Shamanism: An Expanded View of Reality

Shirley Nicholson – USA

Shamanism may conjure up images of magic and strange practices, perhaps associated with a kind of wildness. In the not-so-distant past shamans were called witch doctors and often thought of as evil or satanic. They were also sometimes considered as frauds, using trickery.

However, since Mircea Eliade published his extensive study of shamanism worldwide in 1964, shamanism has been looked on with more respect and as a subject worthy of scientific investigation. Eliade was a noted historian of religion for many years at the University of Chicago. In his seminal work Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, he documented common features of shamanism in diverse cultures from many geographical locations. He uncovered universal among shamanic practices and worldviews and showed that shamanism, far from being a local peculiarity, is a worldwide phenomenon, and that shamans have a necessary place in their societies.

Shamanism has also been a topic of considerable interest to Theosophists, and has many features in common with the Ancient Wisdom, or Theosophy.

By now hundreds of anthropologists have made field trips to study shamans first­hand, and countless volumes have been written on their findings. Shamanism is taken seriously. Many hope that in shamanic practices and worldview will be found hints that can help us enlarge and expand the Western worldview that is so narrowly materialistic. Psychologists and psychotherapists give workshops to teach shamanic practices in order to expand their clients’ consciousness and bring healing. At present serious interest in shamanism is at an all-time high.


To give the flavor of shamanic practices, I would like to describe a traditional healing ceremony done by Rolling Thunder for a woman diagnosed as having multiple scle­rosis. The story is told by Jim Swan,2 an environmental psychologist and psycho­therapist, who had been working with the patient. Rolling Thunder is a Cherokee medicine man and shaman who has been studied at the Menninger Foundation and is spiritual adviser to many, including Joan Baez, Muhammad Ali, and the rock group The Grateful Dead.

Multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease of the nervous system for which there is no known cure, although sometimes there is spontaneous remission. Swan had not been able to help the patient much, though psychotherapy had given her a little psychological relief. She walked with a cane and had low spirits.

The healing ceremony took place in a clearing in the forest, with people already chanting and drumming as Rolling Thunder strode into the circle. He is a powerful man, six feet tall. He wore eagle feathers on his hat and above his forehead there was a seven-pointed silver star with a turquoise in the center. There were white symbols painted on his cheeks and forehead, and a medicine bag made from a badger skin hung from his waist. His dramatic appearance made a silent statement that he was a shaman, a man of power.

He stepped into the circle of dancing people and offered prayers to the four directions. Then, with raised hands, he looked skyward. At that moment Swan perceived a change in him. As their eyes met for an instant, Swan felt that Rolling Thunder’s gaze had the coldness and inhuman quality of an eagle. For a time the shaman danced with arms outstretched like wings.

About forty-five minutes later the patient was brought to the clearing. She moved slowly with her cane. Rolling Thunder made sweeping gestures over her with a buffalo-tail whisk and an eagle feather, as though clearing her aura for purification. The chanting and drumming continued. The shaman put his hand on the patient’s back, then withdrew it and spat on it. He let out a piercing “whoop" that startled everyone. He repeated this sequence several times.

Then another dramatic change took place in him. He was on all fours, whining, growling, sniffing the patient in a frenzied way, like a badger, Swan thought. Then he began to suck on the patient’s lower back. Soon he spat up a greenish material. This was repeated several times. After that he seemed tired. He circled the patient, waving the buffalo whisk over her, and that was the end of the ceremony.

The patient looked radiant. She said, “I’m alive!” She took a few steps with her cane, then threw it away as everyone cheered. Rolling Thunder said, "This woman has been healed today.” He explained that he did not say "cured,” that she had to "walk the red road” (the Indian good life) and watch her diet. She would need two or three more treatments by him or someone like him. He said, “This is the Great Spirit’s way. I only act as an agent for the Great Spirit here. The healing comes from the spirit world. I’m just the helper.” During the session Rolling Thunder had taken on the guise of a wise father, an eagle, a badger, and presented a commanding, magician like appearance.

The patient was able to move without a cane for the first time in quite a while, but several hours later she needed the cane again. A week later she told Swan she had ups and downs but was stronger. He lost touch with her for some time, but a couple of years later he heard that she had been to other alternate healing sessions, that she was swimming and riding horseback. She no longer felt anxiety and stress about getting well and her life was on an upswing. She had developed an interest in nature, in rocks, and in the Great Spirit. Her discouragement was gone and she was physically much better.


There are many styles of shamanic practices in many different cultures, but perhaps this contemporary ceremony gives the flavor of shamanism. In spite of the wide divergencies, shamanism wherever practiced has certain features. Eliade described these, and Michael Harner, contemporary anthropologist who specializes in shamanism, agrees with four common character­istics:

  • an altered state of consciousness, called the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC); journeys to alternate or non-ordinary realities, called the Upper World and Lower World;

  • conscious interaction with guardian spirits, usually in the form of power animals;

  • practicing shamanism in order to help others or for spiritual training.

