Shamanism and Creativity

One of the great surprises that shamanism affords is the joy of the unknown and that the unknown is joyous. There is a sense of wholeness that proceeds from the creativity that is inherent in the shamanic journey. Although shamanism and creativity are not commonly thought of together, a relatively superficial survey of studies of creativity reveals that the shamanic journey speaks to two of the most unknown, mysterious, and abstract elements of the creative process, as frequently defined.

Further, recent research focusing on the relationship between structure and creativity  can be directly applied to the experiences of shamanic journeying. (1) Not only does the shamanic journey have elements of the creative process in it as a creative act, it can also be exercised in the service of productive creativity. Journeying increases access to creativity and stimulates its cultivation.

By viewing creativity through the experience of the shamanic journey, we begin to see that creativity is not a special domain limited to the gifted few, nor can it be reduced to a rote algorithm. Instead, dormant potential can be enlivened and unleashed across multiple disciplines.

Research on creativity

From a number of perspectives, researchers have attempted to define creativity and describe the creative personality. An early elaboration by Wallas (2) defined four stages of the creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Since that time, others have developed schema for understanding the elements of creativity. (3) Attempts to examine the creative personality have been remarkably heterogeneous, with no clear findings of both necessary and sufficient qualities of creativity.

Some descriptors emerged from research on the thought processes of creative persons. They include flexibility, originality, and fluency (4). Characteristic of exceptionally creative people are a variety of qualities such as persistence, independence, unconventionality, (5) and others which, in themselves, may or may not determine creativity. Much remains to be learned about the process and personality aspects of creative expression.

Fortunately, however, the creative experience does not have to wait for scientific explanation to validate it. We can learn from what we experience and test the hypotheses proposed by scholars in the field. As we learn about the process and from the experience of creativity, we lay the groundwork for consciously cultivating creativity. Examining the shamanic journey experience may help clarify the mechanisms of the creative process.

Supporting creative processes shamanically

Although many address creativity with more or fewer than the four stages proposed above, the elements Wallas proposed form a useful framework for considering how the shamanic journey supports creativity and where it may fit into Western psychology's understanding of the creative process.

Something is a problem because it cannot be resolved in the usual ways, implying that some active attempt has been unsuccessful, requiring further preparation. The altered state of consciousness in the shamanic journey provides an opportunity for planned incubation, set apart from a direct attack on the problem. It is common that within the shamanic divination journey, the journeyer receives a revelation of quite unexpected content-an inspiration. Then, that inspiration must be put into practice and verified, thus completing the process with the creative act. Most recently, research has focused on just this issue of learned creative thinking. (6)

The shamanic journey itself becomes the active vehicle for two aspects of the process: the incubation by way of the changed state of consciousness and the inspiration by way of the content of the experience. Framing the divinatory question or problem and interpreting the journey are skills which can be learned and enhanced by repeated use of the method and consequent mapping of the individual's cosmology.

The integration and application of the inspiration in the material world builds trust in the process as a result of experience. What may have been an act of courage becomes one of deeply mindful integrity. One enters the experience at will and immerses oneself in it while it is happening. Then one translates the experience and applies it in a conscious, reasoned manner, after an ordinary reality evaluation.

Core-shamanic approaches on working with creativity

The core shamanic journey methods distilled in the 1970s by Michael Harner through worldwide cross-cultural study constitute one path by which we can creatively integrate spiritual, cultural, emotional, and physical elements. (7) Although its origins have not been precisely determined, shamanism may be at least as ancient as 30,000 or more years, as evidence from Paleolithic cave paintings indicates (8,9).

Moreover, historical and ethnographic evidence reveals its independent practice by indigenous peoples throughout the world, widely separated both geographically and culturally, up to and including the present day. Not unexpectedly, specific cultural practices may differ. The core methods, however, are remarkably similar and suggest repeated discovery of some pan-human, mind-body aspects of spirituality.

The most distinctive characteristic of the shaman is the journey or "soul flight." (10) The journey is begun from a place one knows first-hand and is undertaken for a specific purpose to a source of information or healing power. Traditionally, members of the community request help from the shaman for problem-solving, diagnosis and treatment of illness, divination or prophecy, acquisition of power, and psychopomp work.

