Shamans and Psychiatrists:
A Comparison

Natalie Tobert, PhD
26
1769

Shaman and Psychiatrist: Alleviating Human Suffering.  When I wrote my first blog for MIA, I was surprised so many respondents mentioned shamans and psychiatrists together. Some time ago I had looked into the role of diagnosis and treatment within shamanism and psychiatry.  I had explored both their methods of working, and their function maintaining social order.  Comparison of their job descriptions to alleviate human suffering was complex. Shamanic practice appeared to be focused on the individual within society, environment, and cosmos.  In contrast, early psychiatry was focused on the individual’s body/mind — though recently it considered wider issues. In both cases, the diagnoses which were made by shamans and psychiatrists were linked to their own explanatory models of causation. Although the societal role appeared similar, their practices and treatments were different.  To generalize; in order to reduce human suffering: one worked within reductionist medicine, the other within energy medicine. The question: today, do experts by experience find shamanic practices helpful to them, and if so how appropriate is it to open a dialogue with mainstream medicine about its cultural relevance and effectiveness? 


A Question of Terminology

The Scottish Anthropologist Ioan Lewis, wrote the book Ecstatic Religion in 1971, in which he suggested a ‘shaman is not less than a psychiatrist, he is more.’   He claimed psychiatry was just one of the functions of the shaman, and he invited comparison between shamans and psychiatrists.  The term ‘shaman’ was originally borrowed from the Tungus people of Siberia: a person of either sex who could master spirits and introduce them at will into themselves.  Some diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia appeared rather similar to the desired conditions of shamans in an altered state of consciousness.  Other terms used (and misused) for therapeutic practitioners included: native or traditional healer, medicine man, witch doctor, soul doctor, sorcerer, magician, spirit medium, exorcist, curer, diviner and diagnostician.  As well as ideally doing positive work maintaining social order, shamans may also do mischief (perform as sorcerers or witches).

At first glance the term ‘psychiatrist’ appeared less problematic to define.  Google search revealed: a psychiatrist was ‘a medical practitioner specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness’ while the UK NHS definition was: a physician ‘concerned with the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental health conditions’. Then there were those who claimed ‘mental illness’ was a social construct: anomalous episodes were considered spiritual crisis or extreme experience.

It was ‘inappropriate behaviour’ which attracted a psychiatrist’s response. The problem was in the days before cultural competency training became the norm, westerners tended to interpret phenomena and experiences according to their own belief systems. ‘Ethnocentrism’ was the belief that the values of one’s own cultural group were the only correct ones…, for example, earlier psychiatric diagnoses described both Indigenous Americans in reservations or slaves running away from plantations as mentally ill. This did not take account of colonisation and repression.

Diagnoses of Suffering  

Both psychiatrists and shamans used a system of diagnosing symptoms and signs to assist in the interpretation of suffering.  The psychiatrist’s diagnosis was based on visible and verbal observation and defined according to classifications found in DSM-5.   While the shaman’s diagnosis was also based on observation, it included data obtained by divination, intuition and information from overshadowing spirits.  In each case, the diagnosis was linked to their explanatory models of causation.  Due to differences in their theories of causation, and in problems they may have interpreting a person’s condition, they differed in their selection of the most appropriate methods of treatment to reduce human suffering and maintain social order.

People who consulted a shaman usually did so by choice, according to their own free will.   Those who consulted a psychiatrist may have gone by choice, but equally likely, they may have been referred by someone else: a medical officer, social worker, or as a legal requirement. In the first case, the individual perceived something to be amiss and sought help, in the second case, others perceived behaviour to be outside societal norms, and  referral or coercion occurred.  The problem today is that societal norms change over time and place. They are not constant, and neither is common consensus.  Today it seems as if we exist on the cliff edge of healing change: popular versus corporate.


Theories of Causation  

Shamanic assessment of illness was based on an assessment of an individual’s life circumstances.  The diagnosis was enmeshed with the shaman’s and sufferer’s theories of causation.  This might include: interpersonal relationships; inter-group conflicts; ecological, religious or moral misdeeds; improper use of mystical powers; spells cast by sorcerers, witches or the evil eye; and the neglect or displeasure of ancestral or environmental spirits.  In some societies illness was believed to occur after inappropriate behaviour, and its acknowledgement was perceived as an effective means of social control.


Problems of Diagnosis

The term ‘culture-bound syndrome’ was used by psychiatrists for people in non-Western countries who experienced dissociative states, multiple selves, or altered states of consciousness (although these were often valued locally as forms of religious experience).  Psychiatrist Fernando suggested the most common culture-bound state was spirit possession ‘found in 90% of traditional societies’, the manifestations of which were ‘virtually indistinguishable’ from first rank symptoms of schizophrenia.  It was the cultural context which suggested whether or not this was a psychiatric illness.  He remarked the perception of possession states as bizarre may be ‘the consequence of our own ethnocentric view and not the hallmarks of psychosis.’

 

Causality.   With regard to ‘causality’ some psychiatrists now take into account the effects of the immediate family situation, the wider society, and the personal traumas which precede mental distress.  Some of their diagnostic methods may be more like those of the shaman, but their methods of treatment are different.  However, one former British National Health psychiatrist said Multiple Personality Disorder was frequently caused by attached spirits (although his interpretation and treatment strategies were not supported by mainstream psychiatry).

Research by a UK physician suggested it was normal for a bereaved person to have visionary of auditory experiences, or they may simply feel the deceased’s presence: ‘as many as half of all bereaved people experience hallucinations of the dead person for years after the loss’. In UK dialogue is happening: a conference on spirit possession runs in March 2015, integrating research with psychology and psychiatric clinical practice.


Consultation

The primary tasks of both psychiatrist and shaman are to alleviate distress among clients, and maintain social order.  Their methods of diagnosis have similarities today, and though their theories of causation are quite different, the social context of distress concerns both.  The main difference here being the shaman’s ability to embody spirits, to see ‘the unseen worlds’ and their effects on the clients.  Taking case histories is both a tool of diagnosis and possibly a treatment in its own right.  This may be common to both, though they each use different techniques to achieve it.

