Archaeological evidence shows that shamanism has existed for at least 30 000 years; it is clearly the precursor to all modern religion. And yet, despite all kinds of persecution, it’s still around and still relevant, apparently able to outlast any given religion or culture. How does it work? Let’s investigate.
Is shamanism a religion?
Simply put, no. It is a method, independent of any belief system you might have. There are no dogmatic teachings – rather, every practitioner is supposed to see the truth for himself/herself, using any version of the method. Nobody is told what to think or expect. (It’s very interesting, then, how similar the results and experiences are, even across vastly different cultures and religions.)
However, you can build your own religion based on what you’ve learned. When this is done by some charismatic or powerful people with some mission or agenda, it is probably how the world’s major religions came to be. Indeed, the powers that Jesus and Moses supposedly had are strikingly similar to the powers that very powerful shamans would have, and the Bible’s Book of Revelation, for instance, is suspiciously similar to a shamanic vision.
How shamans ‘see’
It is known that some cultures use drugs (e.g. ayahuasca) to see, but most don’t. Most use some sort of monotonous sound, for example with a drum or a rattle, or even some sort of singing or whistling, to change your state of consciousness into a trance-like state, somewhere between sleeping and being awake. In this state, most people seem able to see and interact with nonordinary reality. (However, occasionally visions can also happen spontaneously, such as with certain epiphanies, or when you suffer greatly. Many vision quest rites are thus based on voluntary suffering.)
Also note that some people can see nonordinary reality all the time, without needing to change their state of consciousness. Such people are typically not known as shamans, but as psychics (or even as crazy, because they constantly see things that other people don’t, e.g. dead people).
Ordinary and nonordinary reality
The exact relationship between ordinary reality (the one our physical bodies inhabit) and nonordinary reality (the one shamans and psychics see) isn’t well understood, but it’s clear they follow different laws of nature. And yet, both seem to harbor life somehow. Personally, I’ve found Plato’s ideas, including his Allegory of the Cave, of interest here.
According to Plato’s allegory, we live our lives imprisoned inside this cave, and the only thing we can see of what’s going on outside are the shadows on the cave walls. So, to most of us, these shadows become our reality (ordinary reality). But if you somehow managed to go see the actual world outside, you’d see what actually casts those shadows. However, if you then go back in to tell the others, they probably won’t understand or believe you. This outside world may be what modern shamans call nonordinary reality. (A different, and more modern, way of looking at it is to say that we indeed do live in the Matrix.)
In Plato’s philosophy (Platonism), ideas and archetypes exist independently of their physical manifestations, in some special reality (i.e., outside of that cave). To me, this sounds strangely similar to the reality that shamans see. Perhaps Plato once had a shaman-like vision himself.
In more modern times, the psychiatrist Carl Jung seemed to also stumble across this reality (and even had shaman-like visions, as told in his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections). He developed his theory of the collective unconscious, where our subconscious (e.g., our dreams) can access some kind of reality made up of ideas and archetypes, which again, seems to exist independently of any given individual.
And even in modern physics, the concept of information remains important. For example, there’s the idea that physical information cannot be destroyed, which was at the heart of a recent debate about black holes (the black hole information paradox). While that is an ordinary-reality issue, it does make you wonder what would happen if there were some dual aspect of reality which arranged things based on information instead of physical location, kind of like a cosmic search engine might. (This could even be consistent with quantum entanglement: entangled particles may be in different physical locations, but co-located in the other aspect of reality, which might resolve the “spooky action at a distance” problem.)
If there were such an aspect, and each of us had counterparts there (call it the soul), then, among other things, it seems there would be an aspect of reality in which souls could continue to exist after their bodies died. (Sound familiar?)
Because the other aspect of reality seems to be based on information and not physical matter, it cannot be seen in the same way that ordinary reality can. However, our ability to dream shows that there are ways to convert such information into images we can understand. This ability is somewhat individual, which means that the exact imagery and symbolism seen in shamanic visions may vary between shamans and cultures. What’s remarkable, then, is that the underlying information still turns out to be the same, and that all shamans can access it even without prior knowledge of it.
To do this, shamans will usually need to change their state of consciousness, for example with a drum or rattle. They’ll also need to focus on a particular objective (kind of like entering a search term into the cosmic search engine). Then, with this objective and in this trance-like state, they have to start by visualizing a journey from the known into the unknown. In the journey, the shaman will usually be able to find relevant information or spiritual assistance, and experience a visualization of the received information, although often in symbolic terms, a bit like riddles. (Part of the shaman’s experience can be learning to decode these messages. However, it’s also possible, like the Oracle of Delphi did, to leave the decoding to the client.)
What’s surprising about this is how accurate (and consistent) the received information can be, and how powerful (even miraculous) the otherworldly assistance can be, often far beyond what’s possible in ordinary reality alone. Perhaps that’s part of why all previous human cultures have considered this strange other reality just as real as ‘ordinary’ reality (or, in many cases, even more real). (At least, I’m not enough of a chronological snob to assume it’s because they were stupid…)