Shamanism, Psychosis and Hope for a Dying WorldSubmitted by icarus on Fri, 05/06/2005 - 6:01pm
There are so many lenses through which we can look at the experiences that get labeled mental illness; one of the more imaginative is shamanism. Shamanism is a tradition found in virtually every primitive society, in every forgotten corner of the world. According to Alberto Villoldo and Erik Jendresen, the authors of Four Winds: A Shaman's Odyssey into the Amazon, the shaman
"'was a person of knowledge,' a man or woman of vision,' a mediator between the natural and supernatural forces of nature. Because these were the forces that the shaman held responsible for health and disease, the shaman was a healer." (p.13)
Shamans are people who seem to contact spirits and have access to different versions of reality than the ones most people inhabit. In traditional cultures this ability was seen as a gift, and it was considered sacred. In modern cultures it is seen as a pathology, and labeled psychotic. In most non-Western cultures, there is not even a word for what we call manic depression. This label is a small box that doesn't fit all of us, and the world around it is so much bigger and more complicated than what it can describe.
"I insist that I am not flawed. I am a shaman without mentor or training, without a spiritual safety net, changing as I am moved by the spirit of life that connects me to the rest of the world. I move to my own inner orders. my chemistry is balanced, however it may differ from the mythical Norm. I don't believe in Norm. I believe in biodiversity. Including that which may be found in the biochemistry of people.
A really twisted, deformed duckling? Or an adolescent swan? Whose call is that to make? Who is permitted to define what evolution did and did not intend?" -fireweed
It's possible the powers of the shaman could be intensely useful to modern civilization.
It's possible they offer a hope of becoming something more than we are"”or perhaps it is a hope of emerging into clarity and seeing our world exactly as it is, in all its dimensions.
But these powers don't have a place into the framework we've constructed. We don't know how to hone, rather than fear, the exceptional abilities of our minds, as becomes obvious in the following dialogue from Four Winds between an American psychologist and a Peruvian professor of philosophy.
""˜The Western world,' he said, "˜the "civilized" nations, what is called the "first world" cultures rule the Earth by right of their economic and military strength. And the philosophical foundation of the Western culture is based on a religion that teaches of the fall from grace, original sin, and the exodus from the Garden of Eden. This concept is fundamental to the mythology of the West, and it represents Nature as hostile and man as corrupt.' I dipped my collapsible camping cup into the stream and offered it to him. "˜Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad,' he said. He took a drink and handed back the cup. "˜And God said: "Cursed is the ground on your account. In the sweat of your face you will eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For dust you are and to dust you will return.'' "˜And so,' I quoted, "˜ "he drove them out and posted at the east of the Garden of Eden the cherubs and the flaming blade of a sword to guard the way to the tree of life."
"It is such a peculiar myth,' he said, Ê»The emphasis is not man's relationship to his environment, to Nature, to the Garden , but man's relationship to himself as an outcast, fending for himself, become self-conscious in a hostile world. The Westerner has accepted this tradition, has promoted this concept through art and literature and philosophy. Indeed, is has become ingrained and second nature, has it not?
'I suppose it has,' I agreed. 'You can live your entire life in a city, for instance. It provides shelter, a controlled environment, and acts as a buffer between the individual and Nature. Even foods in the supermarket are treated before they are consumed, either artificially ripened, colored, or preserved, then packaged for consumption.'
'So the Westerner,' he said, 'the outcast from the Garden, has turned inward, and, it is interesting that within such a culture, when the individuals experience a psychological crisis of some sort, a psychotic or neurotic episode, they will turn to religion or the psychiatrist or medication instead of to Nature to become well again. To become normal. Is this not so?' "¦ 'But, 'he continued, 'you end up with an entirely different focus when the tradition of a culture is not founded on the fall from grace, where man was never banned from the Garden of Eden and lives close to Nature and Nature is a manifestation of the Divine. In those cultures a psychotic break or a schizophrenic episode is magical. The unconscious mind opens up, and, if the person is young, he or she is encouraged to dive into it, not pull back from the brink. They fall into their unconscious, into the realm of pure imagination, the realm of Jung's archetypes, into a world of spirit. They are allowed to experience other realms of their own minds and they are changed as a result. In many primitive cultures, they become the medicine people. They have experienced the Divine.'
'So,' I said, 'you propose that psychotic episodes and schizophrenic crack-ups should be encouraged?'
'I propose nothing of the kind. It would be dangerous to promote such incidents within your culture, because your mythology is based on thousands of years of tradition that such episodes are not normal, are unnatural, are unhealthy. I am merely pointing out a difference. In primitive cultures the opening of the unconscious is a blessing. It is unusual, yes. But not unnatural. These are children of the Earth, the Garden, living in Nature, not banished from it. In such a culture everything is of Nature. Natural. Even a psychotic episode. It is safe, especially when guided by one who has had a similar experience. 'Madness is a social distinction?' I said. 'Precisely.' " (pp. 88-90)
The Western paradigm of madness is neatly defined and categorized in numbered codes and 1000 page documents by huge organizations with acronyms and lobbies in congress, but it doesn't take organizations and structures like itself into account when deciding who's mad. It looks at people like you and I.
As David Oaks, the president of Support Coalition International, has observed,
"There are different types of madness. Some can cost you a job and break a window and screw things up. Others can get you a job as President of the USA. But mad we all are. And that should mean HUMILITY"¦ humility on how we treat each other, and humility on how we treat the Earth. And it should mean society running to the doors of people labeled "seriously mentally ill" who have fully recovered to find out HOW THEY DID IT because, the fact is, those are the lessons the Earth needs desperately right now."