In addition, all shamans have an important role in their social group, acting as priest, philosopher, physician, and psychotherapist. They take part in rites of passage, such as birth, death, marriage, coming of age, and vision quests. They help their people with problems and particularly work with healing.

Harner points out that shamanism is not a religion but a method associated with the local religion. This is usually animism, a worldview that perceives the whole uni­verse as alive. Mountains, trees, rocks are seen as living beings with spirits and are to be treated with respect and reverence. The shamanistic cultures regard everything as interconnected, all parts of nature interacting with one another. They believe there are hidden purposes in nature and in people’s lives. They see no distinction between body, mind, and spirit, viewing the physical and spiritual realms as one, with spirit always present in matter. Still, beyond the objective physical world they believe there is another reality, a super physical world that is all around us. This realm is inhabited by souls of the dead, by spirit guides, lost souls, mischievous or evil spirits, and shamans can communicate with them. This is the non-ordinary reality of the shaman.

The idea that there is more than one reality is popular today. For example, in their book Einstein’s Space and Van Gogh's Skies, physicist Henry Margenau and philos­opher-parapsychologist Lawrence LeShan point out various ways of looking at the world, some of which can accommodate the phenomena of ESP. LeShan has written of a sensory reality in which we get information from the senses and time is one- directional—past, present, future. Here space is a barrier to information exchange. By contrast, in what he calls "clairvoyant reality” everything exists as part of a unified whole that is timeless. Space and time do not prevent the flow of information, and clairvoyance, telepathy, and precognition are natural. In this clairvoyant reality one can know distant events, foresee the future, and read the past. This sounds very much like the shaman’s alternate reality.


Eliade, in his cross-cultural study of shamanism, found three cosmic regions in the shamanistic non-ordinary reality in all cul­tures. These are the Sky or Upper World, a heaven world; the Earth or Middle World, our everyday domain; and the Underworld or Lower World, a hellish realm. There is central axis connecting the three. This passes through an opening, something like that around a fireman’s pole, and along this pathway the gods descend to earth and the dead to the underworld. The soul of the shaman can fly up this axis in ecstasy or down to infernal experiences. The axis or center could be any sacred space. For some it is the Pole Star, for many the Pillar of the World, represented by tent poles or stakes; it is also the World Tree or Tree of Life, and the Cosmic Mountain.

The shamanic view is that shamans have real communication with the Upper World, while others can send prayers but not enter it. Shamans also must be familiar with the Underworld where they might have to rescue lost souls or explore the causes of diseases, which might appear to them as loathsome creatures. The shaman is the bridge or mediator among the realms and helps restore balance among them.


In journeys the shamans use a trance-like state that is a unique altered state of con­sciousness. It is unlike the waking state, dreaming, hypnosis, meditation, coma, or any other state that has been studied. It is universally induced by drumming, though a few cultures also use psychedelics. But the regular, monotonous drum beats can bring about a rapid change to the SSC with no loss of memory or side effects.

The shaman's experience in the SSC is somewhat like the near-death experience. Some report going through a tunnel, with a light at the end. But shamans explore the world that the tunnel opens into. They claim to know the world we all experience after death. The shaman is traditionally a psychopomp, a guide who conducts souls to the other world after death.


Shamans are reported to have many psychic powers. In addition to those traditionally studied in the West (clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition, telekinesis), shamans are also said to communicate with the dead, counteract spells, read people clairvoyantly, diagnose and heal illnesses, control the weather, levitate, project their souls from their bodies. In all cultures they are taught to use these powers to help others, not for selfish or hostile purposes. When someone comes to them with problems, they tend to look at a flow of internal pictures rather than using the normal powers of waking consciousness. Or they might go to the other world and communicate with spirit guides.

Shamans are "masters of the spirits," not possessed by them; the spirits work for the shamans, not vice versa. They are not "pos­sessed" because they decide when the spirit should manifest through them and for what purpose. Unlike schizophrenics, they can cut off "voices" when they like. In addition to the ability to enter the SSC at will, they also retain command of their rational minds, for they have to communicate with their people and explain their visions in an understandable way. In mod­ern lingo, we might say they must use both the left and right brain.

Shamans typically talk freely about their psychic experiences. Many anthropologists, most of them unbelievers, have wit­nessed some stunning displays of psychic phenomena. For example, Irving Hallowed,2 while studying a Canadian shamanic culture, witnessed a ritual done for a woman whose son had been missing for a week. During the proceedings, a voice came through the shaman that was presumably that of the missing son. He said that he was all right and told exactly where he was camping. The young man turned up two days later and confirmed that he had been camping at the spot described that night, but he had no recollection of anything unusual happening then.