Other forms of treatment may be quite different: both use pharmacology, but its intended effect is rather different.  In India I met one psychiatrist, who preferred to use homoeopathy for treatment. Only the shaman goes into trance or undertakes ritual public performance.  The psychiatrist’s performance is essentially in a private session, unless it takes place in a hospital ward.  Both are effective with regard to social order:  one in reconfirming social norms, the other in maintaining social behaviour.


Modern Practices

Neo-shamanism or urban shamanism was embraced by Personal Development movements in the west, where everyone was invited to become their own therapist. Anthropologist Harner’s experiences with the Jivaro peoples changed his assumptions about the nature of reality, and he suggested physicians and shamans could work together.  Similarly medical anthropologist Villoldo supported healing based on practices of Amazonian and Andean shamans.

In 2014 a medical centre in Merced California, invited a shaman to perform a ceremony to summon a Hmong patient’s soul. Under a new cultural competencies policy to recognise the role of traditional healers, the hospital invited shamans to perform approved ceremonies. The Joint Commission in USA reported hospitals were increasingly sensitive to their patients’ cultural beliefs. Has anyone got a record of this kind of collaboration being used elsewhere in the field of mental well being? To what extent is it appropriate today, to open a dialogue about the cultural relevance and effectiveness of shamanic practice?

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26 COMMENTS

  1. Fascinating piece and one that gets to the heart of our cultural assumptions about “mental illness.” I had not seen the statistic of 90 % cross cultural belief in possession before but it rings true. Though we disregard it as an absolute relic of pre-scientific superstition I think it is key to understand that metaphysical explanations of extreme states are extremely common outside of the Western psychiatric model.

    I once witnessed an orthodox Russian exorcism of a woman who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. The process of a community coming together to offer healing to someone in distress was beautiful…but also complicated. many would not only dismiss this experience, they would consider it dangerous and contrary to what she really “needs”…namely psychiatric drug treatment.

    We have heard many stories of people foregoing medical treatment for spiritual healing coming under extreme scrutiny for abuse and negligence of family members. This is somewhat understandable in life and death medical matters.,.but seems grossly unfair to those going through emotional distress…as many of the Pharma drugs have severe well understood problems. Which is worse? An exorcism or a lifetime course of neuroleptics?

    When I lived in Ecuador for a while I worked with some of the indigenous “shamans”, aka ayahuasceros, and they held a deeply complex syncretic animist and catholic cosmology. They often thought illness patterns developed due to black magic…brujeria. They envisioned sorcerers sending evil invisible “darts” to hurt others and the ayahuascero could remove that dart through ritual and communion with plant and animal spirits.

    I also saw ayahuasceros describe remarkably prescient visions that could only be thought of as telepathic. Something deeply mysterious and incomprehensible was going on, which often mirrors the experience of those in deep crisis. I think we should deeply explore these frameworks, and should certainly honor cross cultural traditions outside of the standardized modern Western psychiatric model. Thanks for your words.

  2. You mention “causation” of mental distress, but don’t mention that the mainstream psychiatric industry has been claiming for decades that their “mental illnesses” are caused by “chemical imbalances” in their patients’ brains, which of course are supposedly cured by their drugs. And that this psychiatric theory of causation is now a thoroughly discredited theory of etiology. At least the shaman still have “Theories of Causation.”

    “The Joint Commission in USA reported hospitals were increasingly sensitive to their patients’ cultural beliefs.” As a person who was force medicated, according to my medical records. for belief in the “Holy Spirit” and “God,” in other words typical Christian belief, I completely disagree with the Joint Commission’s statement. Unless they’re claiming hospitals are increasingly sensitive to their patient’s cultural beliefs, except for traditional Christian / Judeo beliefs.

    “To what extent is it appropriate today, to open a dialogue about the cultural relevance and effectiveness of shamanic practice?” Since it’s now been confessed there is no scientific “validity” to today’s mainstream psychiatric industry’s DSM theories, except that they do accurately describe the ADRs and withdrawal symptoms of the psychiatric industry’s drugs. I do think it is appropriated to open dialogue about respect for all alternatives to mainstream psychiatry.

  3. Natalie, again, I sincerely appreciate the clarity and directness with which you offer your knowledge and posit your questions. I respond to them directly, below. First, I wanted to offer to you what I know about Shamanism and psychiatry.

    I have never trained nor been exposed directly to Shamanism, per se, but I’ve known a lot of people and have had a lot of discussions about this, as I have always found it relevant and valuable to our world, in general. My education and training in psychotherapy was East-West and highly spiritually influenced, and the topic of Shamanism came up quite a bit.

    Where I learned most, however, and where my healing became real, tangible, and integrally effective, is when I did my training in energy healing, which was thorough and multi-faceted, real world-oriented. This was in the heart of San Francisco. It had to be practical and accessible, not esoteric; that was the point. There were no Shamanic rituals, but I feel, from what I do know about Shamanism, is that there is, at the very least, an overlap in the principles of Shamanic healing and energy healing. It might kind of be the same thing, depending on nuance and perspective.

    I did this training for 3 years, entering as I came off of nine medications. I was a wreck, and knew no one who had gone through this. I was completely out of focus and in a fog, could barely speak coherently (at one point, I completely lost my voice due to post traumatic stress), and I was as sensitive as a newborn baby.

    In this program, I did complete chakra clearing, we looked at past life energy, communication cords from past, present, future, learned to navigate Akashic Records, connected with our healing guides, learned Law of Attraction; and I learned to do healing for others, reading energy, calling it back, clearing it out from spirit guides, toxins, and negative beliefs, and specifically bringing in what we called ‘healing energies.’ We had an intensive lab with supervision, so as we did healings for others, we would, in turn, get our own healing. I learned to heal and grow as I did healing for others. To me, that is the essence of healing, for all concerned.

