Interview by Willi Paul.
“After a 25-year moratorium on research into therapeutic uses for psychedelic drugs, the FDA is again approving testing with human subjects, and top researchers in this collection explain why hallucinogens may hold promise to treat physical and mental disorders.
Psychedelic substances present in nature have been used by humans across hundreds of years to produce mind-altering changes in thought, mood, and perception—changes we do not experience otherwise except rarely in dreams, religious exaltation, or psychosis. U.S. scientists were studying the practical and therapeutic uses for hallucinogens, including LSD and mescaline, in the 1950s and 1960s supplied by large manufacturers including Sandoz. But the government took steps to ban all human consumption of hallucinogens, and thus the research. By the 1970s, all human testing was stopped. Medical concerns were not the issue, the ban was motivated by social concerns, not the least of which was created by legendary researcher Timothy Leary, a psychologist who advocated free use of hallucinogens by all who desired.
Nationwide, however, a cadre of scholars and researchers has persisted in pushing the federal government to again allow human testing and the moratorium has been lifted. The FDA has begun approving hallucinogenic research using human subjects. In these groundbreaking volumes, top researchers explain the testing and research underway to use—under the guidance of a trained provider—psychedelic substances for better physical and mental health.”
From Book Advertisement: Psychedelic Medicine [Two Volumes], New Evidence for Hallucinogenic Substances as Treatments. =Michael J. Winkelman, ed., Thomas B. Roberts, ed.
* * * * * * *
Help us to distinguish between real and false practices of shaman. Is race or heritage part of this evaluation?
Just what constitutes a shaman has been problematic. Is it an arbitrary definition? Or is a shaman something real and unproblematic, such as water? My approach to determining what is a shaman has been empirical and cross-cultural (see my Shamans, Priests and Witches, 1992). This cross-cultural research shows that there were remarkably similar spiritual healing practices found in pre-modern societies around the world. I have described these similarities in the above book and in Shamanism (2000, 2010). There I have contended that in the pre-modern world there were empirically similar spiritual healing practices involving features such as altered states of consciousness (ASC), death and rebirth experience, soul flight, animal familiars and transformation into animals, an ability to kill through sorcery, nighttime group ceremonies, drumming, dancing and singing and healing.
In addition there are many other kinds of spiritual healers that use ASC, which I have referred to as shamanistic healers to distinguish them from these forms of shamanism found in pre-modern societies. I do not see people in the modern world who portray themselves as shamans as actually engaging in some of the crucial features of pre-modern shamanism (e.g., killing people through sorcery). I would prefer that we use some qualifying terms such as “shamanistic healers” or “modern shamans” to distinguish them from the pre-modern hunter-gatherer shams.
This distinction does not address your question of “real and false shamans.” I think my response to that would be based in their effectiveness and acceptance by a community. Real shamans heal and people believe in them and experience success. From that view, false shamans are not effective healers; in pre-modern societies shamans who were not successful in healing were often considered to be sorcerers, to have succumbed to the temptation to use their power for evil ends, including causing sickness and death.
My views on shamanism, especially as developed in Shamanism (2010), imply that shamanism is part of humanity’s evolved psychology and involving capacities that are an intrinsic part of human nature. We find remarkably similar shamanic practices in pre-modern societies worldwide, and many of the universal features of shamanism have direct linkages to human’s unique biological capacities. These cross-cultural and biological aspects of shamanism imply that it is not the property of any race or culture, but rather an intrinsic part of humanity’s biological and psychological nature.
Is shamanism a “lone wolf” or a group function?
Shamanism has both individualistic and communal phases and functions. Traditionally the shaman’s initiation was an individualistic affair, often leading the neophyte to an extended period of solitary questing in the wilderness to find power. After initial shamanistic experiences of animal powers, the shaman neophyte often spent months to several years in relative isolation to concentrate on developing their powers and relationships with the spirits. But in pre-modern societies the shamanistic ritual was a collective activity, probably the most important social activity of the group. The entire community would come together for an all-night ceremony in which the shaman would sing and drum, recount mythologies and engage in healing activities.
