Journal of Conscious Evolution


Shamans were the first dreamworkers and the first to ask traditional philosophical questions. They used (and still use) altered states of consciousness to travel into "dreamtime," obtaining power and knowledge to help and heal members of their communities -- the social group that awarded them shamanic status. In psychological terms, shamans regulate their attention to obtain information not available to their peers, using it to reduce stress and improve the living conditions of members of their society.

Over the centuries, Western scientists and philosophers have dismissed shamanic "journeying" as fanciful at best, and delusional at worst. Julian Silverman (1967) postulated that shamanism is a form of socially sanctioned schizophrenia, and George Devereux (1961) took the position that shamans are neurotics and hysterics. Roger Walsh (1990) has pointed out the fallacies in these arguments and, in recent years, scientific data, numerous case studies, and anecdotal reports have emerged supporting the beneficial use of dreams (especially lucid dreams), imagination, and imagery to treat disease, improve sports performance, and enhance creativity (Krippner & Dillard, 1988; LaBerge, Levitan, & Dement, 1986). From this perspective, shamanic reports of "journeying" to the Lower World and the Upper World can be viewed as useful metaphors for the accessing of unconscious material and latent potentials.

A similar body of parapsychological literature, both anecdotal and experimental, supports the shamanic model of “journeying" backward and forward in time and space. These accounts are rejected by most established academic institutions, allegedly because they are flawed, fraudulent, or fabricated (e.g., Grey, 1994). However, the French philosopher, Henri Bergson (1914), took the position that each person is, at each moment, potentially aware of all concurrent events as well as of his or her past experiences; to prevent being overwhelmed by this information, the brain acts as a "filter" to suppress all input except that which is relevant and practical. Though accounts of shamanic "journeying" do not easily adapt themselves to the practical pursuits of the West, even if a small number of them had merit, shamanic philosophy would deserve to be reconsidered (Krippner, 1994).

For the shaman, there were no rigid boundaries between "waking life" and "dreaming life"; both were regarded as "real” but full admission to the latter usually depended on training and discipline. Malidoma Patrice Some' (1994), an African Dagara shaman, remarks, "Nothing can be imagined that is not already there in the inner or outer worlds" (p. 233). This assertion echoes the Greek philosopher Parmenides' claim that "what is there to be said and thought must needs be: for it is there for being, but nothing is not." Further, it has been observed that the fanciful travels Parmenides recounted in his poems resemble the "journeys" described by shamans (Kirk, Raven, & Schofield, 1983, pp. 242-243).

Before his initiation, Some's mentor had asserted, “The dream world is real....It's more real than what you are observing now" (p. 211). During his lengthy initiation, Some' knew that this procedure would prepare him to live “as if I were in a dream in which worlds collided and different realities confronted one another....The contrast between this state of mind and what I had been accustomed to...was the same as the difference between liquid and solid. It seemed to me that Dagara knowledge was liquid in the sense that what I was learning was living, breathing, flexible, and spontaneous. What I was learning made sense only in terms of relationship. It was not fixed, even when it appeared to be so....By contrast, I could see that the Western knowledge I had been given had the nature of a solid because it is wrapped in logical rhetoric to such a degree that it is stiff and inflexible. The learning one gets from a book, from the canons of the written tradition, is very different from the living, breathing knowledge that comes from within, from the soul....Could one reality contradict another? What kind of new reality was I being introduced to? What is reality predicated upon?” (p. 185).

Current efforts to train people to "dream lucidly," to engage in "shamanic journeying," and to "function psychically" can be seen as renewed attempts to enter what anthropologists have designated "dreamtime" so as to engage in activities deemed impossible in ordinary states of consciousness. They may also be considered attempts to obtain a deeper "truth" than is available to ordinary awareness. Within the early Hindu religion, dream journeys were seen as intermediate states of the path toward divine truth (O'Flaherty, 1984, p. 15). While the early Hindus saw both the waking and dreaming states as operating within "samsara," illustrating the propensity of human societies to decide what they opted to designate as "reality," some Indian philosophers felt that dreamtime contained fewer of these “mortal" distinctions (p. 18). Parmenides' claims again seem relevant, namely his contrast between the truth in "changeless being" and the mere "mortal opinions" of most human beings. Reflecting on his dream research data, Harry Hunt (1989) has noted that while the dreamer's body remains inert, his or her "dream body" seems to operate on its own, traveling to distant places and engaging in exotic activities.

There seems to be a perennial dichotomy between "appearance" and "reality," between one's perceptions of the world and the external world said to exist independently of that perception; this dichotomy has tilted in favor of "mortal opinions" and "samsara" in Western academia. This tilt is exemplified by the fact that in 1994, Princeton University’s graduate program did not teach a single course on Eastern, African, or Latin American philosophy out of a total of 64 listed in their information booklet. Princeton's course, "Philosophy of Religion," is described as providing "readings from contemporary analytical philosophy of religion, and from historical sources in the Western tradition." Furthermore, the only philosophy course at Harvard University which explicitly mentions non-Western thought is entitled "Socrates, Buddha, Jesus," despite the fact that only Buddha qualifies as "non-Western."