The worldview of shamanism is foundational to Hinduism, many traditional Chinese customs, Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan Buddhism, lucid dreaming, spiritualism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, and has influenced, albeit indirectly, Wilber’s integral AQAL as well as the psychological tradition of Freud, Jung, and Perls. In fact, there is little in our highly technological and intellectualized noospheric world space that does not draw on this or that aspect of shamanism. Therefore, an understanding of its assumptions and practices is essential to anyone interested in personal development, psychology, philosophy, or comparative religion. Indeed, unless its worldview is recognized, differentiated, understood, and objectified, due to the fundamental nature of its assumptions, it will find its expression in every corner of contemporary life, but unrecognized as such. For example, I work with mental health issues, transpersonal development, dreams, and meditation, and all of these areas have been, and continue to be, strongly influenced by shamanism.
Shamanic vision questing includes a family of cultural practices that focus on those who have either been initiated as shamans or have innate shamanic abilities, voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which the shaman experience themselves, or their spirit(s), traveling to other realms at will, and interacting with other entities to serve their community. These primordial ancient traditions, which date back to the dawn of mankind, are at least 20,000 to 30,000 years old, and are found everywhere hunter-gatherer societies have lived: North, Central, and South America, Africa, Australia, and Siberia (Eliade, 1964). Because dream yogas share with shamanism a common evolutionary heritage, a knowledge of shamanism is important for those who wish to wake up in any state of consciousness.
In what follows we will address traditional shamanism, based on the first-hand observations of late 19th century and early 20th century ethnographers and anthropologists, and compare that information to some expressions of contemporary shamanism, with particular interest in how all this relates to lucid dreaming, dream yogas, and my own work, Integral Deep Listening (IDL). Groups and trainings that call themselves “shamanic” may differ radically in many of the assumptions and practices of historical shamanism. Early, traditional forms of transcendence are not to be confused with contemporary New Age shamanism or the rekindling of traditional shamanic forms by contemporary Native Americans and others. As Wilber has shown, cultural contexts evolve, which is to say that the assumptions of the contexts within which contemporary shamanism is practiced are not, nor can they be, the same as the assumptions of the contexts of shamans in hunter-gatherer societies. Another purpose of this essay is to show the cultural and psychological roots of the concrete and literal nature of dream, lucid dreaming, OOBE, mystical, and near death experiences, and how this is an unavoidable component of how life wakes up to itself within form. It is also important to identify core characteristics of perception of other states which, although reinterpreted, remain salient for students of dream yogas. We will then conclude by considering some of the linkages between shamanism, lucid dreaming, and near death experience in our contemporary culture.
Shamanism is both a pursuit of ecstasy in an induced trance state and a structured approach to helping others. Activities central to shamanism include journeying to other realities to learn, gain power, explore other worlds, communicate with spirits, animals, or other-worldly people, see the causes and cures of illness, and intercede with friendly and demonic forces. Activities central to dream yogas include learning to wake up in the dream state, that is, become aware that you are dreaming while dreaming, setting intentions for lucid dreaming, use of specific pre-sleep suggestion, meditation, mental discipline and concentration, instructions about what to do while in a dream in order to wake up, as well as what should be done once one awakens in a dream.
While shamanism is traditionally found primarily in nomadic hunting and gathering societies, dream yogas are traditionally found in bronze age religions, principally of India, and currently both among those pursuing state awakenings within the context of a religion or spiritual path, or simply as a technology of life enrichment. The approach to waking up and life enrichment advocated by IDL is similar to traditions that stress karma margas, or paths to enlightenment, in that both emphasize awakening within secular daily life in preference to accessing ecstatic, other-worldly experiences which are the crux of shamanism. While shamanism traditionally serves individuals within tribes, religions serve ethnicities, and dream yogas serve self-development, IDL emphasizes a multi-perspectival worldcentric worldview that includes these different elements in a context that is both social, in the sense of global community, and intrasocial, in the sense of including interviewed dream characters and the personifications of life issues, called “emerging potentials.”
When Did Shamanism Begin?
Shamanism is a natural feature of small tribal groups within nomadic hunting and gathering cultures, in societies with little agriculture and almost no social classes or political organization, and very few of these remain in the world today. Life in these small groups is focused on physical survival and the basic relational exchanges of food, shelter, sex, and security. Heritage is passed down from generation to generation by song, dance, and the recitation of narratives. There are few status differentiations, typically no writing, and traditions are oral. Experience is concrete, immediate, and sensory, with thinking primarily based on what is seen, felt, heard, images, and emotions, rather than concepts. There is no philosophy, science, literature, or sophisticated division of labor in traditional shamanic cultures. To experience the consciousness of an authentic shamanistic worldview is to unlearn almost everything we know. For example, consider the language you use that determines not only how you think but what you think. Your interior dialogue includes innumerable words that describe concepts and discriminations that were totally unknown to hunter-gatherer societies. For these humans, language was concrete, not abstract; most of the conceptual distinctions that we take for granted, such as “freedom,” “inner peace,” “identification,” “role, and “role play,” did not yet exist. It is not realistic to imagine we can unlearn such concepts, and many others, by which we comprehend our world, and yet, to authentically grasp the worldview and consciousness of shamanism, that is necessary.
What Is Shamanic Ecstasy?
Shamanic ecstasy involves being taken out of one’s normal sense of self and entering into a sense of intensified or heightened feeling. The emphasis is not on what one sees in an altered state but in the intensity of the feelings that it induces. These may include an intense sense of freedom, expansiveness, joy, or power. On some occasions equally intense but oppositional feelings may be induced: an intense sense of confinement, constriction, suffering, and helplessness. Shamanic ecstasy is generally not bliss, although it may be.
What Is Shamanic Trance?
Shamans suspend their normal waking consciousness and “go somewhere else,” typically heaven or hell. We would say that they enter an altered state of consciousness. More specifically, they enter a purposely induced trance state in which waking consciousness is partially or completely laid aside. Shamans do not view either waking as dreamlike or dreams as delusional. Life is real and dreams are at least as real, if not more real, than waking life.
While shamans lay aside their normal waking consciousness to enter trance, their experiences within trance are generally perceived through a combination of their normal waking perspective that they carry into the shamanic journey and the perspective of the relatively autonomous and objective totem animal or spirit with which they are communicating. This is true even when shamans talk to spirit guides who interpret experience for them. The shaman makes sense out of that interpretation, and what is understood as the message, truth, reality, or answer is dependent on the shaman’s waking level of development. If a shaman does not question the concrete reality of their perception in waking life they do not do so and will not do so in a trance world. If a shaman assumes that he or she experiences objective reality and truth while in trance, then that is the assumptive framing out of which they will speak and convey their trance experiences.
How Is Shamanic Trance Induced?
Shamans either lay aside their waking consciousness to get into trance and then pick it up again once they have attained that state, as in dreaming, or they only lay aside certain aspects of waking consciousness, such as bodily awareness, while maintaining other aspects of waking consciousness, as some lucid dreamers and practitioners of Nidra, or deep sleep yoga, do. Both of these theories may play a part in shamanic journeying.
Not everyone in a hunter-gatherer tribe can be a shaman; generally one has to have a “calling” and proper aptitudes, including a willingness and ability to “die” in significant ways. Then, in addition, just because one can successfully enter trance, the benefit of that state for others in the tribe is dependent on the skill of the individual shaman. Shamanic trance induction can be very serious business. It may involve isolation, fatigue, hunger, purgation, self-harm, rhythmic sound, delirium, or ingestion of hallucinogens. Very sophisticated, individualized cultural rituals have been devised over the millennia, often using drums, ecstatic dancing, vision quests, deprivation, pain, starvation, and exposure to the elements. Extreme activities are all designed to generate extraordinary cognitive states that interrupt normal cognition and shut down processes that normally filter and interpret reality. These are generally thanatomimetic, or imitative of death, because “death” is required to enter the realm of the dead.
The journey is a major defining technique and experience of shamanism. Shamans first enter a trance state and then enter controlled out-of-body experiences in which they experience themselves roaming at will through this or other worlds and meeting, battling or befriending spiritual inhabitants. It would be a mistake to reduce shamanistic journeying to either an unhealthy type of dissociation or to elevate it as a highly mystical experience of oneness, as is done when it is equated with near death experiences. The closest analogy may be to types of nature mysticism in which freedom and engagement are emphasized instead of simple oneness with energy, psychism, and the natural world. To give something of a feeling of traditional shamanic journeying, here is a description from Siberia of a journey to the underworld of Erlik, the god of darkness:
The kams (shamans) of the Turkic tribes of the Altai have preserved with great strictness the ancient shamanistic ceremonial forms. Potanin gives a curious description of the performance of a young shaman, Enchu, who lived by the River Talda, about six versts from Anguday. Four stages, each marked by a different posture of the shaman, characterized his performance: in the first, he was sitting and facing the fire; second, standing, with his back to the fire; third, a sort of interlude, during which the shaman rested from his labour, supporting himself with his elbow on the drum, which he balanced on its rim, while he related what he had learned in his intercourse with the spirits; and fourth, a final shamanizing, with his back to the fire, and facing the place where the drum usually hangs. Enchu declared afterwards that he had no recollection of what happened while he was shamanizing with his back turned to the fire. While he was in that position he had been whirling about madly in circles on one spot, and without any considerable movement of his feet; crouching down on his haunches, and rising again to a standing posture, without interrupting the rotating movement. As he alternately bent and straightened his body from the hips, backwards and forwards and from side to side, with lively movements or jerks, the manyak (metal pendants) fastened to his coat danced and dangled furiously in all directions, describing shining circles in the air. At the same time the shaman kept beating his drum, holding it in various positions so that it gave out different sounds. From time to time Enchu held the drum high above his head in a horizontal position and beat upon it from below. The natives of Anguday explained to Potanin that when the shaman held the drum in that way, he was collecting spirits in it. At times he would talk and laugh with someone apparently near by, but invisible to others, showing in this manner that he was in the company of spirits. At one time Enchu fell to singing more, quietly and evenly, simultaneously imitating on his drum the hoof-beats of a horse. This was to indicate that the shaman, with his accompanying spirits, was departing to the underworld of Erlik, the god of darkness (Czaplicka, 1917).
Journeying, or shamanic traveling to another reality to learn, gain power, or diagnose and treat disease, is the one core function of shamanism that was not subsumed by one or another societal role when man turned to agriculture. Michael Harner thinks the absence of shamanism from agricultural and industrial-based cultures has been due to societal repression (Harner, 1988). Walsh thinks another possibility is that the emergence of mystical states in the world’s religious traditions supplanted shamanic journeying. Walsh states, “it is unclear whether these factors alone (societal repression) could account for the disappearance of a practice, journeying, that was powerful enough to spread around much of the world, survive for perhaps tens of thousands of years, and form the basis for humankind’s most ancient and durable religious tradition.” Walsh believes a developmental perspective can provide part of the answer”
As humans develop, their thinking becomes less magical and concrete. Naive realism, mixed with the awe of unexplainable natural forces, is slowly replaced with conceptual knowledge and rational explanation. If shamanism is indeed a cultural framework associated with hunter-gatherer mentality, then the concrete assumptions that generate journeying, that dreams are real, that totem animals are spirit guides, and that experience is real, in whatever state it is found, may have given away to a solid preference for waking reality, as concreteness gave away to the distinction between objective and subjective experience (Walsh, 1990).
Walsh is saying that the concreteness of naïve realism supports a shamanic worldview which in turn is the context in which shamanism naturally occurs. The implication is that as individuals and cultures outgrow the hunter-gatherer worldview that shamanism is supplanted by other forms that depend less on concreteness and naïve realism.
What Are Some Of The Purposes Of Shamanic Journeying?
Shamans do not travel only to explore other worlds. Some of their traveling is done with the intention of learning personally or to access socially valuable information. Such traveling is thereby directed by an intention to access new knowledge that is important to waking identity or its community. Here is an example of the approach of one shaman:
‘Mighty bull of the earth . . . Horse of the steppes!’
‘I, the mighty bull . . . bellow!’
‘I, the horse of the steppes . . . neigh!’
‘I, the man set above all other beings!’
‘I, the man most gifted of all!’
‘I, the man created by the master all-powerful!
‘Horse of the steppes, appear! teach me!’
‘Enchanted bull of the earth, appear! speak to me!’
‘Powerful master, command me!’
‘All of you, who will go with me, give heed with your ears! Those whom I command not. follow me not!’
‘Approach not nearer than is permitted! Look intently! Give heed ! Have a care!’
‘Look heedfully! Do this, all of you. all together . . . all, however many you may be!’
‘Thou of the left side, O lady with thy staff, if anything be done amiss, if I take not the right way, I entreat you – correct me! Command! . . .’
‘My errors and my path show to me! O mother of mine! Wing thy free flight! Pave my wide roadway!’
‘Souls of the sun, mothers of the sun, living in the south, in the nine wooded hills, ye who shall be jealous . . . I adjure you all . . . let them stay . . . let your three shadows stand high!’
‘In the East, on your mountain, lord, grandsire of mine. great of power and thick of neck-be thou with me!’
‘And thou, grey-bearded wizard (fire), I ask thee: with all my dreams, ‘with all comply! To all my desires consent . . . Heed all! Fulfil all! . . . All heed . . . All fulfil!’
Notice all the references to power in the above statement, and the assumption of roles of authority and supplication. Some of this power shamans experience is psychic.
