Shamanism and Healing- Episode 11

From meditation to yoga, Ayurveda, and now the healing techniques of shamanism have over the years garnered attention. People especially in western society travel long distances to many retreat centers in the Amazon forest in the hope to heal not only the physical body but also the mental, emotional and spiritual parts. 

Shamanism is widespread in many parts of the world, especially in very ancient cultures. Its root has been taken from the prehistoric age, where paleolithic men created cave paintings, for instance, we can see some incredible work of prehistoric caves such as in Altamira Cave in Spain, Chauvet Cave in France or the Bhimbetka Cave in India. What’s fascinating is the fact that these caves have prehistoric paintings with common motifs such as grid patterns, dots, starbursts, and curved lines. Common animals depicted in these caves are ibexes, bison, and horses. These animals were usually anthropomorphized, whereby several human body parts merged with the animals. 

As per archaeologist Davis Lewis Williams, these cave paintings were created by the shamans of the hunter-gatherer societies. And most probably these anthropomorphized images were created when the shamans were in an ‘altered state of consciousness’ (ASC) or non-ordinary state of consciousness. But first what is the normal state of consciousness? 

The normal state of consciousness comprises  the state of wakefulness, awareness, or alertness in which most human beings function while not asleep

Whereas the altered state of consciousness is being in any condition outside the normal state of consciousness or an ordinary state of consciousness. You can experience an altered state of consciousness during a meditation session, hypnosis, or even when dancing and listening to certain monotonous drum beats. More popularly many refer it to as going in a ‘trance’ Though going in a trance doesn’t mean losing consciousness. And when we refer to an altered state of consciousness we usually think of psychedelic drugs but there are many other methods of entering an altered state of consciousness without ingesting any mind-altering substances. 

Shamans are portrayed negatively by the media. Of course, there are many charlatans in the world of shamanism just like in any field. But shamans were once highly respected in ancient societies. They were known to be seers, wizards, and medicine men.

There were tribal priests but they do not fit the role of a shaman.  As anthropologist Michael Harner explains that, ‘the shaman is a self-reliant explorer of the endless mansions of a magnificent hidden universe… he brings back his discoveries to build his knowledge and to help others.’ 

Michael Harner was a very respected academic who studied the Jivaro Indians in the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Conibo Indians in the Ucayali River for many years. He is known for his incredible work notably ‘The Way of Shaman’, and I’m going to share some of his discoveries in regard to shamanism and healing. 

Michael Harner has observed that the role of the shamans in many cultures,  for example in the Native American, Siberian and south-east Asian tribes is predominantly the same, that is the shaman is ‘ a guardian of the psychic and ecological equilibrium of his group and his members.’ 

What’s fascinating is the fact that due to the lack of technological innovation of modern medicine, the shamans were compelled to develop their own kind of technology-that is the ability to transcend into another dimension or realm. They basically found techniques to enter a ‘Shamanic State of Consciousness’, where ‘he is not only in a state of transcendence but also is in a state of learned awareness.’ And such a state is definitely not for play but for serious purposes. 

The shaman actually undergoes a small ‘ death experience’, whereby he is faced with his own fears. Death can also suggest the death of ego and the death of the ‘ordinary state of consciousness’. He primarily engages in the firsthand experience of the senses. He thus acquires knowledge from this journey in order to help himself and others. 

Basically, the shamans are assisted by their guardian spirits who predominantly have a duality of animal-human nature. (power animal). This explains why in most of the shamanism dance rituals an animal face mask is used; whereby the shaman imitates his or her power animal, in order, to evoke its spirit. It is a process where the shaman and the animal become in unification. This ‘metamorphosis’ can also correspond to prehistoric cave paintings. 

The dance ritual is often accompanied by slow drum beats created by the shaman. The monotonous nature of the drum beats stimulates a large portion of the brain. This is possible because of the low sound frequency that allows the production of the trance states. 

Normally the shaman takes mind-altering substances such as ayahuasca and green tobacco water which allow him to be in the ‘Shamanic State of Consciousness’ This state of consciousness allows him to see into the body of his patient. The ‘intruding non-ordinary entity’ or the disease or illness is extracted by the shaman. -And this is how the shaman heals his patient.. though there are many other techniques that the shaman applies especially through medicinal plants. …….

References – Shamanism and Healing

Harner, Michael J. The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990. Print.




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