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.

3 thoughts on “Shamanism and Psychology

  1. So glad I’m able to catch up on your posts. You always give me something interesting to chew on! I agree that therapists, counselors or whatever you call them are sort of our modern shamans, if you will. Also, I think psychology can enrich our spirituality and vice versa. To me, it’s just more ways of looking at the same thing, but each lens provides a different perspective.

    And don’t you think that those who say shamanism is culturally neutral are actually doing themselves and their own culture a disservice? Indigenous cultures have value but so does our own.

  2. It sounds like we’re on pretty much exactly the same page here (with the exception of the fact that I personally haven’t had any spiritual experiences which led me to believe “that to an extent I’m interacting with something other than myself”, as you put it- but I don’t think that necessarily says much about the experiences of people who aren’t me).

    (No worries over the delay in responding to my other blog post, btw- you’re obviously an extremely busy person :). As usual, I’m re-reading what I wrote and cringing over everything that could have been better phrased, so I’d be really grateful if you could point out anything that seems like it’s ambiguous/ based on false assumptions).

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