“…a French missionary claimed that he witnessed clairvoyance in a New Caledonian shaman. In the course of a great joyous feast he suddenly plunged himself into despair, announcing that he saw one of his illustrious relatives in Arama (a town several miles away) agonizing. A canoe was speedily sent to Arama, a three hour trip from there. The chief had just died.”
“The psychiatrist Stanjslav Grof reports that a well known Huichoi Indian shaman, Don Jose, was brought to the Esalen Institute in Northern California during a long, severe drought when water supplies were strictly rationed. Don Jose therefore volunteered to perform a rain making ceremony. As dawn broke the next day. the bemused participants found themselves dancing in the rain.” The anthropologist Bogoras observed a Chuckchee who
“Made one of his ‘spirits” shout, talk, and whisper directly into my ear, and the illusion was so perfect that involuntarily I put my hand to my ear to catch the ‘spirit.’ After that he made the ‘spirit’ enter the ground under me and talk right in between my legs, etc. All the time he is conversing with the ‘separate voices’ the shaman beats his drum without interruption to prove that his force and attention are otherwise occupied. I tried to make a phonographic record of the ‘separate voices’ of the ‘spirits’. . .when the light was put out, the ‘spirits’ after some ‘bashful’ hesitation entered in compliance with commands of the shaman, and even began to talk into the funnel of the graphophone. The records show a very marked difference between the voice of the shaman himself, which sounds from afar, and the voices of the ‘spirits,’ who seemed to be talking directly into the funnel (Bogoras, Rasmussen).
Shamans claim to perceive things unseen by ordinary people. lndeed, the development of “spirit vision” is central to shamanic training, and essential for diagnostic and healing work.
Upune, the wife of a dead Chukchee shaman, possessed wonderful shamanistic power; she herself declared that she had only a small part of her husband’s ability. In a shamanistic performance ‘she took a large round pebble of the size of a man’s fist, set it upon the drum, and, blowing upon it from all sides, began to mumble and snort in the same kele-like manner. She called our attention by signs-being in the possession of the kele (spirit), she had lost the faculty of human speech-and then began to wring the pebble with both hands. Then a continuous row of very small pebbles began to fall from her hands. This lasted for fully five minutes, till quite a heap of small pebbles had collected below, on the skin. The larger pebble, however, remained smooth and intact.
At the request of Bogoras the female shaman repeated this feat with the same success, and all the upper part of the body being naked, it was easy to observe her movements.” The practice of stabbing oneself through the abdomen with a knife is universal in shamanistic performances; Kamchadal and Eskimo, Chukchee and Yukaghir, even the Neo-Siberian shamans of northern Asia, are familiar with this trick.” It would be difficult to describe all the tricks performed by the shamans: some of the commonest are the swallowing of burning coals, setting oneself free from a cord by which one is bound (Czaplicka, 1917).
Who is gaining power in shamanic trances? The answer, generally, is the same for most waking, trance, dream, and lucid dreaming: not your life compass, but rather your waking identity. While there are many ways that it is necessary and important for waking identity to gain power, those justifications diminish and become increasingly selective after the late prepersonal stage of development. Some people stabilize at late prepersonal, spending their lives acquiring personal power, whether as status, health, money, possessions, or self-validating relationships. This not only blocks personal growth; because of the power of these people, it blocks social and cultural development. This is a problem with capitalism and the cult of status seen in the glorification of famous athletes, actors, and politicians. Culture ends up venerating and imitating late prepersonal figures, resulting in personal and societal fixation.
Diagnosing And Treating
Shamans don’t travel only to explore other worlds or to learn. We have seen that they also may travel to be of service to others. This is both noble and valuable. It is a major justification for the resurgence of modernized shamanic journeying since the last quarter of the twentieth century. South American shamans, for example, may journey to the realm of the Yakurunas, a particular kind of water spirit, that can help shamans in healing, but are also known to abduct people:
Suddenly he commenced to beat the drum softly and to sing in a plaintive voice; then the beating of the drum grow stronger and stronger; and his song, in which could be heard sounds imitating the howling of the wolf, the groaning of the cargoose, and the voices of other animals, his guardian spirits, appeared to come, sometimes from the corner nearest to my seat, then from the opposite end, then again from the middle of the house, and then it seemed to proceed from the ceiling. He was a ventriloquist. Shamans versed in this art are believed to possess particular power. His drum also seemed to sound, now over my head, now at my feet, now behind, now in front of me. I could see nothing; but it seemed to me that the shaman was moving around, noiselessly stepping upon the platform with his fur shoes, then retiring to some distance, then coming nearer, lightly jumping, and then squatting down on his heels.
All of a sudden the sound of the drum and the singing ceased. When the women had relighted their lamps, he was lying, completely exhausted, on a white reindeer skin on which he had been sitting before the shamanistic performance. The concluding words of the shaman, which he pronounced in a recitative, were uttered as though spoken by the spirit whom he had summoned lip, and who declared that the “disease” had left the village, and would not return.
During this ceremony the shaman suddenly asked Jochelson for his knife, saying, ‘The spirits say that I should cut myself with a knife. You will not be afraid?’ Jochelson gave him, not without some scruples, his traveling knife, which was sharp and looked like a dagger. The light in the tent was put out; but the dim light of the Arctic spring night (it was in April), which penetrated the canvas of the tent, was sufficient to allow me to follow the movements of the shaman. He took the knife, beat the drum, and sang, telling the spirits that he was ready to carry out their wishes. After a little while he put away the drum, and, emitting a rattling sound from his throat, he thrust the knife into his breast up to the hilt. I noticed, however, that after having cut his jacket, he turned the knife downwards. He drew out the knife with the same rattling in his throat, and resumed beating the drum.
Then he said to Jochelson that he would have a good journey, and, returning the knife to him, showed through the hole in his coat the blood on his body. ‘Of course, these spots had been made before’, says Jochelson. However, this cannot be looked upon as mere deception. Things visible and imaginary are confounded to such an extent in primitive consciousness that the shaman himself may have thought that there was, invisible to others, a real gash in his body, as had been demanded by the spirits. The common Koryak, however, are sure that the shaman actually cuts himself, and that the wound heals up immediately (Czaplicka, 1917).
Shamans do not view illnesses as symptoms. They may see them as the effects of evil spirits. Treatments are designed to eliminate physical pain. The following diagnostic information is from Cherokee shamanism:
…in general the name given to the disease by the shaman expresses only his opinion as to the occult cause of the trouble. Thus they have definite names for rheumatism, toothache, boils, and a few other ailments of like positive character, but beyond this their description of symptoms generally resolves itself into a statement that the patient has bad dreams, looks black around the eyes, or feels tired, while the disease is. assigned such names as “when they dream of snakes,” “when they dream of fish,” “when ghosts trouble them,” “when something is making something else eat them,” or “when the food is changed,” i.e., when a witch causes it to sprout and grow in the body of the patient or transforms it into a lizard, frog, or sharpened stick (Mooney, 1891)
Shamans may view disease as possession or punishment rather than as in many cases preventable conditions that are the consequence of ignorance. Consequently, part of treatment is often propitiation of spirits:
In the ensuing prayers the shaman addresses his ämägyat and other protective ‘spirits’; be talks with the kaliany, (spirits) asks them questions, and gives answers in their names. Sometimes the shaman must pray and beat the drum a long time before the spirits come; often their appearance is so sudden and so impetuous that the shaman is overcome and falls down. It is a good sign if he falls on his face, and a bad sign if he falls on his back.
‘When the ämägyat comes down to a shaman, he arises and begins to leap and dance, at first on the skin, and then, his movements becoming more rapid, he glides into the middle of the room. Wood is quickly piled on the fire, and the light spreads through the yurta, which is now full of noise and movement. The shaman dances, sings, and beats the drum uninterruptedly, jumps about furiously, turning his face to the south, then to the west, then to the east. Those who hold him by the leather thongs sometimes have great difficulty in controlling his movements. In the south Yakut district, however, the shaman dances unfettered. Indeed, he often gives up his drum so as to be able to dance more unrestrainedly.
‘The head of the shaman is bowed, his eyes are half-closed his hair is tumbled and in wild disorder lies on his sweating face, his mouth is twisted strangely, saliva streams down his chin, often he foams at the mouth.
‘He moves round the room, advancing and retreating, beating the drum, which resounds no less wildly than the roaring of the shaman himself; he shakes his jingling coat, and seems to become more and more maniacal, intoxicated with the noise and movement.
‘His fury ebbs and rises like a wave; sometimes it leaves him for a while, and then, holding his drum high above his head, solemnly and calmly he chants a prayer and summons the “spirit.”
‘At last he knows all he desires; he is acquainted with the cause of the misfortune or disease with which be has been striving; he is sure of the help of the beings whose aid he needs. Circling about in his dance, singing and playing, be approaches the patient.
‘With new objurgations be drives away the cause of the illness by frightening it, or by sucking it out with his mouth from the painful place: then, returning to the middle of the room, he drives it away by spitting and blowing. Then he learns what sacrifice is to be made to the “powerful spirits,” for this harsh treatment of the spirit’s servant, who was sent to the patient.
‘Then the shaman, shading his eyes from the light with his hands, looks attentively into each corner of the room; and if he notices anything suspicious, he again beats the drum, dances, wakes terrifying gestures, and entreats the ” spirits.”
‘At length all is made clean, the suspicious “cloud” is no more to be seen, which signifies that the cause of the trouble has been driven out; the sacrifice is accepted, the prayers have been heard-the ceremony is over.
‘The shaman still retains for some time after this the gift of prophecy; he foretells various happenings, answers the questions of the curious, or relates what he saw on his journey away from the earth.
‘Finally he is carried with his mare’s skin back to his place of honor on the billiryk‘.
“The sacrifice offered to the ‘spirits’ varies according to the importance of the occasion. Sometimes the disease is transferred to the cattle, and the stricken cattle are then sacrificed, that is, ascend to the sky. It is this journey to the sky, together with the spirits and the sacrificed animal, which the dance symbolizes. In the old days (according to the native accounts) there were, in fact, shamans who really did ascend into the sky while the spectators saw how ‘on the clouds there floated the sacrificed animal, after it sped the drum of the shaman, and this was followed by the shaman himself in his wizard’s coat’ (Czaplicka, 1917).
Shamans do not view themselves as a barrier to healing. On the contrary, they are healers within their communities. When they journey to heal, they do so in and from the perspective of their waking identity as healers. Here is one more impressive account of shamanic healing:
In an account of yet another séance in Selangor, where to cure an ailment, the magician became possessed by the tiger-spirit, it is said that the ceremony usually took place on three nights and that the same odd number of persons should be present each time. For the reception of the spirit an artificial bouquet of flowers, doves and centipedes, all made of palm-leaf, was prepared. After an invocation the magician bathed himself in incense, suffered spasmodic convulsions, spoke a spirit language, became possessed, sat with shrouded head, lit tapers on the edges of three jars of water, and rubbed the patient with a bezoar stone. Then donning a white coat and head-cloth, he fumigated a dagger, dropped silver coins into the three jars, and gazed to see their position under the three tapers, declaring that it indicated the gravity of the patient’s illness. Scattering handfuls of charmed rice round the jars, he put into them improvised bouquets of areca palm blossom, and plunged his dagger into each bouquet to dispel lurking spirits of evil. Another sheaf of palm-blossom he anointed with oil and used for stroking the patient from head to heel. Next he was possessed by the tiger-spirit, scratched, growled and licked the naked body of the patient. He drew blood from his own arm, with the point of his dagger and fenced with his invisible spirit foe. Once more he stroked the patient with the sheaf of blossom and with his hands. Again he stabbed the bouquets, stroked the patient, and after lying still for an interval recovered consciousness (Czaplicka, 1917).
What Is Shamanistic Spirit Communication?
Shamanic journeys involve communication with the spirits of animals, objects, the dead, and gods. Here are some ethnographic descriptions from the early 1900’s:
His familiar spirit or spirits, possessing him [as] their medium, descend at a séance to cure the sick, avert evil, foretell the future or answer enquiries. By auto suggestion the shaman falls or pretends to fall into a trance and is possessed by spirits who speak through his mouth. All these are features of the Malay séance, which resembles very closely that of the Mongol shaman even in details of ritual: the beating of a tambourine, wild singing, the rustle and voices of invisible spirits, the expulsion or sucking out of the spirit of disease, the medium on return to consciousness oblivious of what has passed, the offerings made to spirits (Czaplicka, 1917).
The reality of these communications is unquestioned because, to the hunter-gatherer consciousness, there are no other explanations for what they experience. It is not as if they had alternative possibilities, such as self-creation, drug-induced psychosis, telepathy, or the implanting of hallucinations in their minds by a spirit, and chose the explanation, “communicating with spirits” because it most accurately described what they did. “Communicating with spirits” is the explanation because it concretely matches actual experience, rather like a belief in geocentrism concretely matches the actual experience of the sun rising and setting.
At a humbler séance held in Perak there was only one musician, the shaman’s wife, a “wild-looking Moenad.” Her husband held a bunch of leaves in either hand. The musician beat a one-sided drum and screamed out interminable chants. Her husband began to nod drowsily, sniffed at his leaves, waved them over his head, struck them together, and became possessed of the shaman’s usual familiar, a tiger-spirit, as shown by growls and sniffing and crawling under a mat. Between the incantations he accepted a cigarette and talked to the patient’s family, using, however, an aboriginal Sakai dialect. Possessed again of the tiger-spirit he executed weird dances and sprinkled the sufferer with rice-paste. Finally his tiger-spirit identified as the cause of the patient’s illness a dumb vampire (Langsuyar), to be expelled neither by invocations nor the sprinkling of rice paste.
