Chapter 14 - World of Shamanism

Roger Walsh

Spiritual Emergency and Spiritual Emergence?

New Views of Shamans' Health

...of external facts we have had enough and to spare, more than the squirrel like scholars will ever be able to piece together into a single whole, enough to keep the busy popularizers sprouting in bright-eyed knowledgeability the rest of their days; but of the inner facts—of what goes on at the center where the forces of our fate first announce themselves—we are still pretty much in ignorance....
William Barrett (1962)

Despite decades of attempts to pigeonhole them, shamans simply do not slip neatly into traditional psychiatric categories. Much has been made of the initiation crisis, and yet what is most important is not the crisis itself but what comes out of it. For the shaman "is not only a sick man" said Eliade, "he is a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself."(Eliade, 1964) From this perspective "shamanism is not a disease but being healed from disease."(Ackerknecht, 1943)

In fact, shamans are often the most functional members of their community, and according to Eliade "show proof of a more than normal nervous constitution."(Eliade, 1964) They can display remarkable energy and stamina, unusual levels of concentration, high intelligence, leadership skills, and a grasp of complex myths and rituals.(Eliade, 1964; Reichel-Dolmataoff, 1987; Rogers, 1982) What can we make of this curious combination of initial disturbance and subsequent health? Are there any data and diagnoses that can encompass both the initial disturbance and the subsequent recovery?


The answer is clearly yes. Shamans are not alone in becoming better after a psychological disturbance. Over 2,000 years ago Socrates declared that "our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift." (Lukoff, 1985) More recently the eminent psychiatrist Karl Menninger observed that "some patients have a mental illness and then they get weller! I mean they get better than they ever were....This is an extraordinary and little realized truth."(Lukoff, 1985)

Fortunately, it is becoming better recognized. Responses to stress can span a spectrum from regression to growth. This spectrum extends from pathological regression (at the negative extreme) to resilience (continued normal functioning) and even to posttraumatic growth (also known as stress-related growth, positive adaptation, and thriving).(Linley & Joseph, 2005)

Likewise, some psychological disturbances can function as growth experiences that somehow result in greater psychological or spiritual wellbeing. These disturbances shed new light on shamanic initiation crises.

The general process is one of temporary psychological disturbance followed by resolution and repair to a new and higher level of functioning. What seemed at the time to be purely a crisis of disturbance and disease can now be seen as a stage of development and growth. Each of the many names given to such crises illuminates a different facet of the process. These names include "positive disintegration," "regenerative processes," "renewal," "creative illness" and "resilience."(Dabrowski, 1964; Ellenberger, 1970; Flach, 1988; Pelleteir & Garfield, 1976; Perry, 1986)

Some psychological crises include mystical or transpersonal experiences. These have been described as "mystical experiences with psychotic features," "divine illnesses," "metanoiac voyages," "visionary states," "spiritual emergencies" and "transpersonal crises."(Grof & Grof, 1986; Grof & Grof, 1990; Grof & Grof, 1989; Laing, 1972; Lukoff, 1985) What these names make clear is that psychological disturbances may sometimes be followed by significant growth. Consequently, we can now recognize some psychological disturbances as developmental crises.

Developmental Crises

Developmental crises are periods of psychological stress that accompany turning points in our lives. They may be marked by considerable psychological turmoil, sometimes even of life threatening proportions. These transitions can occur spontaneously, as in adolescent and mid-life crises, or can be induced by growth-accelerating techniques such as psychotherapy and meditation.

These crises occur because psychological growth rarely proceeds smoothly. Rather, growth is usually marked by transition periods of confusion and questioning, or in extreme cases, disorganization and despair. The twin lions that guard the gates of Eastern temples are said to represent confusion and paradox, and anyone who seeks wisdom must be willing to pass through both.

Even clarity can become a trap. We cling to an old familiar understanding of ourselves and the world because it saves us from having to face the ever-changing novelty and uncertainty of life. We cling to the familiar, not knowing that mystery is a necessary prelude to the dawning of wisdom. As Castaneda succinctly put it, clarity "dispels fear, but also blinds" and the person who holds fast to it no longer learns.(Castaneda, 1969)

If these crises are successfully negotiated, then the turmoil may turn out to be the means by which constricting, outdated life patterns are cast off. Old beliefs and goals may be released, and new more life-affirming modes adopted. In short, psychological pain and confusion can be symptoms of either disease or development.

