Specific interest in what we might term contemporary “neo- shamanism” within North America and Europe is something that is generally regarded as having emerged over the last three decades. Writing in his critical account of religion and anthropology, Morris posits that this once disparaged subject amongst anthropologists themselves has now become an important area of study. The significant upsurge of interest was originally led by anthropologists and academics, before moving into what he refers to as New Age circles, as a form of spiritual practice. Amongst shamanism’s major proponents in the contemporary environment have been Carlos Castaneda, Michael Harner and Joan Halifax. Harner in particular, after engaging in his own anthropological fieldwork, established The Foundation for Shamanic Studies; an educational establishment dedicated to propagating what Harner refers to as core shamanism, a set of practices I myself am trained in.
Given the role of anthropology in cultivating awareness of difference and diversity it is perhaps unsurprising that much of that which has emerged from its explorations stands as a direct challenge to the values and beliefs of the more mainstream Western religion and culture, often with an interest in emancipation from suffering in the here and now, rather than salvation in the hereafter. Neo-shamanism has thus become established as one of the major strands within what is sometimes referred to as New Age spirituality, something that could be classified as an emergent social movement in its own right.
Shamanism itself is thought to have originated as far back as the early Paleolithic cultures. Classical shamanism is generally viewed as being brought to the popular imagination in recent times by Mircea Eliade in his classical study, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstatsy, work focused upon North and South America and South-East Asia. It is nonetheless, the case that shamanism exists as a worldwide phenomena, embedded in a vast array of cultural and religious circumstances, always dynamic and highly adaptive (See Jay Griffith’s Wild for a contemporary populist and painful account).
For this reason many of those who study and practice it in contemporary settings, view it more as a worldview than as any kind of religion in an institutionalized sense. The word shaman originates with the Tungus or Evenki people from Siberia, who used the term saman to describe their
specialized priests. Variously thought to relate to one who ‘knows’ or ‘sees in the dark’, shamana is also a term for a
Buddhist monk. Mainly due to Eliade’s seminal work on shamanism, shamans have been viewed as those who enter a trance state, thus enabling them to leave the body and engage in ‘magical flight’ in the upper, lower or middle worlds, in order to gather information and cures for those who request their assistance. This would certainly seem to
describe the ability to transcend certain everyday limitations. During such a trance state the shaman is viewed as having the ability to communicate with ‘tutelary’ (helping) spirits who assist them in effecting cures, or divining for their ‘patients’. The shaman has also been variously described as an inspired prophet or leader, a charismatic religious figure and someone who acts to solve the many problems presented to them, specifically through the control of spirits. Indeed it is this very contact with spirits which introduces the notion of a dual reality consisting of the everyday realm and the realm of the spirits.
Amongst anthropologists there are varying opinions on the subject. Some suggest a clear distinction between the material and the spiritual realms while others take the view that the two are fully integrated. Puttick points out that while
shamans believe that the spirits of the unseen realm are real, psychologists tend to relate to the same experiences as
originating within the psyche, or collective unconscious in the form of archetypes. All such technical discussions aside, the main purpose of the shaman is to act as a bridge between the ‘unseen’ worlds and the material realm of what is referred to as ordinary or everyday reality. Indeed the main function of the shaman is to assist the community to deal with pragmatic, practical issues, such as illness and mental and emotional disease, relationship difficulties. Although more traditionally, this also involved where to find food, correcting misfortune, or other matters of meaning, all of which ultimately relate to health, well being and in some contexts, survival. This, just as clearly involves the immanent, or embodied realm, as the transcendent. The ultimate goal of shamanic practice remains then, that of bringing personal and community integration and harmony on a material level.
Shamanism has an ancient history of employing a variety of methods, including drumming, chanting and dancing, the use of hallucinogenic plants, sleep deprivation and isolation, in order to induce what are referred to as altered, trance or non-ordinary states of consciousness. Harner refers to these as Shamanic States of Consciousness. Within contemporary
neo-shamanism the altered state or trance is usually achieved using drumming, chanting or dancing. Within the practice of Movement Medicine, music played for dancing tends to involve the kind of repetitive rhythms known to induce such shifts in state. The community practicing Movement Medicine also at times, employs fasting, the physical isolation of vision quests and burial ceremonies, singing and sweat lodges. The focus of such rituals in such a context tends to be on healing, self-awareness, empowerment, personal growth and a deepened sense of interconnection with the natural environment. The
purpose of moving into an altered state of consciousness is intended to generate improvement in well being for either the individual or the community, where community is defined as inclusive of the non-human world around us, with the health of the latter being seen as intimately interconnected with the former. The shaman therefore has been described a person who acts to solve the many problems presented to them, specifically through relationship with their guiding spirits. Within traditional societies shamans were and still are also often the mediators between the community and the environment, as well as cultural repositories who assisted with the transmission of culturally binding narratives. Indeed the shaman might even be seen as someone who assists others in making sense of their life circumstances through the use of healing stories.
