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Trance-Formations: The Shaman’s Neurobiological Trip Through an Ecology of Souls

By Hadley Harkrader

A shaman1 is a guy who does whatever he can to help others by getting high and losing himself in the moment. Let me rephrase that: Shamans specialize in affecting subconscious processes in the private internal, expressive interpersonal, public social, outward natural, and cosmic supernatural domains, by enacting interactive-performative trance rituals employing physical and cognitive-emotional association techniques contrived to achieve altered states of consciousness (ASCs) that invoke latent powers of the human mind toward negotiating supraindividual and infrapersonal frames of reference, in order maybe to heal or divine and bring good luck. The familiar image of a stomping, chanting, wild-eyed and masked jungle medicine man beating a drum and dancing around a fire is a perfectly adequate synthesis in action of this definition. Although, it must be said, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Firstly, it seems I must disclaim language itself prior to really using it, so as to avert any tendencies to (mis)take the signifying symbols for the original materia, the words breaking down and standing in for the phenomenon of shamanism for what is intrinsically a chaotic and holistic, crazy and universe-encompassing, just-out-of-reach, synthetically multi-disciplinary, eminently unstandardized and wholly customizable and particular craft whose origins seem to extend back through the oldest mists of time – in fact, it’s the mists of time into which the ecstatic shaman seems to peer. And in doing so, I draw attention to the first idea I invoke with regard to shamanism, which is that: all systems being arbitrary, they are still but different maps to the same territory.

The shaman cultivates a neural map based on symbolic external cues in his environment and current cultural worldview vocabulary2 as a cognitive shearing agent3 from which to catapult his awareness through various potential experiences of himself. The shaman should be familiar with mysteries of being: universal truths hidden in plain sight (Moshe Feldenkrais’ ‘elusive obvious’) that others fail to recognize; he finds the mundane impenetrable, needling infinite depth into and from the most minute and regular of moments. Outward or inward, the deeper he goes in one direction, the further he falls in the other, such is the nature of the reflexive universe of which he is a connected part.

The visual avatars that populate his internal landscape are linchpins in his brain that bind up tight bundles of emotions, memories, and senses, and allow him to re-experience their gestalt so as to bring forth the state of mind thus induced, into the current working. In the oldest recorded traditions of shamanism, Siberian4 and Saami,5 the trance instrument of the drum serves as an externalization of the personal archetypes of the shaman and his people. So a reindeer, for instance, will literally be packed with meaning, will burst forth into the shaman’s mind with sounds and songs and sensation, color and memory, waves of past experiences from a lifetime of coexistence with and near and for these creatures. Culturally-shared stories will be connected with what the symbol evokes just the same as highly personal memories that had very little to do with reindeer but carry subtle undertones of times and places associated with them. And, of course, different thought-trains of remembered experiences will surface at different times of invoking, situationally. It’s a conscious shift of attention that opens for the spontaneous, pre-conscious, unarticulated, raw reaction. Beating the drum, that moment looking down at the surface of the stretched parchment, as quickly as he turns his attention to the simple line-drawn figure, his neural free-associative floodgates, which are especially nimble and fluid in this dancing, trancy, rhythmic mode, open the world of his personal and socially-shared past for present consumption and energetic use.

Thus does a shaman abstract his reality and carry it through from these intensely formative, chaotic queryings of the subconscious to his reintegrated, daily functional self. The drawings on a shaman’s drum – or even the feathers in his cap, his garments, his staff or sword, on and on – function as a remote control for the universe, indicating from the field of all potentiality (the perceptual stream of incoming sensory and intuitive data) that which he wishes to tune in, and the rest to tune out. In this way, all symbols point back inward to the instrument that receives them. They are tuning devices that gather attention. And given the variety of shamanic cultures, one can comparatively see that form bows to function in this case, and it matters not what symbols and pantheon are used: what only matters is that authentic emotional meaning be attached so that inner states may be accessed thereby. Metaphors of a feeling of eternity, soul travel, battles with demons and other mythic struggles and creatures are symptomatic of the altered states themselves, are thus concomitant with the freeform accessing and opening up of the human subconscious itself. In westernized terms, what is revealed when this happens is the Higher Self, which is one and the same as the Beast.6

