Although it appears that our paleo ancestors inhabiting temperate and tropical ecosystems had no modern diet-related diseases, they did suffer dis-eases, and universally had “medicine men,” also known among anthropologists as “shamans.” As a medical system, shamanism maintains that many apparently physical dis-eases have spiritual causes. Indigenous/shamanic tribal cultures “believe” that spirits exist and play roles in individual, tribal, and ecological health. Shamanic interventions address traumas affecting the soul/spirit through direct interaction with the spiritual realm, achieved through altered states of consciousness that provide entrance to a non-ordinary reality.
All this talk of spirits certainly makes anxiety for modern “scientific” atheists and Judeo-Christian religionists alike. The former will dismiss such talk as mumbo-jumbo without empirical basis, a threat to rationality and logic. They will tend to dismiss shamanism as dealing with non-existent “supernatural” entities. The latter believe that for some odd reason the One True God chose to reveal himself and the Rules for the Right Way of Life only to the members of several Middle Eastern desert tribes, leaving everyone else in the dark. They also believe that this God gave these chosen people not only the right but the duty to convert all other tribes to their faith and way of life, if not by persuasion then by force. These people call non-believers by various names like heretic, infidel, heathen, pagan, and so on, and have called shamanic culture “demonic.”
In either case, shamanism directly competes with the “authorities.” Atheists may consider shamans a threat to the authority of “reason,” science, and scientists, and religionists certainly consider shamans a threat to the authority of their faith, dogma, and priests. Shamanism comes from non-hierarchical tribal culture in which no one has ultimate authority over another, and thus it conflicts with civilization and all types of authority.
To illustrate the modern discomfort with shamanism, in 1892, in a speech at the Smithsonian Institution, John Bourke called shamans “an influence antagonistic to the rapid absorption of new customs” and said “only after we have thoroughly routed the medicine men from their entrenchments and made them an object of ridicule can we [whites] hope to bend and train the minds of our Indian wards in the direction of civilization.”
Shamanism as Experimental Science
Shamanism refers to a universal conceptual framework found among indigenous, uncivilized (i.e. politically unstratified), tribal humans. It includes the “belief” that nature (the world) has two aspects, the ordinary world, accessed through ordinary consciousness, and the spiritual world, accessed through an altered state of consciousness, or “trance,” induced by shamanic practices such as repetitive drumming, fasting, or herbal drugs. According to shamanic theory, the spiritual and ordinary worlds interact continuously, and a shamanic practitioner can gain knowledge about how to alter or to guide interaction with ordinary reality by taking direct action in the spiritual aspect of the world.
Importantly, according to the shamanic perspective, the spiritual realm is NOT what both atheists and theists would call “supernatural.” The spiritual realm described by shamans does not lie outside of nature or experience. On the contrary, just like gravitational force and the subatomic realm of quarks and photons, also invisible in ordinary states of consciousness, the shamanic spiritual realm occurs as part and parcel of nature.
I put the words “belief” in quotation marks because, unlike modern religious beliefs, the shamanic “belief” in a dual aspect world is not faith-based. Rather, it arises from direct and replicable experiences induced by specific, repeatable procedures. That makes it an experimental science, not a faith system.
To wit, the indigenous belief in a spiritual realm and spiritual entities is no more “mystical” than the belief that the typical modern educated individual has in quarks and other subatomic particles. In fact, it may be less so.
The typical modern person’s belief in subatomic particles is based on hearsay and authority, not on direct experience. To get anything like a direct experience of subatomic particles, you have to go through a certain procedure. You have to complete adequate training in the conceptual framework known as modern physics, which will prepare you to perform certain types of experiments and supply you with the conceptual tools you will need to interpret certain types of data (e.g. particle movements in a cloud chamber) as evidence of the existence of quarks. Very few people have completed the required training and experiments, which makes modern physics a type of non-ordinary knowledge of a non-ordinary reality accessed directly by only a few people, the high priests of physics. The rest of us accept their description of subatomic worlds on faith.
In contrast, the typical tribal human’s belief in a spiritual realm inhabited by spiritual entities is based on personal direct experience of that realm and those entities by following certain experimental procedures, i.e. inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness using shamanic techniques such as repetitive drumming, fasting, vision quests, dreams, or herbal drugs. Thus, we should not confuse neolithic religious belief with paleolithic religious experience. The average modern believer in God does so not based on experience, but on doctrine or hearsay. In contrast, shamans don’t “believe” in spirits, they actually know and work with them directly in altered states of consciousness.
I want to emphasize that the shamans’ claims about a spiritual realm are as scientific as the physicists’ claims about quarks. They are open to confirmation by experimental procedure. If you have not performed the experiments yourself, you really are not in a position to deny the claims of the shamans or the physicists. Similarly, if you want to confirm (or dispute) the claims made on basis of these experiments, whether shamanic or modern physics, you will have to do the conceptual training and the experiments yourself.
The rub here is the personal difficulty and discipline involved in replicating shamanic experiments compared to physics experiments. I mean, performing basic physics experiments does not involve anything as physically or mentally arduous as extended fasting, vision questing, or controlled entrancement. But you can’t be an armchair shaman any more than you can be an armchair subatomic particle physicist.
Although called by some “trance,” I put the word “trance” in quotation marks because it is typically taken to imply a “false” state of mind, when it does not. In fact, people enter “trances” regularly as a part of ordinary life. If you have found yourself so engrossed in an activity that you had an altered perception of time, you have been in trance. If you have ever driven somewhere, then, upon arriving, wondered at how you did not remember doing the driving, you were “entranced” during that drive. If you have ever experienced “the zone” of peak performance, you have been entranced.
In fact, shamanic “trance” differs from the usual “trance” in that the practitioner must tread into “trance” territory without losing control of his intent. It is this need to harness the ordinarily quite restless mind that makes shamanic experimentation with “trance” more difficult and arduous than physical experiments which require control only of isolated physical events.
Shamanic Experiences Versus Cognicentrism
In fact, we have absolutely no way of determining which of the many waking states of consciousness we experience is the “real” state. Michael Harner, an anthropologist who specialized in studying shamanism, wrote a book The Way of the Shaman in which he discussed the hostility that ‘authorities’ express toward shamanic knowledge of alternate realities such as presented by Carlos Castaneda in his series of books reporting his experiences under the tutelage of don Juan, a Yaqui “sorcerer:”
“To understand the deep-seated, emotional hostility that greeted the works of Castaneda…one needs to keep in mind that this kind of prejudice is involved. It is the counterpart of ethnocentrism….But in this case it is not the narrowness of someone’s cultural experience that is the fundamental issue, but the narrowness of someone’s conscious experience. The persons most prejudiced against the concept of nonordinary reality are those who have never experienced it. This might be termed cognicentrism….”
Natural Selection of Shamanic Practices