A Theistic View on the Unitary Experience in
the ecstatic, unitary, or mystical experience is different from the possession of spirits by the shaman. The ecstatic experience
connotes having an out-of-body experience, which is typical of mystical experiences in world religions. Shamans may be experiencing
authentic out-of-body experiences through journeying, trances, and through altered states of consciousness. The controversial
issue is whether the shaman's astral form is actually out of the body, or whether this phenomenon is occurring within the
mind of the shaman. There is no empirical evidence to support either position. Therefore, the theistic model of a mystical
experience may be as valid as the psychological perspective, which examines the mental state of the shaman. Shamans achieve
transcendent states of consciousness through contemplative methods and with the use of hallucinogenic plants. In the transcendent
state, the shaman achieves a level of unitary consciousness. Additionally, there is possibility that the shaman experiences
communion with "the sacred." In psychology, this experience occurs within the mind, however, in world mysticism,
this experience is actually occurring on a higher level of reality. Some scholars are skeptical of shamanic transcendence
taking place on another level of reality. In contrast, Eliade (1972), Torrance (1994), and Grof (2006) allow for the possibility
that paranormal events may occur in shamanism and mysticism. There is a discussion of the Lakotas perspectives on soul and
spirit, which are congruent with the Greek and Hindu beliefs in mysticism. There is a need for further investigation into
the possibility that shamans are having an out-of-body experience while journeying and engaging in drug-induced altered states
they have a close relationship to the spirit world. They claim that master spirits can possess them and speak through them.
Psychologists believe that such encounters with spirits are helping shamans to overcome their psychological imbalances. Once
shamans heal, they can help others in the community to achieve psychological well-being. However, the ecstatic experience
in shamanism is different from the experience of spirit possession. According to Torrance (1994),
Ecstasy, as Eliade (1972) conceives it, is sharply differentiated from possession. The shaman's
mastery is shown not in voluntary inducing possession by spirits who control him during the trance but in his own
control over spirits through whom he communicates with the beyond without becoming their instrument. Shamans do sometimes
appear to be possessed, Eliade concedes, but these exceptional cases often turn out to be only apparent. The shaman is always
an active agent and never merely a vehicle, as is the medium, for another; his ecstasy, far from annulling the self, frees
it to realize to the fullest powers normally beyond its reach (Elaide, 1972).
Under these conditions, the shaman is not simply channeling spiritual entities, but
is experiencing a state of psychological bliss and of communing with "the sacred." Some shaman will report having
out-of-body experiences in which they claim to leave their bodies and enter a state of unitary consciousness. During such
an episode, shamans move into the trance state and feel as though they are gaining wisdom that is beyond human. They believe
that their souls are leaving their bodies and are travelling to far worlds above and below them. On this issue, Torrance (1994)
cites Eliade (1972), who says the shaman believes that the soul is leaving the body to experience ecstasy. Torrance includes
other scholarly opinions, which disagree on this point:
the "specific element" of shamanism, Eliade concludes (499), is not the shaman's embodiment of spirits but the ecstasy
of ascent to the sky or descent to the underworld. This criterion has by no means been universally accepted. . . .Eliade's
definition of the shaman as one whose soul ascends to the sky and descends to the underworld excludes, however, not only the
medium but Oesterreich's visionary shaman, leaving out "the many cases in Siberia and North America where the shaman
does not depart from his body, but waits for the arrival of spirits" (Hultkrantz 1973, 29). Hultkrantz therefore suggests
widening the clairvoyant experience to include not only extra-corporeal flight but as these remain distinct, we may differentiate
a "weak" and a "strong" form of shamanism embodied respectively by the visionary and the ecstatic.
When shamans feel as though they are leaving their bodies, they may be having a unitary
or mystical experience. From a psychological perspective, shamans are imagining such flights outside the body and are experiencing
an altered state of consciousness. This experience is purely subjective; however, such shamans perceive an alternate reality
that is real to them. However, there is no empirical evidence to prove that they leave their physical forms and travel to
other dimensions of reality. Interestingly, from a parapsychological viewpoint, such shamans are having a credible transcendent
experience outside their bodies. Additionally, from an esoteric or mystical standpoint, these shamans are travelling in their
astral bodies to other locations. Therefore, scholarly investigations into the shamanic unitary experience may of interest
to academic disciplines such as parapsychology and comparative religion.