Developmental crises can occur spontaneously as a result of inner forces that compel growth whether the individual wants it or not. The mind is designed to grow, and the drive powering that growth has been variously described as an actualizing tendency (Carl Rogers), individuation urge (Carl Jung), holotropism (Stan Grof), equilibration (Jean Piaget) or eros (Ken Wilber). The result is a dynamic tension between these forces of growth and the seductiveness of stagnation, between the pull of transcendence and the inertia of the familiar. The Jungian psychiatrist, John Perry observed that:
spirit [is] constantly striving for release from its entrapment in routine or conventional mental structures. Spiritual work is the attempt to liberate this dynamic energy, which must break free of its suffocation in old forms….

if this work of releasing spirit becomes imperative but is not undertaken voluntarily with knowledge of the goal and with considerable effort, then the psyche is apt to take over and overwhelm the conscious personality…. The individuating psyche abhors stasis as nature abhors a vacuum.(Perry, 1986)

In other words, the psyche may be unwilling to risk the unhappiness that Abraham Maslow warned against when he said "if you deliberately plan to be less than you are capable of being, then I warn you that you will be deeply unhappy for the rest of your life."(Maslow, 1971) Rather than tolerate stagnation, the psyche may willfully create crises that force development.(Perry, 1986)

Such is the case with shamans. Many are not at all pleased by the prospect of their new profession, and resist the initial signs with all their might. According to Devereux, "Among the Sedang Moi, a person who receives the 'call' may even drink his own urine, in the hope that this act will so depreciate him in the sight of his divine sponsors that they will take back the power they had given him."(Devereux, 2001) However, resistance is no easy matter, and many tribal myths hold that the person who resists the call will sicken, go mad, or die.

When the forces of growth overwhelm the forces of inertia then a developmental transition or crisis occurs. The symptoms of this crisis vary depending upon the individual's personality and maturity, and can range from regressive pathology at one extreme to transpersonal or spiritual concerns at the other.(Wilber, Engler, & Brown, in press) These transpersonal crises, which are also called spiritual emergencies or spiritual emergences(Grof & Grof, 1986; Grof & Grof, 1990; Grof & Grof, 1989) seem close to, and helpful in understanding, some shamanic initiation crises.


Although they have been described for centuries as complications of spiritual practices, the careful study of spiritual emergencies has only just begun. Varieties particularly relevant to shamanism and its initiation crises include "mystical experiences with psychotic features," "shamanic journeys," "possession," "renewal," "kundalini" and "psychic opening."

Mystical experience with psychotic features and "psychotic disorder with mystical features" are terms used to describe psychoses in which significant mystical experiences occur.(Lukoff, 1985) The episodes are usually short lived and have a better prognosis than other psychoses. This curious combination of mystical and psychotic is consistent with the bizarre behavior and mystical experiences of some shamanic crises.

Shamanic journey emergencies echo themes commonly encountered in both shamanic initiations and journeys. As Christina and Stan Grof observe:

Transpersonal crises of this type bear a deep resemblance to what the anthropologists have described as the shamanic or initiatory illness….In the experiences of individuals whose transpersonal crises have strong shamanic features, there is great emphasis on physical suffering and encounter with death followed by rebirth and elements of ascent or magical flight. They also typically sense a special connection with the elements of nature and experience communication with animals or animal spirits. It is also not unusual to feel an upsurge of extraordinary powers and impulses to heal….Like the initiatory crisis, the transpersonal episodes of a shamanic type, if properly supported, can lead to good adjustment and superior functioning.(Grof & Grof, 1986)

The striking similarity of these contemporary crises to classic shamanic experiences suggests that initiatory crises reflect a deep psychological process, not limited to particular cultures or times. This process seems capable of exploding from the depths of the psyche in contemporary Westerners surrounded by cars and computers as well as in ancient shamans in tepees and igloos. Clearly some deep, perhaps archetypal, pattern is being played out here, and the Grof's therefore conclude that "Individuals whose spiritual crises follows this pattern are thus involved in an ancient process that touches the deepest foundations of the psyche."(Grof & Grof, 1986) We may therefore have much to learn from ancient shamanic wisdom about the appropriate handling of these crises.

