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9. the psychology of shamanism: some cross-cultural comparisons

In previous chapters, we have noted that the religious practices of non-Western cultures have found their way into new religions in North America . Moreover, we have suggested that a common psychology underlies all of these therapeutically effective religions. We find this commonality in the similar primal experiences of converts to all manner of different religions in different places and times, as well as in their life histories and personalities. In this and the next chapter we will bring these ideas together by addressing three major issues. First, we want to take a closer look at the nature of non-Western shamanistic religions. Second, we want to consider the nature and role of primal experiences in shamanistic religions as well as in our imported new religions. And third, we want to compare the psychological state of members of shamanistic religions with that of members of imported new religions.

Shamanistic religions are ecstatic (i.e., trance-based) religions. A central feature of such religions is the drama of a person being seized by the divine--a transcendental experience that is typically referred to as a trance or state of possession. Adherents of shamanistic religions believe that while mystics or shamans are in the trance state they have direct experiential knowledge of the divine and can serve as channels of communication between the human community and the supernatural. In Japan shamans are understood to perceive "God's will" both through glossolalia ("speaking in tongues") and through receiving certain revelations or inspirations--including such things as prophesying, clairvoyance, and the transmission of messages from the dead.

The primal experiences reported by shamans include such things as visual and auditory hallucinations, waking visions and/or revelatory dreams, and spirit possession. These ecstatic experiences, especially spirit possession, may be either spontaneous or self-induced. Japanese shamans use shugyo, a practice involving strenuous bodily exercise, to induce trance states--states much like those that American Zen Buddhists achieve through meditation and Hare Krishnas achieve through chanting and dancing. Simple repetitive tasks, physical exhaustion, drugs, and other methods can all be used to bring on trance-like states ...