As the journey unfolds, profound experiences, often extending significantly beyond visual imagery, arise spontaneously, and the shaman must remember the details. The return from the journey is accomplished by retracing the sequence of events until arriving where the journey began. Concentration and memory are therefore critical aspects of successful shamanic work. With respect to creativity, it is the problem-solving function which is most pertinent.

The shaman then Interprets the information imparted in the journey. It demands discipline and experience to develop the question and to interpret and integrate the answer. While most people, even today in the United States and Europe, can learn to journey in a few hours, some are more adept than others. Most who learn choose not to pursue it seriously, for it requires discipline and continuous learning. The shaman typically does this work part-time and primarily in service to the community.

Down-to-earth practice today

Ancient and enduring, yet threatened, shamanism is founded in basic human capabilities and potentialities. It is as relevant in today's world as it has been for millennia. Through research and experience, we are gradually learning how we might benefit from its lessons. Shamanic practice is a creative act which relies on the ability to transcend the bounds of ordinary reality and enter the shaman's world with trust based on direct firsthand experience.

In that sense it is thoroughly pragmatic and empirical, not relying on faith. Traditionally, it has been a method for problem-solving. While the specific nature of the problems may have changed over time, the need to solve problems has not.

As a creative psychospiritual process, shamanic journeying is a method known through the ages all over the Planet. By reviving shamanic journeying, contemporary Westerners have adopted a methodology for discovering and rediscovering shamanic experience and content directly, and for tapping into their inherent creative potential. As relevant today as it was in the past, shamanism is our legacy and our responsibility is to pass it on. The knowledge so long acquired, and so generously shared by all our relations, may be spared extinction by our respectful attention.


(1) Wycoff, Joyce (1991): Mindmapping. New York: Putnam Berkley.

(2) Wallas, Joseph (1926): The Art of Thought. New York: Harcourt Brace.

(3) Patrick, Catharine (1935): Creative Thought In Poets. Archives of Psychology. Vol.26:1-74; Patrick, Catharine (1937): Creative Thought in Artists. Journal of Psychology Vol. 4:35-73; Patrick, Catharine (1938): Scientific Thought. Journal of Psychology. Vol. 5:55-83. Rossman, J. (1931): The Psychology of the Inventor. Washington: Inventors Publishing. Osborn. A. F. (1953): Applied Imagination. New York: Scribners. Stein. M. (1967): Creativity and Culture. In: R. L. Mooney and T. A. Razik (eds.): Explorations in Creativity. New York: Harper. Werthelmer. M. (1945): Productive Thinking. New York: Harper.

(4) Guilford, J. P. (1950): Creativity. American Psychologist Vol. 5:444-454; Guilford, J. P. (1957): Creative Ability in the Arts. Psychological Review. Vol. 64:110-118; Guilford, J. P. (1959): Traits of Creativity. In: H. H. Anderson (ed.): Creativity and Its Cultivation. New York: Harper and Row.

(5) MacKinnon, D. W. (1968): Selecting Students with Creative Potential. In: P. Heist (ed.): The Creative College Student: An Unmet Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

(6) Goldenberg, J., D. Mazursky, and S. Solomon (1999): Creative Sparks. Science. Vol. 285:1495-1496.

(7) Harner, Michael (1980): The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper and Row; auf Deutsch verfügbar unter: Harner, Michael: Der Weg des Schamanen. München: Heyne.

(8) Chauvet, Jean-Marie, Ellette B. Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire (1996). Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave. New York: Abrams.

(9) Clottes, Jean and Jean Courtin (1996): The Cave Beneath the Sea. New York: Abrams.

(10) Eliade, Mircea (1964): Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Bollingen Series LXXVI. Princeton: Princeton University Press; auf Deutsch verfügbar unter: Mircea Eliade: Schamanismus und archaische Ekstasetechnik. 11. Auflage. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.


© Shamanism, Fall/Winter 1999, Vol. 12, No. 2

Sandra Harner, Ph.D., is Co-founder and Vice-President of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.

This article contains the theoretical foundations of the workshop “Shamanic Training in Creativity” which sheds light on the connection between shamanism and creative abilities.