That being said, there is much that the subconscious can do and be aware of that lies far outside our normal experience of officially-sanctioned 2004 American reality. These, I’ll put into the category of psychic abilities or the parapsychological/paranormal interface with the exterior cosmos. However, that is not the subject of this discussion, for those activities are notoriously hard to pin down, perhaps by Design. What is the subject of this paper has already been determined by the intrinsic trajectory (aforementioned) of symbols themselves – that is, of reversion, reflection, the precession of simulacra: symbols unmask the essential fraud of the real in deference to the barebones machinery that renders our experience (of the real) to us, namely the brain-body complex. Symbols are the broomsticks of the child magician Mickey Mouse, getting out of hand by virtue of their ease of replication under the influence of the undisciplined mind, coping not with its tumultuous, overwhelming potentials. There are so many cultures, with their gods, so many ways of parsing the world,7 such a mesh (read: mess) of languages within languages, dialects, intonations and timbres of being, that it beckons the wizard’s return to tranquilize the din, and show the simple way to the markedly unmysterious mysteries of shamanism.

Before embarking on what ways a shaman achieves his magic, let us explore why anyone would ever want to be one of these fellows, and how the role came about. In some ways, it’s like the role of a director of motion pictures: when it comes down to it, everyone else’s job on a movie set takes care of every possible responsibility, so a director really has no job, no role. Yet, he is the single most important voice and vision in most pictures. He is not actually literally in the picture, but influences every part of it; he is like the wind that can’t itself be seen except through the leaves it blows about. He is the vision that actively if invisibly manifests itself by virtue of inherent magnetism, the surrounding community like iron filings, drawing into place magically. He is a manifester, a mediator. He stands alone. He takes the risk, and the blame. He sees visions, and uses the grammar of dreams to formulate a transmissible myth. He is a storyteller, of the tale that wags the dog (his community). He is the messenger that is the message. He gains power only through the tacit consensus of his people, and yet he has thereby ultimate power over them. He probes his subconscious so they don’t have to (only thing is, in delivering the performance, he’s probing and influencing theirs). The magicians of cinema wield a wand made of holly wood (it’s true, look it up), and in so many ways, they are the precise correlate, in quite different trappings, of the prototypical, primal madman shaman.

So again, why would a man want to be no man, the outsider, the in-betweener, the dreamer and fallguy? Who would want all the responsibility and risk, with no commitment of loyalty from anyone outside himself? Well, of course, he can’t help but to not be anything but exactly that. He is chosen by his own neurology, aka the spirits.

The shaman hallucinates outward his own traumas and self-image. He projects and relives universal birth traumas and that of his own death by ‘shamanic illness’ during the period of his ‘calling’ as a process of healing the other. He is the resurrected ‘wounded healer’, having suffered severe hysteria, epilepsy or schizophrenia, followed by psychological reintegration as one variation on the general theme of taking ill and undergoing the ordeal of self-healing. This process is echoed in the shaman’s astral journey of consciousness – employed for spiritual insight into the universe or for healing or divination – where death, dismemberment and devouring by spirits; subsequent reassembling, recharging and revivification by same; and rebirth into a renewed superself are experienced as a prodigious drama. The shamanic call process may, in a case like this, continue as increased internal anxiety followed by erratic behavior and social withdrawal, or it may consist of dreams, visions, or inner voices (Wright 4). In any case, seizure-like behaviors or periods of deep trance or unconsciousness may also be part of the awakening metamorphosis of the shaman.

The shearing black scars of the demons he deals with can be seen in his body electric, for they are fear itself, as energy personified. And in the same way all humans see faces in clouds, these demons may be ascribed to pre-existing spirits his culture recognized, or spontaneously formulated ones grafted into his own personal mythology. He may draw them figurally on his drum, banish them in ritual, or work with them by letting them take over his body while in trance. Generally, there is some dominant pantheon of spirits, usually related to nature, that a shaman uses to view the spiritual aspects of the natural world. The shaman is the keeper of the myths of his people, and a virtual processing combine for the most direct experiencing of all such myths, gods, spirits, and forces of nature.

So, the first, and most divine call of the shaman is spontaneous epilepsy that forms the neurological substrate for cultivated shamanic trance skill. This ‘shamanic illness’, cropping up maybe at age 9 or very likely around 20, even 45 in some cases, but usually in youth, is the most blatant, cut and dried indicator to the community that this person has a destiny. And, sure enough, epileptics tend to have the personality traits that draw them into the role. In fact, by reputation, a shamanic session generally looks like he’s having a fit, right down to frothing at the mouth, violently striking out at unknown assailants, speaking in tongues, and finally collapsing unconscious only to be aroused moments later with total amnesia (to the amazement of his tribesfolk, keen to hear of his amazing ‘journey’). If no epileptics are available, schizophrenics, the unstably overly-anxious, hysterics, and any other clinical weirdoes will suffice. The shaman must be an outsider, for the realm outside of which he sees is the reality box that sits squarely over his regional culture, of which it is largely unaware. His shaman’s legs are spring-loaded to clear leap over the pseudo-walls of their linguistic, symbolic social mouse maze.