Another dramatic manifestation was seen by Vladimir Bogoras,3 a Russian ethnologist who was studying a Siberian group. He had heard of a shaman who was famous for producing spirit voices and wanted to investigate this phenomena, thinking they were probably done with clever ventrilo­quism. He was admitted to a ceremony that took place in a darkened tent. After the shaman invoked the spirits, voices could be heard from various points in the tent, not just from where the shaman sat. Bogoras recorded the sounds, and when he played them back found that the voices sounded quite different from the shaman’s far-off voice, and that all the spirit voices seemed to speak directly into the funnel. This was later corroborated by an American anthropologist.

Various kinds of psychic abilities are found in shamans cross-culturally. Some cultures require psychic abilities in apprentice shamans. Paranormal powers are associated with shamans everywhere.


Many people have reported that Rolling Thunder has appeared in their dreams. The multiple sclerosis patient described earlier dreamed of him before she ever saw him. A young man reported that he wrote a letter to Rolling Thunder about the ivory billed woodpecker, an exotic bird thought to be extinct. The young man heard that the letter was well received. Sometime later he dreamed that he was speaking with Rolling Thunder, and the shaman said that some of these birds still live in Cuba or Mexico. After that several woodpeckers were spotted in Cuba.4

Shamans interpret their own dreams and also those of others. They use the mythology of their culture for this purpose.


Shamans are consulted for practical problems such as locating a food supply, and they are frequently consulted for healing. Their view of health and disease differs from that typical in the West. They feel that illness can occur only when one's protection is weak and there is a loss of “personal power.” We would say the immune system is low, as may happen when we are overtired, discouraged, depressed, or can’t cope. In such a case a shaman would nourish the soul to restore personal power, not necessarily treat the symptoms. Typically, the shaman would travel to the other world for the soul power that can be found there.

In the shamanic view health is tied to the purpose of life. This means being in har­mony with nature. They see the universe and all its inhabitants as of one fabric. Health may not necessarily mean the absence of pain. Getting well may have little to do with the body as it is primarily a matter of reestablishing a sense of connectedness. It is significant that the multiple sclerosis patient became interested in nature and rocks and in the Great Spirit after her healing treatments.

Shamans might use visualization in healing, but they would do the visualizing, not the patient. They have two main methods of healing. The first is to remove something, and the second to restore something.

For a localized illness they might see the spiritual nature of the disease as a spider or some ugly creature that must be removed. They would use techniques to draw it out, as poison is drawn from a snake bite. Rolling Thunder used this method for the multiple sclerosis patient.

To restore something, shamans would journey to the other world. If a patient were near death or suicidal, they would find his or her vital soul and bring it back. If they want to restore lost power, they would probably contact the soul in the form of a power animal, which would energize the patient and increase resistance to illness. The patient would then have to lead a good life and perhaps have other healing sessions.

Shamans use alternate healing methods along with ritual and journeys to the other world. They might use herbs or mechanical manipulations and would not object to a patient being under the care of a conventional Western physician as well. They are holistic in that they have access to various alternative methods, and they take care of the soul as well as the body.

Shamans do not practice self-healing as they have the ethical responsibility to use their powers for others. They often work with a partner who would help them if they were ill, or they might journey to the other world and contact a spirit guide who would help.


Shamans go through many years of rig­orous training. They are called as children or young teenagers typically. The apprentice usually comes from a lineage of shamans, though not necessarily the first son or any other special position in the family. They are usually gifted and bright. Girls and women are not infrequently called to shamanism.

Apprentices might go through a psychotic episode in the beginning when voices and spirits from other worlds begin to break through. But shamans as a group are not “crazy,” as formerly thought. They have been studied and tested extensively, and are now thought to be among the strongest and most competent in their group. Apprentices would have a living shaman as a teacher, but they might also have a tutelary spirit, perhaps a deceased grandfather, who teaches them in dreams and when they are in the SSC. They have to master the Upper and Lower Worlds and communicate with spirit guides in them. They also learn about herbs and other cures, and are steeped in the mythology of their people. They learn to master themselves as well as being in control of their use of the spirit realms.

The shamanic world view and practices have many features in common with the Ancient Wisdom or Theosophy. This consists of ideas and practices found in many sources from the earliest times. The Secret Doctrine, H. P. Blavatsky’s modern statement of the Ancient Wisdom, cites such figures as Hermes, Plato, Pythagoras, Shankara, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Zoroaster, all of whom taught some aspect of Theosophy or the Perennial Philosophy.

The Australian Aborigines offer an example of specific areas in which shamanism expresses the Ancient Wisdom in the form of Hinduism, much of which exactly coincides with Theosophical ideas. The Aborigines have a very simple culture. Their only tools are the boomerang and spear which they use to gather and hunt. They have rejected the more sophisticated technology around them.

