Mastery of shamanic states of consciousness
Showmanship, arranging the “set and setting” within which altered states of consciousness will be experienced, even perpetrating the illusions for which shamans the world over are renowned-all in the best interests of individual healing and the revitalization of society-have little to do with the mastery of altered states. All of these activities can be performed by a shaman in ordinary consciousness. By “mastering altered states,” we mean learning to gain some control over what happens when one is in a trance state. The question before us is whether altered states can be refi ned and developed somewhat analogously to the way Western science has refi ned, developed, and extended our sensory capacities. Are “inner” discoveries and manipulations possible that would parallel the techniques of an “outer”-directed science? If altered states of consciousness are useful for healing and transformation, can we learn to use them dependably; or must we, perhaps, induce trances and then just hope for the best? Is it possible to gain some mastery over what happens to our consciousness while we are entranced? Surely the importance of altered states of consciousness is not simply that they exist, but rather what we can learn to do with them. Anthropologist Piers Vitebsky of Cambridge University, one of the most respected contemporary experts on shamanism, defi nes the shaman as “any kind of person who is in control of his or her state of trance” (Vitebsky 1995: 10). He implies not only that altered states are “an absolutely normal, ordinary, indispensable side of human experience” (Hunt 1995: 1), but also that shamans distinguish themselves in having refi ned their talent for exploiting this universal human capability. Among contemporary shamanic societies, the San (Bushmen) of southern Africa are one of the most closely studied and frequently cited examples of a simple hunter-gatherer culture. For that reason they may resemble our Ice-Age ancestors. There is very little role-distinction in San society, and every San is a potential shaman. Some individuals, of course, display a greater talent for becoming entranced and for controlling their trance, but the San trance-dance involves the whole community, and anyone who enters a trance is authorized to heal. The San say that a form of energy they call n/um rises in their bodies as they become entranced. It is a painful experience; but if an individual is to become an effective and dependable shaman, he or she is expected to
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have mastered the pain of n/um by the age of thirty-fi ve (Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1989: 34).