No wonder he discerns his own sacred language. They call it the language of the birds (what else?). Often it will be gifted by an elder shaman, if it is the type of lineage or tradition that emphasizes apprenticeship. Other times, it will spontaneously erupt as glossolalia during ecstasy or seizure, in which case it is the dreamtime spurging out through his loose mouth in gross vocables. Likewise, his hallucinations (aka visions) slice and ramble onto the carefully manicured, crystallized through habit, comfortable and reliable realities of the rank and file members of his group. A prisoner to his loneliness, he is the freest of men. He has no real friends, but feels intimately the cosmic fibers that feed him and bind him to the infinite brotherhood. He is outside of time, while trudging through it. He is the only one kicking and screaming, because everyone else seems to take it so calmly in stride.

Again, who would want this role? For it is true some who aren’t explicitly selected genetically by the gods do choose it and inquire about the study of its mysteries. A shaman’s magic functions largely on the power of his reputation (This speaks volumes about the nature of the magic employed, most by implication and power of suggestion, group field effects.). He is a frustrated, temperamental ‘über-reflection’ of his society at large. He is the mocking exaggeration of their zeitgeist in which he is embroiled (only less so than the rest of the human herd). He is the transgression into the universal, eternal humanness, stripped of all bearings and headings of culture. He simulates the artificial structures of his people: anything solid is his to dissolve into seething dream, his dance a crazy mimic. He breaks unseen boundaries like language, taboo, and, legend has it, gravity. Yes, he is the free fool. And the power in this free fool who is the simulation itself (of both physical and cultural trappings) is that he is physically a constant reminder of the body-machine and culturally the tail that wags the dog. By rearranging and reordering and subverting the symbols and roles and expectations of his particular culture, he dispenses through his charisma a magical social lubricant which, because it’s so patently insane, reinforces the coherency and integrity of the group. He is the sounding board echoing from the fringe that reminds everyone of their living identity.

He can play his culture like a game, and his intuition is perked to sense the nearest sore nexus of social stagnation or repression, an excessive element begging to be slapped back into place, the node from which huge cultural pivots can be made, time and place; he can turn the tide. He is a leader among men. Some would want this role. Some would rather be shaman than chief, for the shaman is anointed by the higher authority of nature, crowned by fate, obvious to all in his airs, aura, and actions. The chief or king relies on clear symbols like headdress or crown and scepter, a throne. He dares not tinker with the accepted illusional vestments of power. The shaman clown on the other hand adroitly specializes in exactly this tinkering and tweaking of the social fabric. He is often at the same time rival to and right-hand-man of the chief. His bread and butter is an artistic and cosmic knowledge of the field of social constructs that the chief re-invokes daily, administratively.

Given this, how does the shaman literally manifest magical effects and perform miracles? The keyword is ‘effects’, and the answer is: any way he can. Placebo, hypnotic, suggestive, implicative, shocking, no matter, the effect is primary, and his target is the nervous system. In contrast to the western doctor who, pinned under this thoroughly modern (again invisible) edifice of the dogma of science, does not recognize much effect his own experience, mindset, languageing, and social behavior has on the healing proceedings, the shaman uses his own nervous system to assert change in that of his onlookers. It is well established that many if most shamans use a degree of illusionary magic, trickery, or outright fraud in their performances and healings. The general anthropological consensus is that this makes them fakes, and invalidates shamanism. However, in light of modern science telling us that a placebo works 8 times out of 10 as often as an aspirin in providing relief, it really seems it’s the lack of standardization, centralization, replicability, and, well, hygiene in shamanism that offends western, science-based mentalities.

