June 18, 2000
Shamanism Ėthe Technique of Ecstasy
Shamanism was called the technique of ecstasy by Mircea Eliade, an anthropologist who has published several books on the subject. Ecstasy means to go or be taken outside of oneself. In that sense the shaman leaves his body and explores hidden worlds and spiritual dimensions while in a trance often induced by the ingestion of psycho-active plants. In the trance-state the shaman contacts or is contacted by spirit helpers who often take on the form of plants or animals or represent the spirits of specific plants and animals.
Traditional or ethno-shamanism is not a religion but a type of spiritual activity practiced in different forms by many indigenous cultures around the world. The shamanís place in society is as a healer, prophet, guide for the spirits of the dead and as an intermediary between the spiritual worlds and the physical world. Most traditional shamans are men although there are women shamans, too, and they occupy a position of importance within their communities.
In the upper Amazon basin in Peru, the local shamans use Ayahuasca, a fairly rare vine, to send them on a journey to the spirit world. Ayahuasca means "vine of death" in Quechua (the native language). It must be taken in controlled circumstances surrounded by ritual to produce the desired spiritual effect. If someone actually dies from ingesting Ayahuasca it is often not attributed to the toxicity of the plant but to the victimís inability to handle the awesome experience of entering the world of the gods.
In Mexico and the southern United States, peyote is the sacred plant used to transcend the physical world. The Huichol in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico have a culture built around peyote as a sacrament. In Siberia the Tungus people (from whom the word "shaman" comes) use mushrooms to help them explore the world of spirit.
Another element common to the traditional shamanic experience is repetitive and monotonous rhythms pounded out on drums or sticks. This seems to provide a consistent, trance-enhancing background. Fetish items, rattles and other "medicine" items are also part of the shamanís ritual along with the singing of sacred songs.
Today, the principles of ethno-shamanism are being revived in new age practices and techno-shamanism. The desire to experience altered states is strong in some people. Our materialistic culture, with science as its god, neglects the hidden world of spirit. As a result organized shamanic experiences and tours have become popular.
The Rave culture that is getting so much press lately is surprisingly similar to shamanic practice. In what is sometimes called techno-shamanism the participants dance together to a pounding beat that you can feel to your bones. They often take Ecstasy, a drug that produces a feeling of euphoria and love and this is all done within an environment whose over-arching philosophy promotes peace, love, unity and respect. The resulting effects can take the rave participant into other worlds.
What almost all religions agree on is that there are other worlds beyond the physical one. Many religions rely on faith and revelation that the spiritual world exists. As Joseph Campbell (one of my heroes) said when asked about faith, "I donít need faith. I have experience." The shamans are able to directly experience these worlds rather than rely on mere faith that they exist