Do you consider rock musicians as shamans?
Rather than rock musicians actually being shamans, I would suggest that rock musicians of today engage the archetypal dynamics of the shaman. Their charismatic stature, music and drumming, public encounters and night-time ceremonies and various methods of inducing ASC all reflect a deeply embedded evolved psychology of humans that resonates with our hearts, minds and souls. But I would not say that rock musicians are shamans because they do not generally fulfill many of the other features I found associated with pre-modern shamanic practices worldwide. But clearly rock musicians, raves in particular, and the bar scene worldwide attest to our deeply embedded evolved psychology reflecting a need for night-time activities in which we collectively alter our consciousness to experience something greater than our individual self.
What is sacred to you personally? Please give us characteristics or guidelines for determining the sacred.
To me anything could be sacred, a function of individual and collective beliefs. One man’s pile of dung can be another’s sacred cow shit! Our Western notions separate the sacred and profane, but to most cultures, the sacred was found in the profane, in everyday life and especially in nature. To me the sacred is an experience that the individual interprets in such terms. Personally I find the spiritual in the special experiences of connection with nature, an awareness of the cycles and dynamics of the planet, and in altered states in which I sense some deep connection with myself, the universe and special other people in my life. To me the most frequent spiritual experiences occur during meditation in which I slow my breathing to a point in which the inhalation of air/oxygen/prana induces an acute sense of ecstatic tranquility. I also experience spirituality through the use of ayahuasca in which I feel a deeper connection with the powers and spirits of the universe.
Are your power animal and spirit guides the same as mine? Or is this rite or awakening different for each person?
Animal powers and spirit guides take diverse forms, in some sense unique to each individual. Many people obviously can have the same power animals, but how the person perceives them and establishes the relationship with them is normally unique to each individual. For instance, when I first encountered a wolf in a shamanic journey its blood red eyes were quite frightening to me; at first I did not even consider it to be a friend and ally. But across time that perception changed. However in the beginning it was a frightening presence, not a friendly one.
People may initially experience the power animals in visionary states, or may encounter an animal in ordinary reality but under special circumstances that lead them to perceive a special relationship with that being. Traditionally shamans first encountered their animal allies in frightening death-and-rebirth experiences in which the animals killed and devoured the initiate before reconstructing the neophyte shaman with new powers by incorporating into their reconstructed body. Today’s shamanistic healers do not appear to generally have such traumatic experiences; rather the encounter with the power animal in a shamanic journey may involve a realization that the power animal had been in their life for years. For instance, one may recall a childhood fascination with a specific animal, buying pictures and sculptures of the animal, and other ordinary interactions with a specific animal or its representation without having realized that there was something especially spiritual about the interest.
Where and what is the common well or interface for the shamanic powers you know?
I don’t think we can conceptualize shamanism in terms of a single source of shamanic power unless it is broadly defined such as “nature.” That would include our own human nature, and especially our capacity for altered states of consciousness (ASC). To me. However, the most important basis of shamanism is the special experiences that one has in these ASC. I have conceptualized what we call ASC as an intrinsic aspect of human nature that I refer to as the integrative mode of consciousness. Our body naturally enters the deep sleep and dreaming modes of consciousness as a consequence of our intrinsic nature and the functional needs that these modes provide.
Similarly our bodies can spontaneously enter these ASC because these involve elicitation of an intrinsic aspect of our human nature. I conceptualize the intrinsic functions of the integrative mode of consciousness as involving psychointegration. In my recent book Shamanism A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing, I have outlined the evidence for this integrative mode of consciousness involving highly synchronized slow wave brain waves, particularly the theta waves. These reflect the integration of information from the preconscious and unconscious levels of the brain into consciousness awareness, hence the characterization as psychointegration.