Another magician accompanied by a male tambourine-player then took his place. He held convulsively a single sheaf of grass and became possessed by four spirits in succession but to no purpose. Finally both magicians waved all evil spirits away from the patient on to a miniature revolving model of a mosque, and set it, filled with the flesh of a fowl and other delicacies, adrift upon the river.”
‘Sometimes the spirits are very mischievous. In the movable tents of the Reindeer people an invisible hand will sometimes turn everything upside down, and throw different objects about, such as snow, pieces of ice… ‘I must mention’, says Bogoras, ‘that the audience is strictly forbidden to make any attempts whatever to touch the “spirits”. These latter highly resent any intrusion of this kind, and retaliate either on the shaman, whom they may kill on the spot, or on the trespassing listener, who runs the risk of having his head broken, or even a knife thrust through his ribs in the dark. I received warnings of this kind at almost every shamanistic performance.’
After the preliminary intercourse with the ‘spirits’, the shaman, still in the dark, gives advice and utters prophecies. For example, at one ceremony, where Bogoras was present, the shaman Galmuurgin prophesied to his host that many wild reindeer would be at his gate the following autumn. ‘One buck’, he said, ‘will stop on the right side of the entrance, and pluck at the grass, attracted by a certain doe of dark-grey hair. This attraction must be strengthened with a special incantation. The reindeer-buck, while standing there, must be killed with the bow, and the arrow to be used must have a flat rhomboid point. This will secure the successful killing of all the other wild reindeer (Czaplicka, 1917).
What Is Shamanic Reality?
Here is an another example of the sensory, non-deistic, animistic, and concrete quality of traditional shamanism. You will notice that the major motivation of the shaman, as presented here, is impressing his audience:
“On arriving at the yurta the shaman takes his seat on a bench, or on a chest which must contain no implement capable of inflicting a wound. Near him, but not in front, the occupants of the yurta group themselves. The shaman faces the door, and pretends to be unconscious of all sights and sounds. In his right band he holds a short staff which is inscribed on one side with mystic symbols; and in his left, two arrows with the points held upwards. To each point is affixed a small bell. His dress has nothing distinctive of a shaman; he usually wears the coat either of the inquirer or of the sick person. The performance begins with a song summoning the spirits. Then the shaman strikes the arrows with his staff, so that the bells chime in a regular rhythm, while all the spectators sit in awed silence. When the spirits appear, the shaman rises and commences to dance. The dance is followed by a series of complicated and difficult body-movements. While all this is going on the rhythmical chiming of the bells never ceases. His song consists of a sort of dialogue with the spirits, and is sung with changes of intonation denoting different degrees of excitement or enthusiasm. When his enthusiasm rises to a high pitch, those present join in the singing. After the shaman has learnt all he wishes from the spirits, the latter communicate the will of the god to the people. If he is to foretell the future, he employs his staff. He throws it on the ground, and if it falls with the side inscribed with mystical signs turned upward, this is a good omen; if the blank side shows, ill-fortune may be looked for.
To prove his trustworthiness to those present, the shaman uses the following means. He sits on a reindeer skin, and his hands and feet are bound, The room is completely darkened. Then, as if in answer to his call to the spirits, various noises are heard both within and without the yurta: the beating of a drum, the grunting of a bear, the hissing of a serpent, the squeak of a squirrel, and mysterious scratchings on the reindeer-skin where he sits. Then the shaman’s bonds are untied, he is set free, and every one is convinced that what they heard was the work of the spirits.”
There Exists A Three-Tiered Cosmology
The cosmologies of world religions are largely inherited from shamanism and have hardly changed. The good is above, the bad is below. Humans exist in a purgatory, torn between the two. In the following example, the shaman, called kam in Mongolia, departs to the underworld of Erlik, the god of darkness, with his accompanying spirits.
The kam directs his way towards the south. He has to cross the Altai Mountains and the red sands of the Chinese deserts. Then he crosses a yellow steppe, such as no magpie can traverse. ‘Singing, we shall cross it.’ says the kam in his song. After the yellow steppe there is a ‘pale’ one, such as no crow can pass over, and the kam in his imaginary passage once more sings a song full of hopeful courage. Then comes the iron mountain of Tamir Shayha, which ‘leans against the sky.’ Now the kam exhorts his train to be all of one mind, that they may pass this barrier by the united force of their will. He describes the difficulty of surmounting the passes and, in doing so, breathes heavily. On the top he finds the bones of many kams who have fallen here and died through failure of power. Again he sings songs of hope, declares he will leap over the mountain, and suits the action to the word. At last he comes towards the opening which leads to the underworld. Here he finds a sea, bridged only by a hair. To show the difficulty of crossing this bridge, the kam totters, almost falls, and with difficulty recovers himself. In the depths of the sea he beholds the bodies of many sinful kams who have perished there, for only those who are blameless can cross this bridge. On the other side he meets sinners who are receiving punishment suited to their faults; e.g. an eavesdropper is pinned by his ear to a stake. On reaching the dwelling-place of Erlik, he is confronted by dogs, who will not let him pass, but at last, being appeased by gifts, they grow milder. Before the beginning of the shamanistic ceremony gifts have been prepared for this emergency. Having successfully passed these warders, the kam, as if approaching the Yarta of Erlik and coming into his presence, bows, brings his drum up to his forehead, and says, ‘Mergu! mergu!‘ Then he declares whence and why he comes. Suddenly he shouts; this is meant to indicate that Erlik is angry that a mortal should dare to enter his yurta. The frightened kam leaps backward towards the door, but gathers fresh courage and again approaches Erlik’s throne. After this performance has been gone through three times, Erlik speaks: ‘Winged creatures cannot fly hither, beings with bones cannot come: how have you, ill-smelling blackbeetle, made your way to my abode?’
Then the kam stoops and with his drum makes certain movements as if dipping up wine. He presents the wine to Erlik; and makes a shuddering movement like that of one who drinks strong wine, to indicate, that Erlik has drunk. When he perceives that Erlik’s humour is somewhat milder tinder [due to] the influence of his draught, he makes him offerings of gifts. The great spirit (Erlik) is moved by the offerings of the kam, and promises increase of cattle, declares which mare will foal, and even specifies what marking the young one will have. The kam returns in high spirits, not on his horse as he went, but on a goose–a change of steeds which he indicates by moving about the yurta on tiptoe, to represent flying.
Notice that the function of this shamanic journey was to bring physical wealth to the people, that the shaman works at convincing others that his ordeal for them is arduous, and that he is more worthy than other kams, who have tried and failed. Notice also that this shaman does not go to the heavens to ask for help and knowledge, but down, to the realm of demons. The world is filled with dark forces which must be appeased and won if man is to prosper. We see this idea strongly embedded in Chinese folk traditions of veneration of ancestors and, for example, yangui, nightmare ghosts, who require appeasement with gifts, prayers, and rituals of supplication. It is the shaman’s job to accomplish this task for his community and he can only do so if he is smart, strong, and courageous.
This three-tiered cosmology still exists in many near death experience accounts, descriptions of mystical experiences, and in the assumptions of a good many contemporary approaches to transpersonal awakening. Why? One theory is that it exists because it is true; people tap into a fundamental reality in trance states, and because it is universal and timeless, you will come to the same conclusion whoever you are, in whatever time you access such states. We can call this the “naïve realism” theory of transpersonal reality. Another theory is that the three-tiered cosmology exists because in trance you normally and naturally regress to assumptions of naïve realism, just as most of us do most of the time when we dream. Coming to a different conclusion fights the overwhelming reality of the context of altered states. This theory implies that you are more awake when you are not asleep, because you are more objective, than when you are in trance states, even mystical ones that blow the limits off time and space and fill you with unconditional love and oneness. Could that be possible? Another possibility is that the three-tiered reality is real, but only conditionally so. As long as you accept the conditions, unspoken assumptions, and perceptual cognitive distortions that create it, this cosmological model is real. What this theory implies is that the unconditional reality of mystical oneness is not so unconditional after all, because it is seen in the context of the perceptual cognitive distortions that we project onto it. This would be a very difficult theory for a mystic or a near death experiencer to accept, but it is not so different from the functional, sensory reality of geocentrism coexisting with our knowledge of cosmic polycentrism.
Why look for alternatives to the classical three-tiered cosmology in the first place? The naïve realistic model defines reality as manicheistic, meaning reality is fundamentally dualistic, pitting the forces of light against those of darkness in a never-ending struggle. It implies the darkness and evilness of matter are real and we have good reason to be afraid, very afraid. This view is embedded in Indian philosophy and religion via samkya, which divides reality into the pure and clear, purusha, and the impure, material, and delusional, prakriti. We need to escape from evil through various forms of asceticism and by accessing divine intervention. It is quite sensible to presume that a heartfelt belief in this cosmology is at the root of the development of meditation practices within Hinduism, the rise of the various yogic traditions, and a motivator for the entire thrust of Buddhism, which shares this cosmology with Gnosticism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Chinese folk traditions, Judaism, and of course Hinduism.
The three-tiered cosmology defines life as an unavoidable struggle, both within ourselves and in our relationships with the external world, between good and evil, splitting reality into two unbridgeable halves and making integration, wholeness, and oneness impossible. Most people are not happy with this conclusion and therefore imagine a state in which transcends dualism and where integration and wholeness is possible, that shamans were unlikely to consider, because it contradicts their worldview, The fact that most religious traditions have some version of the “two truths” doctrine is a testament to the evolution of consciousness beyond shamanism and also to the unacceptability of the implications of the shamanic and trance-revealed three-tiered cosmology.
Dreams Are Real
The shamanistic perspective assumes waking, dream, and trance worlds are real. Just like waking life and while we are dreaming, journeying experience is reality. It is not until agrarian culture that humans begin considering that dreams are delusions and that waking life is dreamlike, in that it is also delusional. But not all cultures wake up to this reality. For example, while it became a common understanding in India, beginning with the Vedas and Upanishads, it never really took hold in the Chinese worldview. It is yet quite another matter to wake up and then conclude that the dream is either completely real or completely a subjective, self-created delusion. Either conclusion requires more objectivity than normally exists at early or mid-prepersonal levels of development. Yet neither of these conclusions is balanced. The first does not respect the significant contributions that the perceptual biases of the dreamer make to dream “reality;”the second does not sufficiently respect the interdependent nature of the self and the other.
Dream Beings Are Real
When you assume that your dream experiences are real, as the shamanic mentality does, you cannot escape from demonic, persecuting, irrationality. Every night you may be haunted by dream demons that may do anything to you. How can you protect yourself? Charms, prayers, and sacrifices are efforts to appease such forces of chaos. Within this worldview, such actions are not superstitious but practical necessities. To question their purpose or power is to threaten your community. Shamans intercede for you when they visit these realms, to protect you and bring you abundance.
Dreams And Dreaming Are To Be Venerated
Because dreams and dreaming are for shamans doorways to higher and lower spirit realms, they are to be venerated. The forces that give life and death and control the destiny of man are encountered there. You can see this veneration of dreams living on in some religious traditions, such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese popular religion and approaches to dream yoga. Dreams are full of signs that will tell you if someone is your soul mate or whether you will meet with good fortune or bad. These cultures look to dreams for knowledge about the future and for causes of life events. This is again associated with prepersonal stages of development because this respect and awe is not based on reason but on the power of uncontrollable, external forces. Dreams are sacred in the sense of kratophanies: something that has the power to kill you or protect you from disease or enemies, not in the sense of being loving or a manifestation of truth, goodness, or beauty.
Shamanism in the Broader Context of Trance States in General
Shamans believe that they contact and enter a hidden reality, that there exists a three-tiered cosmology, that dreams are not symbolic, but rather genuine experiences in another reality, and that dream beings are real. Consequently, shamanism venerates dreams and dreaming because it represents contact with powerful forces that affect humans in important ways. Traditional practitioners of dream yogas in India, shared many of these assumptions, as do many people in world religious traditions up to and including the present day. Modern practitioners may or may not take a literal stance toward dream experience. Some, mostly those influenced by psychological traditions following Freud and Jung, instead assume they are dealing with self-generated realities and with self-aspects.
Within the context of an understanding of the worldview of traditional shamanism we are in a position to consider its relationship to contemporary shamanistic activities, altered states, transpersonal psychotherapy, and dream yogas. The basic problem with altered states of consciousness is that they are by definition altered, that is different, from our waking identity. Consequently, they typically vanish, and another has to be induced, if we want to experience some similar ecstasy or altered state. Dreams, psychotropically-induced states, hypnosis, near death, mystical, and psychic experience are all temporary and difficult to replicate. When emphasis is placed on the intensity of feeling that is experienced in some state, it is wise to remember that intense feelings are themselves an altered state of consciousness, and they provide a common example of these limitations. For example, have you ever tried to talk to a very angry, sad, or scared person? What was the result? Unless you succeed in moving them out of that state, it serves as a powerful filter for whatever you say, with the result being that if you later ask them to repeat back to you what you have said, that either little is remembered, or what is recalled is often fundamentally different from what you in fact said. It is also important to remember that intense feeling states are most closely related to early and mid-prepersonal levels of development, in which feelings and preferences define identity and reality.