Two case examples will elucidate the suggestive mechanism at work in a shaman’s magic. But first, a note on framing the experience. As Claude Levi-Strauss has said, “the efficacy of magic implies a belief in magic.” The magic must be framed with three components that play off each other: 1. the shaman’s belief in the efficacy of his magic, 2. the patient’s belief in the shaman’s power, and 3. the faith and expectations of the group that recognizes the shaman’s role in relation to those he works his magic on, which validates, defines, and locates the relationships therein (24). I carefully note that essentially this ‘group’ need not even exist, for it only functions by implication perceived in both the mind of the shaman and that of the patient. It includes all generalized preconceived fantasy ideals the patient may bring of the powers of shamans from legend as well as a sense of this particular shaman’s reputation (i.e. he has merely ‘heard’ that this shaman is highly respected by his people). All this boils down to the bypassing of the patient’s protective mechanisms so as to create a state of high suggestibility. The virtues of this state are the untapped powers of the subconscious for spontaneous remission of many types of diseases, which is covered at length in Dr. Andrew Weil’s Spontaneous Healing.

The first example traces a supposed physiological process initiated when someone realizes himself to be cursed by a shaman, based on the work of W. B. Cannon in 1942 called “Voodoo Death,” and recounted by Levi-Strauss:

An individual who is aware that he is the object of sorcery is thoroughly convinced that he is doomed according to the most solemn traditions of his group [component 2]. His friends and relatives share this certainty [component 3]. From then on the community withdraws. Standing aloof from the accursed, it treats him not only as though he were already dead but as though he were a source of danger to the entire group. On every occasion and by every action, the social body suggests death to the unfortunate victim, who no longer hopes to escape…Sacred rites are held to dispatch him to the realm of shadows. First brutally torn from all of his family and social ties and excluded from all functions and activities through which he experienced self-awareness, then banished by the same forces from the world of the living, the victim yields to the combined effect of intense terror, the sudden total withdrawal of the multiple reference systems provided by the support of the group, and, finally, to the group’s decisive reversal in proclaiming him – once a living man, with rights and obligations – dead and an object of fear, ritual, and taboo. Physical integrity cannot withstand the dissolution of the social personality (Levi-Strauss 23).

It was worth recounting in detail because the phenomenon stretches to so many activities and effects of the shaman. Cannon shows how fear engages sympathetic nervous system reactions: increasing heart and breathing rates, dilating pupils, and constricting peripheral blood vessels by the release of hormones like adrenaline. This is, of course, the fight or flight response. In the case of a curse, the threat is non-localized, broad-spectrum, and all-encompassing, which makes for a desperately internalized obsession cycle, as no outlet or relief can be found, and suddenly everything that happens to or around the individual can seem related to the death fate which is closing in on him from all sides, and, most potently, from inside. Indeed, he is frying his neurology, actively sustaining and recirculating and spreading the sympathetic panic until his blood pressure and the volume of blood flowing through his system drops to levels that cause irreparable damage to the circulatory organs, only escalated by the dehydration consequence of his stress-response refusal of food and drink, which increases permeability of capillary vessels. Further proof to the western mind is to be seen in studying exactly the same process undergone in similar trauma cases involving battle shock, bombing events, and even surgery. “Death results, yet the autopsy reveals no lesions” (Levi-Strauss 24).

The second example uses the autobiography of a Canadian Kwakiutl Indian by the name of Quesalid. He didn’t believe in the magic of shamans, and wanted to expose the tricks of their trade. After pursuing this end, he was asked to join an inner circle of shamans and be taught their ways. He learned of the stage antics, pantomime, prestidigitation, and actual empirical knowledge that went into affecting an audience or patient:

…including the art of simulating fainting and nervous fits, the learning of sacred songs, the technique for inducing vomiting, rather precise notions of auscultation and obstetrics, and the use of ‘dreamers’, that is, spies who listen to information concerning the origins and symptoms of the ills suffered by different people. Above all [other techniques]…the shaman hides a little tuft of down in a corner of his mouth, and he throws it up, covered with blood, at the proper moment – after having bitten his tongue or made his gums bleed – and solemnly presents it to his patient and the onlookers as the pathological foreign body extracted as a resut of his sucking and manipulations (Levi-Strauss 31).

This last method was terribly effective, and earned him the reputation of a great shaman, even in battling and beating out other shamans whose ‘false supernaturals’ were inferior to his (at suspending disbelief in onlookers and sending them into a state where powerful changes occurred in them). Upon impressing other gullible shamans, who had other, less effective, techniques, some of them lost their powers altogether in both personal and social defeat. They were shunned. Others tried to offer him virgins if he would communicate the secret of his magic. It was obvious that some shamans ardently believe in the efficacy of their own magic as literally true, while others work effectually through farce.