In an article by Walsh (1989, p. 34), "Shamanism and early Human Technology: The Technology of Transcendence,"
the author contends that shaman's were humankind's earliest mystics. Walsh says that there are many definitions for "mystics"
and "shamans," however, his definition relates to the shaman's ability to "access transcendental knowledge
through direct intuition" (1989, p. 34). He elaborates on this point by defining the mystical aspects of shamanism:
Shamans are "cosmic travelers" who experience themselves having controlled
out-of-body experiences in which they, or their spirits, traverse the cosmos at will in order to learn, acquire power, help,
and heal. The focus on cosmic travels, which are also known as soul flights or journeys, is what distinguishes shamans from
other magico-religious healers. . . . To travel the cosmos, the shaman must be able to enter specific states of consciousness,
and much of shamanism centers on ways of inducing these states. . . . So shamans are hardly alone in seeking alternate states
of consciousness. Mystics of numerous other traditions also seek them to claim that it is in these states that their deepest
realizations are born. In fact mystical traditions the world over have developed families of techniques for altering consciousness
in systematic ways. These techniques of the sacred, or technology of transcendence, and the mystical traditions serve as road
maps for using this technology to attain transcendent states. (1989, p. 34)
Walsh is describing a psychological process in which the shaman experiences transcendence by entering into an altered
state of consciousness. He supports the notion that the shaman experiences self-realization and gains deeper insights into
the meaning of life. However, he is approaching this subject from a psychological perspective and is not allowing for the
possibility that shamans are having "real" out-of-body experiences. Therefore, Walsh's contention that a shaman
is a mystic does not find support among world religious traditions, which claim that a true mystic experiences separation
of consciousness from the physical body. Accordingly, this experience would transform the shaman's spiritual self, which would
prepare the shaman to help, teach, and heal others within the community.
It is important to state the theistic view of mysticism, which Evelyn Underhill (2001) describes in her critically
acclaimed book Mysticism:
Utterly remade in the interests
of Reality, exhibiting that dual condition fruition and activity which Ruysbroeck described as the crowning stage of human
evolution, the "Supreme summit if the Inner Life," all these lived as it were, with both hands; towards the finite
and the Infinite, towards God and man. It is true that in nearly every case such "great actives" have first left
the world, as a necessary condition of establishing communion with that Absolute Life which reinforced their own: for a mind
distracted by the many cannot apprehend the One. Hence something equivalent to the wilderness is an essential part of mystical
education. But, having established that communion, re-ordered their inner lives upon transcendent levels - being united with
their Source not merely in temporary ecstasies, but in virtue of a permanent condition of the soul, they were impelled to
abandon their solitude; and resumed, in some way their contact with the world in order to become the medium whereby that life
flowed out to other men. To go up alone into the mountain and come back as an ambassador to the world, has ever been the method
of humanity's best friends. (p. 172)
If Underhill's definition applies to shamanic mysticism, and if shamans are truly mystics as claimed
by Walsh (1989), then there is the question of whether the spiritual aspect of mysticism should be included while studying
the psychology of shamanism. While this combination of academic disciplines is unlikely, there is a possibility that the field
of transpersonal psychology may close this gap in the future. For instance, transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof (2006)
reported an out-of-body mystical experience he had while experimenting with LSD:
I was hit by a vision of light of incredible radiance and supernatural beauty. It made me think of the accounts of
the mystical experiences I had read about in spiritual literatures, in which the visions of divine light were compared with
the incandescence of "millions of suns." . . . Today, I think it was more like Dharmakaya, or the Primary Clear
Light, the luminosity of indescribable brilliance that, according to The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol),
appears to us at the moment of our death. . . . Although I had no adequate words for what happened to me, there was no doubt
in my mind that my experience was very close to those I knew from the great mystical scriptures of the world. Even though
my psyche was deeply affected by the effects of LSD, I was able to see the paradox of the situation. The Divine manifested
and took over in the middle of a serious scientific experiment. (p. xxxiii)
Grof points out that the use of LSD was a "short-cut" for experiencing the mystical realm. Although his
out-of-body experience may have been a direct result of an altered state of consciousness, he believes that his consciousness
was outside of his body. Therefore, if a transpersonal psychologist such as Grof is claiming to have such an experience, it
seems reasonable that some shamans may be having similar experiences.
moving outside the bounds of modern psychology, another interpretation of the shaman's mystical experience is possible. Instead
of viewing shamans as schizophrenics, or mentally ill, the shaman may be a true mystic with a highly advanced spiritual nature.
This type of shaman is a devoted spiritual leader who is attempting to move forward in evolutionary consciousness.