Integral Deep Listening as a phenomenologically-based experiential multi-perspectivalism
In order to understand the relationship of traditional hunter-gatherer shamanism to contemporary shamanism and exploration of trance states it is helpful to have some understanding of transpersonal models of trance states. This is because such worldviews include prepersonal and personal level approaches to understanding shamanism and trance. Integral AQAL, the cognitive multi-perspectivalism of Ken Wilber, includes but transcends the assumptions and experiences of traditional shamanism. Integralists may use any shamanic methods of trance induction, but do so in the context of a world view that relativizes what are absolute and objective truths for shamans. The one exception of this principle that I am aware of is the belief, shared by both AQAL and traditional shamanism, that the open “Eye of Spirit” reveals unconditioned, absolute truth. This is reflected by Wilber’s contention that the testimony of mystics regarding the teleological etiology of evolution is correct, regardless of science’s ability to explain evolution without resorting to teleological causation. As in hunter-gatherer shamanism, a realm of absolute truth continues to exist, and it is accessible in a sophisticated variety of journeying called meditation, involving an inward journey to a space that transcends time, space, and journeying itself. Integral recognizes that multiple experiences in addition to meditation can access this realm of absolute truth.
Integral Deep Listening (IDL) is another integral life practice and yoga, which combines Ken Wilber’s Integral AQAL with a phenomenologically-based experiential multi-perspectivalism (PEM). IDL is a yoga, transpersonal psychotherapy, worldview, and phenomenologically-based research methodology. While both Integral AQAL and IDL provide transpersonal perspectives, Integral AQAL is primarily a conceptual model on the cognitive developmental line. Integral Deep Listening is a Dream Yoga and integral life practice (ILP) that differs fundamentally from those advocated by Integral AQAL, in that AQAL integral life practices are chosen and managed by our waking sense of self and its priorities, while those of IDL are managed by triangulation.
Triangulation is a process by which 1) the priorities of waking identity, 2) the recommendations of exterior sources of objectivity, such as those found in Integral Life Practice, and 3) the recommendations of interviewed subjective sources of objectivity, called “emerging potentials,” are also taken into consideration. This third source of information regarding priorities is critical, because it often includes, yet transcends the recommendations provided by the first two. This is because interviewed emerging potentials know the priorities of oneself as well, if not better, than we ourselves do, and can provide tailor-made, unique, authentic priorities in a way that objective sources cannot, because objective others, such as professionals and and confidants lack that profound depth of knowledge of our individual needs and resistances. As such, PEMs are interior collective, intrasocial processes that rarely involve trance or altered states of consciousness, while emphasizing disidentification with normal waking identity and picking up, taking on, and embodying the personification of some life issue, like the fire of one’s anger, the hatchet personifying one’s “splitting” headache, or a dream character, like some monster that is chasing you. When access to such perspectives is combined with 1) awareness of life scripting, 2) the nature of our immersion in dysfunctional drama, 3) emotional cognitive distortions, cognitive biases and logical fallacies, and 4) the application of recommendations provided by interviewed perspectives, the results generally result in a reframing of life issues, anxiety, stress, depression, and our worldview in ways that heal, balance, and transform.
A central purpose of PEMs is to reframe the causes and cures of delusion, whether awake or dreaming, while amplifying the influence of alternative, relatively awake and non-deluded perspectives, or emerging potentials. It believes that reality expands as our self-definition expands; that dream, shamanic, and waking beings are best understood as holons, that dreaming is as subjective and delusional as waking, that waking is as objective and real as dreaming. Dream characters and shamanic totems, spirits, and demons are emerging potentials that may be productively treated as wake-up calls. The basic attitude to maintain toward night time and waking dreams is respectful questioning.
When waking is recognized to be a dreamlike state, learning to wake up within waking consciousness, that is to become aware that you are dreaming right now, is an important form of dream yoga. This is emphasized by PEMs because the fears, hopes, expectations, worldviews, and activities of our waking life not only find their way into our dreams but largely determine how we understand or interpret them. Activities central to PEMs as dream yogas include becoming dream characters and the personifications of life issues in non-trance states, subsequent to interviews, and applying their recommendations, including becoming them at various times, such as when stressed or meditating. This identification process has a great deal in common with Tibetan Deity Yoga, which itself has deep roots in the indigenous Bon shamanism of Tibet. IDL, one variety of PEM, also includes learning phenomenological suspension of belief and disbelief; non-reactivity, including staying out of drama, as well as interviewing and becoming dream characters while dreaming. While dream yogas and lucid dreamers may or may not share the worldview of shamanism, IDL does not, although it is impossible to deal with dreams, dreaming, or altered states of consciousness without addressing the fundamental assumptions of shamanism. If we do not do so consciously, then, because dreaming is intrinsic to human psychological heritage, they will impact our perception and development outside of our awareness.
While the cognitive line leads in Integral AQAL, meaning that adopting a worldview that includes yet transcends both prepersonal and personal levels of development, PEMs focus on the development of both societal and intrasocial, or subjective collectives, rather than self-development. This is reflected by an emphasis on the fundamental building blocks of moral/ethical relationships, respect, reciprocity, trustworthiness, and empathy, demonstrated toward both social and intrasocial others. The result is a fundamental shift in emphasis from that of the cognitive line leading in self development to the moral line leading in the collectives in which we evolve and which limit our level of self development by the overall level of development of our socio-cultural contexts.
While expansions of consciousness are often not only reported but observed during IDL interviews, these openings are not as intense as shamanic trance, nor are they intended to be. In fact, they are easily and quickly forgotten and even discounted, as waking identity fights cognitive dissonance to maintain control over the narrative and worldview. Because the defense mechanisms available to waking identity, society, and culture are so much more powerful than the temporary and ephemeral effect of the temporary inhabiting of a foreign perspective, the priorities of one’s life compass face challenges similar to those nature faces with DDT or Roundup. While life wins in the long term, because the demands of evolution are extraordinarily persistent, if only vaguely felt, in the short term – the span of one life – our waking sense of self can generally succeed in largely ignoring or tuning out the priorities of our life compass.
IDL interviewing of emerging potentials is designed to marry emotion and reason, body and mind, in a higher-order integration that Wilber refers to as “centaur,” in an allusion to the half-horse, half-man creature from Greek mythology. PEMs provide a practical, easy access to post-personal, multi-perspectival consciousness and world views not just as concepts, but as lived experiences. While PEMs encourage the exploration of alternate states to break out of and expand your sense of self, they do not encourage major ablations of your everyday waking awareness, as occurs with trance, with the one major exception of dreaming. If we live to be eighty we will spend approximately five years of our lives dreaming. While trance can easily generate addictive forms of self-rescuing escapism, it is difficult to do so with dreaming, because of its evolutionary status as an integrated and fundamental state of consciousness. Even when trance states are not addictive, radically different states of consciousness, such as shamanic ecstasy, are not easily integrated into waking consciousness. Trance realities have a way of remaining radically other.
When a student of IDL becomes a perspective that transcends and includes that of their waking identity they access an objectivity from which they are more likely to transcend the mental filters that keep them stuck in dysfunctional, outgrown worldviews, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that are no longer adaptive. Because they have disidentified with their waking perspective, they have gotten out of their own way, which allows them to respond more empathetically and effectively to the needs of others. This is because identification with perspectives that are less enmeshed in drama than we are is slowly incorporated or internalized; over time, we outgrow enmeshment with persecutorial, rescuing, and victim life scripts. IDL interviewing actively cultivates antidotes to drama by strengthening identification with six core qualities of life: awakening, aliveness, balance, detachment, freedom, and clarity. This, however, in no way implies a perspective of absolute or impartial Truth. There are no claims that any of these interviewed perspectives are “right,” “true,” or are to be taken at face value. Interviewed emerging potentials provide other relevant and highly creative perspectives to consider as you collect information about how to deal with issues that are important to you.
PEMs typically induces light trance states. This is intentional; it takes steps to reduce the depth of trance, by keeping eyes open during interviewing, recording self-interviews at a keyboard, staying in verbal contact with an interviewer or physical contact with a computer, pen, or voice recorder. This is because PEMs emphasize conscious access to alternate perspectives, which may or may not be experienced as altered states, and are rarely experienced as trance. They do so in order to integrate broader, more inclusive state experiences into waking awareness, preferring access to less dissociated and less intense perspectives that are more accessible and easier to replicate. This requires the maintenance of a continuity of waking awareness, with the result being that trance experiences are much, much more likely to become assimilated into an expanded definition of self.
IDL has found that more easily induced, less intense experiences will, over time, generate more reliable advances in developmental stage, because the experiences are much more likely to be assimilated. The IDL formulation, “embodying a perspective,” was not available to traditional shamans. The concept of “interviewing” did not exist, nor did the concept of perspectives. People, objects, animals, and spirits exist in the reality of shamans, not perspectives. You talk or communicate with spirits, you don’t “interview” them. These differences are not trivial. An interview is a highly structured type of communication. It implies a degree of clarity of intent and method not implied by “communication.” “Perspectives” are very different from spirits. Spirits are disembodied entities while perspectives are points of view that can be held by individuals, groups of individuals, entire cultures and even imaginary objects, like dream teacups. When you interview a perspective you are not implying that you are communicating with a real being that holds that perspective. All you require is a something that embodies that perspective, a place-holder form. It does not have to be given any ontological status of beingness or non-being. When compared with the shamanic perspective, this is a radically different way of looking at experience.
PEMs do not assume the truth or falsity of any of the interpretations shamanism makes about the causes of disease and healing, nor does it dismiss the effectiveness of its assumptions for those who adopt its worldview. For example, IDL does not assume that illnesses are not the punishment of possessing evil spirits for which propitiation is required. IDL suspends such assumptions in favor of interviewing one or more emerging potentials that have some degree of investment in the condition. For instance, in the above account the yurta, drum, spirit, suspicious cloud, cattle, or the mare’s skin could be interviewed. All such interviews would, with the exception of interviewing the spirit(s), likely be nonsensical to shamans. However, it is a way of both demonstrating and testing the legitimacy of assumptions about shamanism. Of course, what you get from such an interview will both reflect and confirm your own level of development. It won’t be authentic shamanism unless you are a hunter-gatherer sharing that worldview. If you are a hunter-gatherer shaman doing the interviewing you will get a reflection of your own level of development and a confirmation of your worldview. If you are an IDL practitioner, the same will hold true. However, in both cases, the interviewed perspective will transcend, as well as include, that of the interviewer, thereby opening a window onto a broader worldview. It is in this sense that IDL endorses the interviewing that shamans do, as basically the same therapeutic and transformational procedure that IDL uses. This is why almost anyone, including criminals and children, can benefit from IDL interviewing. With an overview of what a phenomenologically-based experiential multi-perspectival, transpersonal and integral dream yoga is like, we can now consider some of the various elements of shamanism in more detail.
Similarities and Differences Between Shamanism and Phenomenologically-Based Experiential Multi-Perspectivalisms (PEMs)
|Emphasizes trance dissociation
|Emphasizes waking observation of embodied alternative perspectives
|Accesses alternative Realities
|Accesses alternative perspectives
|Interviewing (you don’t go anywhere)
|Confronts demons; requests help from spirits
|Listens to whatever is interviewed
|Representative of Truth, Reality
|Contact with objective others on other planes of reality
|Contact with emerging potentials of indefinite ontology
|Shamanic trance reserved for shamans
|Access to emerging potentials available to anyone who is willing and able to become an alternative perspective
|An extraordinary collective experience.
|A lifetime practice best used with others to transform relationships, society, and culture.
Categories of trance
Trance is basically the entrainment of attention and awareness, which causes various executive functions, such as discrimination and identity, to turn off or shift into neutral. All four basic states of consciousness, waking, dreaming, deep sleep, and turiya, involve some degree of trance. There are many ways to access trance, which fall into auditory, visual, and kinesthetic categories, and all of these have been practiced by shaman and are still employed widely today by politicians, advertisers, governments, businesses, and of course religions. Trance involves various degrees of dissociation or disidentification. Correspondingly, trance manifests as various degrees of association with different abilities, such as extraordinary strength, protection from cold, suspension of bodily functions, or identities, such as spirits, deities, deceased relatives, the captivation of charisma and romance, and groupthink.
Trance is not only universal, present in all societies and cultures, but generally respected and sought after, for various reasons: curiosity, escapism, transcendence and liberation, psychism, dissociation in the service of some end, such as intense motivation or fearlessness. In addition to shamanic trance, there are many different types of trance experiences available to humans, including states of flow, sleep, prayer, devotional practices, falling in love, magic, hypnosis, mediumship, watching television, drugs, intense emotional states, near death experiences, spiritual ecstasy, meditation, and mysticism.
From this very partial list of altered states of consciousness, it becomes obvious that trance differs in depth, state, and function. Trance has many benefits, including pain control, spontaneous healing, avoidance of intolerable suffering, access to realms of higher truth, beauty, and wisdom, and the possibility of bringing help “back” to others in one’s community. Drugs, from alcohol to psilocybin, induce trance states. As such, trance states can function as potent rescuers in the Drama Triangle and can become highly addictive. It is therefore not difficult to see why trance states are powerfully attractive; they can not only disclose experiences that are convincingly more real than everyday life but block out suffering and realities that impinge upon our comfort and sense of self.
Advantages and disadvantages of trance
The induction of trance is a powerful and effective strategy in many therapies. For example, hypnotherapy has many proven uses, most prominently pain reduction. In addition, the production of validating insight and catharsis through trance induction in order to reduce mental and emotional resistances is a commonly used device for impressing clients with the power of the therapist and the validity of her methods. While this may be categorized as the power of placebo in healing, shamanism offers far more than placebo. Psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey has written extensively on this subject, for example, Witchdoctors and Psychiatrists: The Common Roots of Psychotherapy and Its Future (Torrey, 1972). (Little, Brown and Co.) However, it is wise to keep this comparison in mind as you consider the relevance of shamanistic experience for contemporary framings of awakening, enlightenment, and healing.