All of these basic techniques and phenomena can be seen in ‘fraudulent’ hands-on-healer TV evangelists of the modern era, the kind Steve Martin showed us in his film “Leap of Faith.” Even he would use spies to find out information about audience members covertly so that when he called them out, the shock sent them into a suggestible trance of total receptivity, at which point, he amalgamated their faith into his powerful commands (directly to their subconscious) to be healed, and miracles happened. In the movie, he struggled with his fraudulent profession, and I suspect attitudes of shamans about themselves and why their magic works run the gamut. The point is, no matter the technique or the system of belief, it works if all parties enter into it with a faith quotient adequate to suspend the rigors of mental protective filters so that, through the rituals, the conscious mind is somehow bypassed and the subconscious then exposed, presented for the re-molding and transformation.

At this point, I’ll elucidate a bifurcation in the matter that shamans concern themselves with. On the one hand, there are universal mysteries, universal truths, in the sense that gravity is true, no matter what anyone thinks about it; and on the other hand there are operational models or mindset constructs that tend to be true and produce predictable results for those who believe them. These two play off each other, for instance, in the way that one’s total faith in his operational model (shamanic method) produces the subconscious depth of trance where he is emitting such confidence that, knowing the universal human truth that (if it can be phrased) two beings in rapport fall into synch with each other’s trance states at bodily as well as mental and emotional levels, he has correlative remote control power to do unto himself what would heal the other.

There is evidence that shamanic training and apprenticeship concerns studying sacred mysteries and unalterable natural laws of the organism and the phenomenon of awareness itself in order to combine these universals with the culture-specific particulars of an arbitrary system of signs, ideas, gods and spirits, philosophies, beliefs, and icons of the natural world around them, that interfaces with the people they are healing and dealing with in their community. And both components seem necessary, one being an underlying functional realm of invisible laws, the other being the visible formal manifestation through such occult structures (like the aforementioned invisible wind example). The universal mysteries a shaman studies with elders and experiences first hand through trance experiences and connections with the natural world and cosmos are like clay itself. They are the substance from which he cultivates his vocabulary of manipulation and articulation of the organic world. The shaman is sculptor of a mythos, reputation, self-image, and technique that allows him access to the recesses of the minds of others so as to tweak their programming. The functional universal truth here being that the universe has a way of conforming to one’s will and self-image. As Levi-Strauss says, “Quesalid did not become a great shaman because he cured his patients; he cured his patients because he had become a great shaman” (36).

Since the self-image of a shaman is intimately bound up with the social group consensus of his power and place among the community, if that enthusiasm and approval is removed and reformed around another shaman with a perceived superior magic, it can devastate and castrate a shaman’s powers (depending on the personality), which is exactly what Quesalid did to some shamans who became the laughingstock of their group. So, a curse or a healing is a matter of what the subconscious accepts about itself (from perceived realignments of external cues in the highly personal language of one’s own arbitrary ordering system).

An important point in the attainment of rapport and trance between shaman and patient is that a shaman will often re-experience and re-enact the process of his original calling, which is generally a crisis illness and self-healing, or some other traumatic ordeal. The shaman goes first into his own experience, and the patient follows, abreacting the trauma before overcoming it. He has captured and lead the imagination of the patient, and through this journey, now shocks the sick nervous system into accepting spontaneous healing. The patient is essentially passive, the shaman aggressively active, which is the converse of the psychoanalytical situation where “the patient abreacts against a listening therapist” (Levi-Strauss 39). It is this aggressive manner that ultimately imprints the patient at the deepest level possible in much the same way that a goose will imprint what it perceives as it’s mother during a sensitive shutter moment of consciousness just after birth, and attempt to nurse and mate with whatever object was in its field of vision at the time (even if it’s a ping pong ball). This is a phenomenon of neurology, socially mediated through the shaman. Exposure to the shaman’s altered state, aggressive intimidation tactics, and general freakishness creates custom-tailored sensitive shutter moments in the patient.

This begs the question of what exactly is happening in the neurology of the shaman that activates this contagious healing cathartic rapport. Yes, he has a working knowledge of pragmatic neurology, that people are making pictures to themselves when they look up and to the left, and talking to themselves when they look down and to the left, etc. Yes, he has an elaborate understanding of souls, the afterlife, spiritual travel, the great project of mankind. But on the very fundamental physical level, case by case, there are end results of whatever mindsets and roles are adopted cross-culturally, that must be universal to humans as physically correlated beings. So it befits us to distinguish between a shamanic altered state of consciousness (ASC) and a possession trance (PT).

