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  A Theistic View on the Unitary Experience in Shamanism

Robert Waxman


In shamanism, 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 of consciousness.           


Shamans believe 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:   

Thus 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.

By 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.


Walsh (1989) 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:

Whatever 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)   

In Sidkey's (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)

The 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 the shaman.       

Torrance (1994) 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 experiences.


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