    Two weeks after graduating from this program, I was offered my first job—a part in a show, from a director in my singing class I had started taking, to practice and embody what I was learning in healing, and from that came my career in theater, from which I earned money, and which was quite successful critically. It was also unexpected. So I felt like an accomplished artist in this vain, which felt miraculous at that point, after where I had ended up.

    Psychiatry had given me a prognosis of ‘poor,’ which I was more than happy to invalidate and contradict. That energy work was my miracle. It took, and I’ve only grown since.

    The irony is that I had graduated from my East-West psychology program just a few years earlier, and that whole experience, along with the medication and psychiatric services, is what wrecked me. Honestly, it is that black and white.

    Psychology sent me into crisis and chronic suffering, and this energy work I did to pull out of that chronic extreme state (I suffered with catatonic anxiety, perpetual insomnia, and extreme paranoia while withdrawing from meds) is what turned my mind, heart, and life around and saved me from either 1) lifetime institutionalization, 2) homelessness, or 3) in chronic suicide ideation and perpetual suffering.

    In addition, the energy work taught me how to clear out all of this trauma and manifest the life of my dreams, seriously. Performing is how I found my voice. I’m happy as a clam now, fulfilled, and healthy as can be, having met all my personal goals—after 20 years living diagnosed and medicated. That only degenerated my mind and body, while keeping my heart and spirit wounded and in a downward spiral.

    However, I will say that it was quite useful to know psychological concepts—such as identified patient, object constancy, projection identification, etc.—because these are, indeed, relevant and useful in how we assess our relationships and family dynamics. When I learned about energy, I actually learned to heal and shift what psychology had taught me to identify.

    Learning personality disorders, however, felt highly dubious and laden with social stigma and projection. I feel this should be obliterated altogether from healing consciousness, as it only produces shame in marginalization via specious labels which, in the end, are demeaning. That’s nothing short of toxic.

    Again, from what I understand, Shamanic healing is, at the core, ‘soul-retrieving.’ I’m sure it may be more complex than that and I don’t mean to oversimplify or misrepresent, as I am relatively ignorant about this, but for all practical purposes, that’s how I’ve associated this. I feel that calling our soul/energy back to us the most valuable thing we can do for ourselves, in every respect. Then, we can self-care and manifest consciously. When we retrieve our souls, we have the opportunity to awaken to who we are—that is, limitless beings. That’s my perception, in any case. That is emotional freedom and personal sovereignty, what I consider to be the cornerstones of well-being.

    Energy healing is based on retrieving our energy and aligning with it—same thing as ‘soul-retrieving.’ When we call our energy/spirit/soul back to us, then we can work to own our integral totality. What we are usually retrieving is power we gave to others, for various reasons. I believe these are matters of social dynamics, which of course vary from culture to culture. I believe it’s vital to make room for diversity, here, which, in spiritual work, is where we learn to embody permission and universal compassion—two vital healing energies of the heart.

    I say all of this in prelude to responding to your questions:

    Has anyone got a record of this kind of collaboration being used elsewhere in the field of mental well-being? To what extent is it appropriate today, to open a dialogue about the cultural relevance and effectiveness of shamanic practice?

    I don’t have a record of this specific collaboration, but I do have my experience of combining psychology with energy work, as I have been a therapist and an energy healer, as well having been on the client side of both.

    In the course of my healing journey over the last several years, I applied energy principles, combined with a few relevant concepts I learned in psychology, to my own healing, after literally decades of psychotherapy, medication, and my own training in the field, working with myriad professionals in various roles. I’ve also worked with energy healers, psychics and clairvoyants (which was part of our training), and teachers whom I consider to be ‘shamans’ (shaman-like) in their life path.

    I think it’s highly relevant to discuss this–vital, in fact–because, from my experience, the leanings toward energy/Shaman healing is way more integral and neutral, which makes it effective at the core.

    Psychiatry and the like are stigma laden, it’s dualistic. Shamans strive to heal duality. We heal it first, internally (hence, the ‘soul-retrieving’), and, by theory, that ripples outward. The problem is that we are so heavily programmed in duality, that this process of rippling outward can be easily impeded by corruption. That creates all sorts of double-binds and resistance in society that can lead to madness and/or physical illness.

    I feel that this is what we are trying to heal, where healing is sabotaged. That is sadly and unfortunately what I feel is one of the big problems here, too much sabotage because of the agendas of money and power/control. I know that’s becoming a cliché, but I think it’s just obviously so true, and basic.

    A true healer knows that he/she is merely a channel, which is humbling, and also knows that healing is not dependent on peoples’ ability to pay, and should not be. Our society/world seems to operate under the illusion that healing is for the rich and educated, or some such thing. In any case, the issue of privilege is always relevant here, and when I think of discussing Shamanism as healing, I associate this with the highest spiritual principles. That’s why I feel it is effective.

    I believe, in reality, we are our own Shamans. I believe that references to Shaman or Guru or Messiah is really, in these modern times, an issue of collective consciousness. We all have this in us, and we strive for it because it is empowering and it feels good. I believe it is our nature to self-heal and to manifest freely. In our world, this has been manipulated out of our consciousness, via family, media, etc. Awakening, to me, is about connecting to this again. I think this would ripple out into the world as healing on a grand scale.

    This is exactly what my work as a teacher and healer, is about. My clients/students have been quite happy with the healing and growth they have and are experiencing, learning this and applying it. I collect new information daily and integrate it, so my work is ever-evolving.

    One more point of perspective—in psychic healing energy terms, a person who the DSM would diagnose with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, previously MPD) would be considered to be a ‘trans-medium,’ meaning that they channel multiple energies simultaneously through their bodies. This is a gift, when we know how to use it, extremely valuable in healing and other things. The healing world from where I come honors this, and knows how to ground it in order to create integration.

