I have long been intrigued about viewing the process of therapy as a sort of neo-shamanic journey. I am not talking about using ancient shamanic procedures as healing tools. I am talking about a sense of connecting with archetypal experiences in finding the place inside us from which change and healing are possible. The following describes some of the ideas behind this approach.
The shamanic world
The shaman of old would enter the realm of the spirits, the one place from which order and balance could be restored from the chaos of disease.
The work of the shaman was integrated into the belief system of society as a whole. It provided both an explanation of the world and a way of interacting with it:
– In a world of terrifying uncertainties and powerlessness, there are entities who have the power to control the forces that govern the universe, the spirits.
– It is possible to get the spirits to act on these forces in a benevolent way.
– The shaman is a mediator between humans and the world of the spirits. The shaman’s intervention allows people to indirectly have power over the Uncontrollable.
– While this belief system addresses the powerlessness of humans over the Uncontrollable, it doesn’t do so in an escapist, fantasy-oriented way. It squarely recognizes limitations to the power of even the spirits. It aims at restoring the natural order of things, not revolutionizing it (for instance, it does not seek to reverse natural death).
– In this context, all that is uncontrollable is contained in a larger container. Even death, which cannot be reversed, is contained in the larger container, in the sense that death is a passage to a different state (as opposed to a total disappearance).
Dealing with the experience of overwhelm
The shaman was the mediator between overwhelmed humans and the active forces that were seen to have power over the world.
Today, we no longer believe that the world is made to work by anthropomorphic spirits. What we have gained in understanding, we have lost in power: We can no longer hope that interceding with powerful spirits will heal what ails us.
Instead of living in a world directed from the top down, our outlook is influenced by the “bottom-up” context of evolution and neuroscience. We view the complex processes of the human mind as elaborations on simpler processes. We think of healing as reworking the reactivity and structure of the nervous system.
The shamanic world provided a “larger container” which made it possible to deal with what’s overwhelming from a less isolated perspective. Are we condemned to lose the benefits of the magico-religious perspective when we stop believing in spirits?
Narrative, metaphors, and personal experience
If we stick to the literal meanings of the shamanic journey, it simply does not correspond to our contemporary worldview. However, underneath any description, the reality is often more complex than what is ostensibly happening according to the narrative.
Through myth, we enter another world where what language says is not necessarily what it exactly means, where there is a need to grope for meaning through experience, so as to get to a deeper truth: A poetic truth that is accessed through emotional involvement with the process.
This is the difference between “mythos” and “logos” (as described by Karen Armstrong in “The Case for God”). The universe of “logos” is one of clarity, where language has a clear meaning and things can be explicated. In the universe of “mythos”, on the other hand, we accept the premise that language is incapable of capturing the depth of experience that needs to be communicated. It is at best a gateway to experience. We need to go through a process of life-changing experiences in order to get a direct understanding of what this is about.
We make a great mistake when we confuse “mythos” with “logos”, i.e. when we think of “mythos” as descriptive language. Instead, we are better served when we see it as a roadmap to an experience that will hopefully transmit to us a certain way of seeing the world. An instruction manual, or a self-help book, are part of the world of “logos”. Initiation ceremonies in primitive tribes or in ancient Greece… or the transmission of Dharma through a koan in Zen… are part of the world of “mythos”.
So we are not attempting to follow a specific ritual, or a specific narrative attempting to explicate the world. We are inspired by practices that have been successful in creating a space within the mind where transformation is possible.
The neo-shamanic journey
We are not talking here about adopting the worldview or the methods of any shamanic tradition. The phrase “neo-shamanic” describes a desire to find, within a contemporary framework, the quality of the healing experience of earlier magico-religious practices.
Here are some of the ways I see making this bridge possible.
(1) The Shaman heals by returning lost parts of the human soul. What “animates” people is spirit, seen as something distinct from the physical body, the same way as what “animates” the world is the will and the power of the spirits. The word “animates” is the same as in “animated movie”, i.e. what brings movement: Spirit is the possibility of movement. Life is movement.
Hence: We are on a quest to stop stuckness, to find the possibility of movement.
(2) In the shamanic journey, the soul leaves the body. It is leaving the literal world. This is the realm of poetic experience, flexibility, stream of consciousness that need not be limited by the rigid laws of linear logic. It is a state of being “unfocused”, from which it becomes possible to refocus and see the world differently. This echoes the phrase often attributed to Einstein: “You can’t change a problem from the mindset that created it”.
Hence: We need to leave behind our ordinary thought patterns for change to be possible.
(3) Entering into the spiritual dimension requires a transition of consciousness. There is a state of trance, and it takes a ritual to get there, be it through drumming, dance, or hallucinogens. So we’re talking about a real commitment to experiencing things differently, not just talking about things differently. To do this, we are not going to be taking drugs, but we are going to refocus our attention, from primarily relying on thoughts, to paying a lot of attention to body sensation and felt sense.
Hence: We are shifting our attention to physical experience and the felt sense.
(4) What is achieved in the shamanic journey is made possible by the shaman’s ability to connect with larger powers that are beyond human capacity. What happens to us if we don’t believe in anthropomorphic spirits that have the power to change the world? Are we then condemned to the experience of ultimate powerlessness, insignificance, meaninglessness?
Hence: The quest is about the ability to find in ourselves the experience of not being isolated and insignificant, but “held”. Or: Is it possible to get the sense of being held by benevolent powers that comes with faith, without actually believing in the intercession of metaphysical powers?