Religious Personalities: The Shaman

Beverly Lanzetta Meditations, Study

This month I will address the contemplative aspect of personality through the lens of religious types, such as the shaman, prophet, priest, and yogi, rather than psychological categories—Enneagram, Jungian, or Myers-Briggs. The reason for this is twofold.

  1. In the spiritual life it is helpful to recognize how your personality contains elements of a shamanic or monastic archetype, prophetic voice, yogic discipline, and so forth. By not having a self-reflective awareness of these interior states, it is easy to dismiss aspects of your true nature.
  1. This lack of understanding concerning the spiritual dimension of personality can lead to suffering, especially when our behavior is labeled according to categories that do not fit our situation or experience. For example, you may have experienced a spiritual conversion or a dark night identified by a therapist in purely psychological terms that does not correspond to what actually took place within your inner life. It is my hope that you will have a better understanding of your spiritual life by understanding your spiritual personality.

One of the oldest types of religious personage is the shaman, and accounts of shamans can be traced back fifty thousand years. I imagine that traces of the shamanic personality are latent in our beings, even though most people are not formal shamans initiated by a functioning indigenous community. We contain within us a shamanic sense of the world, a shamanic state of consciousness, or even what has been called a shamanistic epistemology, meaning the ability to travel to other worlds—from ordinary to non-ordinary reality—bringing back new knowledge.

In indigenous cultures, the shaman functions as:

  1. the focus of personal sacrifice, undergoing an experiential struggle with the sacred energy that controls and sustains the universe. Shamans cultivate the art of balancing the creative and dissipative energies of human life in relation to the natural world.
  2. the source of trance meditation, passing through the human, natural, and mythic worlds in order to act as a mediator between the human community and the natural and spirit worlds. Shaman develops many trance techniques, such as ecstatic journeys to heavenly regions and lower worlds, intense meditative states and spirit possession to relay requests to animal and other guardian spirits. Use of various altered states of consciousness ensures their capacity to contact and deal with trans-phenomenal power.
  3. the leader of tribal ritual, who journeys for the community into mysterious regions toward which the group is oriented; dramatizes a personal encounter with spirits; and symbolizes such encounter by images from the natural world.
  4. the instrument of healing and divining, who demonstrates a continued commitment to the phenomenal order, without which the esoteric aspects of ritual activity would be ineffective.

Healing power of the shaman is analogous to that of nature, which sustains life. Shamans give symbolic meaning to the forces that animate the cosmos. This experience of resonance with the natural world distinguishes the shaman’s religious personality type from the prophet, priest, or yogi and invokes a mode of consciousness that gives rise to an awareness of the patterns of meaning inherent in the earth.

The shaman is a sacrificial personality who undergoes initiation sometimes described as the dismemberment of self in order to bring to awareness and for healing purposes the power of animal spirits and spirits of the upper world. The integration of the shaman frequently occurs through sickness and pain. Turkish-Sagay shaman Kyzlasov, related his initial shamanic experience:

“I have been sick and I have been dreaming. In my dreams I have been taken to the ancestor and cut into pieces on a black table. They chopped me up and then threw me into the kettle and I was boiled. There were different people there. Two black and two fair one. There was a chieftain there too. He issued the orders concerning me. I saw all this. While the pieces of my body were boiled they found a bone around the ribs, which had a hole in the middle. This was the excess bone. This brought about my becoming a shaman. One looks across the hole of this bone and begins to see all, to know all, and that is when one becomes a shaman. When I came to from this state I woke up. This meant that my soul had returned. Then the shamans declared: “You are the sort of man who may become a shaman.”

The sacrificial suffering of the shaman is preparation for an intimate relationship with cosmic power mediated through a trance state, which is essential to the shaman’s healing powers. If the sacrificial moment stays in a disintegrated state it can lead to personality disorders and difficulties with the spirits. Visions and dreams help to interpret the psychic and physical suffering the shaman undergoes and to initiate him or her into the role of mediator, lifting the whole tribe up to higher states of consciousness.

The shamanic formation is precarious because of the need for inner stability and because contact with higher states of consciousness, whether spirit or animal realms, can overwhelm a person’s psyche and sometimes result in destructive or egotistical behavior. In other words, a person need have achieved a level of integration so the personality is not thrown off balance. Integration frequently involves passage through a kind of terror, pain, or anxiety until balance is achieved. A shaman’s formation is categorized by extreme solitude and suffering, which is the prerequisite for inner wisdom and integration.

An Eskimo caribou shaman: “A real shaman does not jump about the floor and do tricks. Nor does he see by the aid of darkness by putting out the lamps to make the minds of his neighbors uneasy. For myself I do not think I know much but I do not think that wisdom and knowledge about things that are hidden can be sought in this manner. True wisdom is only to be found far away from people out in the great solitude and it is not found in play but only through suffering. Solitude and suffering open the human mind and therefore a shaman must seek his wisdom there.”

The juxtaposition of suffering and solitude with periods of integration, followed by further suffering and integration is the process whereby the shamanic personality is formed. The shamanic personality thus has the ability to live on the edge, between worlds, and learns to recognize and translate non-ordinary or divine reality into the community.

Shamanic consciousness is found in individuals who are not formal shamans. For example, John Grimm, a scholar of indigenous cultures, postulates that St. Francis of Assisi was a type of shaman. Francis undergoes the pain and suffering of metaphorical, mystical dismemberment in his identification with Lady Poverty, and thus serves as a meditator or conduit for the entire Christian community, bringing into consciousness a higher level of Christian love and nature mysticism.

Citations from, John Grim, The Shaman: Patterns of Healing Among the Ojibway Indians