In Huxley's (1945) book The Perennial Philosophy, he purposely moves the topic
of mysticism out of the category of psychology:
The psychology of
the Perennial Philosophy has its source in metaphysics and issues logically in a characteristic way of life and system of
ethics. Starting from this mid-point of doctrine, it is easy for the mind to move in either direction. In the present section
[That Art Thou] we shall confine out attention to but a single feature of this psychology - the most important, the most emphatically
insisted by all exponents of the Perennial Philosophy and, we may add, the least psychological. For the doctrine that is to
be illustrated belongs to autology rather than psychology - to the science, not of the personal ego, but of that eternal Self
in the depth of particular, individualized selves, and identical with, or at least akin to, the divine Ground. Based upon
the direct experience of those who have fulfilled the necessary conditions of such knowledge, this teaching is expressed most
succinctly in the Sanskrit formula, tat tvam asi ("That art thou"); the Atman, or eternal Self, is one
with Brahman, the Absolute Principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being is to discover the fact for himself,
to find out Who he really is. (pp. 1-2)
Huxley contends that the mystical experience is a universal phenomenon, and most individuals engaging
in mysticism are seeking to experience a feeling of oneness with "the sacred." Accordingly, shamans claim to experience
a feeling of oneness with natural forces and with the highest spiritual entities. However, in psychological terms, the shaman
is experiencing a feeling of oneness within the mind for the specific purpose of curing mental illness. In contrast, Huxley's
description would categorize the shaman's experience in autological terms, or the study of the self, God, and nature. Therefore,
Huxley and religious mystics would view shamanic mysticism as a phenomenon worthy of further investigation, whereas, psychologists
usually link shamanic mysticism with mental illness, trances, and altered states of consciousness.
advances the debate on drug-induced mystical experiences versus contemplative mystical experiences, by citing a reference
to a case study performed at Harvard University:
In this study,
ten divinity students and professors were given psilocybin on God Friday in Harvard University's March Chapel. Researchers
were unable to distinguish the reports of the drug-induced "mystical experience" from those of mystics throughout
the centuries (Smith, 1964). Perhaps the people best equipped to say whether drug or contemplatively induced mystical experiences
can be the same are those who have had both. Such people are obviously few and far between, but a survey of spiritual teachers
(Walsh, 1982) located one such person who concluded that they could be. The theological claim that mystical rapture is a gift
from God that can never be brought under human control is an argument that will only seem cogent to those believing in theistic
religions and specific theological positions. (p. 38)
Walsh is arguing
that the divine nature of mystical rapture will only be of interest to theologians and those interested in religious study.
However, hypothetically, if the shaman's ecstatic experience was the subject of study by other members of the shaman's community,
it would seem cogent that these individuals (with similar beliefs) would accept the notion of a "theistic" shamanic
unitary experience. Such community members with the same beliefs as the shaman would understand the nature of the spiritual
phenomenon that is affecting the shaman. Therefore, if indigenous researchers in the shaman's community were studying the
ecstatic experience, they might approach the subject with a sympathetic mindset, which favors the shaman's claim of experiencing
the mystical realm. However, some scholars without the benefit of growing up within the indigenous culture of the shaman are
determining that the shaman is not having an authentic ecstatic experience. Consequently, the psychological community will
argue that such an experience is a cognitive function caused by imbalances within the brain. Accordingly, Walsh does not giving
equal credence to the possibility that the shaman's ecstatic experience (either drug-induced or contemplative) might be a
genuine spiritual phenomenon. In his concluding remarks in article on this topic, Walsh refers to various aspects of the brain,
which he believes are causing altered states of consciousness:
the precise neural and chemical mechanisms involved, it is clear that shamans have discovered a wide variety of psychological,
physiological, and central aids to modify consciousness. The techniques are simple and were probably first discovered accidentally
- perhaps when members of the tribe faced hunger, fatigue, and dehydration in their struggle for existence or accidentally
ate psychedelic plants. (1989, p. 40)
(1990) article "Malang, Sufis, and Mystics: An Ethnographic and Historical Study of Shamanism in Afghanistan," the
author cites Eliade (1972) and Hultkrantz (1978) on the issue of the shaman as a mystic:
Eliade (1972) defines a shaman as one who uses specific techniques of ecstasy, but shamanism does not
exhaust all varieties of the ecstatic experience. . . .As Hultkrantz (1985) correctly points out, in shamanism "we never
find mystical union with the Divinity so typical for the ecstatic experiences in the ‘higher' forms of religious mysticism."
Although Eliade and Hultkrantz are acknowledging the shaman's ecstatic
experience, they are not supporting the notion that the shaman is striving to achieve an out-of-body experience, or union
with "the sacred." Consequently, Sidky and other scholars mentioned in this article are drawing a line between religious
mysticism and the ecstatic experience of the shaman.
