Shamanism in Integral Thought

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In my most recent article I look at the way in which shamanic influences show up in fairy tales, particularly the new TV shows Once Upon a Time and Grimm. That piece left shamanism as a more general phenonemon, but it might be helpful to do a little advanced parsing with some help from Ken Wilber's integral theory.

wilber combs matrixIn Wilber's work there is the distinction between states of consciousness and structures (or stages) of consciousness. A great book of Wilber's on this subject is Up From Eden. Structures are, in part, major human epochs or worldviews. Jean Gebser had the pattern as: archaic, magical, mythic, rational, and (the coming) integral-aperspectival. States, on the other hand, are freely available at all times. There are also individual developmental structures of consciousness--as charted, for example, in developmental psychology

In Wilber's work, there is the notion of four great states of consciousness: gross, subtle, causal, and nondual. For Wilber each of these states has a characteristic form of mystical awareness: gross is nature mysticism, subtle is deity mysticism, causal is formless mysticism, and nondual is Isness. 

For Wilber (along with Alan Combs), the states are interpreted and embodied through the stages. This creates what they call the Wilber-Combs Matrix (or Lattice--pictured to the right).  

Generally shamanism is categorized as a form of nature mysticism and arose during the magical structure of consciousness. And there's good reasons for doing so--though there are limitations to this approach as well. Namely that however much it is helpful to conceptually distinguish states from structures, the two are always enmeshed in each other in profound ways. 

chakrasWhen we say nature mysticism, we mean mystically uniting with the waking world of experience. Shamans, in their journeys, use imagery drawn from this world: travelling to the underworld via canoe, climbing to the heavens via a tree, being led by a spirit animal, and so on. The tradition of shamanism in the Americas knew a version of what we would recognize as the chakra system from India. Usually people talk about 7 chakras (as pictured to the left), going from the root base of the body to the crown (top of the head). The 7th chakra, however, in some traditions is said to open up to another reality of many other phenomena and truths. In other words, the 7th chakra might be thought of as the source of the nature mysticism: it is the gateway between the waking world of normal consciousness and the subtle world of dreams and visions. This is how shamanism is normally seen, reaching the 7th chakra as the final point of mysticism in relation to the gross, waking world. 

But as shaman and scholar Alberto Villoldo points out, he was taught a shamanic tradition of an 8th and 9th chakras. The 8th chakra, what his South American shamans called the wiracocha, was up above the top of the head, a good foot or so above the head. It is the place of halos (on saints) in religious iconography around the world. The 8th chakra is the home of subtle consciousness--it transcends the gross world of waking existence in visions. This is the realm of saints and mystics seeing visions of God, Angels, Buddha, or the Light. They may also hear subtle sounds. The 8th chakra, the wiracocha, is depicted in this South American shamanic tradition, as golden--again think halos

darknessThe 9th chakra that Villoldo was taught by his shaman masters was said to be black. This is causal or formless mysticism. There are no more images--either from the mystical world of nature nor the heavenly world of the deity forms. The darkness is not the loss of consciousness as in "blacking out", but rather the entrance into super-consciousness. The causal is a form of consciousness so refined that there is no self there to register it. There is no self-consciousness then and therefore no sense of time or space--this is why the causal is said to be an experience of the Infinite and Eternal. The Christian mystic Dionysius called the causal, "luminous darkness" or "dazzling darkness." 

So while shamanism is typically placed in the more nature (or gross) mysticism realm, Villoldo's work shows that shamanism has, at minimum, the capacity to reach into the causal realms. This is important because many of the causal spiritual traditions tend to deny the value of the gross and subtle forms of experience, so this system of the 9 chakras could be a very helpful way of developing through all three great realms: gross, subtle, and causal. This way we can see the value and limitations of each. 


Last image is by Nicholas Hughes

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  • Comment Link David MacLeod Tuesday, 24 April 2012 16:16 posted by David MacLeod

    This is helpful, thanks. Have you checked out the work of Gary Stamper, who's specialty is Integral Shamanism?

  • Comment Link Robert MacNaughton Tuesday, 24 April 2012 17:12 posted by Robert MacNaughton

    This is great Chris, and timely.
    Synchronistically, I just finished a meeting ten minutes ago with a friend where we were scheduling a two-day offering by Alberto Villoldo here at The Integral Center in Boulder.
    Love it.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 24 April 2012 18:35 posted by Chris Dierkes

    @David. I haven't read Gary's book all the way through, but I do know he practices and recommends Holotropic breathing. I've never practiced that form of breathing in order to take a shamanic journey but it sounds like it could be very powerful. Bill Harryman has a nice little post on his experience with it.

    When I journey, I'll use this tech shamanism piece (it mixes the drumming with binaural beats on headphones).

    Or more recently I simply put on an eyeshade and go into a dark room (our bathroom usually). Generally I find I have a more difficult time entering into the trance with regular drumming than I do without the music. But for some reason that one clip above seems to be helpful.