    That’s just one example of how we can shift ‘diagnoses’ to where they are not spiritual death sentences, but instead, wholly life-affirming.

    Sorry for the length of this, but it seemed relevant, so I went with it. Thank you so much for again opening up and continuing this most interesting and pertinent avenue of discussion.

    • Alex,
      I appreciate your telling your story because it brings up many points that relate directly to my own (what I considered to be quite odd) healing experience. I’m still only at the beginning stages of researching all this, so am only an “expert” from personal experience, not knowledge of academic theories.

      After I’d been weaned off of drugs, I ended up suffering from a “super sensitivity manic psychosis” of sorts. And this “manic psychosis” was about learning that I was a part of a “collective unconscious,” I was “Someone Else” who had befriended “everyone else.” Basically, my healing tale took the form of a midlife reflection on all the wonderful people I’d known in my life, each coming to mind, and reminding me that the psychiatric claims that I was “irrelevant to reality” were untrue. What was particularly unusual about this is that it was music playing on the radio that brought old friends to mind, and I realized that I could basically tell the story of relationships with people I’d known my entire life, and my prayers to God, in the lyrics of thousands of songs. It was quite magical (or what psychiatrists would call “manic”).

      And I’ve only researched “energy work” a little, but my healing experience related to having a staggering amount of energy, or what I thought at the time was “Godspeed.” I would wake up and dance every morning. But it was more than that, it was as if there were an “energy field” that seemingly existed around me, numerous people even remarked they could “feel the power.” And it did seem to actually exist, I had trouble with my cell phone and hotel key cards. People I didn’t know would actually come up to me and talk to me about my inner concerns, as if they were completely aware of them. I didn’t know what to make of this at the time. My ethical pastor eventually confessed to me, “people can’t pray in private.” I, too, believe there is a “collective unconscious.”

      “Psychiatry and the like are stigma laden, it’s dualistic. Shamans strive to heal duality.” This statement about the current state of psychiatry is true, and I can’t believe psychiatric stigmatization is truly beneficial to any “patient.” It is profitable for the psychiatrists, however, as it creates life long, disempowered, hopeless clients. It’s purpose seemingly is “spiritual death sentences.” My healing journey was about awakening my conscious self to who my unconscious self was, and working to equate them essentially, or “heal duality.” And this absolutely this had to be done outside the psychiatric system, since they no longer seem to understand that people have an “id, ego, or superego,” or even a conscious and unconscious self.

      My experience with today psychiatric system is that it is totally about claiming as many people as possible have fictitious “chemical imbalances,” to push as many toxic mind numbing drugs, onto as many people as possible for profit, and thievery. It’s a sick, and completely “mindless” system. And I agree with Rossa, too. “I also am of the belief that the church has forgotten its way. I believe that most clergy consider mental illness as a biochemical imbalance, not a spiritual awakening.” I was drugged up initially based upon lies from a pastor. Thankfully, my next pastor was wiser, kinder, and more ethical.

      Although I am still trying to understand my “spiritual journey,” as nicely sung out in Fun lyrics:

      “But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
      Oh, Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for oh
      Whoa oh oh (What do I stand for?)
      Whoa oh oh (What do I stand for?)
      Most nights I don’t know anymore…”

      • Oh, I’d like to say one more thing, about the psychiatrist’s role in “maintaining social order.” I understand they hope to keep their current unchecked power, but is that actually wise and beneficial for all within society? “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And the US was founded upon the wisdom that “checks and balances” of power are required to maintain “justice for all.”

        And I believe the psychiatric industry should open their eyes, look at the big picture, and reconsider if maintaining the current “warrior elite” in power, resulting in never ending wars, and ever increasing economic injustice is actually a wise move.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrs_wHUDsPE

        Is it possible that the same families that seemingly financed the Nazi’s, who have been in power in our country for decades now, aren’t just playing the same games they did decades ago in Nazi Germany? And if so, are the US psychiatrists today actually wise to try and maintain the current statue quo / “social order”?

        • Wow, very interesting stuff, Someone Else. This is the energy perspective:

          As we move through each day and through life, we move through a variety of experiences, along with our river of thought and feelings. It is a constant flow of energy, which appears to us in different ways, internal and external. This is how we ‘perceive’ energy, as physical manifestations, including feelings, the physical manifestation of emotions.

          From that, there are specific frequencies of vibration—specific emotions or specific experiences—which vary, and which are indicated by our feeling response to the experience. Akin to color, their are various wavelength frequencies of color. Colors elicit different emotions which we feel viscerally. That’s vibration.

          What you describe is where energies and circumstances converged in such a way as to create this energy surge in your spirit, which is not at all uncommon. To me, that’s all an altered state is, an energy surge. More than altered, thought, from what you say, it sounds like you were in an expanded state of being.

          That’s a necessary passage, totally appropriate for where you are at that point in time. It’s a manifestation of your energy that occurred because you wanted some information for personal growth. This would be called an ‘expansion’ of your energy, leading to raised awareness. That’s how we tap into subtle (psychic) energy that is always active in the collective. It is a matter of sensitivity and focus, and indeed, it can happen spontaneously. Life comes with surprises around every corner, and we learn from them.

          People have their experiences based on their beliefs, as well as on their openness, trust, and courage, so to me, bizarre, paranormal, other-worldly, and other manifestations of reality speak to our willingness to be vulnerable so that we can heal and grow. To me, that’s virtuous, so I validate those experiences in people. They’re temporary, and are intended to teach us more than we’ve learned so far. There is always more to learn. Always, always…that’s a never-ending process.

          Very common for technical foul-ups to occur, as you describe. We are energy! There is no separation in energy, it is continuous and in constant motion. We affect each other, whether we know it or not, we all contribute to the collective, and that makes up the world as we see it.
          As each person heals and integrates, it happens in the collective.

          Hopefully, we’ll be seeing a better world, soon, which would be an indication of people really and truly healing and finding their alignment with their true selves. Separation is an illusion. We all have to get our own information and experiences of this.

