Thursday, July 3, 2014

Shamanism And Medical Science - Mutually Exclusive Disciplines?

contributed by reader, Jenni Greaves

Shamanism is, sadly, viewed by many as a dubious quack-practice grounded in bygone superstition. The minds of such people are closed to the potential of shamanic healing, and they have no wish to discuss the matter. However, some who may not quite believe in the more mystical aspects of shamanism are perfectly willing to accept it as a practice which can be of immense help to the psyche. Indeed, many have likened psychologists to modern shamans, their jobs essentially being to conduct people through the sometimes perilous realm of their souls (or psyches) and resolve conflicts therein. Though the ideological theories of the two doctrines may differ in some ways, the essential aim and, often modus operandi, bear marked similarities. This is increasingly becoming a matter of interest to modern science. Vanderbilt University points out that "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" [1].  While some may be doubtful about the magical aspects of shamanism, modern medicine is growing to accept its psychological and even physical value. Even disbelievers can therefore benefit from shamanism without feeling that they are compromising their scientific principles.

The Psychoanalyst As Shaman
The idea of shamanic soul-flights as psychological healing tools have been present ever since the fathers of psychiatry began to appreciate the presence of and delve into the human subconscious. Freud and Jung, the undisputed fathers of modern psychiatry, were incredibly interested in the myths, symbols and archetypes with which shamans work. Both saw such things as representative of deep cultural mores which are both embedded within and representative of the human mind. Though couching his theories in scientific language, the exploration of the psyche which Freud published in "The Interpretation of Dreams" [2] would have been recognizable to any shaman. The way Freud saw it, mythic frameworks, symbols, and tale-formulae were a way in which humans could interpret and engage with their psychological states (and the demons inherent therein). The shamanic view is something more mysterious, spiritual, and magical, but the idea of healing through a mythic 'soul-journey' is common to both disciplines.

Mind, Body, Soul - Full Integration
Recently, medical science has begun to turn its attention to the spiritual and emotional aspects of healing. Initially this trend began (understandably enough) within the spheres of mental health and psychiatry. However, the medical establishment is now tentatively beginning to explore the connection between mind and body in an enhanced manner, focusing on the emotional aspects of pain and disease, and the physical effects of psychological trauma. This field of study began where physical illness and mental trauma self-evidently overlap – with addiction and substance disorders. The popularity and apparent success of recovery programs which focused on a degree of spirituality gave medical authorities – accustomed to dealing with disorders purely on a physical or chemical basis, pause for thought. The Betty Ford Institute and the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment investigated the phenomenon in 2007, concluding that "spirituality, however hard to define in operational terms, likely constitutes an important motivator for recovery for some (perhaps many) substance-dependent people." [3]. From a shamanic point of view, an addiction is an affliction of the soul caused by the absence or damage of some aspect of the self. Retrieval of the errant part and spiritual re-integration causes the person to become whole again, whereupon they will not need the actions of drugs or alcohol to fill the 'gap'. While unwilling or unable to accept this precise reasoning, medical practitioners are now accepting that addiction is a psychological problem which can be greatly aided by psychoanalytical and spiritual techniques which aid psychological wellness and wholeness. state that many treatment centers now employ semi-spiritual methods designed to promote mental wholeness and wellness, including "massage and acupuncture services"  [4].

Shamanism and Pain
Shamanism and shamanistic techniques are also being explored in relation to pain and the person's ability to cope with it. In 1949, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss published "Structural Anthropology" [5] – a book which delved into anthropological theory, practice and conclusions. Within this book was a paper entitled "The Effectiveness of Symbols", in which Levi-Strauss described and analyzed a shamanic ritual of the Cuna people from Panama. The purpose of the ritual was to aid a woman with a difficult childbirth. The shaman, through an elaborate blend of tale-telling and ritual, pulled the woman into a mythic yet deeply personal world which Levi-Strauss perceived to belong to the cultural subconscious. The shaman and his patient believed themselves to be drawing positive spiritual energies to their side and embarking upon a mythic journey through which the woman's soul would be rendered whole and she would gain the strength needed to get through the birth. Levi-Strauss saw it in less mystical terms, but was in no way immune to the psychological potential of the ritual. Indeed, he compared the shaman to a psychoanalyst and drew strong parallels between the ultimate aim and results of the ritual and that of a psychoanalytic session. Neither was he too closed-minded to appreciate the real, physical healing potential of the shamanic ritual. Even though he did not believe in magic or the religion of the Cuna, he did believe in the potential within the mind to heal and aid the body. According to Levi-Strauss, the shaman was "making explicit a situation originally existing on the emotional level and...rendering acceptable to the mind pains which the body refuses to tolerate".  Medical science increasingly accepts that the volume of pain is less important than the mind's ability to cope with it. Naturally every person has their breaking point, but it is truly astounding what the human can bear when they have the right mentality. The British Journal of Anesthesia points out that a person's beliefs about and understanding of the pain which they are experiencing can form "part of the psychosocial context, known to be the largest indicator in predicting the extent of pain-associated disability" [6], and go on to recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for sufferers of chronic pain, in order to diminish their suffering and enable them to cope. In just such a manner does the shaman build up the psychological strength of the patient, bolstering them, unlocking the resources hidden deep within their souls, and enabling them to draw upon those resources to aid them in their pain.

Better United
It seems, therefore, that shamanistic techniques and medical techniques - particularly those of the psychiatrist - can be successfully combined to bring about healing even for those who do not believe in mystical shamanism. The ancient shamans knew a good deal more about the depths of our minds and the relations between mind and body than western science has, until recently, cared to admit-  and their techniques can still be used to bring about unity and healing for suffering people.

[1] Vanderbilt University, "What is Shamanistic Healing?"
[2] Sigmund Freud, "The Interpretation of Dreams", Sterling Publishing
[3] Marc Galanter, Helen Dermatis, Gregory Bunt, Caroline Williams, Manuel Trujillo, Paul Steinke, "Assessment of spirituality and its relevance to addiction treatment", Betty Ford Institute and Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 2007
[4] Rehabs, "Advantages and disadvantages of various methods"
[5] Claude Levi-Strauss, "Structural Anthropology", Basic Books Publishing
[6] C.Eccleston, "Role of psychology in pain management", BJA, 2001

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