Altered States:
The Power of Shamanic Rituals

Alisa Reimer

Rachel Howard

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Shamanism offers a glimpse into the worlds unseen and unknown. For persons endowed with imagination, it is above all a very personal invitation to be part of a plot that is truly marvelous, a chance to live out one’s dreams to the fullest.

Shamanic practices can be pivotal in the postmodern world: their power to catalyze individual transformation can lead to deeper social change. What if we could see past the illusion of separation and remember that we are all entwined in a cosmic web? What if we could join transformational experiences that ignite our intuitive capacities and empower us to act for the greater good? What if we could cross the limitations of time and space and experience the wisdom of elders from ancient cultures?

Shamanic rituals, ceremonies and traditions represent the first religious experiences of humanity. Yet shamanism is not a form of religion, since it is not based on any fixed dogma or system. Essentially, it is more of a worldview — a way to live in harmony with the spirits of nature. The shaman is psychically wired into the universe. There is no library, no lab, no doctrine, no dictionary of specialized terms, no how-to manuals, no peer-reviewed papers, no online courses, no hotlines to consult on issues as they arise in a tribe. Shamanism is a loose agglomerate of mind-blowing techniques, largely uncatalogued, intuitive methods of attaining a very special kind of experience — a journey to the edges of our inner cosmos. It is through these kinds of mystic encounters that we aim to reconnect with our roots, finding spiritual balance and understanding our place in the universe.

Wisdom keepers of ancient traditions are reaching out to the western world with answers.

Shaman María Sabina –
An oracle-priest, the great master of ecstasy, the chief of the high.
Even though the origin of the word “shaman” remains uncertain, it seems to be related to the Siberian word šaman, which can be roughly translated as “one who is heated, moved, excited, raised.

“We hardly ever realize that we can cut anything out of our lives, anytime, in the blink of an eye...” — Carlos Castaneda

Interest in shamanic practices has soared since the last century and played an essential part in the spiritual quest of people in the western world. Several publications, starting in the mid-1950s, struck a spiritual-metaphysical nerve and gained huge popularity in pop culture. In The Doors of Perception (1954), Aldous Huxley leads the reader along deep philosophical pathways, after experiencing the effect of mescaline, a psychedelic alkaloid found in various cacti. Then there was María Sabina, a humble shaman from Oaxaca, who became an overnight sensation after a Life magazine article published in 1957. Maria Sabina worked with psychedelic mushrooms in her healing sessions (and had little interest in her global notoriety, although rumors suggest even The Beatles came under her spell).

In the late ‘60s, transcendence seekers discovered new models of reality in the writings of Carlos Castañeda. He sold millions of books in over a dozen languages about his encounters with Don Juan, a Mexican Yaqui shaman, who tried to break Castañeda’s attachment to the western principle of reality in order to reveal the illusory nature of the material world. Castañeda’s books provoked a global wave of enthusiasm for shamanism and quickly reached cult status — although it was never quite clear whether his encounters with the shaman really took place or emerged from his imagination.

The world's fascination with shamanism not only nurtured the ‘flower power’ movement or people interested in substance-induced altered states of consciousness. The increased interest of people seeking spiritual guidance, and holistic solutions in which mankind is at one with the natural world, points to a desire to leave the discomfort of one’s zeitgeist. The experience of two World Wars in the 20th century, followed by advancing technologization, led people to question political and social conventions and the predominance of rational thought.

This spiritual search continues to this day. Wisdom keepers of ancient traditions are reaching out to the western world with answers. For example, the indigenous Kogi tribe in northern Colombia has started to interact with “Younger Brothers” — people from modern society, who have lost touch with cosmic consciousness — sending an urgent warning to stop damaging the Earth and restore ecological balance.

01: It is on this journey that your body becomes muddled and disintegrates. One part of it feels different from other parts. Your mind becomes a house of dreams as you dream constantly and of many things. Dreams are all there is.
02: Mask of a shaman from the Himalayas – a secondary skin which may also include ghostly garments, teeth of the dead on a string for jewelry, equally odd piercings, inexplicable tattoos, and an overall alien appearance such as a body coated with grease, face daubed with soot, and long unwashed and disheveled hair dusted with ashes.

Viewed through the prism of shamanic wisdom, the ecological crisis we are experiencing is fundamentally a spiritual crisis.

Whereas in many religions the spirits are considered heavenly, otherworldly beings, in the shamanic view spirits are everywhere: in plants, animals, even rocks. Shamanic cosmology commits all its inhabitants to act in harmony with the spirits of nature. Myths and legends are interwoven into this cosmology and help to maintain earth-centered wisdom. A distinction is made between the lower and upper worlds, which are populated by spirits, and the world in between, which humans inhabit. Everything circulates between these three dimensions and has an impact on one another. Humans do not occupy any hierarchical central point. This multidimensional reality only underlines our interconnectedness.

Indigenous communities have survived over thousands of years in harmony with nature precisely because of their belief that nature is a sacred embodiment of the spiritual world. Viewed through the prism of shamanic wisdom, the ecological crisis that we are currently experiencing is fundamentally a spiritual one: the imbalance between humanity and nature is a direct result of humans neglecting this interconnectedness.