          Nazi Germany was a manifestation of energy based on pure duality, scapegoating, viciously exploiting a tattered and guilt-ridden society plagued by mega-inflation; along with obsession with power, delusions of grandeur, needing to belong, needing to be superior, yadada. Big business is what created fertile ground and support for the Nazis. And of course, psychiatry provided tools for manipulation and control.

          So yes, I would say this is a time for healing this all, as a generation. The idea is to go from a collective unconscious to a collective consciousness. This is all a process of global awakening, one soul at a time.

          Curious to know if this speaks to your experience?

          • “Curious to know if this speaks to your experience?” Absolutely. It actually happened to me twice, the summer of 2006 and the summer of 2009. Both times it was as if I had perfect timing with all others around me, and the music on the radio was reminding me of who I was.

            2006 was my “It takes a Village” journey, when I gave complete trust to those in the village in which I lived. (And oddly, the author of that book and I have both lived in the Chicago suburbs and Chappaqua, NY.) It was a story of a connectivity with all souls, including those in power.

            2009 was when I gave complete trust to, and seemingly had perfect timing with, all those living in Chicago, my home prior to moving to the suburbs. It was my “Salvage One” story (my cousin had her wedding at a place called Salvage One in Chicago that summer). It involved an amazing walk through the city, where the street signs (named after former US presidents) reminded me of the wisdom of previous presidents. A walk past the Federal Reserve building, made me point out the impropriety of Mr. Greenspan spanning the green to the point it was “irrelevant to reality” (I grew up in an ethical American banking family). Culminating in a walk down the Mag Mile where I was enlighten to the reality (supposedly) that Chicago had thought of me as one of the “fashion police” when I lived there. I had worked in the fashion industry then, and am supposed to be a “judge” according to 40 hours of unbiased psychological career testing, so am rather a stickler for law and order. And I ended up down at Water Tower Place, where I used to work, where I was further enlightened to the (supposed) fact that Chicago considered me the “Taylor” that sang along with the “Lord.” (I was standing in the former Lord and Taylor location at this point). It was a ‘swift taylor’ lyrical libretto story about a girl who loved God, a “mental illness” according to psychiatry. But the “Taylor” was now known to be just an “American Girl.” (The former Lord and Taylor location is now an American Girl store.) I am just an American girl. It is a story of salvaging one decent, ethical American girl from the insanity of the psychiatric system. It was about my putting all my trust in the collective.

            And, oddly, I have noticed I do now have a life mirroring that of the woman in Revelations 12. I am a woman who moved to the wilderness and whose son and she were attacked by Satanic characters. In a time all, including the religions, seemingly went off worshipping only money and Satan. Although I’m certain there are many woman in who also have lives mirroring that of the woman in Revelations 12 today. And “I was waiting on a different story.” According to my medical records, I was drugged for belief in the “Holy Spirit” and because my ex-pastor “thought she was the second coming of Jesus.” I don’t think it’s appropriate to force medicate people based upon other people’s delusions or lies, but that’s what psychiatry apparently believes is “appropriate medical care.” And I have always thought Jesus was a man. If nothing else, my spiritual journey is interesting makings for a “credible fictional story” as a Dr. Rabin (rabbi) and Dr. Kohn (kohen) claimed my entire real life to be … prior to this “delusions of grandeur” filled “awakening.”

            “Hopefully, we’ll be seeing a better world, soon,” I hope so too. I pray our world wakes up and we take this world in a new and better direction, or in other words, elsewhere (my actual name, call me a “St. Elsewhere,” not “Jesus.”) A world controlled by corporations, who legally are required to function as psychopaths (there was a good youtube film pointing this out, but youtube has now “blocked” it, so I can’t provide a link) is inhuman and unwise.

            “I would say this is a time for healing this all, as a generation.” And I think a good first step in this process is for us all to acknowledge that we need governments that are ruled “by the people and for the people,” not “by the corporations and for the corporations.” I had an Econ prof who predicted the corporate take over of the world back in the 80’s, he was right.

            I’m not quite certain why I can tell the story of my life in music lyrics, and why this story moves to an eschatological tale, I was not an end times theorist in my waking hours. But it’s an interesting “credible fictional story.” The only problem is, I don’t think I’m a “fictional” person, as some within the child abuse covering up psychiatric industry and my ex-religion claim.

            “What you describe is where energies and circumstances converged in such a way as to create this energy surge in your spirit, which is not at all uncommon. To me, that’s all an altered state is, an energy surge. More than altered, thought, from what you say, it sounds like you were in an expanded state of being.” For me it was an “uncommon” experience at the time. Thank you for your insights, Alex. I appreciate knowing others have experienced similar “energy surges.”

          • Amazing, very brave journey, Someone Else, thank you so much for sharing this.

            Based on what I’ve learned so far, when we embody and stand in our light of truth, as you so obviously do, we open ourselves to some really fascinating experiences from which we can learn a great deal, and which informs our path in many ways. To me, that is life education and spiritual evolution. All you describe here rings totally true to me, extremely creative and authentic in your process. That’s your spirit!

      • Dear Someone else

        I read your interesting blog and noticed your mention of Christian beliefs. I think it’s important to note that in discussions of concepts like “collective consciousness” and “spiritual energies” that there are two distinctly different paradigms to consider. The paradigm that tends to be assumed by the above terms is a pantheistic philosophy that conceives of “god” as being one-and-the-same with the universe – like the “force” in Star Wars. Judeo-Christian philosophy conceives of God as separate from and preexisting the universe, which was God’s creation.