Perhaps the best reason to be interested in trance is because these experiences can be transformative. They can fill us with strong convictions about reality that cause us to recreate our lives, create religions, go to war, and manipulate/control people in various ways. Advantages of trance states may include an amplified sense of life purpose, expanded worldview, compassion for others, certainty, confidence, determination, resilience, expansiveness, grandiosity, conviction, enlightenment, clarity, goodness, harmony, access to healing knowledge and remedies, knowledge of the future, and various psychic abilities.
In addition to the many advantages of trance, the state also carries within it, as part of its intrinsic nature, some important limitations and disadvantages that can be very difficult to avoid. We are much more likely to read about impressive healings and transformations attributed to trance states than we are to learn about their problematic aspects. This is understandable, because those who have trance experiences are often inspired; they have seen and know Truth and Reality. To keep that experience alive in their lives they share it with others. Sadly, this sharing is often difficult to distinguish from marketing – the advertisement of one’s own product as superior. Such conclusions and actions make assumptions about the applicability of our own conclusions without first discovering what the needs are of others. The assumption is that I have found your answer in my trance. How do I know this? On what is my certainty based?
As we have seen, trance can convince experiencers that something is real and true that is a delusion. In addition to assuming that perception is real instead of delusional, trance can function as a powerful rescuer of individuals and communities. Rescuers are different from helpers, in that rescuing doesn’t wait for a request, check to see if it is actually helping, and does not stop, because of its certainty that it is helpful and effective. Therefore, unlike helpers, rescuers disempower those they seek to help. Professional rescuers, such as firemen, policemen, and medics do not have to wait for permission to intervene because they have been given permission by society to do so. Therefore, they are helpers instead of rescuers in the Drama Triangle. Shamans, hierophants, and priests are typically given such power by their societies, due to their healing, educational, and integrative competencies.
Because of its effectiveness as a vehicle for rescuing, in addition to its ecstatic characteristics, trance can easily become addictive. We all desire to be rescued, forgetting that rescuers, both animate and inanimate, inevitably become persecutors. Rescuers can not only surrender control to their addictions but can push other, non-rescuing, non-addictive behaviors and people out of their lives.
In addition to its addictive nature, trance can also generate a powerful longing to return to the state; this can so diminish everyday life by comparison that the subject no longer finds meaning in living. Common examples are the detachment from life commonly felt by some near death experiencers for years after their experience, as well as “dark night of the soul” experiences of spiritual abandonment. Return to a state of glorious oneness becomes one’s obsession, by which the routines of daily life pale in comparison. This is a recipe for detachment, disinvestment, which can be quite positive when “normalcy” is a corrupt, somnambulistic delusion, or a recipe for disaster when it produces either depression or a narcissistic focus on self-development, to the exclusion of concern for human rights and the well-being of others.
Trance is not easy to control and its benefits are not easily replicable, either over time or from one person to the next. Regarding induction, one might just go to sleep and remember nothing, or go into such a light trance that nothing of note occurs. At the other extreme, dissociation may be so complete that nothing is remembered from even the most vivid and active of experiences. People in rage or terror can “black out” and not remember anything they did or said. There is always a slight possibility that one will have a nightmarish experience from which they never recover, as in a very bad drug trip. Those who go into trance may draw conclusions from the experience that are not conducive either to enlightenment or to the evolution of society as a whole. A common example is a sectarian or ethnocentric interpretation that builds group unity at the expense of other groups, as in Moses’ revelation and dispensation which led to the slaughter of innocents in Canaan and chronic Judaic ethnocentrism.
Trance is not, in itself, integral. It does not integrate body, mind, and spirit; instead, it splits off part of the mind, often called the soul in classical Greek thought, so that it can journey, learn, help., or escape from physical harm, like childhood molestation. The challenge is to re-integrate that split off part of the mind and what it has experienced during the shamanic journey into daily social and cultural functioning. Many never do this, either living in a fantasy world, remaining numb to life, or experiencing an almost schizoid split between two planes of reality. Reintegrating trance awarenesses is as much a skill set as is trance induction itself, and is extraordinarily important. This is an important basic concept to keep in mind while considering all types of dream yogas. Ask not so much, “How deep or impressive was the trance, but how is the trance experience integrated in a practical, functional way into normal waking consciousness?”
Subjects are more likely to have a powerful, other worldly, transformative trance experience if they go deeply into trance and lay down major components of their sense of self, as occurs for example, with near death experiences. This is because consciousness dissociates from the normal physical and cognitive filters that exist to protect by keeping one oriented to name, time, and place. The price a subject is likely to pay for profound trance is difficulty remembering or integrating the experience into daily life. The gulf between deep trance states and everyday waking life may appear insurmountable. The alternative is to err toward the other extreme, by minimizing trance, and with it the intensity of transformative experience. The advantages of favoring light trance states include enhancing waking recall, integration, and ownership. This is the path that children normally use in their development.
To the extent that trance states awaken us to expanded possibilities for growth, they are wellsprings of healing, balance, and transformation. To the extent that trance states invite us to go back to sleep and to dream the ancient dream of concrete, naïve realism, in which perception is real, and therefore what is true is what we experience, trance states are regressive. The unavoidable conclusion then, is that shamanism, like electricity, is a powerful but mixed tool that is easily misunderstood and misused, particularly by the naive and ignorant. That is why those who admire and respect shamanism are wise to learn its uses and abuses.
Difficulties Accessing Trance States
Trance states are generally difficult to induce because of their thanatomimetic nature. Human biological and psychological systems are designed to maintain life and to adapt to conditions that promote staying alive. They normally fight death and those activities that disrupt physical, mental, and emotional processes that shut down adaptive safety mechanisms. This is why it is difficult to reliably enter trance states and why they are so unpredictable. The most reliable ones are unfortunately horribly addictive and have terrible physical, mental, emotional, and relational side effects: alcohol, cocaine, power, wealth and status accumulation, and groupthink. From this list we can see that trance is a continuum from spontaneous and temporary states to ongoing, habitual states that resemble sleepwalking. Captured by our habits and addictions, we are unaware that we are in a trance state.
You have probably experienced how extreme waking events, such as viewing horror movies or accidents, are more likely to induce not only intense dreams but increase the likelihood that you will remember them. The challenge for lucid dream induction is to bring stimuli into the dream state that are strong enough to jar you awake out of dream trance without jarring you completely awake.
The “induction” IDL uses, if one can call it that, is the same that all children normally experience with games of “pretend.” This is such a normal and mild phenomena that most people do not think of it as induction, or even realize it is happening, and IDL does not typically view its procedure as involving an induction into an altered state of consciousness. Nevertheless, the taking on of alternative perspectives involves degrees of trance. Acting of any sort requires a considerable amount of laying aside waking identity and inhabiting an alternative identity. When taken to an extreme, role playing can involve temporary or permanent dissociation, in which waking identity checks out entirely. There can be selective possession in trance states, as in mediumship. Uncontrolled, ongoing possession is a very rare occurrence; however, the natural development of a sense of self might be considered a relatively permanent case of arbitrary, culturally-induced possession.
IDL has never seen either dissociation or possession induced by its interviewing protocols; the nature of the interviewing process itself makes those possibilities highly unlikely. One simply stops talking to the subject and instead asks the named perspective questions. It becomes readily apparent whether or not the subject is replying from its perspective. Trance is purposefully not induced so as to maximize the participation of the subject, but encourage his or her participation in the status of observer. The taking of alternate perspectives in IDL is designed to evoke emerging potentials that are accompanied by alternate thoughts, feelings, and intentions, which can be integrated into waking life in various ways, such as during questioning, when the subject identifies with its worldview, afterwards, when the subject can become the perspective at times and in circumstances it recommends, and by following through with one or more of its recommendations. With a genuine identification with an alternative perspective, interviewers and other observers can often observe a noticeable shift in mood and consciousness that is palpable. IDL very intentionally sets out to alter perspectives, and therefore consciousness, by reframing both life issues and our assumptions regarding our life experiences, including dreams, trance and mystical experiences, synchronicities, historical events, and the future. To the extent that it succeeds in doing so, one could make a case that an effective induction has been used. However, due to the purposefully light and subtle nature of the trance, multiple interviews, and/or multiple immersions in one character’s perspective, are generally required for its perspective to become integrated and incorporated into an expanded and thinned polycentric identity.
Hunter-gatherer Shamanism is not contemporary shamanism
Harner implies that in his experience, only some people are able to undertake shamanic journeys (Harner, 1980). With the proper methods of induction, these people will go into trance and report journeys or meetings with spirit guides. It is normal to assume that replicating shamanic forms, such as drumming, chanting, or even going into trance, replicates shamanic consciousness. While elements of shamanism can be replicated by almost anyone using a variety of means, imitating the consciousness or worldview of a hunter-gatherer or traditional shaman in journeying is much less likely. If shamanism is defined as duplicating shamanic forms, almost anyone can do it; if you define shamanism as a manifestation of a level of consciousness associated with nomad/hunter-gatherer societies, it is very unlikely that anyone, including contemporary native American practitioners of shamanism, successfully replicate traditional shamanism.
Shamans often travel to gain power, and that is sometimes demonstrated by psychic abilities. Are such powers an indicator of a prepersonal or transpersonal level of development? How can we tell? As individuals and societies manage to outgrow the insecurity, egocentrism, and ethnocentrism that are at the root of the quest for power, humanity finds itself increasingly disinterested in acquiring power and increasingly interested in achieving collective balance. Doing so is essentially about recognizing and supporting interdependence, or outgrowing egocentric and ethnocentric identities. Whoever we think we are, we still think we are someone. As our consciousness expands there is a tendency to increasingly find that our sense of self is a delusion that filters out perspectives and information that we need to achieve balance and maintain equilibrium. Rather than becoming nobody, we outgrow our attachment to, or identification with, the belief and idea that we are somebody. The more that we become various emerging potentials the more we grow into the realization that identities are merely place holders for the perspectives that they embody. Personality, individuality, and identity remain important for their concrete functionality rather than for their truth or reality.
The simplicity and cognitive concreteness of classical shamanism is a very difficult concept for contemporary humans to grasp, because we tend to read into past cultures assumptions that we take for granted. A similar phenomena normally occurs in human development. We project onto our younger selves a sophistication of perception and understanding that we simply did not yet possess. The shamanic worldview has been included and then transcended as human societies and cultures have evolved, while remaining as an essential building block for our thought, action, and worldviews that operates largely in the background of our awareness. It is normal to romanticize shamanism by assuming that its worldview is similar to our own, when in fact there is every reason to believe it is radically different. Therefore, we have to beware of this understandable tendency to make shamanism into our own image rather than seeing it in ways that more closely approximate what it was actually like. The shamanic world view contains much less of almost everything that we take for granted. It would be as if you could live your life in an adult body but in the mental simplicity of a four year old. There is nothing “primitive” about such a lifestyle or worldview; it was an appropriate adaptation for both the physical relationships with the world at the time as well as adaptive for interpersonal relationships. It was not until the advent of agriculture around 10,000 BCE that shamanism was replaced by a number of social roles that subdivided its various functions. These included priests, sorcerers/witches, healers, and mediums. It therefore is highly unlikely that contemporary attempts to mimic shamanism do much more than imitate the methods of induction as well as the healing and trance-channeling aspects of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. These are important and valuable aspects of shamanism to celebrate and incorporate, yet they do not include the consciousness or worldview of traditional shamanism.
There is a normal psychological rebellion against this reality among contemporary shamans. One reason why we equate the shamanic worldview with our own is because we live in societies that insist on “political correctness,” “diversity,” and egalitarianism. Therefore, discriminations in consciousness and worldview are easily assumed to be discriminatory. This is disingenuous, because to deny such discriminations is to deny the evolution of consciousness.
Contemporary shamans and students of shamanism want to believe that they are following in the tradition of archaic shamans. I think that they are, in terms of taking up many of its external forms. Where they get lost in the swamp is in the hope that by doing so they will assimilate a similar mind-set and worldview. For the most part, well-meaning and sincere seekers after shamanic reality are not accessing the mind-set of traditional shamanism, because both they and the culture that they inhabit have evolved far beyond the mind set of hunter gatherers. Shamans think that knowledge and awareness lies in the soul, which knows what to do, independent of culture, time, space, and identity. These differences are amply illustrated in the typical accounts of genuine tribal shamanism recounted here, with many more available in the literature.
For similar reasons, PEMs in general and IDL in particular cannot claim to be representative of the worldviews of either shamanism or any of the classical religious traditions. While we can point to elements within PEMs which are found in shamanism, and then make the case that there is really nothing new under the sun, the integration of shamanic concepts into current contexts is a late 20th century and early 21st century phenomenon. On the one hand, PEMs can neither claim novelty, nor can they claim direct transmission from some venerable source of spiritual truth. However, PEMs do contain elements similar to some elements in shamanism, as the accompanying comparison/contrast chart shows, while its many differences from shamanism serve to clarify both shamanism and PEMs such as IDL.
Like shamanism, PEMs are effective because they resonate with innate characteristics of humans. These include the ability of both hunter-gatherers and contemporary humans to pretend as children and inhabit the perspectives of others as adults. Within that skill set is the implied ability to set aside habitual waking identity in favor of that of the perspective or role which the child or adult wants to inhabit. Humans can disidentify with their normal, every day waking identity and identify with, or become, alternative perspectives to a lesser or greater degree. When this is done, the effects can be powerful and profound, as a felt experience of heirophany or kratophany. In addition, as a dream yoga, IDL shares with shamanism an interest in “bringing back” practical information that can benefit oneself and others. Two other shared competencies are important to emphasize, ones that a shaman would recognize: the ability to ask questions and to listen. However, identifying such shared elements is very different from concluding that PEMs are forms of shamanism, as we shall see.
