I have recently started revisiting and exploring Shamanism, a topic I previously documented with Spirit of Place. I was asked how my interest in shamanism began. Although I am not sure which events were the most influential, several episodes come to mind. The first happened a few months after my dad’s death. I was seven years old. An aunt that was described as a spiritualist came to live with my mother sister and I. I’ll never forget her bright blue penetrating eyes the night she asked me if I wanted to see my father. I ran from the room and kept my distance from her for weeks afterward. There were many nights that we heard her pounding on the walls and calling the spirits. Although part of me was fascinated I was relieved when she finally moved out.
While in my 20’s, living in the Height Asbury district of San Francisco during the 60’s a friend asked if I wanted to visit a psychic with him. Meanwhile, whether induced by drugs or other techniques everyone was experimenting with ways to access altered states of consciousness. At the time I considered it to be somewhat of a recreational fad. It wasn’t until 1994 in Dharamsala, India when I was invited to watch Thupten Ngodrup a young Tibetan monk go into trance that I witnessed an altered state of consciousness induced in the context of an age-old cultural ritual. Later while working on a world wide photographic survey of indigenous and tribal people I began meeting, just by chance, other individuals whose social function was to go into altered states to help heal disease or bring new information to their community—the people we refer to as ‘Shaman’. Intrigued by their role, and at times fascinated by their abilities, I decided to narrow my focus and specifically look for these individuals in the various cultures I was visiting.
I found that almost every indigenous or tribal group I visited had these ‘Shaman’. What intrigued me the most was the majority had a similar story when I asked how they came into their unique role. Almost every one, from Thupten Ngodrup to the last Shaman I photographed and interviewed in Pakistan years later, had an episode in their teens or adolescence that would have been diagnosed as a psychotic episode or schizophrenia in my culture. Instead they were typically taken aside by an older shaman or grandparent and told they had a gift and taught how to manage their altered consciousness and become a valued member of their community.
It is this dramatic cultural difference in the framing of a fairly common human experience that has led me to revisit and continue to explore shamanism, non-ordinary states of consciousness and psychotic episodes. In the coming weeks, I will share with you the stories from some of the shaman I have met in the past, starting with the monk who is the medium for the State Oracle of Tibet, Thupten Ngodrup.
My latest TED talk sets the stage for this continuing exploration.