Shamanism and the Confusion of Consciousness with Phenomenological Content

Article excerpt

The phenomenology of shamanism has been the focus of much contemporary psychological interest. However, it is arguable that the concept of "shamanic states of consciousness" is neither well defined nor sufficiently understood. We critically examine the term "shamanic states of consciousness" and argue that affixing the qualifier "shamanic states" to consciousness results in a theoretical confusion of consciousness and its content, that is, consciousness is mistaken for the content of consciousness. We refer to this fallacy as the "consciousness/content fallacy." We argue that this fallacy is avoided if one replaces "shamanic states of consciousness" with "shamanic patterns of phenomenal properties," an extrapolation of the term "phenomenal field." Implications of the consciousness/content fallacy for "states of consciousness" studies are also considered.


Shamanism may be defined as "a body of techniques and activities that supposedly enable its practitioners to access information that is not ordinarily attainable by members of the social group that gave them privileged status" (Krippner, 2002, p. 962). The shaman performs a social-role function by using this information to serve the community (Walsh, 1989a). Many scholars (e.g., Eliade, 1964; Heinze, 1991; Ripinsky-Naxon, 1993) concur that altered states of consciousness (ASCs) are an integral part of shamanism, "particularly those ASCs involving ecstatic journeying, (i.e., soul flight or out-of-body experience)" (Krippner, p. 966). Harner (1990) refers to ASCs experienced by these practitioners as shamanic states of consciousness.

Some years ago, Peters (1989) remarked that the study of shamanism and "the Shamanistic State of Consciousness ... is the focus of much current psychological interest" (p. 115). (i) Peters' contention has been evidenced by the emergence of numerous experimental (e.g., Bittman, et al., 2001; Harner & Tryon, 1992, 1995; Kremer & Krippner, 1994; Woodside, Kumar, & Pekala, 1997), non-experimental (e.g., Houran, Lange, & Crist-Houran, 1997), methodological (Rock & Baynes, 2005; Walsh, 1993a, 1993b, 1995), and theoretical (e.g., Krippner, 2000, 2002; Walsh, 1989a, 1989b, 1989c, 1990a, 1990b, 1994) studies broadly situated within the domain of psychology. Indeed, shamanism is generating increasing interest as a complementary therapeutic strategy in the traditional medical and psychological arenas (e.g., Bittman et al., 2001). For example, Harner and Tryon (1992) conducted a study of 40 experienced shamanic practitioners and found that depression, tension-anxiety, anger, confusion, fatigue and total mood disturbance were statistically significantly lower after journeying with drumming compared to baseline. Consequently, the principles of shamanic practice may prove relevant to clinical psychologists (Krippner, 2002).

As previously stated, shamanism is associated with what have traditionally been referred to as ASCs (Winkelman, 1997). That is, such shamanic techniques as listening to monotonous drumming, perceptual deprivation, and ritualistic dancing are considered to facilitate purported shifts in consciousness. Thus, shamanism may be of interest to cognitive psychologists concerned with the nature of human consciousness (Krippner, 2002).

Over the past few decades, several psychologists (e.g., Noll, 1983, 1985; Peters, 1981, 1989; Peters & Price-Williams, 1980; Walsh, 1993b, 1995) have postulated various phenomenological (i.e., subjective) elements of "shamanic states of consciousness" (e.g., altered volitional control, altered body image) in an attempt to operationalize the term. However, it is arguable that the concept of "shamanic states of consciousness" is neither well defined nor sufficiently understood (Rock & Krippner, in press). Indeed, we will demonstrate that a fallacy herein referred to as the "consciousness/content fallacy" occurs when one moves from the key definitional elements of the term "consciousness" to "shamanic states of consciousness" and recommend that the latter term be supplanted with "shamanic patterns of phenomenal properties. …


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