The emphasis of traditional shamanic journeying is not on mystical mergence, oneness, or knowing God. Such interests evolved within the context of later agrarian societies. When modern shamans seek such aims from shamanic journeying they are overlaying primal shamanism with classical ideas of mysticism and contemporary conceptions of trance and its spiritual functions. This is another question to ask of your dream and lucid dream experiences. “What am I seeking?” If it is oneness or mystical mergence, you are not following the shamanistic tradition.
Shamanism and dreaming
Dreaming is a normal trance state, in that waking consciousness is partially set aside and we normally and naturally enter a different perceptual context, one that is defined by the self-delusion that we are awake when we are asleep and unaware of that fact. It mimics waking in that we usually believe we are awake while brain and eye activity is similar to waking, while in other ways dreaming parallels shamanic journeying in that it can be a completely dissociated experience of alternative realities. We can become animals, spirits, and deities in our dreams. Although we may be sure we will remember our dreams, the physiology of integrating short-term memory changes between sleep and waking, and that biochemistry tends to erase our recall of dreams. Something similar occurs in other trance states.
Aside from our normal delusional waking state, dreaming is both the most natural and powerful of all trance states when its consistency and persistence are taken into account. Over the course of a normal life span we spend around five years in this state of simulated reality. Consequently, dreaming can be thought of as the human experience most likely to provide templates or models for shamanism, in that the objective experience is one of traveling in other planes and other states of reality. The evidence for this is wide-spread and fundamental. For example, belief in spirits, life after death, and demons make sense to any child who has had dreams of the deceased or of visiting non-physical realms, or has had nightmares with frightening monsters. You do not have to be rational to reach these conclusions; you only have to be alive, be human, and remember dreams.
Because dreams and dreaming provide reliable, natural access to healing, balancing, and transformative perspectives, PEMs view them as an unparalleled source of objectivity for waking identity and the human condition. They provide a natural bridge between concretized waking identity and the pure creativity of the completely undifferentiated. While other states, such as shamanistic trance, add important perspectives to support human development, it is doubtful that any have ever or ever will play as important a role as dreaming. This is because of the consistency of the presence of dreaming, of its ongoing relevance to here and now human conditions, and the ongoing interactional dialogue through automatic incubation that occurs between waking and dreaming.
Differences between shamanism and lucid dreaming
Lucid dreaming is waking up within a trance state called dreaming. You then either choose to stay in a delusional world, in that you know that your lucid dream will largely change according to your preferences, or you can choose to stop being lucid or stop dreaming entirely. While there is the option of moving from there into dreamless clarity, most do not, because to do so implies sophisticated skill sets of silencing the automatic, ongoing emotional, image, and cognitive filters that generate identity. The sense of control over the dream world during lucid dreaming is as good a definition of real magic as any, in that you can manipulate your reality, as long as you maintain your presence in that trance state. Notice that the key element is not lucidity but remaining in the dream state, because you can manipulate your reality in normal dreams as well; you do not have to be lucid to do so. Clearly, there are important advantages to knowing you are dreaming, but the fact remains that non-lucid dreamers can also do “magic,” such as making threats magically disappear, shift from one place to another on command, and experience impossibilities, such as death and rebirth or transforming into an animal.
Lucid dreaming can emphasize learning and practicing skills and attitudes within the dream state to be carried back into waking awareness. For example, if one has stage fright, lucid dreaming provides a non-threatening venue for performing in front of large imaginary audiences in order to reduce or eliminate anxiety. Similarities to shamanism include some methods of induction of lucidity and some common purposes for waking up in the dream state. These factors include awareness of the environment, concentration, control, sense of identity, arousal, affect, and imagery.
Lucid dreamers who wonder if they are working in the shamanic tradition need to ask themselves,
“When I dream and when I lucid dream, am I visiting objectively real places? If so, how do I know?”
“What are the criteria that I use to determine whether something or someone in a dream or another state is objectively real or not?”
“How can I know, beyond any doubt, that they are not self-creations, either partially, or completely?” “If I get validation that something is indeed real, like knowledge about someone unknown to others, how do I know that this is not part of a collective perceptual cognitive distortion, that is, a dream that is so vast that I experience it as reality?”
These questions represent parsimonious explanations to first rule out before jumping to the conclusion that what looks objectively real IS objectively real. If you cannot answer these questions with certainty, then you are not in the shamanic tradition, because shamans have their answer and they are comfortable with it. They are visiting objectively real places and contacting objectively real entities. Based on these criteria, contemporary spiritualism, with its emphasis on contacting the spirits of the dead while in trance, may be the closest modern equivalent to traditional shamanism.
While shamanism may involve the veneration of natural forces such as fire, wind, thunder, the sun, wild animals, and the mystery of death, these are all experienced animistically by traditional shamanism, as forces of nature which are alive and have spirits. Most people today do not share that assumption. For traditional shamans, these natural forces are kratophanies, or manifestations of the power of the supernatural dimension. This would be the second variety of question for dreamers and lucid dreamers to ask themselves: “Do I experience the objects and natural settings in my dreams as alive and possessing spirits?” If you don’t, then you do not share the world view of shamanism. Another question to ask is, “How important is winning to me in my lucid dreams? How important is it to be powerful?” “How important is status?” The answer for the shamanistic perspective is clear and obvious: winning, power, and status are central to shamanic journeying, as the above accounts demonstrate, and only the strongest shaman can accomplish the hero’s journey.
Shamanism and lucid dreaming both usually assume control by the self in an altered state of consciousness. With the possible exception of identification with a spirit, animal, or entity, most actions in shamanic journeying and lucid dreaming are not so much respectful enquiry as the prosecution of some waking agenda. This may have been taken on, on behalf of some supplicant or the community as a whole, but in any case, the action becomes a priority for the shaman or lucid dreamer. The result is perception of the dream or shamanic state from the perspective of an identity that is still psychologically geocentric, that is, the typical perspective we take in waking life and while dreaming. It should not come as a surprise that it would continue into lucid dreaming and shamanic journeying. Indeed, what would be unusual would be if our normal, waking perspective were suspended in order to get out of the way and experience the dream or shamanic journey from some other, polycentric perspective.
Lucid dreaming may or may not involve the pursuit of ecstatic experiences, whether mystical, sexual, or death-defying. It may also be undertaken in order to confront fears and experience freedom, which can itself be a form of ecstatic experience, and can also be done with the intent of helping others. IDL, as a variety of PEM and form of lucid living, pursues both the integration of emerging potentials, some of which may manifest mystical states, into ongoing, stable stage development, and the minimization of delusions that block clarity by filtering experience. In addition, it teaches a skill set intended to increase our ability to help others wake up.
Implications of assuming dreams are real
For PEMs, reality is not a “given.” It is instead dependent on interactions between experience and the perspective of the experiencer. If you are a bee, with multi-faceted eyes, “given” reality is unimaginably, extraordinarily different from that of humans. If you are a dog, you are quite happy without hands and fingers. If you had them, you wouldn’t know what to do with them. You wouldn’t even take a moment to paws and reflect. Humans, on the other hand, would be greatly limited if they had dog feet instead of hands and fingers.
Realities are hidden when we do not become them. We typically assume our interpretations and understanding adequately represent knowledge about the other. In part, this is the Kruger-Dunning Effect, in which we assume we know what we don’t know due to our ignorance regarding what must be learned. In part, this cognitive bias continues on, even in the enlightened, who know a great deal and are certain that they Know. However, our psychologically geocentric perspective, even when it expands to be psychologically heliocentric, or convinced of its oneness with everyone and everything, remains inadequate, simply because oneness does not reveal specific, individualized, contextualized knowledge of anything or anyone. The belief that psychological heliocentric knowingness is adequate is so pervasive as to exist as a cognitive bias that is hard-wired in to human adaptive mechanisms. That conclusion is based on cross-cultural testimony of mystics who believe they have transcended partial knowledge, called in Mahayana Buddhism, samvirti satya, and attained paramartha satya, or absolute knowledge. Consequently, while shamans visit alternative realities, the nature of those realities remain hidden because they are perceived though psychological geocentrism. That is, within the context of a concrete, prepersonal level of development that does not question the assumptions on which such a world view is based. This level of consciousness naively assumes all perceptions are real. When shamans become a totem bear or wolf, the same is true; the meaning of that experience is interpreted in the context of the shaman’s level of development, just as is true for the subject of an IDL interview.
The assumption that some dream and trance state experiences are real continues to exist in the accounts of many near death experiencers, mediums, spiritualists, channelers, and modern day shamans. Many who lucid dream or have out of the body experiences arrive at the same conclusion. This is most likely an extension of naive realism into trance states, and a testimony to how hard-wired into our inherited cognitive processes the perspective of archaic shamanism actually is. To outgrow naive realism is not to deny the reality of other dimensions, but it is to place them in contexts that consider that they may be objectively real, subjectively created, or both. This is why IDL suspends assumptions about the ontological status of dreams and dreamers and defers to multi-perspectivalism. It is why it questions the overpowering certainty provided by transcendent mystical experiences or any truths revealed by trance states. Relationships between subject and object, interiors and exteriors, individuals and collectives create perspectives that are then called “reality.”
In contrast to shamanism, PEMs suspend assumptions about the reality or subjectivity of interviewed perspectives during interviewing. We do not know if the places that are visited in dreams are real, fantasy, or both, nor do we know the ontological status of entities that we encounter. The difference from the shaman is that we consider all three possibilities. It is highly unlikely that it ever crosses the mind of a hunter-gatherer shaman that their experiences could be self-creations. They are so real, objective, and beyond normal experience that there is no imaged alternative other than objective realities. Making such claims also have important social, cultural, and personal benefits. Group cohesion around a belief, motivation for collective action, and respect for the shaman are all increased. These important and powerful reinforcers are still in play in religions, belief systems, and politically-motivated groupthink today.
IDL defers to interviewed dream characters and personifications of life issues regarding their ontological status. Interviewed characters may state, when asked, that they are partially self-creations and partially objective, or inversely, neither completely subjective nor completely objective and “other.” No one is under any obligation to believe those answers; in fact, it is wise to approach them with skepticism. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to either not consult such primary sources regarding their opinion regarding their reality, or to seriously consider their response and reasons for it. While shamanism wants to reduce dream and trance experience to objective reality and psychology tends to reduce such experiences to subjective etiologies, PEMs accept an interdependent co-origination, a concept foundational to Buddhism and shared by non-related contemporary worldviews such as chaos and systems theory.
For PEMs, both dreams and waking beings are neither real nor unreal; instead, they embody perspectives representing all four quadrants of the human holon. Their thoughts and feelings create their internal individual reality; their values and interpretations generate their internal collective reality; their behaviors create their external individual reality, and their interactions with others and their environment generate their external collective reality. It is reductionistic to assume that these perspectives are either entirely objective, on the one hand, or self-created and subjective, on the other. Consequently, IDL refers to these perspectives and the “individuals” that personify them not as realities but as potentials. Such potentials manifesting in dreams as dream characters are not as stable and solid as waking identity, but they are real enough at the time they are dreamt. They can be more real in some dreams, shamanic states, mystical and near death experiences than they are in waking life. Because these images embody perspectives that both include, yet transcend waking identity, they are emerging potentials. How real is an emerging potential? It is real as it is allowed to be. Our allowance is largely determined by our willingness to surrender our perspective and embody the perspective of the other. On the other hand, how subjective is an emerging potential? That is largely determined by how much responsibility we take for both what it does and what it is.
Waking as an adaptive trance state
We have seen that if a shaman assumes that he or she experiences objective reality and truth while in trance, then that is the assumptive framing out of which they will speak and convey their trance experiences. Saul’s revelation on the road to Damascus is a classical example, in that his certainty led to the formulation of an entirely new religion, Christianity. To a much less extreme degree, we see the same trend in ourselves in our waking lives when our confidence is based on ignorance or delusion. While trance is induced by the disruption or the termination of some cognitive ability, like volition in hypnosis, or sensory awareness, as in sleep, or cognition, as in drunkenness, by the insertion of some overwhelming emotional state, such as anger or catharsis, or by the simple suspension of disbelief, our current waking trance state is induced by the parsing of life by the physical and cognitive filters that keep us grounded in sensory reality. These gatekeeping, adaptive screens have been recognized at least since the 1700’s, with John Locke and his distinction between secondary and primary qualities, as well as Immanuel Kant and his categories of understanding. The more we learn about these built in default cognitive biases and mechanisms that switch trance on and off, the clearer it becomes that thoughts and emotions we assume are our own and that we use to create our sense of self are physiologically, psychologically, and culturally predetermined. Cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s sensory-rooted metaphorically-based cognition is an example of physiological predetermination; cognitive biases, of which over one hundred have been identified to date, are examples of psychological predetermination, while Eric Berne’s identity scripting is an example of cultural predetermination.
Psychology tends to be quite wary of trance states due to its focuse on increasing adaptability and “normalcy” while associating dissociation with decompensation, hallucinations, and schizophrenia, all of which could be defined as negative trance states. Dissociative states are generally viewed by psychology as threats to “normalcy.” However, when normalcy is itself understood to be a trance state dissociated from health, balance, or transformation, the approach of psychology to trance states is rendered at best peculiar and at worst preventing higher order individual and collective awakening.
