According to Roger Walsh (1992) there are three fundamental ways to explain shamanic phenomena:
1) Due to their experiences shamanic practitioners conceive the journeys, worlds and spirits as real and explain these as being exosomatic, thus as external dimensions and beings beyond their own bodily boundaries.
2) The majority of ´Western´ societies and sciences would interpret shamanic journeys as being imaginative and based on psychogenic processes; hence the journeys through the shamanic worlds as well as the interaction with the spirits would represent merely a product of inner procedures, of the individual psyche.
3) A third perspective, those of Tibetian Buddhism, declares that the dream- and meditational journeys of the Yogi are mental creations – as our whole conception of the world in general. That means that the material world as well as experiences of the immaterial kind (dreams, shamanic journeys, etc.) are creations of our consciousness. Hence ´reality´ as an objective category does not exist; what we perceive as reality is rather a negotiated construct established by the involved actors. And this clearly matches the basic conclusion of one of the most influential trends in epistemology of the last few decades: constructivism.
In my opinion all three explanations are eligible – however, as shamanic practitioner I act on the assumption of real helping forces; I perceive the reduction of spirits to exclusively psychogenic processes as too limiting; and as a scientist I prefer latter approach (because science evolves with diversity – and not with dogma).
A productive debate is needed.
A constructivistic attitude demands not only fundamental respect towards the different-minded but also a profound understanding of their concepts; exchange and constructive confrontation has to be conceived as a respective pre-requisite. As psychologist and shamanic practitioner I quickly realized that in our societies this is not the rule but rather the exception. Hence it is not surprising that, on one hand, shamans are often misleadingly defined as ´witch-doctors´, ´sorcerer-priests´, etc., and, on the other hand, psychotherapists are reduced to the mere analysis and interpretation of verbal material. Both points of view are utterly untenable and express lack of knowledge.
Besides genuin respect a productive debate between shamanism and psychotherapy often is doomed due to the usage of completely different languages – causing misunderstanding and incomprehension. ´Non-ordinary reality´, ´spirits´ or ´soul retrieval´ on one side may have an equally alienating effect for non-adepts just as ´unconscious mind´, ´introjections´ or ´reintegration of dissociated aspects´ on the other
Squaring the circle – shamanism and science
Because of the above mentioned reasons in my thesis I have tried to discuss shamanic work within the context of academic science – aiming at providing an instrument for translation and fostering the exchange between these two philosophies of life. Moreover – via the intensive process of research and survey – I did wish to learn more about two of my very personal life-questions: How can one communicate shamanism in a scientific way?.
What are the similarities respectively differences between shamanism and psychotherapy?
To explain shamanic phenomena in a straightforward manner by using state of the art scientific instruments is simply not possible. However, one can identify numerous parallels between shamanic and academic concepts; in this regard the most fruitful approaches derive from modern consciousness studies as well as models from biology and quantum physics.
The consciousness as central organisational unit of human experience concerns a variety of different scientific disciplines, such as evolutionary biology, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, neurophysiology, etc.; all of them provide issues for discussion, that – if looked upon closely and holistically – create a mosaic, a coherent image.
The times when consciousness has been regarded an exclusively human achievement are over. From the perspective of evolutionary research it is considered to be proven that (at least highly developed) animals possess consciousness. Hence the assumption of a close relation to animals not only on a biological but also on an experiential level seems legitimate. Bearing this in mind an interaction with (power) animals does not seem to be irritating any more, but self-evident.
Moreover, neurophysiological research has revealed that there is not one consciousness, but rather multiple streams of consciousness, that each affect different brain structures. Consequently, also the so called ´altered states of consciousness´ have to be perceived as streams of consciousness along the healthy continuum of human experience which provoke very specific changes in particular brain regions (most notably prefrontal cortex and formatio reticularis), and therefore can be identified as circumscribed and differentiable states of consciousness. In respect to the ´shamanic state of consciousness´ in specific, one can say that the results of relevant studies create a coherent image, highlighted by significant neuronal and physiological pattern as well as transculturally similar reports of shamanic journeys.
And due to efforts mainly within psychiatry and transpersonal psychology systematic schemata as well as clinically relevant models of altered states of consciousness have become available. E.g., Scharfetter (1997) differentiates between sleep- and wake-consciousness, dividing the latter in ´Alltags-Bewusstsein´ (´everyday-consciousness´) and (a further differentiated) ´Außer-Alltags-Bewusstsein´ (´other-than-everyday-consciousness´), thereby describing nothing else than ´ordinary´ and ´non-ordinary´ realities.
The importance and value of these models does not relate to the innovative potential of their concepts (as similar constructs have been existing in various traditions for thousands of years), but in the fact that they define states of consciousness such as the shamanic one clearly as sane phenomena – and as such make it accessible for science.
However, even though the above mentioned fosters the scientific research and description of shamanic procedures and processes, they reveal little about potential explanations of shamanic journeys through parallel worlds and the contact to spirits. The most revolutionary respective findings derive from neurophysiology (Theory of Mirror Neurons) and biology (Morphic Fields) on one hand, from quantum physics on the other: The Extended Quantum Field Theory identifies material as well as immaterial aspects for all physical existence; the so called M-Theory postulates a universe of parallel realities; quantum entanglement hints at interactions between distant elementary particles; and experiments on teleportation have proved that transmission of information without transmission of materia is possible.