It's striking how much overlap there is between the tendencies and behaviors our society attributes to the "seriously mentally ill" and the tendencies and behaviors a shamanic culture views as prerequisite for someone to undergo the initiation into shamanic practice. Descriptions of the transition period itself ring a remarkable number of bells for many of us who've undergone the process of descending from intensely visionary manias and psychoses into the figurative death of depression, and then emerging to reconstruct ourselves as someone who has walked through the fire and come back to the other side.
The shamanic corollary of this process is elegantly articulated in the book Food of the Gods: The Search For the Original Tree of Knowledge, by Terence McKenna:
"The ecstatic part of the shaman's initiation is"¦.dependent on a certain receptivity to states of trance and ecstasy on the part of the novice; he may be moody, somewhat frail and sickly, predisposed to solitude, and may perhaps have fits of epilepsy or catatonia, or some other psychological aberrance (though not always as some writers on the subject have asserted). In any case, his psychological predisposition to ecstasy forms only the starting point for his initiation: the novice, after a history of psychosomatic illness or psychological aberration that may be more or less intense, will at last begin to undergo initiatory sickness and trances; he will lie as though dead or in deep trance for days on end. During this time, he is approached in dreams by his helping spirits, and may receive instruction from them. Invariably during this prolonged trance the novice will undergo an episode of mystical death and resurrection; he may see himself reduced to a skeleton and then clothed with new flesh; or he may see himself boiled in a cauldron, devoured by the spirits, and then made whole again; or he may imagine himself being operated upon by the spirits, his organs removed and replaced with "magical stones" and then sewn up again.
In short, the shaman is transformed from a profane into a sacred state of being. Not only has he effected his own cure through this mystical transmutation, he is now invested with the power of the sacred, and hence can cure others as well. It is of the first order of importance to remember this, that the shaman is more than merely a sick man, or a madman; he is a sick man who has healed himself, who is cured, and who must shamanize in order to remain cured." (p. 5)
What does it mean to shamanize in order to remain cured? Is it possible that sharing what we've been through, all we've seen and all we've learned, might open doors in a society that is rapidly constructing walls around possibility at every bend? Is it possible that the very pieces of ourselves that get labeled pathological could also be like keys in the dark, their edges barely glowing, like silver question marks too easy to overlook? After all, would I be making the imaginative leaps necessary to write this piece you're reading if my mind wasn't prone to unifying visions, dendritic and unusual connections across vast swaths of thought, and the "delusions of grandeur" that get labeled symptomatic of disease but also allow me to have a wide open vision that reconsiders the role madness can play in our culture and imagines big possibilities?
What do the ravings of a madman look like? Are they always incoherent nonsense with little relationship to reality? Or is there a brilliance sometimes, an ability to see phenomena as part of larger systems, to recombine the elements of daily existence through linguistic tricks and the unequivocal magic of metaphor into something that allows us to see a continuity between every little piece of dirt and every human bone that is always present, that is an actual astounding and overlooked truth, but is too frequently obscured by the illusion that we consent to as the collective understanding of reality? The words below were written during a period of what the psychiatric establishment considered intense mania"¦ decide for yourself.
The trick is to be fluid like a river "” break down and return again in new form with the same elements - renewed from defeat. The trick is to remember that we grow into new shapes as we mature - like plants going to seed - shooting up and branching out "” drying up and exploding, regrowing thicker and more used to it as the years go by "”sprouting wings and letting loose and never ever the same and never ever satisfied to stay put. You and me we always end up back at the same places again, and here we all are in this city of eight million faces continually dissolving and reforming itself "” breaking down and building back up like taproots and topsoil but it's all just us and like I said: it's about learning the lessons as they unfold like crumbling treasure maps or waves that knock us over "” carrying pockets of seed and scribbled words, head and mouth full of ideas and connections "” becoming the living breathing bridge between universes, conduit for the life force to flow all over us, every last one.
As we scale from macro to micro and back again we touch a form of consciousness for which there is little role in our society.
"Because our maps of reality are determined by our present circumstances, we tend to lose awareness of the larger patterns of time and space. Only by gaining access to the Transcendent Other can those patterns of time and space and our role in them be glimpsed. Shamanism strives for a higher point of view, which is achieved through a feat of linguistic prowess. The shaman is one who has attained a vision of the beginnings and the endings of all things and who can communicate that vision"¦" (Food of the Gods, p.7)
So much of the state that gets labeled mania comes down to communication. We find messages everywhere"”we are just as likely to perceive truth coming from the seedlings on our windowsills and the billboards on our streetcorners as we are from a textbook or a television. We want the world to see what we see, to know what we know, whether it is glorious or apocalyptic. Our minds are dwelling in a place where everything is speaking to us"¦ but for our whole lives we've been told that things like this only happen in fairy tales and psych wards. In other cultures, such states are seen as necessary magic. According to Terence McKenna, the shaman journeys
"into an invisible realm in which the causality of the ordinary world is replaced with the rationale of natural magic. In this realm, language, ideas, and meaning have greater power than cause and effect. Sympathies, resonances, intentions, and personal will are linguistically magnified through poetic rhetoric. The imagination is invoked and sometimes its forms are beheld visibly. Within the magical mind-set of the shaman, the ordinary connections of the world and what we call natural laws are deemphasized or ignored"¦ The rational, mechanistic, anti-spiritual bias of our own culture has made it impossible for us to appreciate the mind-set of the shaman. We are culturally and linguistically blind to the world of forces and interconnections clearly visible to those who have retained the Archaic[pre-industrial and preliterate] relationship to Nature. (pp. 6-8)