While such a broad understanding of trance states is atypical, it is both appropriate and necessary. It is atypical because trance is normally defined as an entrained and dissociated deviation from our normal waking state. It is another matter entirely to consider how our normal waking state is itself entrained and a dissociated deviation from a balanced and polycentric state that IDL associates with alignment of our priorities with those of our unique, individual life compass. When we consider trance from such a perspective important questions are raised: “How is my current waking experience a trance state?” “How are my thoughts and feelings, which I experience as my own and unique, actually culturally programmed and scripted examples of trance-like groupthink?” “What are my costs for maintaining a life of waking sleepwalking?” “What does it mean to wake up out of my waking trance?” “How do I go about doing so?” “What forces, both interior and socio/cultural, sabotage my efforts to do so?”
Implications of the shamanic concept of a three-tiered cosmology
The consequences of the acceptance of a reality comprised of a heaven above, a hell below, and a human “purgatory” in between, are that we must appease the forces above us and both appease and fight those below us, which are continuously attempting to kill us. The upper world is in the role of rescuer, the lower world of persecutor, and humans are existentially predestined to be victims, torn between the two. Within such a cosmology there is no escape from the Drama Triangle, which is itself comprised of these three roles: persecutor, victim, and rescuer; within the Drama Triangle there is no inner peace. IDL recognizes that this cosmology is a manifestation of the Drama Triangle and, as such it offers no solution to the human predicament, because it is part of the problem. When one understands and begins to recognize the Drama Triangle in the three realms of relationships, thoughts, and dreams, the three-tiered cosmology becomes objectified (Dillard, 2017). Instead of remaining subjectively enmeshed in endless drama, the possibility opens of recognizing that this perspective is a delusion and a dream that generates perpetual suffering.
The question then becomes, “Is it possible to adopt the shamanic world view, go into trance, and go on shamanic vision quests without being in the Drama Triangle?” Viable alternatives to the three-tiered cosmology do not come into view until a considerable degree of objectivity has been cultivated, more than exists in hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and indeed, most industrial and post-industrial cultures. In one form or another, most people in the world today still believe in the shamanistic three-tiered cosmology. One such alternative, reflective of a post late-personal level of cognitive line development, is Wilber’s holonic integral AQAL model. It observes that no interiors exist without exteriors and no exteriors exist without interiors. Both are different sides of one experiential coin; each implies the other. Similarly, no individual thing exists that is not a part of something, just as there is no individual thing that is not made up of other things, and is therefore itself a collective. Together, these four distinctions create a conceptual construct of considerable usefulness. Interior individual perspectives create thoughts, feelings, percepts, levels of consciousness, and states of consciousness. Interior collective perspectives create values and interpretations, supplying meaning to the other three quadrants. Exterior individual perspectives are behaviors: what one does that is observable, whether one is a cell or a star system. Exterior collective perspectives are interactional, whether one is talking physiology, the interactions between the three tiers of the traditional cosmology, love, government, or astrology. Dreams are holons that contain all four of these perspectives, as are emerging potentials, dreamers, the three-tiered cosmology, NDE realities, shamans, shamanism, mystical experiences of oneness, and Integral Deep Listening.
The AQAL model describes core characteristics of experience in a way that shifts the focus away from their ontological status. It does not ask, “Are these spirits the shaman is communicating with real or not?” “Are these places the shaman is visiting really heaven or hell?” Instead, Integral models focus on the relationship among four basic perspectives on experience that arise out of the way that humans perceive life. For a perspective to change from a state opening, such as shamanic ecstasy, to a stable, lasting developmental stage, all four conditions need to come into balance.
Identity is made up of all four of these core perspectives; none of them are intrinsically in drama and none of them are devoid of drama; as conditions of perception, they can be colored by as little or as much drama as the perceiver brings to them. However, they do not make the perceiver the center of experience. Instead, four different perspectives together become the center of experience. The result is a movement of awareness and worldview from a psychological geocentrism to a conceptual polyperspectivalism and from an ontological focus to one that balances ontology and epistemology, just as IDL interviewing attempts to do. Together, a holonic world view and IDL interviewing reinforce each other while providing an objectivity necessary to disengage oneself from the suffering inherent in the three tiered cosmology of prepersonal and early personal development. The three tiered cosmology of typical prepersonal and personal levels of development is replaced by the multi-perspectivalism that the holonic model and PEMs provide.
There is, however, no correlation between the movement to a multi-perspectival or polycentric worldview and detachment from the Drama Triangle. I know numerous long-time meditators who embrace the AQAL worldview who take differences of opinion personally, evidence considerable groupthink, and are not worldcentric. Therefore, the common assumption that, “If I access a multi-perspectival world view and cultivate sufficient objectivity I will move out of waking trance and drama,” is not borne out in actual lived experience and interpersonal relationships. Culture is a vast noospheric sea in which we are subjectively immersed, regardless of our personal level of development. Gurus and the “enlightened” can easily remain not only mired in drama but tone deaf to human suffering and their part in its maintenance. We can see that in the doctrines of karma and reincarnation, which supported and validated massive socio-cultural discrimination in Southeast Asia for millennia, even after the Caste system was outlawed in India in 1949. This discrimination was enforced by the spiritual elite of Hinduism and Buddhism and still is, although that is neither the intention or the awareness at play. That is the nature of collective groupthink trance.
While waking life is dreamlike, its reality tends to repress dream and trance realizations
When we explore a different world, as we do when we take a vacation to another country, or go into shamanic trance, or learn a new skill, our sense of who we are expands due to our new experiences. Normally, such exposures are not radical; we retain a clear sense of waking continuity, so that any sense of going into a trance-like state is lost. However, the cultivation of habit and groupthink both have qualities of being asleep in a waking dream and of journeying into a new reality. Changes in who we think we are are slow and generally imperceptible. Cognitive capture occurs out of our awareness. However, if we enter into some trance state that is deep and involves dissociation, the alteration in identity can be so radical as to retain none of the characteristics of waking experience. Due to the gulf or chasm between waking and state-determined experiences like shamanism, none of that difference or expansion may be retained and carried back into waking life directly. The mundane realities of everyday life slowly but surely push the unusual and radical out. However, trance may still have indirect influence through chemical and emotional changes that occur out of awareness or due to the changes in others who experience the trance. For example, the medical clairvoyant Edgar Cayce did not recall any of his trance readings, but the record made by others caused him to expand his fundamentalist world view to include reincarnation.
One of the amazing awakenings for humanity arose in India when sages realized first, that dreaming was not a state of reality but a state of self-deception, and then generalized from that conclusion that waking life was also a state of self-deception. This turned the ontology of shamanism on its head and is the fundamental shift in awareness that will forever separate the consciousness of dreamers, lucid dreamers, contemporary shamans, and explorers of altered states from traditional shamanism. There is no doubt that this realization is normally forgotten while dreaming or in trance, just as post-Copernican reality normally gives way to the sensory reality of geocentrism in our everyday lives. We don’t need to remember that the Earth is revolving around the sun; it is sufficient to talk about the sun rising and setting. The dreamlike nature of perception is also conveniently forgotten or ignored for those who want to proclaim that their perceived reality, while in some altered state of consciousness, discloses and declares Reality and Truth, not only for them, but for humanity. However, that does not change the fact that human consciousness has outgrown two fundamental delusions, cognitive distortions, and self-deceptions: that dream reality is objectively real and that waking reality is not subjectively determined or multi-perspectival. However, while global culture has come a long way in recognizing the subjective nature of the dream state, it still largely insists on waking naive realism and dualism (a form of black and white thinking) rather than multi-perspectivalism: either something is or is not, good or bad, right or wrong.
The trance-like nature of waking awareness is normally not recognized because of its adaptive functionality and the depth of our identification with our waking experience. Indeed, our physiology, sensory systems, emotions, and cognition are all designed to keep us dreaming the dream of grounded physical, waking experience, because to do so keeps us alive and supports the evolution of life. In addition to multiple built-in mechanisms to keep us grounded, every society builds on these trance-inducing processes to generate conformity with the status quo. Groupthink is a common form of waking trance, motivated by a desire for group cohesiveness, conformity, the minimization of conflict, and consensus decision-making. It is consciously motivated collective delusion. Propaganda is the art of generating groupthink, or collective trance and suspension of both questioning and disbelief in order to further some agenda. It uses loaded language to produce an emotionally-based rather than a rational response to experience. It entrains individuals and collectives into specific forms of groupthink, generally to advance the agendas and power of this or that group at the expense of the freedom and welfare of a disenfranchised majority of societal sleepwalkers. When waking trance is disturbed, say by a conflicting world view, cognitive dissonance fights to return awareness to its normal waking somnambulance.
Trance experiences either confirm our present worldview or broaden our waking perspective in some way. The first consequence is increased confidence we are on the right track in our thinking, in our approach to relationships and life, even if we are seriously deluded. Historically, this appears to be the more likely outcome – the validation of personal interpretations and societal norms regardless of their factual grounding. However, every trance experience introduces the possibility of novelty, of creativity, of new possibilities in thinking, interpreting, in seeing oneself, others, and the world. As such, shamanism may have served as the initial socio-cultural engine of human development. Perhaps you decide there are things you can learn from this new country and its people, and so you broaden your perspective. Perhaps you decide there’s no place like home, that is, your new perspective confirms your previously held perspective. But notice that in either case, the intensity of the state-specific experience of being in a different country, far away from your routine reality, is typically quickly forgotten when you return home. In fact, the more unlike home your travels are, the less likely those experiences are to be integrated into your everyday reality once you return home. The gap between the two realities is just too broad. This is a reasonable theory of why there are so few accounts of near death experiences in the historical record. These experiences are so unlike normal reality that they are extraordinarily difficult to integrate, even if they are fundamentally life-changing regarding attitudes toward death and the purpose of life.
Trance state revelations are conditioned by our level of development
Magical, miraculous events, including healings, are indeed possible within the context of altered states. Whenever we move into states of relative discontrol and disidentification, we are moving into spaces of relative unstructured possibility and potential. In such states, even physiology has the potential of radically reorganizing itself. Life attempts to use whatever context is available to manifest itself more fully, to bring more balance and integration into expression. One doesn’t have to get metaphysical about this; both systems and evolutionary theory demonstrate that higher orders of complexity and balance serve the purpose of more effectively dissipating energy and moving both matter and living systems toward entropy. We know that healing and psychism are not in themselves signs of transpersonal stages of development, since children and criminals can and have manifested both, although extraordinary transformations are often assumed to be so.
For shamans, it is the trance and vision quest that makes diagnosis and treatment possible, because there is movement into an all seeing, all powerful, all healing state. The assumption is that the waking identity of the shaman is adequate to the task of appropriately perceiving and transmitting the needed information. Is it? Because journeying to diagnose and treat is done by the level of development of the self-sense of the shaman, what is learned is framed in the cultural assumptions of that waking sense of self. This is a very important point, because both shamans and gullible consumers of shamanism seem to assume that the perspective of a shaman in trance somehow automatically becomes that of infallible, all-seeing, all-knowing spirit. Reading over the above accounts rather conclusively demonstrates how the experience and transmission of a shamanic state is conditioned by both our individual level of development and the socio-cultural expectations and assumptions in which any shamanic experience manifests. More realistically, trance opens new possibilities, alternative ways of reframing reality and the self. Because that pursuit, through the temporary dissociation of identity from our waking trance, is in itself both beneficial and intrinsic to human nature, it isn’t going anywhere; we are not going to evolve beyond a need for trance states, nor are we going to evolve beyond a vulnerability to arriving at false conclusions due to the transformational nature of trance.
The understanding that waking identity is a culturally determined delusion and dream requires a degree of objectivity that is not normally present until the late personal stage of development or thereafter. Therefore, shamans within hunter-gatherer contexts typically lack the objectivity to see that their waking identity inevitably filters and distorts healing information. How much more helpful would that information be if that filtering and distortion could be reduced? Alas, this seems only to happen as a result of the hard work of evolution of the self sense through the various prepersonal, personal, and transpersonal levels. Just because we access, say in an NDE, a non-filtered reality, it does not follow that we do not filter that reality in terms of our level of development and our worldview. For example, Ken Wilber is a highly accomplished meditator who has a strong sense of the nature of evolution based on unitive meditation experiences and his integral worldview. These fundamentally reinforce each other and form a strong basis for identity, so much so that scientific data that contradicts both his experience and his worldview is dismissed. If Wilber does so, how much more likely are you and I? If we want a less filtered reality we have to thin our sense of self, meaning our identification both with our worldview and our assumptions that personal truths of mystical, trance, or altered states of any variety represent objective truth or what is true for others. Trance does not provide validation of consensus reality but only an interior certainty that it does.
While people who interview dream or waking imagery often have different and interesting experiences, this is not the purpose of PEMs the way it may be for shamanism or for some lucid dreamers. For PEMs, such experiences are a happy byproduct of a more fundamental purpose. Instead of focusing on having new experiences, such as exploring other worlds, PEMs focus on expanding one’s current perspective through the integration of multiple light trance experiences that are hopefully not too dissimilar from waking reality. We can spend our lives exploring other worlds of states, countries, languages, science, music, feelings, and relationships, and while growing enormously on this or that developmental line, not contact our life compass or move from an egocentric or ethnocentric to a worldcentric worldview. We may expand our perspective in the sense that we learn a lot about what we do not want to do and who we do not want to be. This can be very important, but growth by the process of elimination of wrong choices can result in an old age that still finds little meaning in life. Exploring perspectives that are directly related to how and where we are stuck, by interviewing the personifications of life issues, and perspectives that may reasonably be expected to relate to ongoing life concerns, as is assumed in the interviewing of dream characters, is designed not simply to collect experiences, but collect experiences that are calculated to do something very important: help us find and follow our life compass.
