The Shamanic State of Consciousness

I really wish we would all just stop talking about the shamanic state of consciousness. States of consciousness occur in people, and people occur in cultures. Thus what we should be talking about are the experiences of shamans in their global, postcolonial, historical, cultural setting, rather than about some hypothetical, abstract, discrete, contextless, monadic entity.

There. Now I feel better.

The notion of a discrete, unitary, disembodied shamanic state of consciousness pretty much began with Michael Harner. Stanislav Grof has decomposed the shamanic state of consciousness into even smaller pieces — experiences with animal spirits, encounters with spirit guides and suprahuman beings, visits to other universes and meetings with their inhabitants. It is difficult to say that such experiential units are anything at all like shamanism as a cohesive cultural practice. In fact, in an article included in an anthology on shamanism, ostensibly about the shamanic journey, Grof identifies shamanism not with such experiences as meeting with animal spirits, but with such phenomena as telepathy, psychic diagnosis, clairvoyance, clairaudience, precognition, psychometry, out-of-body experiences, and other instances of extrasensory perception “utilized in shamanic and other mystical or magical traditions.” It is hard to know what to make of this; it seems as if shamanism has been abstracted entirely out of existence.

Rather, shamans occur in cultures — often in cultures that are geographically remote, speak foreign languages, eat strange foods, and lack plumbing. These cultures are themselves embedded in their own messy historical, global, postcolonial, market-driven setting.

The emphasis on discrete and disembodied states of consciousness leads to a further mischief. One state of consciousness can be evaluated, often by covert criteria, and then ranked against other such states — mystic experience, for example. Psychologist Roger Walsh apparently considers that mystical union is, somehow, higher or better than shamanic journeying. Note how Walsh puts it in one study — that, on the basis of his evidence, shamanism “may deserve to be called a mystical tradition”; or, even more explicitly, that such mystical union, if found in shamanism, would be “the highest, and rarest, flowerings of a tradition.”

It is possible to tease out some of the covert assumptions at work here — that spiritual phylogeny recapitulates spiritual ontogeny, that states of consciousness that develop later are higher than those that develop earlier, that states of consciousness achieved by the few are better than those achieved by the many. Entirely apart from the question whether such value judgments belong in what was purportedly an empirical inquiry, such criteria are not obviously valid.

Ken Wilber makes all of this quite explicit. He combines abstract and reified states of consciousness with his own fully developed developmental and evolutionary map, and, on that basis, he has dismissed shamanic practitioners as both delusional and fraudulent, making “pitiful attempts to exploit others into believing that they were quite exceptional and heroic souls.” Why? Because shamans do not merge and vanish into the formless void — a different discrete state of consciousness that Wilber believes to be preferable.

Perhaps the most trenchant criticism of this framework has come from Jürgen Kremer, who points out that Wilber’s model of social evolution is in the tradition of nineteenth-century evolutionary conceptualizations. Wilber virtually ignores indigenous peoples, their cultures, their religious beliefs, their impressive cognitive skills, and, especially, their ongoing conversation with the surrounding community of what may be called other-than-human persons. Thus, he says, Wilber simply joins the ranks of those other white Eurocentric thinkers who justified colonial oppression on the basis that Western culture represents the highest level of human evolution. Indeed, indigenous communities offer an alternative to such inherently hierarchic discourse — “a process of an immanently present, visionary, socially constructed being, which is sustained without a need to progress or overcome some insufficient state.”

I think the critique can be extended beyond the metaphor of the branching tree that underlies such hierarchies. Philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari seek to subvert the dominance of the tree as a metaphor in Western thought by proposing the alternative metaphor of the rhizome — technically, a type of stem that expands underground horizontally, sending down roots and pushing up shoots that arise and proliferate not from a single core or trunk, but from a network which expands endlessly from any of its points. Unlike trees or their roots, Deleuze and Guattari write, “the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even nonsign states. The rhizome is reducible neither to the One nor the multiple.” Rather than being arranged vertically, with mysticism above shamanism, human spiritualities can be seen as taking the form of a rhizome — always evolving, with no defining or constraining center, intersecting with and affecting one another, changing over time, contingent, contextual, embodied, embedded, without ordinality.


  1. interesting.. could we get more please...

  2. Chris from Peekskill NYMarch 22, 2009 at 8:56 AM

    I am currently writing a paper about the differences between shamanic and ordinary states of consciousness and why one would entering the shamanic state.

    I find your thoughts to be very thought provoking. I have never thought much about she shamanic state being more of a title as opposed to an actual way of being. Very interesting.

  3. Thank you for the kind words. I would like to learn more about the paper you are writing. What are the differences? Why would one enter a shamanic state?