Looking for guidance about some of the spontaneous “altered states” I myself began experiencing in puberty, the answers I found that both made most sense to me and empowered me to move towards a greater sense of personal well-being were to be found in anthropological studies of shamanic cultures. Particularly within the work of Joan Halifax and Marcia Eliade, both of whom described the kinds of crises that form part of shamanic initiation. Living in rural Scotland as an adolescent, traditional tribal elders with the appropriate reference points were scarce and I would not discover my first embodied mentor until I was 21, but in the meantime I could certainly relate to the concept of an underworld journey or healing crisis described by Halifax and Eliade.
The point here is that in my own life, shamanism was something that was initially, quite simply one aspect of my embodied life experience (I only later came to develop my relationship with it in a more disciplined way through engaging with a set of techniques and spiritual practices) rather than a faith per se. In addition, there was very little in the way of economic exchange involved in this phase of my life although I was learning a set of skills which would lead me towards a career in psychotherapy and later still to training as a shamanic practitioner, enabling the provision of services to my community.
Involvement with spiritual, psychological and body based ‘healing’ practices, which are often very interwoven in
contemporary Western cultures, may in some instances be something that includes economic or resource exchange, as it has in tribal cultures for millennia. For all the reasons explained above, it is not something that I believe can be reduced to concepts relating to the marketplace. Given my own upbringing amongst those who can only be described as politically well left of centre, the whole subject of capitalism and the so-called New Age is an area of conflict in my own psyche, I have been attempting to work through in recent academic publication on the spiritual marketplace, but at the end of the day we all need to eat and keep a roof over our heads.
I have mentioned the first stirrings of my own experiences with shamanism and there were several decades, many stories and lots of life experiences between then and now. Tales for another time and place. To update somewhat though, in 2006, I left a relatively successful career within a mainstream organizational context. In my case, this was the National Health Service. I had spent twelve years leading highly complex, specialist therapeutic work within organizational systems that are subject to increasingly unsustainable demands given the resources being made available to them. Throughout those years, both neo-liberal economic approaches and what is blithely referred to as “the evidence-based social movement” swept through the health service.
Along with the increasing emphasis on the business model, management and leadership within the public health systems
as I experienced it, became increasingly, both top-down and brutal. My attempts to bring personal authenticity into an
organizational context I felt increasingly at odds with began to feel more and more lacking in integrity. I had been in
treatment for cancer and was suffering from what we euphemistically refer to as “burn out”. I desperately needed time to experience life at some distance from the intense suffering involved in working with serious trauma in a systemic context that often rendered me impotent to offer more than superficial remedy. I believe that at least some of this trauma results partly as a by-product of particular sets of cultural mores that devalue the place of what we might describe as the ‘feminine’ within that culture. Furthermore, that such tendencies are amplified by socio-cultural models that place the ethics of growth and competition above the value of life - the existence of which I believe has profound consequences for the well-being and embodiment experienced by both genders and possibly even for the continuation of life on our planet.
In addition, never a big fan of the medical model, I came more and more to consider the largely socially de-contextualized treatment of mental, emotional and spiritual ‘dis’-ease with drugs (from which the pharmaceutical industry makes enormous profits) as an ethical travesty. Post-departure, however, I was still left with the aspiration and the task of attempting to transform existing skills into a new livelihood more congruent with my personal values. Over the next few years my quest to transform a more viable model for empowering self- leadership for well being into what Buddhism refers to as right livelihood led me to train and set up as a shamanic practitioner. My husband, valiantly supporting my ongoing quest for more sustainable self-leadership was about to become bankrupt and I meantime, needed to return to the labour market.
