Shamanic Crisis, aka ‘Shaman Sickness’ | Dr. David Lukoff

Dr David Lukoff has experienced his own challenges with involuntary non-ordinary states and has since developed the Spiritual Competency Resource Centre. Below is an excerpt from his tdetailed perspective on spiritual crisis as shamanic initiation.

Shamanism is humanity’s oldest religion and healing art, dating back to the Paleolithic era. Originally, the word shaman referred specifically to healers of the Tungus people of Siberia. In recent times, that name has been given to healers in many traditional cultures around the globe who use consciousness altering techniques in their healing work.

Historically, shamanism has been confused with schizophrenia by anthropologists because shamans often speak of altered state experiences in the spirit world as if they were “real” experiences. While the shaman and the person in a psychotic episode both have unusual access to spiritual and altered state experiences, shamans are trained to work in the spirit world, while the psychotic person is simply lost in it.

But in many traditional cultures, psychotic episodes have served as an initiatory illness that calls a person into shamanism. Mircea Eliade writes:

The future shaman sometimes takes the risk of being mistaken for a “madman”. . .but his “madness” fulfills a mystic function; it reveals certain aspects of reality to him that are inaccessible to other mortals, and it is only after having experienced and entered into these hidden dimensions of reality that the “madman” becomes a shaman. (Mircea Eliade. Myths, Dreams, and Mysteries. New York: Harper and Row, 1960. Page 80-81)

As the person accepts the calling and becomes a shaman, their illness usually disappears. The “self-cure of a psychosis” is so typical of the shaman that some anthropologists have argued that anyone without this experience should be described only as a healer. The concept of the “wounded healer” addresses the necessity of the shaman-to-be entering into extreme personal crisis in preparation of his/her role in the community as a healer (Halifax, Joan. Shamanic Voices. New York: Dutton, 1979)..

Traditional cultures distinguish between serious mental illness and the initiatory crisis experienced by some shamans-to-be. Anthropological accounts show that babbling confused words, displaying curious eating habits, singing continuously, dancing wildly, and being “tormented by spirits” are common elements in shamanic initiatory crises. In shamanic cultures, such crises are interpreted as an indication of an individual’s destiny to become a shaman, rather than a sign of mental illness. If the illness occurs in an appropriate cultural context, the shaman returns from the crisis not only healed, but able to heal others…

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