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.


We all would really like to ‘make sense of it all’, wouldn’t we? So many religions, each attempting to explain, and guide, life and the world and human behavior; so many philosophies; so many psychological theories. There’s ‘unified field theory’ in physics — an attempt to explain all the workings of the universe in one neat package — except that there are many such ‘unified’ theories, hundreds of them during the 20th century, all claiming to be the ‘theory of everything’. Integral theory in psychology attempts the same unification, a singular, all-encompassing theory of consciousness.

On the surface, this approach seems simplistic. But is it possible? Who am I to say? We’ve yet to sort this out, and there are countless scientists, philosophers, and theologians attempting to do so.

This need to simplify, to find the One Answer, to put the fragments back together into a new whole — this need is entirely human. And to say that our world, our civilizations, have become fragmented, especially in the post-industrial, technological / information era, would be an understatement. It’s not only human to want one explanation, one Truth — it’s also quite human to want to put all of the pieces back together.

From fragmentation to wholeness.

In Asian cultures, less — or perhaps merely different — fragmentation has taken place over time. Cognition is predominantly wholistic, not categorical; abstract, not analytical; cyclic, not linear. With the interaction among global cultures, however, today at an astonishing rate, this too is changing. Western medicine with all of its specialties and sub-specialties is widely used; the disease model is increasingly prevalent; globalization brings categorization and specialization into the business realm. Cultures are increasingly less distinct from one another.

Behavioral psychology focused on human action and how that might be affected by conditioning. Analytical schools of psychology — first Freud and his ground-breaking conceptualization of the unconscious, followed by Jung and his theories of archetypes and the collective unconscious — greatly furthered our understanding of the human experience. Cognitive psychology used the computer as a model for the human brain, and information-processing as a metaphor for the mind’s activity. Humanistic psychology moved the focus more intently on the whole person, the human experience in total, not limited to behavior and cognition. All of these schools of thought have unquestionably evolved further today.

Transpersonal psychology has considered these earlier approaches to understanding the nature of being human, and reintroduced the spiritual aspect, metaphysical possibilities, Eastern philosophies, and the many and varied states of consciousness. In so doing, it has taken the best of what went before, and enhanced it.

We humans have attempted to understand ourselves and our world since the beginning of time. Great systems of belief and thought have been developed to provide answers. At our core, we strive not only to perceive meaning, but also to create it. In the stories that we tell, in our interpretations, in the cultures and societies that we build, we are constantly striving both to understand and to be co-creators of our existence. For the opposite — the possibility that there is no meaning, that there is no purpose, that understanding is beyond our capability — or that we have no say in the matter — is unacceptable.

We’re all in the business of meaning-making: individuals, couples, families, groups, societies, cultures, the human species.  And psychotherapy can be a means of facilitating this process, both in the the understanding and creation of meaning.

Transpersonal Psychology and Eastern Philosophies

Transpersonal Psychology, which emerged 40 years ago, focuses on health and human potential. Spiritual and metaphysical aspects are reintroduced into the study of the mind, and the physical body is equally considered. It integrates the philosophies of Carl Jung and analytical psychology, Abraham Maslow and humanistic psychology, and eastern philosophies and practices. In so doing, it includes pre-personal, personal, and trans- [beyond or in addition to; transcendent] personal realms of human cognition and experience.

The disease model of Western medicine and psychology is not utilised. Rather, a bio-psycho-socio-spiritual approach is taken, and ideas of harmony/disharmony, balance/imbalance, disintegration/reintegration, and fragmentation/wholeness serve to define the human condition. Human development is pursued equally in intellectual, emotional physical, spiritual, and social realms as well as creative expression. It posits a ‘superconscious’ in addition to a subconscious, and the study and exploration of multiple states of consciousness is prioritized. Mystical experience and shamanistic healing methods are also considered.

It is easy to see how this approach to Western psychology is respectful of and strives to include Eastern philosophies, and its premise of balance as a framework for health is closely aligned with that of classical Chinese medicine. Practices such as Mindfulness and Breathwork, meditation, and somatic and energetic therapies are included, and the psychology of the body is honoured.  The primary focus of transpersonal psychology is the realisation of our ultimate potential.

My therapeutic approach is served very well indeed by this model of psychology.

Chinese Medicine and Psychology

Chinese medicine, seated in Taoist philosophy, has been around since sometime before the Yellow Emperor famously had it codified and written down in the 3rd millenium BCE. Psychology as a scientific discipline is only about 120 years old, Western medicine  (out of ancient Greece) about 2500; the philosophies of that same era addressed cognition and mental concerns, but it wasn’t until Descartes proposed a duality of body and mind in the 17th century that a separate discipline for the latter could be considered.

Chinese philosophers never conceived of the mind and body as separate, so the medical system addressed both together in terms of patterns of disharmony or imbalance. Western medicine followed a similar path prior to the 17th century, though it is approximately 2000 years younger than that which originated in China. So both Chinese and early Western medicines considered and treated symptoms of emotion, or disposition, or ‘humours’ — the Chinese version being developed considerably earlier.

[A side note: TCM, “traditional” Chinese medicine, is a late 20th century nomenclature and influenced by Western medicine; classical Chinese medicine, the version practiced until the early 20th century before being outlawed for a period of 30 years, is what I’m referring to in this post.]

There’s some question in scholarly circles as to whether Western psychology and treatment methods can be imposed on Eastern cultures. Chinese scholars of psychology have recently developed a hybrid version, Chinese Taoist Cognitive Psychology, which integrates Taoist principles and practices. This is an exciting and promising new development — and correlates with my own work rather well.

Classical Chinese medicine identifies imbalances of emotion which correspond to physiological imbalances in specific patterns of disharmony. This is typically referred to as the Five Phase or Five Element diagnostic filter, and can be integrated with Western psychotherapeutic approaches.  In my practice, I utilise methods of diagnosis from Chinese medicine to discern these patterns, and include treatment recommendations from that perspective as appropriate.  It is my ongoing quest, my life’s work, to bring together the best of both East and West for a therapeutic approach that can benefit anyone — crossing cultural boundaries while remaining respectful of the distinctions.