        In Christian theology spiritual energies can come from good sources or demonic sources. Therefore, we don’t take a neutral view of these experiences, but as the apostle John said, we should “discern the spirits”. Often it is difficult to discern whether we are experiencing a seemingly good energy designed to deceive us, a Godly energy from the Holy Spirit, or a battle between the two within us (Perhaps this ambiguity is designed to keep us humble and prayerful). Your “manic” experience of memories about the good people in your life sounds like it was probably a joyful, Holy Spirit induced, experience to remind you of God’s grace. These can be fairly intense. In a psychologized western culture, that teaches us to fear or suspect strong emotions, it can be downright scary, raising the suspicion of madness.
        The experience of “collective consciousness” can probably be understood as an experience of the image of God within us that we all share. An experience of oneness with other human beings is never meant to compromise our sense of the eternal individuality and uniqueness we exist in. In other words, we are not ultimately absorbed into “the oneness”, but remain in a God-designed state of unity and diversity.
        As a previous recipient of psychiatric services in my youth, I am familiar with these manic/psychotic/spiritual experiences (I like to jokingly tell people “I’m a schizophrenic. I’ve just been in remission for 30 years”). As a therapist for the past 35 years I know that people like ourselves can recover our sense of reality and place in society with the right kind of help – preferably non-medicated help.

        I have to confess that part of my motive in writing this is to introduce a more explicitly orthodox Christian view of this whole psychiatric/recovery debate. There are at least two different spiritual paradigms – monism and pantheism – among those of us who have experienced healing of our so-called “mental illnesses”. I understand that some may feel I’m being divisive. Those of us who believe that Christ is God and and came to save us from our failings through his death and literal resurrection, share these experiences with our non-christian brothers and sisters. Therefore, we should be honest about the difference in our understanding of the “spiritual”.
        God bless us all in our fight for peace and sanity in this crazy world.

        • Thank you for your insights, Mark. I’m still trying to figure out not only the reason for my experience, other than that it’s inspiration for a book, but also my spiritual beliefs. When one is betrayed (or “crucified” as my subsequent pastor described it) by one’s life long religion, one ends up questioning her beliefs. The Trinity concept is still confusing to me, and I can’t find any pastor who can really logically explain it either. Basically I believe God is the Creator, and I have felt as if He has been with me, and carrying me (through the worst of times), since the night of 9.11.2001 – the night I had the dream I was “moved by the Holy Spirit.”

          But absolutely, my experience was of a “Christian” and “Jewish” nature. Not long ago, I actually had seven Jewish guys I worked with, sit me down and tell me I had a very religious name, according to the Jews. I am a woman named after both the Promise Land and God, so apparently the Jewish “Kohn” who declared my name, thus identity, to be “irrelevant to reality” was wrong.

          And what’s rather odd about my story is that it seems to be of a very Catholic nature, and I did not grow up Catholic. But when a Lutheran woman goes to get “everyone else,” albeit only in my dreams, that would of course include the Catholics. My tale also, according to my research, relates to the teachings of hermeticism, which I don’t recall knowing anything about at the time of my spiritual journey. (I had gotten A’s in philosophy classes in college, but don’t recall studying hermeticism.) My point being, my “odd delusions” related quite directly to a religion I was never officially a member of (I’m only a catholic with a small c) and ancient wisdom teachings. How could this be, if I were not part of a “collective unconscious?”

          It’s interesting, but confusing.

          • With all great religious doctrines there is mystery and logic. The mystery of the trinity concerns the puzzle of how 3 persons can be one God. This entails the unity/diversity concept i mentioned before. The logic of it is the correlation between God and us. God’s nature (Image) being personal and relational and our nature being personal and relational. It simply makes sense that if a God created us “in his image” we would be like Her/Him – social beings with the capacity to love and relate. Of course, with the privilege of free will we can hate and isolate.

            The healing potential with this understanding of God is that He/She would be the kind of God we could know personally, receive forgiveness and guidance from in the context of a loving relationship. An energy force cannot love you. If there is ultimately only unity, where we are absorbed into the oneness, we cease to exist and are therefore not in relationship or loved once we die.

            Thinkers, like yourself, don’t come to their faith easily, but when they do, it’s usually deep. Keep searching and ask God to show Him/Herself.

            I’d love to carry on this discussion, but I know this is not a religious site. Feel free to contact me at [email protected].

        • Hi Mark,

          “With all great religious doctrines there is mystery and logic. The mystery of the trinity concerns the puzzle of how 3 persons can be one God. This entails the unity/diversity concept i mentioned before. The logic of it is the correlation between God and us. God’s nature (Image) being personal and relational and our nature being personal and relational. It simply makes sense that if a God created us “in his image” we would be like Her/Him – social beings with the capacity to love and relate. Of course, with the privilege of free will we can hate and isolate.”

          I largely agree with this statement, although it still doesn’t clarify the Trinity concept to my personal satisfaction. But I agree we were made in His image and likeness, so we are like Him (and, thus, He is like us). My personal belief of who God is, is that He is my “undeserved love,” or in essence the love who has always directed my life and been there for me. He makes things right, at least in the long run, although I believe He does challenge those of us He has blessed and knows love Him. He needs people to help bring about His will, so I do allow Him to move me.

          And I do this in part because He has always sent people to protect and save me in times of potential trouble. I actually have medical evidence now that He has “died for my sins” at least 13 times (I was, according to the medical evidence, blatantly poisoned by doctors quite a few different ways – long story on the doctors’ motives). Not to mention there was a snowmobiling accident and a 360 on a highway I survived, and numerous other times in my life He has sent kind strangers to protect me in times of potential danger. To me, God is my love and “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

          “The healing potential with this understanding of God is that He/She would be the kind of God we could know personally, receive forgiveness and guidance from in the context of a loving relationship. An energy force cannot love you. If there is ultimately only unity, where we are absorbed into the oneness, we cease to exist and are therefore not in relationship or loved once we die.”

          I hope it’s clear from my explanation of who God is to me that mine is belief about a loving relationship. The “energy surge” was just very bizarre to me, especially since many others seemed to also feel it. I considered it, at the time “Godspeed,” not God. I was unaware when it happened of theories of a “collective unconscious.” But the energy seemed to come from other caring humans, more so than God Himself, if that makes any sense. As I mentioned, it’s confusing, or a “mystery” to me still.