Shamanism has a lot to do with geography, the influence of area-specific cosmic, environmental and climatic factors. Given these influences, shamanism tells volumes about the nature of human consciousness.

Through ecstatic singing, dancing and drumming, the shaman’s spirit leaves her body and enters the supernatural world.

It is important to distinguish between traditional shamanism, which has been practiced by different ethnic groups over thousands of years, and so-called “neo-shamanism”, which is also practiced by people without an indigenous background. Talking about traditional shamanism requires a high degree of sensitivity, since it involves ethnic minorities that have already disappeared, or are being marginalized or oppressed.  

Even though the origin of the word “shaman” remains uncertain, it seems to be related to the Siberian word šaman, which can be roughly translated as “one who is heated, moved, excited, raised” – referring to the shaman's practice of entering into an ecstatic state. Shamanic practices can be found across the globe, but most likely originated in Asia. After the second Ice Age, around 25.000 years ago, the Bering Strait, that now separates Russia from the United States, was a land bridge that enabled hunters and gatherers to migrate from Asia to North America. Among these immigrants were shamans. This explains why certain shamanic rituals and ceremonies are the same in places as far apart as Chile and Siberia.

A multitude of shamanic traditions are scattered across the globe. Utterly idiosyncratic, they do have certain key characteristics in common. According to Margaret Stutley, an expert on world religions, traditional shamans share three characteristics. First, a belief in the existence of a world of spirits, mostly in animal form, that are capable of engaging with human beings. The shaman is required to control or cooperate with these good and bad spirits for the benefit of their community. Second, the importance of trance, induced through ecstatic singing, dancing and drumming, when the shaman’s spirit leaves his or her body and enters the supernatural world. Third, the shaman has healing powers, helping community members to overcome difficulties and problems, as well as treating diseases, usually those of a psychosomatic nature.

In shamanism, everything is explained and dealt with from within the shaman's inner hermeneutic horizons – in an idiosyncratic, purely imaginative way, through myths and rituals, through ecstatic dancing and wild chanting they are keeping it alive as they go along, weaving the threads of a lively story.

Music can be a portal to transcendental experiences, leaving the constraints of the rational mind and entering a deep space of interconnectedness.

While some authors, like Carlos Castañeda, focus on altered states of consciousness induced by psychoactive plants, this is only one of the many techniques that can open the doors of perception. Shamans use the beat of the drum, the shaking of the rattle, and other instruments to enter into a state of trance. Music can be a portal to transcendental experiences, helping to leave the constraints of the rational mind and enter a deep space of interconnectedness. Scientific studies have shown that certain BPM’s (beats per minute) induce altered states of consciousness. Whether analog or digital, music can be a bridge between everyday reality and the realm beyond words and conventional structures.

The first instruments made by humans served to connect to the spirits, to perform for the gods, to induce trance and bring healing. The musicians and artists performing rituals at Scorpios offer a contemporary interpretation of the power of music to touch us deeply, using ancient instruments and sonic textures from different cultural backgrounds. No matter if someone has ever participated in any kind of ritual. When we hear the beat of a shamanic drum or the tones of a native flute, it tickles something within us that is far older than our human experience in this lifetime.

The element of fire is another powerful catalyst for transformation, igniting the flames of change within us. On the red path — the shamanic path bringing together different Native American traditions — fire is seen as a direct channel to the Great Spirit of creation, eternity and mystery. Watching the flames of a fire confronts us with our own power, passions and fears; perhaps sparking a willingness to burn the old and unnecessary, to create from the ashes something anew. The fire pit at Scorpios is also a symbol of connection and transformation. During performances and rituals, incense, herbs and copal resin are offered to the fire, while musicians perform with a view to the island of Delos — an ancient pilgrimage site where spiritual ceremonies were performed for centuries, whose transcendent energy still radiates across the Aegean Sea.

01: Reclothed in new flesh, the shaman imagines himself to be a walking skeleton – the figure that, according to Mircea Eliade, indicates his “passing beyond the profane human condition and, hence, a deliverance from it”.
02: In shamanism, the bone represents the very source of spiritual existence, which is at once ultimate truth and real life.

Rituals create space for personal and collective transformations – a chance to heal in times of psychological, ecological and social crisis.

Since traditional shamanic cultures preserve their knowledge through rituals, songs, and customs, rather than in writing, rituals are the gateway to this ancient wisdom.
If these practices are performed with integrity, they are not simply escapist fantasies. They create space to regain a sense of connection to our true selves, our tribes, and our natural environment in all its cosmic glory. They create space for personal and collective transformations – a chance to heal in times of psychological, ecological and social crisis.

Will we ever find ways to mend the physical and mental cracks in the global body of humanity and achieve true interconnectedness – human to human, tribe to tribe, culture to nature? Modern science and reason have not made much progress towards this holistic vision. Perhaps art, music and experiences inspired by the shamanic cosmovision offer us a better chance. Shamanic rituals remind us that everything in the universe is connected. Small or grand as they may be, our actions spin the world and we spin with it.

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