ASCs generally are known the world over as experienced during hypnosis, meditation, epiphanies, catharsis, religious ecstasy, etc. and the variety seem to have similar physiological bases in the brain and autonomic nervous system. PT adds seizure-like components, which seems to indicate the involvement of the temporal lobe. A PT refers to a (usually) “voluntarily induced ASC culturally believed to be spirit possession, in which a spirit entity takes control of the practitioner’s body, replacing the personality…and is characterized by…extreme and compulsive motor behavior, tremors, and convulsions” (Wright 3). An advanced meditative ASC is characterized by passive awareness, free of the complex imagery, sense of travel and encounter, and physically hyperactive motions of ecstasy familiar to shamanic ASC, although there are certainly stages along the way to this meditative state which could correlate to shamanic ASC. Different gradations of ASCs are used in different ceremonial contexts by shamans, who may cultivate a variety bag of custom-designed ASCs suited to various uses, some more meditative and transcendent, others more active and boisterous. For instance, a calm meditative trance is appropriate and useful in the initiation rituals of Lakota Sioux and Igluik (Wright 3).

Generally, meditators exhibit increasing alpha and theta brain waves as recorded on EEG, while “some specialized ‘samadhi’ states have been correlated with fast-wave, low-voltage, rhythmic beta production. Theta waves occurring in meditation are different from those at sleep onset in that they appear in short, high-voltage, synchronous bursts and are usually followed by longer periods of rhythmic, high-voltage, theta production. Subjectively, the experience of theta bursts feels peaceful and pleasant, awake and self-aware, with periods of reverie and rich imagery, and a period in which unconscious material is brought forth” (Wright 4).

A common element of a shamanic performance is amnesia after the fact: a loss of consciousness after a hallucinatory fit, and a dreamy, hazy arousal with glazed eyes. These phenomena are very specific to temporal lobe seizures and PT. Hypnagogic hypersynchrony refers to the condition resulting from “rhythmic high amplitude bisynchronic bursts of slow theta brainwaves,” and is a brain phenomenon characterized by “excessive grogginess, lethargy, and attention deficits. Hypersynchony is most often triggered by either epileptic seizures or by the misuse and abuse of slow brainwave technologies such as mantra meditation and binaural beats” (Mensing). Wright makes the claim that hypersynchrony limited to the hippocampal-septal areas of the brain correlates to shamanic ASCs, while amygdala involvement brings about PT and mediumistic phenomena (i.e. drawing spirits into the room and into oneself, being taken over) (Wright 4). The suggestion here is that either an actual epileptic fit or rhythmic, repetitious acoustic or physical or mental driving (like the beating of a drum or chanting) could induce both shamanic ASCs and PTs. Again, the biological predisposition to these states is specific to the type of epilepsy one has and can be traced genetically through shamanic lineages, which is why some become mediums, others become shamans, and some just sit in a daze and meditate. The predisposition and experiencing of oneself in a seizure state is virtually requisite for the naturally gifted and psychic shaman who can then cultivate the skill of calling upon such states at will, although epilepsy does not alone make a shaman.8

In fact, psychic phenomena are a part of the medical literature associated with epilepsy. Often, (doctors call it) an ‘aura’ warns the epileptic that a seizure is imminent (Cavazos). An aura is a simple partial seizure that feels like a light vapor is rising from the trunk or limbs toward the head (“Definition of Aura”). They occur in 80% of temporal lobe seizures and can have any number of “somatosensory, special sensory, autonomic, or psychic symptoms,” including auditory hallucinations (often a buzzing sound, voices, or a muffling of ambient sounds); visual distortions of size, shape, and distance; olfactory and gustatory illusions and hallucinations; a strong feeling of déjà vu or jamais vu (unfamiliarity); a feeling of detachment from oneself or derealization, where surroundings appear unreal; fear or anxiety (specific to amygdala involvement, i.e. spontaneous temporal lobe PT); and a sense of dissociation or autoscopy, where they see their own body from the outside (Ko). These all ring bells of psychedelic-shamanic experiences, and indeed many shamans use psychedelics to achieve these effects as a shortcut method or if they never had the shamanic epileptic illness calling in their youth but still wanted to acquire shamanistic faculty.

