"Whatever specific symbolic form the shamanic journey takes, the common denominator is always the destruction of the old sense of identity and an experience of ecstatic connection with nature, with the cosmic order, and with the creative energy of the universe. In this process of death and rebirth, shamans experience their own divinity and attain profound insights into the nature of reality. They typically gain an understanding of the origin of many disorders and learn how to diagnose and heal them."
Stanislav and Christina Grof (1990)
Shamanism is a well recognised and documented part of all human cultures throughout time. The Grofs (1990) suggest that "...shamanism engages levels of the human psyche that are primordial, timeless and universal". A shaman is a special kind of medicine man/woman, witch doctor or healer who has the ability to move in and out of nonordinary states of consciousness at will. With the help of benevolent spirits they experience insights and visions which enable them to heal illnesses and dispel or combat negative entities. They can obtain information about the past, present or future by extrasensory means. A shaman also has the ability to induce nonordinary states of consciousness in others and guide them to experience beneficial revelations. Sometimes the shaman takes on another's sickness since they are more adept at dealing with it themselves.
In most tribal societies the shaman (or woman) is recognised, respected and revered. "The tribe sees them as important guardians of the psychological, spiritual, and ecological equilibrium and as intermediaries between the seen and unseen worlds" (Grof & Grof, 1990) Only in modern Western cultures is the experience discounted and labelled as a psychotic condition.
"Shamanic Crisis" refers to the first of three stages experienced by an emerging shaman. This initiatory transformational crisis is often referred to as "shamanic illness" and can be difficult to distinguish from other forms of illness and 'madness'. But if the initial crisis is successfully transgressed, the emerging shaman attains personal healing and superior social functioning. If they accept their shamanistic calling at this time they remain healthy, but if they ignore it they may suffer accordingly. Many shaman state that they become ill if they refuse to follow their calling or become inactive in their practice over a long period of time. Many tribal cultures also note that a member of the family or clan of a novice shaman will become ill or die if they try to prevent the initiation of the chosen one.
The Grofs (1990) sum up the process as follows:-
The experiences of the shamanic crisis vary in detail from culture to culture but seem to have a basic core with three characteristic phases. The visionary adventure begins with a gruesome journey into the underworld, the realm of the dead. This is followed by an ecstatic experience of an ascent into the celestial regions and the acquisition of supernormal knowledge. The final stage is a return into everyday life.
Sometimes the process is triggered by a physiological crisis (severe illness or injury) but often there are no obvious precipitating factors. "Within hours or days, the future shaman develops a deep alteration of consciousness during which he or she loses contact with everyday reality and may appear to external observers to be dying or going crazy" (Grof & Grof 1990). They may be plagued by mysterious, unaccountable pains or illnesses, develop bizarre eating disorders and experience hallucinations, visions and dramatic dreams. This is an intense and involuntary experience which may last for weeks or years.
Speaking about the symptoms of shamanic sickness, the Grofs (1989) note a pattern of behaviour that rejects and ridicules accepted customs and standards...
Initiates become holy fools who systematically put the world on its head or indulge in unworthy, shameless, and perverse behaviour incompatible with established morality.
The fool exposes the limitations of human criteria, confronts us anew with the undefined nature of our cosmic existence, leads us backstage to make us aware of the artificiality of our cultural values, and then shows us a world without limit, because it is neither categorized nor ordered in accordance with artificial opposites. The sick jester removes these opposites, tears down external and internal barriers, and causes us to tumble head over heals from our tailor-made world of lines and demarcations into a more comprehensive and holistic dimension that has no beginning or end.
During the initial stage the person typically experiences a powerful inner journey into the underworld where they undergo terrible ordeals and are attacked by demonic entities. Frequently "power animals" act as guides, teachers and helpers in the frightening and foreign regions of the underworld. With the help of guardian spirits, the initiate learns about the rules and taboos of inner life and the laws of higher natural order. Facing fear and death are typical experiences. Initiates frequently undergo agonising torture, dismemberment, and finally death and annihilation.
This is followed by the second stage where the person experiences rebirth and resurrection. The self-image is rebuilt, they are connected with the elements of nature and charged a supernatural energy. They then experience an ascent into the Upper Worlds or higher celestial realms. Here they receive secret teachings and healing powers to take back to the ordinary world. Upon returning to normal reality many shamen are said to burst into sacred songs and dances, imbued with a feeling of vigour and euphoria. In the Grof's book, [Spiritual Emergency (1989)] they explain:
In most cases the experience of being resurrected after terrible torments, sickness, and near-death is accompanied a feeling of euphoria, because the suffering has annihilated all former characteristics of the personality. The sickness is a cleansing process that washes away all that is bad, pitiful, and weak. It floods the individual like a raging river and cleanses it of all that is limited and dull. In this way the sickness becomes a gateway to life.
Having nonordinary transpersonal experiences is not enough to qualify one as a shaman... the episode must reach a successful conclusion. The novice must integrate the experience and return to full functioning in everyday life. A 'master shaman' is equally at home in nonordinary and ordinary realms of consciousness, and can function successfully in both.
As mentioned earlier, the shamanic journey is a universal experience, not exclusive to ancient tribal cultures. Many modern people living Western lifestyles have had very similar experiences. This can be triggered by experimentation with psychedelic drugs, holotropic breathwork, shamanic workshops, extreme states of physical/emotional distress, or for no apparent reason whatsoever.