They believe, along with the Hindus, that they can be in contact with the spirit world. They “journey in the dream time” for work such as recovering lost souls or undergoing initiations. They explore the realm of the dead, and believe that death is “survival in infinity,” much like the Hindu view of liberation. In the Aborigine culture, elders retire from community life, as do Hindus, and go alone to the mountains to meditate.

They practice “sky-gazing,” as they feel the cosmos is filled with inspiration. For them the highest spirituality is associated with space, infinity, an idea much like that of liberation in some Eastern schools. These simple people are well-disciplined. They are not quarrelsome and have no weapons but live peacefully and in harmony with nature.

While their practice of sky-gazing is akin to mysticism and high states of meditation in yoga, the journey in the dreamtime is focused more on psychic experiences that bring specific information concerning problems in everyday life. Theosophy recognizes the possibility of both realms of experience, but does not necessarily recommend the development of psychic powers until one has developed morally and become well-balanced and in control of oneself and one’s life. Otherwise, there are many dangers in psychic development. Cultivating inner peace and oneness with nature and the Divine is much safer and is the true spiritual goal.

Other features that shamanism shares with the Ancient Wisdom are that the universe is alive, that every stone and grain of sand is the embodiment of spirit, that the universe is One Being with all the parts interconnected. Both shamanism and the Ancient Wisdom perceive a spiritual background source behind the world. They both hold that there are several levels of being or alternate realities inhabited by nonphysical beings such as spirit guides, the souls of the dead, adepts and masters, as well as mischievous or evil spirits. Both posit life after death, and some shamanic cultures echo the Ancient Wisdom’s belief in reincarnation. Both consider it possible to contact inner realms through mystic journeys and altered states of consciousness. Both point out a path or way for learning to master oneself and also to master the alternate realities, while maintaining harmony with nature and with other people.

Michael Harner feels that we all have shamanic abilities which we use unconsciously. For instance, love and anger both have influences at many levels, beyond the words that convey them. Anger can be destructive to the angry one as well as the recipient and can damage both. He feels that we should take charge of powers such as these and use them consciously, as the shaman does.

In addition, we all live in the same three realms that the shaman has access to, whether we consider these to be within ourselves or in the objective world. The Middle World is our ordinary everyday reality. The Lower world is the subconscious, the realm of dream monsters and nightmares, where dwells the shadow, Jung’s term for the baser parts of ourselves that we do not wish to acknowledge or live with. Here too lie the objects of our fears, highly exaggerated and often symbolized by frightening creatures. In theosophical terminology this is the lower astral place, the abode of lower emotions and their unpleasant forms. The Upper World has been called the superconscious, the home of our finer, higher self with its inspiration, creativity, heroism. This is the upper astral plan in theosophical terms, or even more exalted mental and spiritual spheres. Here we are apt to meet spirit guides with wisdom beyond ours, angelic beings, the Wise Old Man (Jungian archetype of wisdom), advanced intelligences.

We ordinarily live mostly in the Middle World. To fly to the Upper, we must break through the compartment of the everyday waking conscious state so that we open the way to other realms. But to become attuned to the Upper World, we also open the way to the Lower World; we expand our limits both upward and downward. To reach the heights, it seems we must plumb the depths. This process has been referred to as facing the “dweller on the threshold.” It means getting to know our inferior shadow side and befriending it. We must learn to admit this unsavory part of ourselves to conscious­ness and gradually transform it. We cannot reach our inner guide, the intuitive wisdom that lies within, unless we face our submerged shadow side; we cannot unlock our compassion without contacting our hidden anger and violence. Michael Harner and other psychotherapists, particularly Jungians, teach methods and techniques to undergo this process of transformation.

One simple exercise to begin to open to inner worlds is to become very quiet in a relaxed, meditative state and ask for an image that will put us in touch with our inner guidance. This may come in the form of a power animal, the Earth Mother, the Wise Old Man, just a voice, or simply a phrase that can be unlocked to have meaning to us. Sometimes we can get answers to our questions and a sense of direction from techniques like this. Sometimes we can get hints of ways to begin the process of self transformation.

Today shamanism is not seen as just an exotic practice in faraway places, but something close at hand that pertains to us all.


  1. Jim Swan, “Rolling Thunder at Work: A Sha­manic Healing of Multiple Sclerosis,” in Shirley Nicholson, ed., Shamanism (Wheaton: Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House, 1987), pp. 145-57.

  2. D. Scott Rogo, “Shamanism, ESP, and the Paranormal,” in Nicholson, p. 141.

  3. Ibid., pp. 137-38.

  4. Stanley Krippner, “Dreams and Shamanism,” in Nicholson, p. 129.

The article was published previously in The American Theosophist,Issue y1988 v76 i5 May p181

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