The Psychology of Shamanism

The word “shamanism” brings to mind for most people an image of a tribal figure in brightly colored traditional garb, dancing and singing and shaking a stick or beating a drum, possibly sacrificing animals or ingesting hallucinogenics, and proposing to heal or curse or predict the future.  For some, this image is associated with evil or ill fortune; for others, superstition; for still others, mystery and intrigue. For many, it holds a profound significance.

When I meet people and tell them I’m a psychologist, it’s not uncommon for them to put their hands in front of their faces and say, in an only half-joking tone, “Don’t look too closely!” Magical ability to peer into a person’s most secret self is often attributed to the psychologist — and some may fear this as well. For many, however, this too is meaningful.

Shamanism is the English term given to a system of magico-religious healing that began in Eastern Siberia and spread to much of the world, taking culturally relevant forms. It’s an animistic worldview in which humans are not separate from their physical environment, and the nonphysical realm is perceived as ever present. Nearly all early peoples developed some form of animistic belief; shamanism has specific features of altered states of consciousness and ecstatic emotional response that also allow the shaman to perform feats seemingly supernatural. In many cultures it has died out or exists only minimally; in others, even in some quite developed societies, it’s still pervasive.

Here’s how it overlaps psychology for me:

The shaman, male or female, is perceived as priest / healer / teacher / guide / mentor / facilitator, and conduit for the spiritual world. The psychologist may fulfill any or all of these roles as well, serving as a knowledgeable conduit for an individual’s unconscious, assisting in making the unknown knowable — that is, helping to bring the unconscious material into a person’s conscious awareness.

The shaman’s work is sacred; the space in which the work is performed is also sacred. The psychologist typically also views his / her work as sacred, and feels privileged and honored by the trust that others place in him / her as they share their most painful or disturbing as well as noble and enlightening thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. Both shaman and psychologist have studied and prepared, and gathered a wealth of life experience, in order to provide and perform this sacred work.

To become a shaman, one must undergo an initiation process after years of training; the initial calling to become a shaman often follows a protracted illness. The psychologist also must go through many years of training followed by an initiation of one sort or another into the profession; as part of that training, he / she must also experience psychotherapy and, when practicing, be supervised by another more senior therapist.  Often, the person who chooses to become a psychologist has had some related experience personally or with a family member. The shaman, or the psychologist, typically can be described as a “wounded healer”–having known pain, and having undergone a process of healing and transformation, he / she can serve others in a better, more informed manner.

The shaman performs ritual for a clearly delineated purpose. The stages of this ritual are universal: purification and centering or grounding; dedication of the shaman to guiding spirits, to the work at hand, and to the participants; altering of consciousness and calling in the spirits; the main task or purpose; expression of gratitude and dismissing of the spirits; and, closure of the ritual with an opening of the boundaries that had been set in place and a releasing — for the time being — of the bond between shaman and participants.

In the psychotherapy session, much the same form is followed: both psychologist and client come to the session having purified their minds of all else, centered or grounded themselves in order to be fully present and focused, and dedicated themselves to the work that needs to be done. The consciousness of both is shifted, as each moves into the realm of the unconscious in order to explore its terrain, and the “spirits” — the thoughts, ideas, beliefs, experiences of the unconscious — are called in. The main task of the session ensues; when the material or issues that have emerged in the session have shifted or resolved, a sense of gratitude to the wisdom of the unconscious is often experienced and the unconscious is “dismissed” in much the same way as the shaman’s spirits, to be accessed again as needed. Consciousness returns to the normal state, gestures of closure take place, and psychologist and client part — until the next session.

The connection of shaman to community, and to the specific ritual participants, is critical to the success of the ritual. So too is the bond between psychologist and client, and the empathy that the psychologist brings to that relationship as well as the client’s hope, desire to change, and commitment to the process.

There’s another key element in shamanism: the concept of soul retrieval. A fundamental belief to the various forms of shamanism is that illness or other disturbance or imbalance in a person’s life is the result of that person having lost a part of his / her soul, and the shaman’s task is to locate and help return that missing portion. The person who comes to the psychologist can also be said to have lost or otherwise not acknowledged a part of his / her innermost self, and it’s the task of the psychologist to help locate and reintegrate that which is missing.

From fragmentation to wholeness.

As we rush toward ever increasing levels of modernity in our societies, and ever increasing dependence upon science in our methods of interpreting the world and our experience of it, we might yet do well to consider indigenous ways.

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