The Scarlet Letter
There are many states of consciousness, and we experience quite a few during the course of an average day. While sleeping, we enter light, deep, and rapid eye movement phases, each of which proves unique when measured by electroencephalographs. Waking in the morning, we are groggy until we get up, move around, drink coffee, and eat. Being hungry makes us “spacey” before lunch; at 2 p.m. we’re sleepy from blood surging in our stomachs instead of our brains. Rush hour traffic may impose a level of heightened awareness or ennui, depending on whether you’re trying to get on the @!$&* freeway or are stuck in the slow lane. A different state of consciousness manifests in talking with your family over dinner, playing with kids and pets, thinking about what you need to do to get ready for tomorrow, drowsing in front of the T.V. or over a book.
People seek to alter their consciousness as a form of recreation. Kids reach amazing heights of concentration playing video games, adults use alcohol and other mood modifiers, and different leisure activities produce varying states of stimulation, relaxation, or an endorphin “high” from exercise. Eating certain foods changes our energy levels—sugar on an empty stomach feels quite unlike the satiation following a big barbecue.
We also associate unique states of awareness with religious and spiritual activity. Praying, meditating, dancing, ritual movement, singing and chanting produce a trance-like consciousness. Ideally, participants experience sacredness during the trance—they feel reverence, awe, grace, or ecstasy. Without these personal encounters with the divine, folks can get bored with their religion and stop participating. Or worse, they participate out of habit or a sense of duty and never feel connected to their spiritual practice.
Shamanic trance is used as part of many cultures’ religious practices today, and may have been so widespread historically as to be essentially universal. A loose definition of “shamanism” certainly leads to finding its use virtually everywhere. But just as prayer is not unique to Christianity, chanting to Tibetan Buddhism, or yoga to Hinduism, shamanism isn’t unique to a few tribes in South America, either.
One thing all shamanic practitioners have in common is use of a repetitious noise, typically a drum, to aid in entering the trance state. Some shamans use drugs or alcohol (vodka is used in Siberia) to enhance altered consciousness. I don’t recommend using mood altering drugs because it’s not necessary, often not very healthy, and the drug quickly becomes the center of focus rather than the shamanic work itself. Drugs may actually interfere with achieving trance for many people. Not to mention the questions of legitimacy and integrity, as well as legality, which are raised by drug use—so don’t complicate matters by including them in your practice.
Something about the monotonous beat of the drum and the vibrations it produces makes it easy to slip into another state of awareness. When listening to the drum, the brain produces more theta and alpha waves, rather than the beta waves associated with ordinary consciousness. People listening to the drum while in trance report hearing voices, singing, flute or orchestral music, animal sounds, and other noises. Whether these are spirits showing up for the party or sound effects produced by acoustic feedback is a matter of interpretation. I’ve often heard hauntingly beautiful singing, wolves howling, and what sounds like Tibetan-style chanting. I choose to simply enjoy it as part of the total experience.
Shamanism is unquestionably ancient. While archeologists speculate about the meaning and purpose of all those lovely cave paintings, people who’ve experienced shamanic states of consciousness have our own ideas. Figures of people with animal heads may represent the trance state where animal awareness is experienced. Wouldn’t this be terribly valuable for humans who depended on hunting for protein and clothing? Why wouldn’t people seek to experience animal consciousness, to be able to understand how the animal thinks, why it does what it does, how to hunt it or learn from its behavior?
Human beings have evolved since prehistoric times, but human needs are much the same. We must have material security, a sense of purpose and belonging. Erickson’s stages of growth and development were probably applicable to our ancestors of several thousand years ago, despite cultural and technological changes. Then as now, people were close observers of their environment and capable of analyzing what they saw, reaching conclusions, and modifying their behavior. While we may mock our foreparents’ belief that spirits were behind the workings of the universe, they may mock us for believing the world is a dead machine, operating on inflexible laws.
Shamanism works today because people really haven’t changed as much as we’d like to believe. Just as many modern urbanites are coming to acknowledge that we are basically animals with incredible powers of environmental manipulation, there are people who recognize the wisdom of some of humanity’s ancient ways. The renaissance of pre-Christian, European religions is a result of realizing our ancestors’ traditions have something to offer us today.
Like other traditions passed down over the ages, shamanism has changed. Contemporary middle-class Americans don’t practice shamanic techniques the way the ancient Celts, Norwegians, Greeks, or Siberians did. And why should we? Shamanism is no more static than anything else practiced by human beings. While we may still hold much in common with prehistoric peoples, we live in a society that would disorient an Egyptian from 2,000 BC. We don’t have the same beliefs, lifestyle, or religions, so it makes sense to adapt our practices to present day realities.
One of the things shamanism is not is unchanging; not only does shamanism change, it changes those who practice it. This is both a challenge and an invitation; it is up to the individual to determine what she’ll get out of shamanism. As with anything else, what is received will be the equivalent of what is given. I invite you to explore your personal consciousness using the shamanic techniques that are our legacy from countless generations before us.
Enjoy the work, it really is fun!