(2) The psychobiological bases of altered states of consciousness (ASC) provide a framework for understanding worldwide similarities in shamanistic practices, placing the bases for healing and divination processes in the context of normal biological processes.

(3) An evolutionary approach provides an understanding of the adaptive aspects of shamanic practices.

(4) An interdisciplinary approach integrates nonanthropological perspectives from transpersonal, depth, Jungian, and Buddhist psychology and consciousness theory, proposing an understanding of the phenomena of spirits as manifestations of the psyche and natural structures of human consciousness — an understanding that represents etic (outsider) cultural perspectives.

(5) Interactions of cultural, social, biopsychological, and spiritual mechanisms that underlie shamanistic healing are also considered. Especially important are bodymind interactions, symbolic effects upon the body, psychosomatic reactions, and unifying psychosocio-biological effects of metaphor.

Experiential Approaches

A significant aspect of our teaching about shamanism involves engaging students in shamanic cosmology, worldview, and ways of knowing, based upon direct experiences produced by ritual, particularly drumming and shamanic journeying. Shamanic cosmologies — for instance, experiences of the levels of the world and the forces of the cardinal directions — can be described to students. But it is far more compelling to allow students to directly experience these elements for themselves.

Another significant aspect of the experiential approach entails engaging the shamanic epistemology of the spirit world, characterized as the “spirit hypothesis.” We emphasize accepting the emic (cultural) perspectives that express views of empirical reality of spirit experience, even as we also maintain a critical attitude about their ontological reality, the ultimate source of the experiences. We address such questions from a number of perspectives, including an approach that naturalizes spirits as normal phenomena of human consciousness — the projection of the human self and cognitive and emotional capacities into the unknown.

The experiential activities are often offered in a separate context (e.g., weekends or evening classes), using structured rituals to help students directly experience cosmological, spiritual, and personal dynamics associated with shamanism. Engaging in ritual is a tangible way to learn aspects of shamanistic worldviews, since rituals can produce profound alterations in experience. These activities provide personal data for relating to readings, and help students cognitively grasp and directly come to know shamanic concepts about the nature of mind, its structure and content, mind-body interactions, and spirit.

The activities include: (1) guided imagery similar to shamanic journeying; (2) active imagination with music and internal focus of attention; (3) exploring the spiritual dimensions of nature in relationships to rocks, trees, and other elements of nature; and (4) using intuition to get direction. Other course materials with an experiential aspect include nontextual resources such as art, shamanic artifacts and paraphernalia, and videos and presentations by healers, which are used to convey shamanic worldviews and ways.

Problematic Issues

The experiential approach we take to teaching about shamanism has revealed some problematic aspects, one related to the psychological status of the students, the other involving Native American cultural rights.

Shamanism courses can attract students with counseling needs beyond the capacity of the instructors and ordinary classroom contact. Visionary experiences can produce disturbing psychological material that cannot be adequately addressed because of classroom constraints or the lack of professional qualifications. Consequently, when teaching an experiential class, we have counseling co-faculty in the class (when possible) and arrange for referral to the student counseling center to deal with any issues, should they emerge. We also feel that students should be advised about risks in experiential courses, and should be self-screened to dissuade those with psychological and emotional disturbances.

The second challenge is the perception of some Native Americans that shamanic practices are Native American cultural property — an exclusive cultural right — and that white people should not engage in any such activities. Whenever such sensitivities are present among local groups (and one should check), one should avoid using their materials to illustrate shamanistic practices. At the same time, we hold that it is questionable whether any contemporary Native American religious activities approximate core shamanism as we use the term, and therefore that it is important to differentiate core shamanism from Native American spiritual practices. Cross-cultural research has established that shamanistic practices are not the property of any particular culture, but rather are universal activities of premodern societies.

Questions about cultural appropriation can also be addressed by presenting information about the ancient roots of shamanism in one’s own culture. Remnants of shamanism in European cultures would include the rock art traditions, reinter- pretations of ancient witchcraft, and modern reconstructions of Celtic shamanism.

Some Native Americans, as well as some colleagues, have objected to experiential aspects of shamanism being taught in a university, arguing that students should not have spiritual experiences induced in classroom settings. We have responded by pointing out that other academic fields — music appreciation, music therapy, cross-cultural training, psychiatry, geology, and meteorology — induce experiences related to the fields they study. Some may also object that teaching shamanism exposes students to powerful forces they are not prepared to manage, because of inadequate preparation, and the lack of a support system and long-term guidance to deal with great powers beyond their control. Students are advised of these potential psychological, social, and/or spiritual difficulties, and are also told that the shamanic practitioners have always faced the risk of a world of powers beyond their control. The other supports we put in place are intended to offset such risks. In conclusion, courses on shamanism have a powerful potential in addressing a common physiological basis for religion and healing in “humanity’s original neurotheology” — biologically based spiritual practices with healing as a principal focus.

Selected Resources

Carr, Christopher, and D. Troy Case. “The Nature of Leadership in Ohio Hopewellian Societies: Role Segregation and the Transformation from Shamanism.” In Gathering Hopewell: Society, Ritual, and Ritual Interaction, edited by C. Carr and D. T. Case. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, forthcoming.

Doore, Gary, ed. Shaman’s Path. Boston: Shambhala, 1988.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. New York: Pantheon Books, 1964.

Halifax, Joan. Shamanic Voices. New York: Dutton, 1979.

Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990.

Nicholson, Shirley, ed. Shamanism. Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1988.

Vitebsky, Piers. Shamanism. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Walsh, Roger. The Spirit of Shamanism. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1990.

Winkelman, Michael. Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 2000.

________, ed. “Shamanisms and Survival.” Guest-edited special issue, Cultural Survival Quarterly, Summer 2003.


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