Shamanistic Healing 

Alice Johnson


What is Shamanism?
  Shamanism is a mix of magic, folklore, medicine and spirituality that evolved in tribal and gathering communities thousands of years ago.  Shamanic faith presumes that everyone and everything has a spirit which is a part of a greater whole, and that spirits affect all events, including illness and disease.  In the tradition of Shamanism it is believed that certain people named shamans exhibit particular magical specialties at birth; the most common specialization is that of a healer.  A Shaman is believed to have the ability to communicate with the ethereal world through trance states.  Traditional shamans developed techniques for lucid dreaming and what is today called out-of body experience.  Entering trances through ritual drumming, chanting or hallucinogenic plants they journey to another reality; while retaining control over their own consciousness.  The Shamans are believed to communicate with "spirit helpers" to heal and divine the future. There are a number of relatively common practices and experiences in traditional shamanism, which are being investigated by modern researches. (

What is ecstatic trance?
Believers of Shamanism submit themselves to the practices of spiritual leaders in hope of a cure for their illness; the rituals of the shaman supposedly manifest themselves into spiritual oneness.  There are many terms used to describe development of therapeutic trances and spiritual interventions of the shamanic healers.  Shamanic ecstasy, or spiritual oneness, relies on a connection between ones emotions and physical anatomy.  Physiological response, emotional perception, and intuitive perception are three documented levels of ecstasy.  First the physiological response is when the mind becomes absorbed in and focused on a dominant idea and the nervous system is cut off from physical sensory input.  The body exhibits reflex inertia, involuntary nervous responses, and frenzy.  Emotional perception, another form of ecstasy, refers to overwhelming feelings of awe, anxiety, joy, sadness, fear, astonishment, passion, or any combination of intense emotion.  Finally, intuitive perception occurs when there is an understanding of the transpersonal experience and expanded states of awareness or consciousness are possible.  While the physiological response is always present, the emotional response and intuitive perception may not be within reach for all those who venture into ecstatic trance.  Opposed to general hypnosis, practicing shamanic techniques uses self-hypnotic states to fine-tune senses and observe the inner-workings of ones mind semi-consciously.  Research findings suggest that the contents of shamanic trance are not solely influenced by psychopathology, biochemical effects, or cultural influences; there is a spiritual variable that must be accounted for. (

Variations of Shamanism
There are varied approaches that have developed all over the world under the designation of Shamanism, each having distinct practices that explore inter-relations.  A common symbol used is the Medicine Wheel that represents wholeness, eternity, a sense of completeness, and totality.  The Medicine Wheel is really a paradigm for one's inner and outer life; it is a map for transformation into the inner- self.  On the wheel are four cardinal points or directions, each direction having explicit capabilities.  Different sectors of one's physical and spiritual life can be controlled or altered by visiting points on this core wheel.  It is believed that achieving harmony between the spirit, mind, and physiology can affect fertility, wellness and attitude. Ultimately, shamans envision a much more comprehensive state of wellness by awakening our awareness to the spiritual unity of all beings and things.  Modern shamans believe it is possible to put humanity back in touch with nature, the Earth and the stars, healing not only individuals but also accomplishing global harmony.  As a central feature of almost all traditional shamanic ceremonies, shamans publicly recite lengthy oral texts.  Shamans meticulously memorize these texts that include passages that explain the origins of diseases and afflictions, and provide elaborate instructions for their alleviation.  These shamanic etiologies identify precise sources and effects that cover a spectrum ranging from the purely physical to the purely metaphysical, intersecting the natural and supernatural worlds. (

Interface between Shamanism and psychiatry
Shamanic methods of working with dreams and being conscious and awake while dreaming open new doors in psychological research into the nature and history of consciousness.
Shamans are often compared to psychologists, searching the unconscious for hidden sources of suffering and lost fragments of self.  The psychiatrist is often called upon to deal with psychological problems that may create medical emergencies.  Interventions along a spectrum from shamanism to interpretation of unconscious conflict may spell the difference between comfort and distress, illness and cure, and even occasionally life and death.  Psychotherapists can incorporate  "soul journeys" with conventional techniques; a "spirit guide" can pinpoint the source of one's problem in the spirit realm.  This journey of soul, sometimes referred to as Shamanic Flight, makes it possible to move beyond limitations of the physical body.  Practitioners teaching individuals to soul journey on their own say this process does everything from renewing vitality to helping victims cope with cancer.  Most doctors and shamans perform many identical functions; both validate the symptoms, name the disease and prescribe a cure.  Shamanism may be one more alternative therapy for chronic illness or it may be an outlet for true healing.  The big question is, can such an ancient tradition be transplanted into modern times. (

How Shamanism is used for healing
The ability to achieve and control a trance is the result of cumulative conditioning and mental training.  There is a gradual progression from ordinary consciousness to deeper levels of fixation that must be learned, thus healing is only sucessful when a series of sessions is completed.  Wide spectrums of trance levels exist ranging from slight detachment to a total removal of one's inhibitions.  In deep hypnotic states, where most practical Shamanic journeying occurs, it is possible to control one's own body temperature, heart rate, blood flow, and digestion.  People react differently to the sensations of shamanic flight; individuals may experience vivid imagery, events from their past, or utter relaxation.  Physical, emotional, and spiritual crisis are parts of being terminally ill or having cancer that may be mitigated with shamanistic healing.  There is evidence for the efficacy of therapies such as shamanism in improving the quality of life in the terminally ill and cancer patients.  The active participation of the patient in the therapy promotes emotional healing and coping skills.   Patients that suffer from hypertension or problems associated with stressful life styles can use shamanic methods to gain control over their physical and emotional wellness.  Further, the mentally ill and sufferers of depression may find that shamanism is an ancient tradition that in modern times help them to live a normal lifestyle.