    Do you have some interest/experience in this whole realm?

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 24 April 2012 18:36 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi Robert,

    Glad to hear connections are being made. Hope it goes really well.

  • Comment Link Devin Martin Tuesday, 24 April 2012 21:18 posted by Devin Martin


    Love seeing Shamanism mentioned in an integral context. I always wish Ken would shine his light a little more heavily in this direction. I think he always shied away from the academically untenable parts of the subject (psychedelics)

    I'd love to know in what sources you are finding info about American shamans chakra like system. Chakras are something I have been studying a bit this year. When it comes to the Eastern versions, there's no real consensus, but most other sources (and Ken) site their relationship to Gross, Subtle and Causal very differently. There are two, somewhat confusing aspects to this.

    First, all chakras exist in all 3 bodies. Ken is clear that he has created confusion here. Gross, Subtle and Causal are bodies, each have corresponding states. He tends to just call them states. He conflates these a bit. It's mostly a translational thing, but with chakra texts it is clear that all chakras exist in and can convert energy between all 3 bodies and so calling them such is more relevant.

    Second, as we go up through the chakras we can track a progression from gross (1-3), to subtle (2-6), to causal (7th). The emphasis here seems to be on the type of energy that each chakra works with primarily. It starts out with physical matter and gets subtler as we go up. Above the 7th chakra we have turiya (witnessing, or the 4th state) and turiyatita (or nondual, the 5th state in this version of Ken's model)

    I know there's a lot of subjectivity involved, but there does seem to be a surprising amount of cross-cultural alignment even throughout many hundreds of years of personal accounting. Knowing that Western shaman have created their own system makes it all the more intriguing to me.

    Love to hear your thoughts


  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 24 April 2012 23:46 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi Devin,

    Thanks for the note. Alberto Villoldo is the main author/source for this. His book Shaman, Healer, and Sage is the main one.

    You're right that chakras can go various ways and that each one can be said to have all three bodies/energies associated with it is a good point. Perhaps what I was talking about is more when people enter into the 7th at the gross level. And then subtle realm is said to be (in some circles) above the 7th charka or the 7th opens up into a whole other range of more connections.

    Of course the maps are helpful (to a degree) and then ultimately not that helpful. What's more important are the practices, the experiences, and the embodiment. But you are right that the intersection of the two system is quite fascinating and I think points to the reality of what they are describing.

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Saturday, 28 April 2012 03:43 posted by Jeremy Johnson

    Really great piece here too. Well, I don't have too much to add at this point except for an appreciation for looking at shamanism, which is often relegated as an un-interesting "lower" stage, or structure of consciousness. But that, of course, is an incorrect view as this article rightly points out, and it ends up muddying the water between states and stages while clarifying things in another, more organic way.

    "When we say nature mysticism, we mean mystically uniting with the waking world of experience." – I think this is exactly what, if one studies shamanism, will see as misleading. I wonder how much of it had to do with their embedded-ness in the natural world, and our own embedded-ness in the more abstracted, cultural container of civilization. Different images to draw from in the mystical imagination, or "collective unconscious."

    Then the other ambiguity that comes up is the relativity of structures and states. Gebser comes right out in EPO in saying that these structures may be emerge in time, but are all latent within Origin, and co-constituents of the Integral consciousness. He was very cautious not to embrace a developmental, or progressive model of consciousness evolution. Instead, each structure is a latent quality of Origin, or "the Itself." Aspect or dimension.

    This means that the structures themselves are not a neat, developmental process as Wilber or Combs point out, but a far more organic process of non-linear rhythms, expansions and contractions, this quality and then that, simultaneously falling away from the original Wholeness into fragmentation, and yet nearing an Integral consciousness.

    I don't really think this kind of "view" of the evolution of consciousness has been rightly articulated or presented as of yet. But I guess that's what our generation is for?

    Anyways, this all points out to me that we may indeed have things to learn about indigenous cultures and maybe, occasionally, we can embrace alternative models of consciousness, or more appropriately, alternative ways of seeing the world, in order to really, integrally appreciate it.


  • Comment Link Devin Martin Saturday, 12 May 2012 00:55 posted by Devin Martin


    Thanks for your first point. That shamanism is not by any means limited to the natural waking world of experience is a simple fact. Certainly from our techno-economic perspectives the societies which created shamanism were very.........natural (I hate what we've done to that word, removing humans and thus modern societies from it). None the less, what shaman's master is really communion with the subtle realms. Some even seem to have learned to manifest both subtle and gross objects by dipping into the causal. This is something urban shamans endeavor to mirror.

    The rest of your point I sense is a far bigger discussion than comment boxes can honor.

