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This is an archive version of 'Psychedelic Information Theory' Alpha chapters. The final version of this text can be found at:
So What is Shamanism?

by James Kent

Chapter 06a: Psychedelic Information Theory

Since the subtitle of this book is "Shamanism in the Age of Reason," it seems fitting that we provide a good definition of shamanism to work from. There are many definitions of shamanism that have something to do with tribal healing, ritual magic, and/or dealing with the spirit world, but beyond the many skills and functions of a shaman, what is the essence of this unique tribal role? How, and why, does the shaman actually work magic?

Instead of focusing on the various functions a shaman might fill -- such as healer, priest, psychologist, etc. -- I am going to take a somewhat more reductive position and state flatly that a shaman's role is to transform reality; and that the power of any shaman can be directly measured by the success of his or her transformations. And to be absolutely clear, when I say "transform reality," I mean that in both in the literal sense (through direct action or alchemical transmutation) as well as in the figurative sense (through the alteration of people's perceptions of reality). By transforming reality itself, as well as the perception of reality, the shaman works on two levels to create a magic that is equal parts innovation and illusion. This ability to manipulate reality on multiple levels is the fundamental art of the shaman we will be exploring throughout this text.

I concede, first of all, that the power to transform reality is the job title of many people, including capitalists, engineers, farmers, prophets, politicians, emperors, chemists, alchemists, magicians, artists, cooks, hairstylists, advertising executives... And when you get right down to it, everyone transmutes reality at some level simply by interacting with their environment. Through the power of genetic expression we are constantly transmuting nutrients (food) into living organisms (our bodies). This is a magic we are born with, and the shaman understands that this power to live within, ingest, and become one with our environment is the most powerful kind of transmutation there is. The base transmutation of turning inert minerals into organic life is the magic that makes all other magic possible, and at the very core of this transmutation is a charged storm of atoms, elements, and chains of simple molecules all colliding and interacting with each other through time. The constant energy exchange within the electro-chemical process of life is what I refer to in this text as the flow, and manipulating this flow is at the root of all shamanic power.

As stated previously, the art of shamanic transformation works on two different levels. The first transmutation happens on the literal level, where real energy is applied at an opportune moment to directly alter the outcome of a specific event or events in reality, as in a chemical, metabolic, kinetic, or social reaction. This transmutation may be as simple as speaking the right words at the right time; as complex as devising a battle plan; or as arcane as brewing a magical potion to enchant, heal, or derange. Although they may not know it, today's chemists and high-energy physicists are carrying on the work of the original shamen, only now their areas of expertise have become much more specialized. Like shamen, scientists are always looking for new ways to manipulate the fabric and transform the boundaries of reality. The act of turning base metals into gold is often said to be the greatest alchemical transmutation a magician can perform, though many believe this is just a metaphor for the spiritual transformation a magician makes along his journey toward enlightenment.

Which brings us to our second shamanic transformation: the figurative transmutation of the mind. In this level of transformation, the shaman seeks to transform the individual by manipulating their perception, belief structure, or paradigm of reality. To apply figurative transformation, the shaman may use talk therapy, stagecraft and trickery, hypnosis and trance states, group trance states, psychoactive drugs, and a variety of other ritual indoctrination technologies. By applying successful figurative transmutations to other tribal members, the shaman's power to influence the tribe and perform literal, physical transmutations increases. In other words, the shaman's job is to entrain and fine-tune the mental activity of the entire tribe to maximize harmony and increase tribal output towards transformative goals.

For instance, a jaguar-shaman may not literally be able to shape-shift into a jaguar, but if she can apply the appropriate technology (such as psychoactive drugs, ritual trance states, and stagecraft) to make herself so convincing that she and others actually believe that she has shape-shifted into a jaguar, then the transmutation is successful. If the tribe is convinced that the shaman magically embodies the spirit of the jaguar, the shaman's respect, power, and influence increases, and that specific shape-shifting transmutation becomes an integral part of the shaman's total power base. Similarly, if a frog-shaman can extract a frog toxin that grants his hunters and warriors supernatural stamina, that shaman's respect and power to influence the tribe increases. In a traditional sense, the shaman does not analyze or even need to know the fine dynamics between transmutation and tribal power that I have described here, but this is something that every good shaman intuitively understands: transformation = power.

Since shamanic transformation can be used for tasks both good and evil, it is traditionally the case that society only tolerates such power as long as it is useful to have around. If shamanic power is abused to brainwash tribe members into personal sex slaves or sociopathic killers (see Manson, Charles), society will quickly seek to ostracize the shaman and outlaw all shamanic rituals. Because of this tricky dynamic, a practicing shaman must always walk the line between reviled outcast and friendly karma mechanic. When there is conflict in the tribe, it is the shaman's job to apply technology and restore balance; When there is disease and sickness in the tribe, it is the shaman's job to apply technology and restore balance; When there is war and conflict with neighboring tribes, it's the shaman's job to apply technology and restore balance. If the shaman fails at the basic tasks of healing and conflict resolution, or abuses shamanic technology to undermine the well-being of the tribe for personal gain, then the shaman loses power and risks being ostracized by the tribe. Thus, the shaman's role and power base is defined as much by the larger tribe (or society) as it is by the actual technology the shaman applies.