Perhaps the most important of these ASC is the so-called shamanic flight or out-of-body experience, in which the person perceives their spiritual self as separate from the physical body. These experiences have been conceptualized by Fred Previc (The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History) as “extra-personal”—which is to say, an ability to experience the world and its information in ways that are perceptually detached from the location of our physical body. We are able to integrate information from sources that are distal to the physical self and use the information for a variety of purposes (diagnosis, divination, prophecy).
Does shamanism employ lucid dreaming? Drugs (natural or pharm)?
The capacities for shamanic work probably originated in the experiences of lucid dreaming, which can be elicited by a variety of mechanisms discussed in Shamanism (2010). Among those are the experiences induced by the so-called psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs. I prefer to refer to these substances as “psychointegrators” (see my co-edited Psychedelic Medicine). In Shamanism I review evidence implicating the psilocybin-containing mushrooms as a key environmental features exerting influence not only on the evolution of our biological capacity for shamanic ASC, but the uniquely human cognitive capacities.
The psychointegrators may not have been considered central in some shamanic practices, but I believe that their secretive nature and use may be why the psychedelic origins of shamanism are not more widely apparent.
But in any case, the induction of ASC through diverse means, including drugs and lucid dreaming, is a central feature of shamanism. These capacities for ASC remain embedded throughout human activities. In our forthcoming book co-edited book Altering Consciousness, Etzel Cardena and our many contributors show how these capacities for altering consciousness remain embedded throughout human life and social activities. In this sense the shamanic capacities for ASC are still very much alive and within each and every one of us.
I enjoyed Graham Hancock’s Supernatural work. How does your thesis compare to his?
It has been some time since I read Supernatural so I don’t recall the details. As I recall, Hancock documents evidence of the reality of various kinds of spirit beings. My approach doesn’t depend on the reality of spirit beings; rather it presumes that spirit experiences are the necessary “side-effects” of our cognitive mechanisms, including animacy-detection, self-projection in experience, and incorporation of the perspectives of significant others in informing our perspectives and beliefs. To me, whether or not spirits actually exist as conventionally conceptualized is immaterial for understanding shamanism as a part of human evolution. I would say that my approach is “natural” rather than “supernatural.” As John Baker and I have shown in “Supernatural as Natural,” humans have a variety of evolved religious and supernatural dispositions that have enhanced our ability to function in larger and more integrated social groups.
Michael Winkelman, Ph.D. Bio -
Michael Winkelman, Ph.D. (University of California-Irvine) retired from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University in 2009. He was President of the Anthropology of Consciousness section of the American Anthropological Association, as was the founding President of its Anthropology of Religion Section. Winkelman has engaged in cross-cultural and interdisciplinary research on shamanism and altered states of consciousness, focusing principally on the universal patterns of shamanism and identifying the associated biological bases.
His principal publications on shamanism include Shamans, Priests and Witches (1992) which provides a cross-cultural examination of the nature of shamanism; and Shamanism: A Biopsychosocial Paradigm of Consciousness and Healing (originally 2000, 2nd edition 2010). Shamanism provides a biological model of shamanism that explains the evolutionary origins of spiritual healing in ancient ritual capacities.
This biogenetic structuralist approach is expanded in an assessment of the evolutionary origins of religion in his co-authored Supernatural as Natural (with John Baker, 2008). These approaches provide a framework for understanding the necessary role of psychedelics in human evolution and their continued application in healing (also see Psychedelic Medicine , co-edited with Tom Roberts). Winkelman’s work has shown that shamanism and psychedelics have a deep intersection in human evolution; these capacities for altering consciousness continue to be an important part of human experience and well-being today, as evidenced in the multidisciplinary Altering Consciousness (2011) that he has co-edited with Etzel Cardena. Winkelman is currently living near Pirenopolis in the central highlands of Brazil where he is engaged in developing permaculture-based intentional communities.
Michael Winkelman, Ph.D.
michaeljwinkelman at gmail.com