Shamanism and Psychology

This is something I originally wrote up in a locked post on my Livejournal. I figured since it has some related ideas, I’d share it as well. Enjoy!


I’ve noticed that since I started grad school, that (not surprisingly) I’m leaning more towards psychological explanations for spiritual things, though these have always been important to some extent. I haven’t entirely abandoned the concept of a relatively objective, autonomous spiritual reality of some sort. I’ve been down the road of entirely and exclusively embracing the psychological model of magic, and found it to be emotionally and spiritually unfulfilling. Additionally, there have been experiences I’ve had in my path that have given me cause to believe that it’s not just in my head, that to an extent I’m interacting with something other than myself, but interacting in a subjective manner.

I am less likely to surmise about the reality of spirituality outside of my own experiences through the lens of my subjective perception, however. There are certain things that are pet peeves, admittedly, like Michael Harner claiming that journeying is safer than dreaming (which, if you’ve ever read Eliade or any other accounts of traditional shamanism, is bullshit). But even so, I also factor in that my own experiences with journeying are filtered through my own mind, and so have to be subjective to some extent out of sheer necessity.

Even with the Harner thing, though, there’s a certain amount of leverage that psychology provides my basic argument against his claims. Let’s limit, for the moment, my shamanism to my psyche, regardless of what may or may not be going on outside my brain. In dreaming, most people are simply processing the events of the day. We may have nightmares, but most people are not trauma survivors dealing with debilitating flashbacks. For the majority of people, ordinary dreaming is a relatively benign, if occasionally weird or unsettling, experience. We can say that it’s “safe” for the most part.

Journeying, however, is something entirely different. Psychologically speaking, a shaman is a person who alters hir state of consciousness (usually, though not always, deliberately), often through potentially hazardous methods–entheogens (which, at the wrong dosage, may be very harmful), dancing and other physical exertion, deliberate mortification of the flesh, etc. Apart from the physical effects this may have, if you assume journeyers travel inwardly instead of outwardly, you are talking about someone who is exploring the depths of hir own psyche. The archetypes and motifs experienced along the way are the brain’s method of structuring the psyche.

In many indigenous societies, shamans are trained by their predecessors. This includes methods of not going batshit insane (and yes, these cultures generally know the difference between a shaman/holy person/medicine person/etc., and someone who is simply mentally ill to the point of impaired functioning). However, most core shamans don’t have a psychological background of any sort, and core shamanism such as it is is a woeful substitute, comparatively speaking. While this doesn’t render all core shamans ineffective, it does mean that often the seriousness and potential danger of journeying is underestimated.

Part of why I went into psychology as a career is to be a better shamanic practitioner. It’s also because “therapist” is one of the roles in this culture that approximates that of the shaman in indigenous cultures. However, honestly, I went into psychology for the significant reason of my own mental health. Specifically as a (neo)shaman, I know that I’m doing a lot of messing around in my head, regardless of whether that’s all there really is, or whether it’s a bridge into another reality external of my mind. Definitely not as safe as dreaming is for me.

I don’t see psychology as being diametrically opposed to spirituality; on the contrary, I see the latter as necessarily including a healthy dose of the former when it’s at its best. And, because I don’t agree with the claims that core shamanism is “culturally neutral”*, I believe that I need to have a paradigm for working as a shaman in this culture, the one I am a part of–and core shamanism doesn’t cut it. Yes, I know there are core shamans who are also psychological practitioners. That doesn’t mean I agree with their approach to shamanic practice.

* There’s no such thing as “culturally neutral”. The people who espouse “cultural neutrality” are generally middle class, often but not always academically trained, white people of privilege who deny that they have a culture because they’re blind to the fact that they are the dominant culture. Core shamanism is, at its root, an academic white guy interpretation of shamanism.

Shamanism and the Modern Attitude Towards Nature

I was talking over lunch with someone about what shamanism actually is, and specifically what I think it is. My initial explanation involved contrasting indigeneous shamanisms and modern neoshamanisms, especially core shamanism. My general working definition of a shaman is someone who is an intermediary between humanity, and the spirit world/nature. I equate the spirit world with nature, because I am an animist. However, I also perceive the dichotomy between the spirit world/nature, and humanity, as artificially created and perceived rather than actual. (I will sometimes refer to spirits and nature separately for the purposes of this essay.)