Throughout this time however, in an attempt to transform my relationship with my health, I had made a commitment to
follow a combination of what I experience as spiritual guidance and what I would describe as body-based, holistic, intuitive sensing, rather than the more usual cerebrally based way of accessing information that our conditioning In Western culture has trained us to believe is the best way to orientate ourselves in the world. I pledged instead, to attempting to follow my sense of what Colquhoun refers to as communion with the unbroken wholeness of my life, rather than making decisions based upon my cultural conditioning. So that faced with the pressing need for yet more change, I did what I had been doing in response to problems and challenges, both my own and those whom I had treated as clients, for the past several years. I took a shamanic journey. A practice that involves using drumming in order to enter a trance state in which one is able to consciously and deliberately access greater intelligence, that which Gregory Bateson and others refers to as non-local mind and what shamanism names as our ancestors.
Going outside one evening I lit a fire and began drumming, with the specific intention of asking for guidance from my
guides and ancestors, about the way forward. Within the shamanic tradition the ancestors is the name given to those
unseen forces of all that has come before us and lives around us, which provides spiritual guidance for those of us in the seen world. The answer was swift and surprisingly prosaic. I was instructed to look on the Internet. This was not at that time something I had ever done in my life to pursue employment (neither the drumming nor the internet I might add) but nonetheless, I did as suggested. Imagine my astonishment, when ten minutes later the very same evening I discovered a job description that looked as though it had been written especially (almost) for me. A funded position in a business school to research leadership, spirituality, well-being and embodiment, not only felt like it spoke to my life’s work, it had nonetheless, a strange sense of calling about it.
Coming from an ancestry of Irish peasants, coal miners and those subject to the Scottish Highland Clearances, amongst
whom the kind of financial elite I expected to find in a business school were the designated enemy, life really could not however, have suggested a more apparently alien environment than a business school, in which to pursue my inquiries. The opportunity to be paid for three years to write about embodiment and well-being was however, especially in the face of impending bankruptcy, so seductive that I applied anyway. As someone who is, as I have described, innately suspicious of external authority, I tucked the term leadership out of conscious awareness, where like much that we are unwillingly to tackle up front, it would later demand considerable attention. Not something commonly acknowledged within the standard scientific research literature, Romanyshyn (2007) a Jungian analyst and author of The Wounded Researcher, writes about just such unconscious processes in the life of research. And as I outline in one of my own early academic papers he argues that research not only has a life and agency of its own, but that some research actually “hunts the researcher, with a view to finding just the right voice to meet its needs, at the same time as assisting its vehicle to address and heal their own wounding” (Young 2011).
Within a week of being accepted for the research post another synchronicity meant that I returned to visit The School of Movement Medicine, the newly constellated organization, run by Susannah and Ya’acov Darling Khan whom I first met over twenty years earlier. Within the particular community that they lead, following one’s innate felt sense of what ‘calls’ one is seen as the route to embodying one’s sacred dream, a process Maslow refers to as self- actualization. Just at exactly the time when I needed a spiritual community in which to conduct research, I was re-embarking upon involvement in a re-constituted version of one I had left several years earlier.
Although I had stayed connected to a more local group, I had taken a break from The Moving Centre’s international community several years earlier. This had coincided with a number of personal concerns about the leadership and values of the organization itself, including the environmental ethics of international travel; the commoditization of
spirituality and exploitation of indigenous wisdom within historical and contemporary contexts that involve colonial
imperialism, as well as the potential for alternative spiritualities to inhibit social change due to the fact that they may neglect to locate the causes of ‘dis’ease in wider organizational structures. I had in the meantime become aware that Susannah and Ya’acov Darling Khan, two of the leaders within the international community I have previously mentioned here, had left the parent organization, Roth’s Moving Centre, setting up a new organization in England close to where I live.
Some months prior to applying to begin my PhD thesis I had already made a decision to participate in the foundational workshop that they were now teaching as part of their newly constituted practice – Movement Medicine. There had also been many things I had valued in my previous experience of belonging to a community exploring movement as a spiritual practice. I was curious about whether any of my previous misgivings would be addressed within this new organization. This new school had, unlike the previous organization, quite specifically dedicated itself to promoting the tripartite goals of social justice, environmental sustainability and human fulfilment, rather than simply exploring individual personal growth.
Given the personal nature of some of my relationships within the community I would not have considered it a viable
proposition to have re-entered it from a place of inherent hostility to the values being espoused. I decided after spending a week within it that I felt sufficient resonance with it, along with still holding the questions I had held about its
organizational predecessor, for it to be a viable community for the research I was about to embark upon. My re-search was about to become research. Whilst my journey into the wilds was about to take me ever deeper into the centre of the forest.
Ali Young is both a published poet and academic, with book chapters in collections on
embodiment published by
Routledge, as well as a
variety of academic papers.