In the article
"Tribal and Shamanic-Based Social Work Practice: A Lakota Perspective" (Voss, Douville, Soldier & Twiss, 1999)
the authors examine the spiritual beliefs of the Lakotas and their belief that souls are on a spiritual journey:
According to G. Thin Elk, "We are not humans on a soul journey. We are nagi, ‘souls,'
who are making a journey through the material world" (cited in Goodman, 1992, p, 40). . . .The nagila is the
divine spirit immanent in each human being (Goodman, 1992). Amiotte (1992) explained this dimension as the aspect that participates
in paranormal phenomena; it is the "other" realm of knowing, the shamanic or spirit realm. The "nagila"
is "something of the sacred" in the human being. It has been translated as the "little ghost" (Amiotte,
1992). The nagila can be distinguished from the nagi in that it is similar to Jung's notion of the "collective unconscious,"
which is totally unconscious and is not a personal acquisition. The nagila is not based on one's personal experiences, but
is similar to an impersonal aspect of the "collective self" or a "transpersonal self." It is the "self-not-self,"
"part-of-me-but- not-part-of-me" part of who one is. (p. 235)
authors are describing the Lakotas belief that they are souls having a human experience. Interestingly, the term "nagi"
refers to a "soul unit," whereby, the "nagila" or divine spirit refers to the spiritual essence of "nagi."
This same dualistic notion of the soul (spirit and matter) is an inherent part of religious mysticism and Greek philosophy.
For instance, the word Greek word "psuchê" or psyche ("Ancient Theories," 2009) is comparable to
the Lakota's notion of "nagi." Similarly, the Greek word "pneuma" ("Ancient Theories," 2009)
is equivalent to Lakota's definition of "nagali." As mentioned previously, Huxley (1945) describes the same concept
of the divine spirit in each individual as the Hindu's "atman." Therefore, as stated above, it is the "nagila,"
which participates in communing with the highest entity in the spiritual hierarchy. In this article, the acknowledgement of
paranormal phenomenon opens the door for exploring the mysteries of the ecstatic experience among the Lakotas.
In Burkett's (2005) article "A Psychological Inquiry into Neoshamanic Practice,"
the author speaks about his case study in which the participants are discussing their post-journeying experiences. He notes
the choice of language and selection of words used by the participants while describing their journeying experiences:
During the post-journeying "sharing," which is part of the procedure when
journeying in groups, individuals voluntarily discussed aspects of their journey that they wanted to share. Since sharing
is selective, one can assume that participants choose the most dramatic, emotionally charged experiences to share, or which
further empowers the act of journeying. Out of the shared experiences, those that are the most powerful to the group members
would be remembered longest and repeated most often. It is important to note, also, that when individuals do their sharing,
they discuss their experiences using literal language such as "I was flying," instead of prefacing their comments
by saying "In my imagination (or vision) I saw myself flying." (2005, p. 5)
Burkett acknowledges that the experiences of the participants are emotionally charged and are significant to them.
He states that these shared experiences remain in the memories of the participants longer than other experiences that affect
them. Furthermore, the participants use language that connotes the "visioning," or experiencing of another reality.
However, Burkett does not ask participants why they described their paranormal experiences (such as flying) occurring in an
objective reality. It is possible that such participants were having out-of-body experiences, and this could be the reason
for describing their experiences as actual events. Interestingly, Burkett does not pursue this line of inquiry, but his description
of the participants' experiences as paranormal phenomena is ripe for further study.
As a student
of comparative religion and world mysticism, I find it is difficult to accept the notion that the shaman's ecstatic experiences
relate mostly to the field of psychology. If the shaman is also a mystic, then it seems logical that the doctrines of world
mysticism would be interesting to scholars who are attempting to understand the shaman's behavior. However, there seems to
be a line of demarcation between psychology and theology, which keeps scholars of each discipline on their side of the "academic
fence." Consequently, psychologists would like to leave the paranormal possibilities of shamanism to scholars of theology
and world mysticism.
In contrast to this prevailing attitude, the
field of Human Sciences attempts to combine many fields of academic study and compare the views of various disciplines for
better understanding the human condition. As a student of the Human Sciences, I am interested in the psychological theories
that explain the motivations, feelings, and behaviors of the shaman; however, I am also interested in exploring the shamans'
spiritual belief systems while considering the possibility that actual paranormal phenomena may be occurring in the life of
provides a comprehensive overview of the shaman's spiritual journey and gives credence to the notion that shamans have unitary
experiences. He offers a universal view of transcendence that relates to the human experience, and at times, he goes beyond
the bounds of psychology and into the fields of philosophy and anthropology. Torrance has an open-minded approach to shamanism,
and he includes knowledge from mythology, religion, and science.
Other scholars are not as liberal in their interpretations as Torrance. Many do not
accept the possibility that shamans are having out-of-body experiences, and others do not believe that shamans are interested
in communing with spirits. Therefore, the psychological implications of shamanism appear to be of considerably more interest
to scholars than the theistic or mystical possibilities. However, it might be fruitful for psychologists to pursue broader
investigations into paranormal possibilities of journeying and altered states of consciousness. Additionally, future studies
might include collecting data to gain more information about the perceptions of shamans while they are having these transcendent
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