Shamanism, Spirituality, and Religion

To provide a well-rounded definition of shamanism, we must also include the spiritual side of the shaman's power and identity. When talking about the spirit, we are really discussing religion, faith, belief, and perceptions of the self within the world. Since figurative transformations of the mind rely on the manipulation of personal perceptions and individual belief structures, the shaman's role will always be intertwined with the religious mythology and spiritual iconography of the larger tribe. Thus, a shaman may use a traditional mythology (plant spirits), occult mythology (black magic), a new-age mythology (healing energies), or a clinical mythology (psychotherapy) to apply the figurative transformation, depending on the belief structures shared by the shaman and patient and the specific transformation needed. In other words, the specific belief structures are not integral to the job of the shaman, which is to apply transformation. Instead, the shaman uses the tribal belief structures as a handle or interface to connect with the patient's psyche so that the needed transformation may be applied.

Also, when talking about shamanic healing, we are talking about healing the spirit as much as healing the body. Many shamanic traditions speak literally about restoring the patient's connection with God or the eternal source of all energy to cleanse them of impurities and infuse them with a renewed sense of spirit. There are numerous digressions I could make her about faith, optimism, mood therapy, mind over matter, psychic healing, psychoneuroimmunology, etc., but the bottom line on all of it is that people who feel good about themselves and have faith and optimism tend to be healthier, live longer, and recover from disease faster than people who don't feel good about themselves. So how does the shaman operate to restore people's spirits?

Obviously, the whole notion of spirit tends to be a rather complex theological and psychological subject, for myself it boils down to one simple formula: spirit = health. If the organism is in good health and is well cared for, it will be in good spirits. If the organism is in poor health and is neglected, it will be in bad spirits. The connection between spirit and health is a cyclical driver, and mental health and physical health are the same thing in this equation. It is the shaman's job to reach into the patient (either literally or metaphorically), find the bad spirits, and cast them out. In the act of cleansing the patient of bad spirits, the shaman empties the spiritual vessel and re-charges it with a renewed sense of hope and optimism. Luckily for the shaman, the psychedelics do most of the work for them in this area: Cleansing, purging, vomiting, ecstatic visions, and renewed spiritual energy are all side-effects of the powerful ayahuasca brew, and it is more than symbolic that their clinical effects so closely match descriptions of classical religious experiences. Since the brew does most of the heavy lifting in this area, it is the shaman's job to create a convincing ritual context (the "stage" and "script" if you will) for the transformation to take place. The shaman's script may involve days or even weeks of special dietary preparations, prayers, fasting, etc., but it is all to set the stage for the spiritual transformation. If the stage is set properly and the ritual script is followed, the patient is likely to emerge from the visionary experience spiritually recharged.

Across the Bridge of Life and Death

The final thing to mention about shamanism is the shaman's connection to death and the spirit realms. Traditionally, the shaman would receive his or her powers at a young age, through either an illness or poisoning that brings the child literally to death's door and back again, but now reborn with the eyes of a shaman. The near-death-experience (NDE) or "crossing over" into the land of the dead has been integral to the shaman's identity since the beginning of history. From this, the most cynical among us may conclude that the shaman's job is to overdose himself into a near-death coma, and then miraculously bring himself back to life with new-found wisdom, week after week. It sounds funny when say it this way; that the big trick of shamanism is, "almost dying, but not quite." But there is a lot of truth to this sentiment. The real question is, how important is this crossing-over trick to the shaman's identity?

Shamanic purists will tell you that crossing over into the land of the spirit is extremely important, and that any shaman that shies away from the crossing-over experience is not really a shaman at all, but is actually a dabbler who has not yet conquered the fear of death. And conquering the fear of death is essential to the role of the shaman: the shaman does not fear death, the shaman is intimate with death. The shaman has been across the bridge of life and death so many times, he literally looks death in the eye and laughs, not because he has mastered death, but because he is happy to see his old friend again. It is that kind of relationship. But why is this morbid parlor trick so important? Why does the shaman willingly push himself across this life/death barrier? What is to be learned from the experience?

Traditional mythology states that crossing over into the land of the spirit is how the shaman receives his or her power and knowledge, presumably from ancestors or entities of supernatural origin. I believe that the sensation of meeting with entities in a spirit world does indeed occur on psychedelics, but attempting to verify the ontological nature of this spirit world is impossible. As in dreams, the entities within the spirit world are fleeting and always changing, and often the wisdom that emerges from this space is anything but supernatural. And yet, sometimes it seems eerily supernatural, almost unmistakably so, and it is perfectly understandable why this state would be confused with a near-death astral vacation into the land of the dead.