    - Devin

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Tuesday, 15 May 2012 01:51 posted by Chris Dierkes

    Hi Jer,

    Sorry I'm behind on responding to your comment. Thanks for recalling that Gebser did not have a developmental stance. I tried--rather vaguely and implicitly--to nod in that direction by talking about Gebser's model and then individual models drawn from developmental psych. Bonnitta has talked about how individual development does work via the transcend and include model. I think Wilber's work on social development takes too many cues from the individual world and then applies them to the social. Gebser's work (and others) may point to the ways in which cultural development does not follow the same general pattern as individual development. At least that's one thought I'm playing with of late.

    As to the shamans we have some semantics to discuss around what is nature--good point from you and Devin. But I would say one of the criticisms we often hear of Western contemporary society is that it is too material and I would say we aren't material enough. The shamans were material--and to me they show that by entering into materiality fully we pass through it or further into it (the directional metaphors aren't maybe the most helpful).

    Whatever the question about Wilber's notion of structures, I do think we need to be careful with a full embrace of Gebser. His view on the states raises some questions for me. By seeing archaic as the Witness and magical as deep sleep, he ends up interpreting Unity Consciousness models from the East as "returns'. Since the model isn't progressive I can't really use the word regressive there, but it does seem to me bordering on such a view. I would say we need our Soul on the far side of such awakening (like in say Unique Self teachings).

    Wilber's use of Deity Mysticism for the Subtle I think is very helpful and does distinguish it (in my experience) from Nature Mysticism. Both are valid but in my experience are distinct. When I say Nature MYsticism I think of connections with The Devas for example--spirit beings who are more connected with locales, regions, rivers, mountains. Whereas the subtle gives us connections with seraphim and cherubim and ultimately the Deity. Of course shamans can experience the Deity just as saints can connect with the energies and entities of Nature.

    So I guess what I'm saying is that I think it's fair to critique Wilber and Combs for too radically differentiating structures from states, but I also think Gebser could be open to the charges that he too easily conflates them.

  • Comment Link Jeremy Johnson Saturday, 19 May 2012 06:34 posted by Jeremy Johnson


    Yes I think you really describe it succinctly, in that shamans have mastered navigating the subtle realms. The subtle is nothing without the causal, or in other terminology, the "intermediary" realms of the Imagination are nothing without the archetypal and the divine realms of light and sound!

    As for the rest of the conversation, maybe we can have that at a future meet up in NYC.

    @Chris, hey thanks for this very thoughtful reply. I think you made a really good point in stating that individual development doesn't quite add-up to collective development in the same way. At the same time, I'm wondering if this actually depends on how we perceive individual development? I am by no means a deep student of this area. I'm just beginning to read the work of Carol Gilligan right now with Miri and so, I am wondering if there is a diverse spectrum of approaches to psychology. I am more familiar with mythological studies and Jung's work in tying psychology with alchemy. I find alchemical themes to be both representative of individual and collective patterns. Again, not the whole story, but an example maybe another kind of psychology that applies also to the macroscopic level.

    Great point about shamans and material. They were certainly more embodied. There is a really amazing documentary called The Great Dance–A Hunter's Story. If you can get a hold of it somewhere, I recommend it. My grad school has a big embodiment studies department and they made some interesting observations as to how the tribes thought with their bodies. At the same time, they were able to enter trance and travel through other worlds, i.e. Patrick Harpur's "daimonic reality." Somewhere between spirit and flesh.

    Also, a good point about Wilber's use of Deity Mysticism and Subtle from Nature Mysticism. Of course, the lines blur. Harpur believes, for ex, that devas, forest spirits, etc. are "complexes" of the gods, in the same way that we dream up characters and have complexes, etc. in our psyche. Also, I wonder where this intermediary realm, of both Nature and Deity mysticism, applies in modern evolutionary spirituality. For example, what if one dreams of the DNA Deva? To what degree does all this belong to modern evolutionary spirituality, to what degree is it being excluded?

    Last thought, re: Gebser. I think this is a fair criticism. Though he was cautious towards Eastern spirituality for most of his life, and evaded praising them due to their "mythic" language, towards the end of his life he began to warm up to the view. He seemed to warm up to Zen Buddhism in the East and even Meister Eckhart's mysticism in the West. I think Georg Feuerstein described it as "lucidity instead of mere wakefulness," when trying to describe Gebser's nuanced understanding of integral consciousness, rendering the world fully transparent–time and space–to Spirit or the "Itself" while still being in the world. Freedom *in* time.

    A really interesting note, later in his life Gebser had a mystical experience while doing a talk at Sarnath, the place where Buddha began teaching. He described it as a "sober" "clear" light. D.T. Suzuki, corresponding with Gebser, confirmed to him that it was satori. I think he began to soften his position after that. Hence "integral" consciousness as the re-collection of the Witness without needing to abandon the world but live fully present in it.

    Anyway, great thoughts here Chris. Thanks for writing back, talk with you soon!


  • Comment Link Neil Fernyhough Wednesday, 11 July 2012 07:05 posted by Neil Fernyhough

    I love this, Chris. Thanks!

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Saturday, 14 July 2012 05:56 posted by Chris Dierkes

    glad you liked it Neil.

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