What is the impact of journeying on human evolution?
Light trance naturally plays a very important role in the lives of children for modeling and role assimilation, with some comparing childhood to a natural state of hypnosis that produces rapid enculturation and socialization. It has been noted by many that this is a normal and vital element in the development of a strong sense of self, one which naturally identifies with adaptive roles and avoids identifying with those that conflict with socio-cultural scripting. IDL interviewing induces light trance states that are not so different from those normally experienced during childhood through the process of role identification.
It may be that identification with alternative perspectives is the psychological function within normal human development which is the strongest gift of shamanism to the continuing evolution of man, and journeying, in the form of taking on this or that role, may be the strongest link of PEMs to shamanism. It is not difficult to find significant parallels between shamanic journeying and the innate psychological processes of disidentification and identification. Both are naturally in evidence at parallel levels of individual and social/cultural evolution, the childhood of humans and the childhood of humanity. Both are strongest when reality is assumed to be concrete and before strong distinctions between waking and dreaming, objective and subjective, have taken hold. Both involve a “journeying” into one or more different perspectives.
The closest equivalent of “traveling” or “journeying” for PEMs is interview-directed identification with dream, life issue-derived or other perspectives from history, mythology, fiction, or everyday life. This involves not only disidentification from our core sense of identity, and with it, control, but disidentification from our various social roles as well. These include child, parent, student, employee, employer, consumer, expert, victim, rescuer, or self-persecutor. While PEMs, like shamanism, are directed by an intention to access new knowledge and power that is important and relevant to supplicants/students/clients, PEMs are also directed by the priorities of emerging potentials, which collectively reveal priorities of our life compass in the form of repeating recommendations and worldviews among multiple characters over many interviews. Learning becomes increasingly directed by the intention of our life compass in interdependent decision making, rather than primarily enacted by our waking identity, The realization grows, with practice, that who we think we are is one limited perspective that lacks the width and breadth necessary to best answer questions or explain life. This awareness represents a profound shift in identity from psychological geocentrism to polycentrism.
Another fundamental difference between traditional shamanic journeying and PEMs is that the former takes these experiences very seriously. When we think about the attitude of the shaman in the previous narratives, we notice that they are all extraordinarily serious. Shamans deal with life or death matters and struggles that require courage, skill, and knowledge. The attitude of IDL interviewing is purposefully very different. The assumption repeated within a number of questions in the interview is that this is imaginary, unreal, and not serious business, even when dealing with life and death issues like cancer or the covid-19 epidemic. There is a light whimsical, playful, childlike irrationality about the process which, on closer examination, is not irrational at all, but carefully thought out and calculated. This is what IDL calls “cosmic humor,” and reflects an appreciation of knowing that we are entangled in webs of self-delusion but yet can access perspectives of relative, but never absolute, clarity.
How our culture conditions our interpretations of our experience
If the effects of trance were purely personal, trance would be curious and at best personally transformational, but leave no lasting influence on the socio-cultural contexts in which we are embedded. However, the effects of trance can affect masses of people and entire societies. For example, at present entire societies are “hypnotized” into accepting illegal wars, apartheid, child poverty, homelessness, incarceration for victimless crimes, and blaming other groups and nations for one’s own failings. Therefore, trance states cannot be ignored or written off as bizarre or rare, nor can they be limited to the province of shamanism. We have seen how groupthink is a form of collective trance in which a prevailing perceptual cognitive distortion, such as “Russia/China/communism/socialism BAD” entrains entire national cultures into self-destructive delusions. Like addictions, these belief systems have short-term benefits; it is only when we have the wisdom to consider a longer time line that nationalism, war, and economic and societal exploitation are seen to hasten the collapse of society. Those who attempt to take a long view, or who question trance-like groupthink, risk scapegoating, exclusion, imprisonment, or death. They certainly will not rise in status, power, or wealth within the value system of the collective delusion.
A profound current example of this reality is the capture of journalism by collective groupthink. Those journalists who act as faithful stenographers of the current oligarchic narrative are rewarded; those who see their role as journalists as one of questioning and confronting power are ostracized and deprived of wealth, status, and power. Journalism exists to provide objective information to help us discriminate between truth and falsehood as well as to provide multiple perspectives to help us attain a less trance-based understanding of our world. When journalists do not serve these functions they have capitulated into a role that provides only authorized perspectives and which have predetermined what is true and what is false, a prepersonal, pre-rational agenda disguised as a personal, rational profession. The journalists who have been so captured are generally oblivious to the depth of their sleepwalking, somnambulistic capture by trance-like groupthink.
If we do not question the reality of our everyday experience it is likely that variety of naive realism will carry over into our dream perception: we will be unlikely to question the reality of our dream experience, recognize those elements that generate needless anxiety, fear, anger, guilt, shame, or sadness, and generate the objectivity necessary to stop it. Even if we have lucid dream experiences which objectify dreams and condition their reality, this objectivity, or relative enlightenment, is interpreted within the assumptive framework of our socio-cultural context. For example, Indian and Tibetan lucid dream experience was interpreted within the context of belief systems about the nature of atman, karma, maya, and dharma. If we have a near death experience we know, based on the cultural differences of these reports, that we are likely to interpret it in the framing of our waking assumptions regarding death, soul, time, and the meaning of life. If an objective reality were being perceived there would be consistency among reports that transcends intra-cultural consistency. What trans-cultural agreement that does exist is associated with non-sectarian awarenesses that emphasize the absence of stimuli: timelessness, spacelessness, color extremes of black and white, and emotional extremes of compassion and fear. The vividness and profundity of these experiences makes them more real than anything we have experienced in waking or dream life, making it highly unlikely we will question the reality of the experience. In fact, we can conclude that such experiences are definitely real – for us. Problems only arise when extrapolations are thereby made regarding the nature of objective reality and what is real and true for others. But, because we become one with all in such experiences, the assumption that our experience and conclusions about it apply to everyone is almost unavoidable.
Shamanic spirit communication contrasted with IDL identification
As noted above, human access to trance is not going away. While it will be reinterpreted with each passing age, trance states are hard-wired into human physiology and cognitive processing. Trance is a fundamentally adaptive process, as demonstrated by our descent into the trance-like state of dreaming for over two hours every night. Shamanism, in both its traditional forms and in its reinterpreted, re-embodied manifestations in our world today, reflect a fundamental human need to dissociate from the confines of our current identity, worldview, and sense of self, regardless of what it is, and to identify with multiple other perspectives. This is a movement beyond cognitive multi-perspectialism into experiential multi-perspectivalism, with our interpretation of our disidentification/identification experience based on our worldview, that is, the level of development of our cognitive line. When trance experiences are phenomomenologically mediated by the conscious identification and laying aside of arbitrary assumptions that do not support objectivity within the trance state, trance is approached or mediated by PEMs: phenomenologically-based experiential multiperspectivalism. The advantage is that trance experiences are more likely to be radically creative and less confined or conflated by groupthink or childhood scripting, socialization, or the demands of our waking life roles. A further advantage is that we are more likely to access emerging potentials that point us toward and align our priorities with those of our life compass. An obsession with excellence is then compensated for with a strong, ongoing cybernetic system of balancing and rebalancing.
Based on a review of anthropological accounts from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when traditional shamanism still existed indigenously in a number of regions of the world, it is imperative that investigators make a sharp distinction between shamanism as it was traditionally practiced by hunter-gatherer tribes and as it is practiced today by either indigenous peoples or by Westerners who learn and teach shamanism. The first is heavily magical and reflects values, such as sustenance and vulnerability to natural forces, that are reflective of pre-rational, early to mid-prepersonal levels of cognitive and self-system development. Contemporary adaptations are heavily mystical, with the literature debating whether shamans reached subtle or causal levels, having concluded that they certainly practiced on the gross level of nature mysticism. An objective reading of original source material cited in this essay presents very little evidence of nature mysticism as a state and none as an attained developmental level. As nature mysticism is a prior developmental stage to higher levels of mystical development, it becomes much more unlikely that any successive stage of mystical development is evident in traditional shamanism. This does not mean that gross, subtle, causal, or non-dual states could not or were not accessed by traditional shamans, but it does strongly imply that if they were, they were interpreted in terms of early to mid-prepersonal developmental consciousness.
We have seen that PEMs share with shamanism a grounding in the pretend-play that is natural and authentic in childhood between the ages of two and a half to seven, a respect for dreams and dreaming, an appreciation of trance induction, and of accessing alternative points of view. However, traditional shamanism approaches these different elements from a subjective, unconscious, naïve, and concrete grounding. It does not provide an objective perspective on the world or on life because shamanic experiences are objective reality. In contrast, PEMs approach each of these elements from perspectives that respect the shamanic worldview, adds to it the assumptions of rational personal stages of cognitive development, and then attempts to objectify those as well. The result is a polycentric understanding of pretend, dreaming, trance, and the ontological status of the alternative points of view that are accessed.
In terms of core values and processes, shamanism scores very high in confidence/awakening and aliveness. There is no doubt that shamans are brave and self-assured, or that they deliver important, meaningful services to their communities that both they themselves and their tribe view as valuable. There is also no doubt that experiences we would call psychic occur in shamanism, in addition to the fraud, pretend, and obvious psychological manipulations that are far more common. Confidence, awakening, and aliveness are values and processes emphasized naturally at the dawn of humanity, because they are essential to individual and group survival. Less emphasized are the values and processes of empathy, wisdom/balance, acceptance/detachment, inner peace/freedom, and witnessing/clarity. These are associated with higher levels of development that appear as fundamental relational exchanges necessary for survival are secured. Consequently, traditional shamanism does not represent all six of the core values/processes in a balanced way, which means that these values and processes cannot co-create each other in a way that fuels evolution. Instead, a traditional shaman’s worldview stays stuck in an early prepersonal orientation.
Contemporary shamans are different. They are much more developed in the other four of the six core qualities and processes because they are the beneficiaries of agrarian, industrial, and post-industrial holonic development in consciousness, values, behavior, and institutions. Consequently, they are able to use shamanic themes in the service of development in ways that traditional shamans did not.
In terms of holonic development, regarding the interior individual quadrant, traditional shamanic consciousness is largely egocentric. Shamanism provides tribal/community status. The interior collective quadrant, the realm of values and interpretation, reflects an archaic and magical worldview for traditional shamans. The exterior individual quadrant is largely expressed through emotionally-driven physical survival needs: food, shelter, safety, and sex. The exterior collective quadrant of traditional shamanism involves survival clans and foraging ethnic tribes. To assume that a spiritual expression that is consistently reflective of early developmental stages is somehow also reflective of nature, subtle, causal, and non-dual states, let alone those stages of development, is an example of the elevationistic variety of Wilber’s pre/trans fallacy, in itself magical thinking, typical of late personal level of development, which glorifies pluralism and egalitarianism and insists on treating everyone equally, except for those who point out the obvious hierarchical nature of human development, both on individual and societal levels. At that point egalitarianism tends to break down, and a clear preference for heterarchy over hierarchy rears its ugly head.
PEMs honor both involutionary and evolutionary expressions of life, beginning with the cycle of every breath and extending out into the contributions of humanity in all ages, at all stages. To point out developmental differences in a child does not make children less human, creative, unique, or valuable, and to point out developmental differences in the childhood of humanity does not make those humans less human, creative, unique, or valuable. To respect and learn from children for who and what they are, we must recognize and strive to move beyond our own projections. IDL attempts to do so through interviewing emerging potentials, and it invites the reader to conduct their own interviews with elements within traditional shamanistic narratives and draw their own conclusions.
IDL supports the integration of features of shamanism into current life, and the recognition that we descend into its worldview every night when we dream, and every day, to the extent that we live a waking dream, captivated unknowingly by the trance of groupthink. Drumming, ecstatic dance, sweat lodges, psychotropics, and a variety of other means of inducing trance, to journey, to learn, or to heal, are timeless resources for the expansion of consciousness. Learning skills, attaining excellence, succeeding in a profession or societal role are also forms of induction within the broader, more profound trance state of waking experience. However, naively assuming that the dimensions disclosed by trance are objectively as real as waking, sensory experience, that there are higher and lower realms, and that there are good and evil spirits, are all problematic assumptions. The shamanic worldview locks us into dualisms of good/bad, real and unreal, which life itself does not differentiate. Such assumptions cause us to perceive things while dreaming, lucid dreaming, OOBE, or having an NDE, and to draw conclusions about them, that validate our assumptions rather than wake us up out of our current perceptual cognitive distortions, even while combining those reaffirmations with transformational contexts. As always, IDL falls back on the perspective of phenomenalistic respectful questioning. Question what you experience in an altered state, and then question the veracity of what you are told.
For those assuming, hoping for, or even needing a romanticized understanding of shamanism, that is, of shamans as mystical, enlightened sages, this perspective is likely to be deflating and disappointing. It does not have to be. As traditional shamans fully understood, life is sacred. Enmeshed in nature, spirituality was totally, completely naturalistic. Due to our sophisticated worldviews, we easily supplant sacred naturalism with our own idealized delusions. For those who seek an authentic, transformative encounter with the sacred nature of life itself, unencumbered by our projections, expectations, assumptions, and priorities, we will trust to follow truth even when it contradicts belief.