But, to pass another slice through this riddle, I will state for the record that I very much doubt that your typical shaman on a vision-quest ever actually comes anywhere near to death, nor would I ever suggest that the practice of deliberate near-death-overdose is a healthy one. Rather, it is far more likely that the shaman actually knows (through very careful trials) the exact dosage needed to put himself into a very deep trance state that mimics unresponsive catatonia, yet allows his brain to stay active with NDE-type visionary activity. Having had the benefit of experimenting with many NDE-inducing drugs, I can say from personal experience that you can literally feel the paradox of floating around disembodied in the spirit world while your heartbeat and respiration continue to sustain your body perfectly well in the living world. And while it would be exciting to say that I have found an ontologically solid and distinct spirit world accessible via shamanic vision-questing, I am more inclined to say that this sensation of "crossing-over" into a spirit world is more like entering an extremely vivid, highly fluid lucid dream space than it is like having a classic NDE. And in actuality, very few people actually die from ingesting even heroic doses of psychedelics, they just *feel* like they are dying, and that is a significant difference when dissecting the whole issue of crossing the life-death barrier. Actual death is not necessary, just the sensation of death will suffice.

So what is the wisdom gained from the pseudo-NDE crossing-over experience? It seems that the experience of leaving your ego behind, crossing over into a spirit world, and then being reborn back into your body is spiritually transformational in and of itself. It does not matter if you actually die or not, if the NDE seems real it will radically transform your notion of self and spirit. And if the shaman's job is to apply transformation, he must be very familiar with this specific near-death trick in order to set the ritual stage and guide others safely across the chasm. Being intimate with death, even on a metaphorical level, can help people understand what they want from life with renewed clarity. Death is a very concrete motivator that drives us all, and using this motivator as an agent of change is just one of many tricks in the shaman's bag.

The Modern Day Shaman

So now we know who the shaman is and what the shaman does. The role of the shaman has always been to apply transformation, typically to restore balance and harmony within tribal units. The shaman works his magic by manipulating the flow of energy and the perceptions of those around him on as many different levels as possible. The shaman synergizes many layers of transformation in the act of brewing and ingesting psychoactive sacraments, and uses mythology and sacred ritual to navigate through conflict and fine-tune the harmony of his tribe.

In the modern world, the role of the shaman has been splintered into many various subspecialties. Instead of a single shaman for the whole tribe, we get physicians, chemists, pharmacists, scientists, naturopaths, psychologists, botanists, hypnotists, therapists, priests, gurus, growers, dealers, magicians, poets, pop-stars, DJs, etc. But in the process of breaking the role of the shaman down into its modern component parts, some pieces have turned-up missing; pieces like preserving tribal ritual, providing group healing, and facilitating that all-important spirit-revitalizing visionary experience to those who seek it. These roles are filled in modern culture, but not in any canonized way, and more typically evolve in spontaneous fashion by those who find themselves in the position to apply shamanic transformation when needed. And, of course, modern techno-tribal groups continue to form around the ritual use of psychedelics in a celebratory context, which makes the role of the shaman as vital today as it was five thousand years ago.

Although tribal shamen continue to work in Central America, the Amazon basin, and in parts of Africa, shamanism in the modern world has yet to fully take shape. It is tempting to blame the diminution of the shaman's role in modern culture on legal prohibition, but prohibition is just an extreme backlash against specific ritual abuses made when industrial-strength shamanic power was released on an unwitting public. In other words, the neo-shaman who introduced LSD to the post-industrial masses -- Huxley, Leary, Owsley, Kesey, Gottleib, Hubbard, Manson, etc. -- did not realize what kind of heady voodoo they were getting into, and were not prepared for the results. The LSD shamen quickly lost control of their sacrament, lost power, and were ostracized within the greater tribe. And when the neo-shamen were shut down, the post-industrial counter-culture co-opted and re-invented the shamanic ritual on their own terms, deliberately decentralizing the role of the shaman into many specialized tasks. The character of the shaman quickly dissipated into a network of home cultivators, underground chemists, street dealers, jam bands, fly-by-night promoters, and local tribes of tuned-in people all looking to converge on the next transformative party. Everyone became a do-it-yourself shaman, everyone knew they had to bring their own mojo to the mix. Even without a shaman, the modern tribe did a pretty good job of making up the rituals as they went along.

But as the popular view on psychedelics continues to mature, the role of the shaman in modern society will continue to materialize. Right now, psychedelic research is back in vogue, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that ayahuasca-using church groups have a constitutional right to consume sacramental hallucinogens in ritual settings. Even though clinicians are bound by strict protocols and church groups are invariably tied to some form of immutable dogma, there is the general feeling that the shaman's role in modern culture is back on the rise and will continue to evolve. We can only hope that those waiting to fill this changing role are educated, courageous, and ready to take on the challenges ahead.

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Copyright : James Kent, 2006
Posted on: 2006-05-01 13:22:11