          “Thinkers, like yourself, don’t come to their faith easily, but when they do, it’s usually deep. Keep searching and ask God to show Him/Herself.”

          Actually, He came to me on the night of 9.11.2001, and I awoke from a dream knowing He wanted to move me – and I thought to myself, who am I to say no to God? So He has, and is still moving me, apparently to help expose the crimes of the psychiatric industry, and likely also the crimes of the Federal Reserve and other “banksters.” I knew God wanted me to write a book in late 2001, I just didn’t know what the book was to be about then, and I wasn’t expecting God to request such a thing from me. I’m an analytical thinker and a creative person, but I’ve never been a good story teller. I now have a well documented story, however.

          And at this point in my spiritual journey I would consider myself to be “of the bride” and “born again.” Although oddly, I didn’t used to believe in the whole “born again” stuff. Life is a journey. I appreciate your interest and insights into my mysterious spiritual journey.

          May I ask what religion you are?

          • Sorry to be so slow to respond to your question, “What religion are you? — busy lately.

            I’m what most people would consider an evangelical, born again, charismatic Christian. Those labels represent the beliefs in the infalibility of scripture, the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation from our failures, a belief in continued existence of the supernatural gifts of miraculous healing and God speaking to us through various means. Unfortunately, those labels also carry with them connotations of a narrow- minded, right-wing political ideology which I don’t identify with. I like to think I analyze questions of politics and morality through a biblical filter rather than a Republican or Democratic filter.

            I like your statement of God being your “undeserved love”. I believe that kind of humility before God is what enables us to achieve sanity in this mad world and bless others in a way that helps them along in their journey.

  4. Thank you, Natalie–I very much appreciate your discussion of this topic. Regarding your question about other examples of collaboration, I noticed a while ago on the website for Andrew Weil’s integrative medicine clinic at U. AZ that they describe their interdisciplinary consultation team, which meets weekly to discuss the cases of all new patients, as including a range of specialists, “and usually a shaman or two.” To the extent that psychedelic therapy, which was legal until the late 60s and has continued underground (and also various related research that is ongoing at several universities) is relevant, I would also have a look at that literature. I believe R.D. Laing wrote about psychedelics, and of course also about psychosis as a potentially (if handled appropriately) generative state–the two being phenomenologically related. Lastly, Peter Levine has described somatic experience therapy as essentially a modernized version of shamanic healing, a way of packaging it that is acceptable to people in today’s world. Those are the examples I know of, I’m sure there are more. Look forward to futher posts if you continue to pursue this!

  5. When my son was first hospitalized with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia,” at one point he fell into a deep depression, stopped eating, and believed the world was going to end. There was talk of electroshock. His college chaplain visited him and prayed with him, and presumably did all the things that a good shaman does, which is transfer healing energy through words and touch. I absolutely agree with Alex that what we call energy healing today is what shamans do. I’ve been documenting the work that my son (and I) have done with modern day shamans and energy healers in a memoir that hopefully will be ready this year. I cover, to varying degrees, the assemblage point shift, sound therapy, out-of-body experiences, The Tomatis Method, the Alexander Technique, Emotional Freedom Technique, and other interventions that I forget at this moment. I believe what they all have in common is vibration and intent. I also am of the belief that the church has forgotten its way. I believe that most clergy consider mental illness as a biochemical imbalance, not a spiritual awakening. They don’t see that they have a special role in healing. Had the college chaplain not paid my son a visit (and I truly believe that he believed he was just doing what he would do for any of the sick, that he didn’t have a privileged role), most likely my son would have been given electroshock.

    • I also believe that psychiatrists, like the clergy, have a privileged role in healing that they are not using for the most part. They, too, have forgotten their way. They (the institutional ones, at least) are lost in prescription writing and running psychosis units with all that they entail. I do owe it to one of my son’s psychiatrists in the day program he attended, to notice that my son “came alive” in acting class, so he suggested that his family take up a play like Waiting for Godot at home, where we could all act it out. Brilliant suggestion. Not enough of this insight unfortunately given out by psychiatrists these days.

  6. Rossa– That’s a big deal, the drama suggestion. But you have to attach all the credit to the individuals relating like human beings, and (as you know) not try seeing hope for hospital psychiatry because of this rare good deed.

    Let me say that I don’t believe in anything supernatural at all, but that as far as mental illnesses or disorders and spirit possession mean anything, they are on the same footing in my eyes as answering to beliefs and not to perceived entities.

    As far as how far the modern hospital is from objective, rational, and palliative, here’s a lesson. Once during a voluntary admission, an OT worker solicited our ideas for the sessions she offered. I suggested light aerobics. She was enthusiastic and so were most of us looking forward to something besides doing crafts. But when the next day rolled around she informed me that the doctor said that I can’t join the group since I have to ask permission to do exercises, the first I’d heard of it–of course. So I started doing some anyway outside my room and was warned with whatever nonsense was “OK” for them to discipline and punish me with. I protested that it was part of my religion to do these exercises, obviously just for something to say. I was allowed to continue in an isolation room with a watcher.

    If there’s a difference between shamans and psychiatrists, I bet it is that shamans don’t have to get their way about everything and get endorsed for their efforts to lord it over you. I mean they could, nothing’s stopping them from trying but themselves, but with psychiatrists it is a given.

  7. Thank you so much for this insightful and informative article.

    You ask, “To what extent is it appropriate today, to open a dialogue about the cultural relevance and effectiveness of shamanic practice?” Two huge factors influence that it is very appropriate to begin this dialogue. Traditional models of psychiatric care have failed many people, many never try these models due to stigma (still), or are afraid that their livelihood will be diminished by conventional treatments. With these in mind, the traditional approach to pychiatric care hasn’t worked.

    These observations combined with the fact that many are leaving organized religious structures in high numbers now (as noted in the U.S.Religious Landscape Survey Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic from 2008) indicate there is a gap not just in how we provide care and counsel to the modern seeker, but the traditional spiritual structures that have been made available from a cultural standpoint are degrading, as well.