A spiritual side to medicine
With an incresed awarness of the connection between spiritual life and health, interest in Shamanism has also grown.  The link between health care and religion is strongest at the point of confrontation with life-changing events. Pain is more than a physiological phenomenon, it is also an emotion.    Therapist have been exploring additional avenues for pain management such as shamanism. The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders addressed the need for a consideration of cultural and religious issues and ethnic diversity of the patient population.  The manual approved a new diagnostic category entitled religious or spiritual problem.  Increasingly doctors are to realizing that total wellness encompasses the spiritual and emotional side of life.

Things to be careful about
There are few negative effects reported from Shamanic experiences, however it is described as a powerful adventure and for some the trance could be disorienting, traumatic or have other adverse effects.  Practitioners warn that the ecstasy of the trance can become an escape from mundane problems that can become addictive.  It is generally accepted that people regress to earlier levels of development with the stress of serious pain or illness.  Regression may foster an increased dependence on any source of relief.  The eventual efforts of shamanic followers to emerge from the "culture of embeddedness" with their shamans into more independent functioning can be problematic.  Shamanism can be used wisely to determine the root of an addiction, yet taken to an extreme it can become an addiction itself.  One should be cautious when seeking help from a shaman; shamanic healers can have a cult like draw, entering the spirit realm and making claims that are not supported.   Shamanism sometimes ignores scientific methods of healing and so must be used only as supplemental therapy for serious disorders.  Much thought and consideration, as well as research for each situation should be done before plunging into any method of shamanic treatment. (

The culture of Shamanism
Pure shamanism is considered to be a distinct culture immersed in shared symbols, myths and experience.  For example, shamans claim to derive their healing skills, powers, and knowledge from their unique diet of plants and herbs.  It is believed that the body has to be "purified" to communicate with the spirit realm.  It is necessary that participants of Shamanistic healing be able to recognize the language of the shaman so their subconscious can react to the oral text of the healing ceremony.  True believers of the shamanic faith consider it to be a total lifestyle, not just another option of alternative therapy.  Someone buying into Shamanism occasionally or at his/her own convenience can't expect to have the same results that a devoted shamanic follower would experience.  Further, modern shamanism ignores the tradition's sometimes-sketchy darker side. (

Implications for research
Religious and spiritual problems in general need to be subjected to more research to better understand their prevalence, clinical presentation, intrapsychic and interpersonal factors, and ethnic roots.  There have been few intensive studies done on the implications of shamanistic healing.  To fully understand spiritual methods of healing like shamanism the investigator must enter and possibly participate within the world view of the host community.  Participating in the world of the shamans its necessary to learn the faith's system of language, symbols, and rituals, thereby beginning to acquire the disposition of an insider.  This investigative scenario has provoked intense controversy among researchers, the question being  who has the authority to observe and describe and even presume "to speak for" the shaman people.
    Some of the few experience-centered approaches have revealed empirical foundations for shamanic healing.  Data derived from surveys of diverse populations and participation observation of over thirty Asian shamans report varied extrasensory and out-of -body experiences.  The shamans lead ceremonies that change clients' perception of their illnesses.  An additional study reported that on the Miyako Islands, Okinawa, Japan shamanism, not psychiatry, is the accepted model used to treat mental illness effectively.  Although the foundations supporting shamanism differ from those sustaining Western medicine, both traditions provide experiences that convince clients that specific procedural methods alleviate illness.

Increased numbers of experts believe that health is closely tied to mind, body, and soul, as well as relationships to nature.  Shamanistic healing could be the connection for individuals between body and spirit that would provide total wellness.  In hopeless situations, Shamanic traditions could be the only approach capable of altering someone's attitude and in turn improving their well being.


  • Blacher RS. (1984).The briefest encounter:  psychotherapy for medical and surgical patients. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 6(3) 226-232
  • Cunningham AJ. (1995). Group Psychological therapy for cancer patients. Supportive Care in Cancer. 3(4) 244-7
  • Houran J, Lange R, Crist-Houran M. (1997). An assessment of contextual mediation in trance states of shamanic journeys. Percept Mot Skills. 85(1) 59-65
  • Low JF. (1997).Religious orientation and pain management. American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 51(3) 215-9
  • Maskarinec GG. (1992). A Shamanic etiology of affliction from western Nepal. Social and Science and Medicine. 35(5) 723-34.
  • McClenon J. (1993).  The experiential foundations of shamanic healing. J Med Philos. 18(2). 107-127
  • Shimoji A. (1991).  Interface between shamanism and psychiatry in MiyakoIslands, Okinawa,   Japan:  a viewpoint from medical and psychiatric anthropology.  Jpn J Psychiatry Neurol. 45(4) 767-774
  • Turner RP. Lukoff D. Barnhouse RT. Lu FG. (1995).  Religious or spiritual problem.  A culturally sensitive diagnostic category in the DSM-IV. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease. 183(7) 435-44
  • Wax ML. (1995).  Method as madness science, hermeneutics, and art in psychoanalysis. Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis. 23(4) 525-43