Shamans are characterized as being “hyper sensitive to the mystic powers that control the universe” (Rogers 10) and having an aura of prescience, power, authority, knowledge, esoteric knowledge and occult power. They are in some cultures elevated to the realm of revered spirits or godlike beings because they are seen as being fundamentally much closer to that realm, even while living the life of men. In many traditions, the shaman is literally considered a “separate species with family in all the animal houses. The shaman’s flight, which makes things whole, does so with the power of song. For this ecstatic journey is above all a linguistic one” (Guss x). He is the primordial proto-poet, for almost always his technique hinges on the creation of special neurolinguistic circumstances, i.e. of song and invocation, trance and hypnotic suggestion. With regard to the natural world, real power is seen as existing not in the external form of a thing, but in its secret, inner form, its soul. “And to reach that hidden world was the purpose of ritual, to record that meaning was the purpose of myth” (Guss x).

What I hope to have conveyed in this paper is that the two fundamental questions regarding shamanism, Is it real? and Does it work? are not mutually exclusive. It can be real, and not work; and it can work, yet be not real. Nor do scientistic [sic] discriminations on the electro-chemical aspects of the brain and human body preclude actual ‘soul flight’ (or, the similar remote viewing’s bilocating, other psy phenomena) wherein real information is achieved. I believe none of the answers to be conveyed in syntactic representational language, in writing much less than vocalizing, no matter how keen in definition and coherent in constitution, can possibly elude essential mysteries of what the essence of this ‘soul-thing’ that flies is, or of the process at large in the brain that simultaneously senses its own selfhood within the context and by means of its very operation.

Language seems only able as an exploration of itself. Examination provides a view of the tool used in examining. A method of investigation reveals the structure of its approach if any discreet data on the object of investigation. Magnification of our probing powers blurs the edges of our newly-narrowed view(finder) and singes us off from the basic bigger picture – the more we know, the less we really see. All this is to say: by the same paradox whereby the shaman experiences (what to the uninitiated is) the common everymoment as precious effulgent cosmic genesis, and inversely, experiences the jeweled psychedelia of pulsating life energy extending through the DNA mastertape – where time seems to break out in a heliocentric-like mode and distant space folds in on itself with the power of thought – as granted and given if daily ordinary, then the more detailed and finite we, as research commentators from the outside, progress into the physiologies of shamanism, the wider the deep, microscopic, in-between spaces of indefinable, invisible fasciae, that seem to hold the phenomenon and everything else together, open up to reveal the fundamental impossibility of all that is blatantly obvious.

The closer we seem to approach final answers concerning shamanism, the more beautiful the asymptotic sunset horizon of that potential discovery becomes. Seduction, just out of reach: the threshold was never there. Even as we fly this sunset with borrowed wings on the winds of hoped-for final breakthroughs, they, never happening, only dissolve back into our mechanism for hoping, which is where the answers to all such desire-constructs reside, latently. Thoughts, returned to sender: a psychic phenomenon if I’ve ever seen one.

The subconscious is the ocean covering on all sides it’s internal forms as passive if generative substrate. It nourishes the rest of visible land. Anthropologists and neurologists are foreign organ submarines pinging locally, hoping for compatible response. Shamans are the whalesongs, always having been there, unique each one, discarded by the seeking subs as background noise in deference to cold rigid simulation structures wishing for reinforcement clones (but aren’t they already robot clones of the whales?). This paper is the pill that simultaneously dissolves the hull of the submarines and renders the waters of the subconscious ocean habitable if navigable for their once-trapped, now eager occupants, who are ready to experience directly the magic behind the symbols. Here’s hoping they’ll take with grace – and realize the truly magical irony behind – this insight: that the little old man hiding behind the curtain, exposed as a fake, and embarrassed even, our Shaman-Wizard, in his intimate personal Oz, can be the preternatural enlightened fool after all; for, plain as it may seem to you, he’s tooling in mischievous and novel ways, from within his occult awareness, the too familiar mechanics of our universal common body.