Experiences of possession have been described throughout history and can constitute a major feature of shamanic crises. Individuals experience being taken over by inner forces or beings beyond their control. Sometimes these forces feel so alien and malevolent as to seem literally demonic, and victims may fear that they are engaged in a desperate battle for their life and sanity. So dramatic are these experiences that even some contemporary psychiatrists, most notably Scot Peck, have concluded that demonic forces are to blame.(Peck, 1983) However, most health professionals assume that possession is an expression of powerful psychological dynamics that can be treated therapeutically. Indeed, Christina and Stan Grof claim that "with good support, experiences of this kind can be extremely liberating and therapeutic."(Grof & Grof, 1986)

John Perry described the renewal process as an experience of destruction followed by regeneration. Individuals undergoing it are overwhelmed by images in which they see both themselves and the world being destroyed. Yet this destruction is not the end but a prelude to rebirth and regeneration. Out of the images of ruin comes a sense of personal renewal and world regeneration. Images of death and rebirth are of course common in the shamanic crisis.

This renewal process may entail considerable stress and even reach psychotic proportions. Psychiatrists rarely distinguish this particular process from other psychoses and usually suppress them all with drugs. However John Perry claims:
if a person undergoing this turmoil is given love, understanding and encouragement, the spiritual crisis soon resolves itself without the need for interruption by suppressive medication. The most fragmented "thought disorder" can become quite coherent and orderly within a short time if someone is present to respond to it with compassion. Such a relationship is far better than a tranquilizer in most instances.(Perry, 1986)

The fundamental change in this "renewal process" is thought to be a dissolution of the old self-image and its replacement with a new more appropriate one.

Kundalini awakening has been most fully described in the yogic tradition of India, where kundalini is the creative energy of the universe. Humans partake of this energy, but it usually lies dormant and unrecognized. Under the prodding of spiritual practice, or occasionally spontaneously, the kundalini can be aroused and unleash enormous, even overwhelming, physical and psychological energy.

The result is a complex array of intense physical, psychological, and spiritual experiences that can be ecstatic or terrifying. These can manifest physically as tremors and spasms, or psychologically as intense emotions, agitation, energy, lights and vivid imagery. Kundalini could account for the unusual symptoms and intense agitation of some shamanic crises. Kundalini crises are now occurring more frequently in the West as more people begin intensive meditative and yogic practices.

The last type of spiritual emergency is that of psychic opening. Here individuals feel they have suddenly become capable, sometimes quite against their will, of one or more psychic abilities. These can include out-of-body experiences, visions, and mediumship or channeling—all common experiences among shamans. Such people may encounter significant difficulties, feel overwhelmed, and fear for their sanity. We will explore the question of the validity of psychic phenomena in a later chapter.

These are the forms of spiritual emergency most relevant to shamanic initiation crises. An important implication is that there may be several kinds of shamanic crises, and future descriptions and diagnoses will need to be more nuanced.


Clearly spiritual practices and awakenings (to use religious terms), can revive and exacerbate unresolved conflicts. This is not necessarily bad since the process can bring to the surface issues and difficulties requiring attention, and result in considerable healing and personality integration.(Grof & Grof, 1990)

Two major of diagnostic errors can be made. One is reductionistic: to fail to recognize a spiritual emergency and reduce it to pure pathology. The other is "elevationistic:" to overlook a pathological process such as schizophrenia and elevate it to a spiritual emergency. The task is complicated by the existence of hybrid forms in which both mystical and pathological experiences coexist.(Lukoff, 1985)

If correctly diagnosed and appropriately supported, then spiritual emergencies can be valuable growth experiences; hence their other name of "spiritual emergences." Several factors are helpful. The first is a trusting relationship where the patient feels cared for and safe. The second is a positive attitude in which the patient expects that the process will prove valuable and healing.(McGashan & Carpenter, 1981) Third, opening to and talking about the experience can be helpful, and can be facilitated by psychotherapy.(Grof & Grof, 1989)

Shamans discovered these principles long ago. Their crises involve symptoms and behaviors that appear bizarre, even pathological. However, the outcome may be positive when the shaman-to-be is recognized as such by the tribe, and then receives culturally appropriate support, guidance, and "therapy." This support includes a relationship with an experienced shaman, a positive reinterpretation of the disturbance as part of a shamanic awakening, and practices that enable the novice to work with the emerging experiences. With this assistance, the initiate may not only recover but may emerge stronger and able to help others. In short, shamanic crises and contemporary spiritual emergencies seem to be related, difficult, but potentially valuable maturation crises. Shamanic cultures have long provided the types of support that contemporary therapists are now rediscovering.

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