LESSON 3.8 Shamanic Crisis
Table of Contents
Description • Associated Clinical problems • Treatment • Case Examples • WWW Library
Shamanism is humanity's oldest religion and healing art, dating back to the Paleolithic era. Originally, the word shaman referred specifically to healers of the Tungus people of Siberia. In recent times, that name has been given to healers in many traditional cultures around the globe who use consciousness altering techniques in their healing work.
Historically, shamanism has been confused with schizophrenia by anthropologists because shamans often speak of altered state experiences in the spirit world as if they were "real" experiences. While the shaman and the person in a psychotic episode both have unusual access to spiritual and altered state experiences, shamans are trained to work in the spirit world, while the psychotic person is simply lost in it.
But in many traditional cultures, psychotic episodes have served as an initiatory illness that calls a person into shamanism. Mircea Eliade writes:
The future shaman sometimes takes the risk of being mistaken for a "madman". . .but his "madness" fulfills a mystic function; it reveals certain aspects of reality to him that are inaccessible to other mortals, and it is only after having experienced and entered into these hidden dimensions of reality that the "madman" becomes a shaman. (Mircea Eliade. Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries. New York: Harper and Row, 1960. Page 80-81)
As the person accepts the calling and becomes a shaman, their illness usually disappears. The "self-cure of a psychosis" is so typical of the shaman that some anthropologists have argued that anyone without this experience should be described only as a healer. The concept of the "wounded healer" addresses the necessity of the shaman-to-be entering into extreme personal crisis in preparation of his/her role in the community as a healer (Halifax, Joan. Shamanic Voices. New York: Dutton, 1979)..
Traditional cultures distinguish between serious mental illness and the initiatory crisis experienced by some shamans-to-be. Anthropological accounts show that babbling confused words, displaying curious eating habits, singing continuously, dancing wildly, and being "tormented by spirits" are common elements in shamanic initiatory crises. In shamanic cultures, such crises are interpreted as an indication of an individual's destiny to become a shaman, rather than a sign of mental illness. If the illness occurs in an appropriate cultural context, the shaman returns from the crisis not only healed, but able to heal others.
For example, the Siberian shaman Kyzalov entered a state of "madness" lasting for seven years which resulted in his initiation as a shaman. He reported that during those years he had been beaten up several times, taken to many strange places including the top of a sacred mountain, chopped into pieces and boiled in a kettle, met the spirits of sickness, and acquired the drum and garment of a dead shaman. In our society today these experiences would be considered evidence of a psychotic disorder and could possibly result in hospitalization. Yet when Kyzalov recuperated, he reported that, "the shamans declared, 'You are the sort of man who may become a shaman; you should become a shaman. You must begin to shamanize.' " (Halifax, Joan. Shamanic Voices. New York: Dutton, 1979)..
Referring to the "wounded healer" concept, Kalweit argues the shamanic crisis is:
A sickness that is understood as a process of purification, as the onset of enhanced psychic sensitivity giving access to the hidden and highest potentials of human existence, is therefore marked by very different characteristics than those ascribed to pathological conditions by modern medicine and psychology, namely that suffering has only negative consequences. According to the modern view, illness disrupts and endangers life, whereas the shaman experiences his sickness as a call to restructure this life within himself so as to hear, see and live it more fully and completely in a higher state of awareness. (Dreamtime and Inner Space: The World of the Shaman by Holger Kalweit, p. 91)
Associated Clinical Problems
Individuals in Western cultures occasionally experience similar problems:
We have seen instances where modern Americans, Europeans, Australians and Asians have experienced episodes that bore a close resemblance to shamanic crises...People experiencing such crises can also show spontaneous tendencies to create rituals that are identical to those practiced by shamans of various cultures. (Grof, S., & Grof, C. (Eds.). (1989). Spiritual emergency: When personal transformation becomes a crisis. Los Angeles: Tarcher). p. 14-15)
The themes common to shamanic crises include:
Descent to the Realm of Death, confrontations with demonic forces, dismemberment, trial by fire, communion with the world of spirits and creatures, assimilation of the elemental forces, ascension via the World Tree and/or Cosmic Bird, realization of a solar identity, and return to the Middle World, the world of human affairs. (Halifax, Joan. Shamanic Voices, p. 7)
But as with shamans in traditional cultures, when persons in this type of spiritual emergence receive proper guidance, they too can return from the experience positively transformed.. In a traditional society, shamans cure people's illnesses, guide recently deceased souls, and restore a community's psychic balance as well. For many people in contemporary western societies, shamanic crises are precipitants to their choice of a career in the health professions, such as psychology and nursing.
Treatment for people in a shamanic crisis follows the basic approach described in Lesson 6.1 Spiritual Crises. During the integration stage (Lesson 6.2 Psychotherapy), contact with traditional shamans and reading of literature on shamanism can be helpful adjuncts to therapy. In my own spiritual emergency, shamans played a role in recovery. The spiritual potential inherent in my experience lay dormant until contact with shamanic teachers enabled me to connect with that dimension.Years later, in the altered states of consciousness induced by shamanic practices, I re-experienced, for the first time since my psychotic episode, a feeling of oneness with the universe. Once again, I was communicating with divine spirits, and comprehending the meaning of life itself. Instead of repressing these ecstatic experiences which had brought painful memories, I was now learning to trust them again. Such experiences are a major component of shamanic life: "Shamans do not differ from other members of the collectivity by their quest for the sacred, which is normal and universal human behavior, but by their capacity for ecstatic experience" (Eliade Shamanism, p. 107). However, these teachers and their shamanic practices taught me how to exercise voluntary control over entry into and out of ecstatic states. I also learned how to keep them contained within appropriate social contexts. (Full account of how shamans helped with the integration phase).
Traditional Initiatory Crisis
WWW LIBRARY of Religion and Spirituality
The WWW Library of Religion and Spirituality contains interviews with anthropologist Michael Harner, PhD, articles and guides to online resources.