    This lack of psychiatric care and traditional religious structure only stands to enhance every cultural issue we face, as a modern people. The response to this shift isn’t in reinforcing that model of psychiatric care, or in forcing organized religion. It’s in providing healing models that address people as individuals, and that allow them direct personal interaction with the Divine. This is the heart of shamanism. This is why we need shamanism now.

  8. “To what extent is it appropriate today, to open a dialogue about the cultural relevance and effectiveness of shamanic practice?” Check out realitysandwich.com/1207/next_buddha_will_be_a_collective/
    The author discusses spiritual expression, and the religious organizational formats in which context it will take place, as always embedded in a social structure. If our current social structure is peer to peer based social relations, this will affect spiritual expression in fundamental ways. The author states, “Broadly speaking, we would argue that peer to peer is the outgrowth of deep changes in ontology (ways of being), epistemology (ways of knowing) and axiology (value constellations).”

  9. Hi Dr. Torbert, I came back to take a look at your ideas after spending lots of time studying to put the first batch of them in context. Now some experience has come to mean more than I could have expected, which was a little more than average as a healing kind of one. Otherwise–that is, if it had not revealed the overlap off all the discourses directed at recovery with those for renewal, I would pretty much have insisted that the word “adjustment” taken in the most scientifically psychological sense was the whole story, at least until advances happened and something gave in neuroscience. Truthfully, I understand scientific proof well enough that no matter that this all went and happened without misstep or failed proposition one, that the evidence which would prove what a mental disorder was would still exist in a highly dubious conditon, as it obviously never has been otherwise than misappropriated from any sufficiently rigorous framework for its dissection as a useful concept. My stage of appreciation for the shamanistic theories as your book might discuss them is at this point: since my “Dark Night of the Soul” of a few days ago exactly followed a peak experience of self-realization, that itself showed me what I already knew (from good rational argument) to be the case, about the mind and the activity of it that meant my being me; and since my self-described energy counsellor had understood that the two things implied each other–the uplift and the disrupted sense of perception of everyday things; and because he had gently warned me to expect a less readily anticipated discontinuity in my further adjustment following this one extraordinary moment of insight–very freeing and of lasting effect in itself, as you would understand– I can’t omit the significance of the mystical tradition for defining optimal mental health or mental health problems as something to be cleverly assumed as scientific. The probability of good rational discrimination for functional and genetic explanations seems significant enough either way. (Of course, “genetic” here means a type of planned presentation of inferences, and not something biological that makes me intend and do what I hate or can’t help, or something.) Or call this elusive pattern of existing optimal effectiveness in human living pscyhological wellbeing, or whatever. At least, I cannot dismiss the practicality of the concept of spiritual suffering and rebirth and so on, getting misunderstood as bona fide –shall we say–mental illness, until I understand the other side of the coin, because the shamanistic tradition is not fully speaking my language yet. That other side of the coin I am telling about is a little more stubborn in revealing its secrets. If me, a very logically oriented type of thinker, with no holds barred views of atheism besides, and plenty of forgiveness for romantics in all their faults and follies, could see this step toward better functioning well-outlined in either the jargon of the behavioral healthcare system (let’s say it’s best selected jargon), or that of some mystic system, then I have to rationally understand something more still in order to apprehend the full meaning of my pattern of lived experience through these couple of recent days. That makes for the pressure and the motive to work at it. That since it works out succinctly and rigorously enough seen in either the ancient or the modern dynamic, and my experience teaches me still to look at the originary appearance of my dysfunction as just a cognitive neuroscience affair to figure out, is not an idle observation. This is a fully intutive take of mine on the whole issue nevertheless, too, and not just some kind of hunch. But also it is not just a resistance or bias, merely. It’s indicative of a real predilection, surely, but it also suggests a barrier that shamanism must explain, and that there is a logic for understanding it. I won’t doubt that we can somehow extend the evidence of “mental health recovery” from employing these mystical systems’ terms in order to explain things chronologically from start to finish. Or that we can’t find the overlap to most all of what is pertinetn that we have good record of via primitive and non-Western traditions, as neuroscience develops more honest, holistic approaches. I already have come to understand that spiritual healing techniques could not fail to answer the need for replacing the cults of authority operating in psychology and psychiatry unboundedly these days, with just a little determined legwork and site inspection done in careful ways. In turn, the harm reduction would prove tremendous, even if the key result was gaining more serious present understanding of the worth of medications in more estimably neutral conditions for evaluating their effects in individual cases. In everything from such unsupportable, and always vaguely informative and questionably valid diagnoses as those pushed onto us–diagnoses of nothing medically identifiable in causal terms–to the traditions of playing doctor and used wife salesman inaugurated by Freud, I can’t see how anyone thinks we can reform a purposefully repressive and oppressive system of teaching us what to like about ourselves by calling us these names. They only then stand to get revised a lot and never has one gotten explained properly that I know of, except to shoe that they bolster the authority of the physician, or give outs to clinicians all around for the tricky differences between “found” between them all. Yet I have struggled to see this done to my own benefit in all the likeliest best places until I just want to argue about it until the people insisting on its value to me go away. Additionally, for all novel the differences in terms of genuine reciprocity that could come into generally good public regard with this type of mediation of various practical efforts to help the mentally ill, the same standards could apply that make the energy healer’s counsel appear as real human relations work. For instance, in its remaining impersonal and provided according to systematic feedback to point out errors in learning new coping strategies correctly. Still, as much as science fires my imagination and encourages me to believe things only for a reason that leaves further questions possible, and inasmuch as mysticism only informs the mystic properly since experience just is its ultimate medium, I have to continue to call my judgment provisional about identifying spiritual crises as the equivalent in some systematic way of mental health ones. But I am definitely more enthusiastic to read your work now ahead of other books on the subject. Hopefully, that can work out to be pretty soon.