In indigenous cultures, particularly prior to industrialization, life was/is a lot tougher, with shorter lifespans. While there was/is certainly natural medicine, herbal remedies, etc., there’s still a higher chance when you’re in a remote area of dying if, say, you get a cut that gets infected. Nature wasn’t/isn’t just something pretty that you look at out a window; it’s your life. It’s what you rely on. And you’re aware of that. This does not equate a romanticized view of nature as being all-loving and awe-inspiring. What it does entail is a more realistic perspective, and a rougher view of animism–spirits (nature) are to be placated because they can fuck you up. Spirits don’t exist just to help us happy little humans progress on our spiritual path. While indigenous spiritualities may involve structures for individual growth and change, they aren’t anywhere near the same as a lot of the crap you get out of New Age conventions and so forth.

What I’m trying to get at is that nature was never traditionally seen as nice and pretty to the exclusion of also being harsh and dangerous. This is completely a modern creation. And it is possible only because we postindustrial humans have convinced ourselves that we are separate from nature–and therefore we believe that nature’s nature has changed accordingly. Nature hasn’t changed, though. We’ve beaten it back to an extent with our technologies. However, if you put most modern citizens of the United States in the middle of a forest without a cell phone or other form of getting help, they’ll die. Natural disasters such as hurricanes, wildfires, and so forth are a reminder that we can still be very vulnerable to nature. All it takes is a dam breaking, a wall not holding, a lightning strike (or human error) in an area where brush has been allowed to build up, and you have something out of our control that we thought we had handled. Which is part of why these occurrences are so traumatic for the people they happen to–not just because bad things have happened, but because bad things have happened that we’ve convinced ourselves aren’t really a danger any more. Our illusion is safety has been shattered, rudely and violently. While I will agree that we’ve managed to insulate ourselves from certain effects to the point where we have longer lifespans and better overall quality of life (at least some of us, anyway), our place is pretty damned precarious.

And it’s the same way with spirits. I don’t agree with the core shamans who say that journeying is safer than dreaming, any more than I agree with people who think that nature can never hurt us because we have cities. The spirits haven’t changed much, just as nature in and of itself hasn’t changed. What has changed has been our attitudes towards them. Look at most books on totemism, or neoshamanism, or spirit work in general, and you get the impression that anybody can work with these beings with no problem, and that they exist to help us along our spiritual journeys–or at least are uniformly willing to do so because we are special little snowflakes. Yet when people read Eliade, or Vitebsky, or any other anthopological recording of traditional shamanisms, what gets glossed over are the dangers inherent in journeying, and the fact that in many traditions the spirits aren’t automatically your best friend.

In this culture, spirits and nature are seen in highly romanticized, “safe” manners, because we have fooled ourselves into thinking we can do so–just as we have fooled ourselves into thinking we no longer need to worry about nature, and are no longer part of natural cycles. Yet part of the reason I am being so damned cautious when starting out in my journeywork is because the shamanic practitioners I respect the most very often report that the deeper your experience journeying is, the more risk there is. In the same way, the more immersed we get in nature as it really is, the more risks there are. You’re less safe in the mountains than you are in a well-manicured lawn–but you’re also getting a diluted experienced of nature.

In the same way, I would argue that shamanic practitioners who “play it safe” aren’t getting nearly as much depth of experience as they could. While I’m still a relative neophyte specifically to shamanism, I have had years of experience with working with totems and other spirits in multiple spiritual and magical paradigms. And I know from that experience that the deeper you go, the harder and more potentially dangerous it is. The spirits that are working with me in therioshamanism are deliberately going easy on me for the time being, but it won’t always be that way.

So I have to wonder, when people talk about how loving and good and nice the spirits are, and how lovely and romantic nature is, just how deeply they’re opening themselves up to those phenomena. When core shamans talk about how safe journeying is, are they really getting that deeply into the Otherworld, to the point where they’re able to significantly detach from their own expectations? When people talk about how wonderful nature is, are they going out into places where they could ostensibly die–or at least being aware of them?

This is not to say that every “real” shamanic experience must automatically be a “KILLYOUANDEATYOU!” one. But we as modern shamanic practitioners in nonindigenous cultures need to be damned well aware that these things can and do happen, including during journeying. It is NOT safer than dreaming. It is NOT the same as guided meditation. And the fact that people, even in hospitals, and even spiritually “advanced” people, die from bacterial and viral infections, shows that nature surely isn’t always nice and loving to us special humans. I don’t think we need to resort to doing nothing but placation and DOOM. However, some healthy respect to balance out the “the spirits love us and just want to help us!” attitude would be a good balance.

Updates to FAQ

First off, I tweaked the FAQ. Mostly some minor changes and updates here and there, but also an update to the question How can I support your blogging efforts?

Second, I’m going to start writing some posts more tailored towards helping folks “play along at home”, as it were. Some of these will be more theoretical, reorganizing and condensing things I’ve written about sporadically here. Others will be more hands-on–I eventually want to have instructions for the various stages of the first six months and so forth. I don’t have a set date when these things will start appearing; just making a statement of intent.