It has to be emphasized that these results relate to sub-microscopic phenomena and therefore cannot be transferred to shamanic processes on a one-to-one basis; however, they represent valuable analogies that result in almost exactly the same conclusions than the thousands of years old shamanic concepts.
Soul as a metaphor for consciousness
Trying to reconcile these scientific results with shamanic practice I have developed a Model of Consciousness of Shamanic Healing, which – following Galuska (2003) – defines soul as a metaphor for consciousness and differentiates between innerpsychic-personal and exosomatic-transpersonal realms of consciousness. According to this approach shamanic practitioners, on their journey, locate otherwise non-accessible, transpersonal realms of consciousness (shamanic worlds) and start interacting with specific structures of consciousness (souls) related to other living or deceased beings (spirits) – in order to gather information and generate solutions for a pre-defined concern. The information get manifest and visible for the client via usage of ritualistic actions – which actually introduce the client to the inevitable changes required for substantial and sustainable healing.
Following this rationale, shamanic pracitioners are primarily considered to be experts in locating otherwise non-accessible realms of consciousness and intermediaries between personal and transpersonal structures of consciousness. Their compassionate spirit-helpers provide the informations required.
Shamanism and Psychotherapy
A model like the one introduced not only eases communication with science in general (as it uses its very language) but also the discussion on the relationship of shamanism and psychotherapy in specific.
During my own research it became quite transparent that – besides fundamental differences – a variety of similarities between these healing traditions can be identified.
Quintessential differences concern the general view of world and man (most psychotherapies deny the existence of spirit beings and interpret these as innerpsychic, imaginative helpers), therapeutic relationship (a majority of psychotherapies regard clients as the primary source for the development of healing resources; according to the shamanic view the spirits are seen as the central therapeutic authority) and the overall concept of health, disease and healing (in contrast to a pre-dominant notion of deviation from a state of ´normality´ within psychotherapy, in shamanism disease is understood as a pre-condition for a progressive step in development).
However, regarding applied healing techniques and methodological procedures multiple parallels can be observed – especially as to psychodynamic-imaginative approaches (such as Analytical Psychology after C.G. Jung, Autogenic Training or Katathym Imaginative Psychotherapy (KIP)) and above all to Transpersonal Psychology. E.g., working with inner helpers within KIP strongly resembles interactions with spirit-beings, the sequencing of Advanced Autogenic Training appears to be very similar to the one used at Shamanic Counseling Harner Method (vgl. Thalhamer, 1999), methods and processes comparable to shamanic soul retrieval are to be found in virtually all psychotherapeutic disciplines.
It is no coincidence that the most striking similarities to modern psychotherapy are found within Core-Shamanism – not only on practical level, but also in relation to the general design and conception. Developed by Harner as scientifically-oriented approach, Core-Shamanism represents the very shamanic paradigm that – in regard to language, training and practical (ritualistic) implementation – is rooted most deeply in ´western´ societies; whilst respecting shamanic principles. Overall, Core-Shamanism complies to all theoretical pre-conditions of scientific soundness – and therefore official legitimation; only empirical evidence is missing to a large extent.
In summary I would like to emphasize that the disconnections between shamanism and psychotherapy are not as deep as they seem to be. Both approaches try to initiate healing processes by confronting fundamental questions of human existence – through working with soul.
And even though some academics might not want to perceive it that way: “Psychology actually is the way of the soul”, too (Picard, 2006:199).
Galuska, Joachim (2003): Die erwachte Seele und ihre transpersonale Struktur. In: Fischer, Karl Maximilian (Hrsg.): Heimkehr der Seele: Psychotherapie und Spiritualität. Linz: edition pro mente. 215-234.
Kraft, Hartmut (1995): Über innere Grenzen: Initiation in Schamanismus, Kunst, Religion und Psychoanalyse. München: Diederichs.
Picard, Winfried (2006): Schamanismus und Psychotherapie. Ahlerstedt: Param Verlag.
Scharfetter, Christian (1997): Der spirituelle Weg und seine Gefahren. 4., erw. Aufl. Stuttgart: Enke.
Thalhamer, August (1999): Shamanic Counseling und Autogenes Training: Ein Vergleich.http://www.thalhamer-haase.at/ (all articles)
Urban, Roland (2007): Rückkehr zum Inneren See – Schamanismus, Bewusstsein und Psychotherapie. Diplomarbeit, Univ. Wien.
Vaitl, Dieter et al. (2005): Psychobiology of Altered States of Consciousness. In: Psychological Bulletin. Vol. 131, No. 1. 98-127.
Walch, Sylvester (2002): Dimensionen der menschlichen Seele: Transpersonale Psychologie und holotropes Atmen. Düsseldorf, Zürich: Walter.
Walsh, Roger N. (1992): Der Geist des Schamanismus. Olten: Walter-Verlag.
Roland Urban, MSc., is Director of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies Europe.