1The term shaman was popularized among Europeans in 1692 by an account of Siberian shamanism left by Nicholas Witsen (Hutton 32). Return to Article

2On a large scale, fed today as ‘the news.’ Return to Article

3Here I use ‘shear’ with connotations toward both physics and mechanics, as in “an applied force or system of forces that tends to produce a shearing strain; or a strain,” or, “a change of shape, of an elastic body, consisting of an extension in one direction, an equal compression in a perpendicular direction, with an unchanged magnitude in the third direction;” or, “a deformation of an object in which parallel planes remain parallel but are shifted in a direction parallel to themselves” (e.g "the shear changed the quadrilateral into a parallelogram")(Source: In other words, the map (neurological organization) is the means by which (agent) the shaman (universe), through the paradox (shear) of simulation (virtual re-presentation), ‘pulls himself up by his own bootstraps’ and self-reflexively (magically) generates the energy (power) to heal (grow). Return to Article

4Original, oldest shamanism seems to trace back to Siberia: Travelers to the courts of the Mongol Great Khans of the 13th century reported figures similar to shamans. Marco Polo described how Chinese magicians divined the cause of disease by singing and playing music until a ‘devil’ entered one of them and spoke through him. Franciscan friar “William of Rubruck reported in 1254 that a Mongol magician would call a demon to him by singing and drumming in darkness until he began to rave. This signaled the arrival of the spirit, whereupon the magician would make offerings…and seek answers for specific problems” (Hutton 29-31). This was a second hand account, as those ceremonies were closed to outsiders. The earliest known eye-witness description of North Asian shamanism was made in 1557 of the ‘devilish rites’ of some Samoyedic-speaking natives (the Nenets) on the north-western coast of Siberia by an Englishman, Richard Johnson:
“The priest doth begin to play upon a thing like a great sieve, with a skin on the one end like a drum…upon his head [sits] a thing of white garland, and his face is covered with a piece of shirt…with many small ribs and teeth of fishes, and wild beasts hanging…Then he singeth…whoop[ing]…shout[ing], and [tribesmen]…answer him with this chorus, ‘Igha, Igha, Igha’…so many times, that…he becometh as if he were dead…[The tribesmen say to Johnson] ‘Now doth our god tell him what we shall do, and whither we shall go’…[They aroused the priest with three cries] ‘Oghao, Oghao, Oghao’…he riseth…[and] commanded them to kill five…great deer…Then he took a sword…(I did measure it myself) and put it into his belly halfway…but no wound was to be seen (they continuing in their sweet song still)…he put the sword into the fire…thrust it into the slit of his shirt and thrust it through his body…in at his navel and out at his fundament: the point being out of his shirt behind. I laid my finger upon it, then he pulled out the sword and sat down.” He goes on to describe assistants ripping the shaman’s head off with wires while the observers were forbidden to watch, in the same way as they were forbidden to know exactly what their god had spoken to the priest/shaman, but had to obey his commands. The shaman of course completes the ceremony entirely intact and unharmed (‘Certain Notes’). Return to Article

5The oldest certain reference to Eurasian shamanism in the world seems, indeed, to be an entry concerning Sámi magicians in the Historia Norvegiae, a Latin text written at some point between 1170 and 1190, of two shamanic attempts to heal a woman, sick to the point of death. The first shaman died when his stomach burst open as a result of his astral journey, while the second shaman succeeded in healing the woman by making use of a drum painted with whales, reindeer, skis, sledges, and a small boat with oars, all representing vehicles by which his soul could travel the world after he had bodily achieved trance. This account proves that a tradition of shamanism of the Siberian sort was already functioning in northern Eurasia at least a century before William of Robruck visited Mongolia and four hundred years before Richard Johnson reached the Nenets.
However, the richest source of information on magico-religious traditions in the Scandinavian world consists of thirteenth-century Icelandic literature, and this confirms the high reputation of Saami magicians among the Norse. Trance magic features in Vatnsdæla Saga, where three diviners are hired to find a lost amulet, upon which they enter trance for three days and nights, have out of body experiences where their spirits roam about until they find the object; Ynglinga Saga; St. Olaf’s Saga; Fostbrœ›ra Saga; Eiriks Saga, in which a seeress Thorbjorg arrives at feasts whose hosts wish to know the future, in a shaman-like costume and staff, where she would sit on a platform encircled by women, one of whom would sing an invocation of spirits for her to commune with; and Hávar›ar Saga, in which a warrior skilled in the mystic arts goes into trance to obtain an astral victory over an opponent (Hutton 139). Return to Article

6…in the same way that Goetic demons are “portions of the human brain” and the “Hell” where they dwell, down into which the shaman must descend to conquer them, is ones own subconscious mind (Beta, et. al. 17). This in no way belittles the magic: I did not say ‘nothing but one’s own subconscious.’ Return to Article

7As Philip K. Dick wrote in Galactic Pot Healer, “There are as many worldviews as there are sentient beings.” Return to Article

8“The only difference between a shaman and an epileptic is that the latter cannot deliberately enter into trance” (Eliade 24). Return to Article


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