5 Principles of Shamanism That Solve Real-World Problems

Where I cannot go by my own guidance, I must get lost to find.

Posted Dec 15, 2018

Modern science likes to give practices like astrology, tarot card reading, shamanism, and various other forms of magical thinking a hard time. Religions, of course, frown on one another too, often laughing at each other's absurd practices. Like a bunch of wolves pissing just over the border of their territory, you can consider it all a territory war for the right to make sense of reality.

But shamanism, despite its bad rap, can be adaptive and even work in making sense of things. Here are the five basic principles of shamanism that can solve real-world problems.

1. Get outside of your head.

Brains are full of biases. Perhaps the most important bias goes by several similar names: confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and biased assimilation. These are all various ways of describing how, when confronted with information, the mind tends to see what it is looking for.  

In confirmation bias, we look for evidence that supports our prior beliefs. In motivated reasoning, we construct arguments that support our prior beliefs. In biased assimilation, we can hear balanced evidence and only take away from it the information that supports our prior beliefs. See the trend?

If people's biases drive what they see, then it becomes extremely difficult to find solutions to hard problems, unless we can get outside of our own head. If you're too much "in control," then you probably won't stand a chance trying to solve a problem that you consistently fail at solving. 

Shamanism is partly about solving problems by losing your bias. In the words of Carlos Santana, "Everybody sooner or later has to drop the luggage and baggage of illusions." Shamanism starts by recognizing that it's all illusion, and then goes hunting for better illusions.  

2. Put on your bangles and hunt.

Shamans actively seek signs. They are listeners. They track down meaning to its lair.

This is because human minds are search engines. They make their living by being able to find resources, mates, and a safe place to sleep at night.  

However, human brains are also very expensive. According to Aiello and Wheeler's (1995) expensive tissue hypothesis, our metabolically expensive brains are only paid for by a compensatory reduction in the expense of our gut. When brains get bigger, guts get smaller. In other words, if you're going to have a fat brain, you need to pay for it with a better diet.

The cost of our brains is a major contributor to why we are good hunters and, in particular, why we have become good hunters of inner space. 

Human brains do this by bending space and time.

Let me explain. We bend space and time by creating mental models of our world that allow us to search inside of our heads, bringing together ideas that don't usually go together.

Thomas Hills
My dog, Astro, trying out for the part of Mary in last year's nativity. Yes, he can see into the future.
Source: Thomas Hills

We can take random ideas and put them together to create something new. Instead of being angry with my dog (that gut reaction) for peeing in the house, I can teach him to ring a bell when he needs to go outside. 

Or if I am an entrepreneur, I can follow the advice of the Wall Street Journal and use their “recipe for creating new products: take two completely separate [dissimilar] categories. Combine” (see Gibbert et al., 2012).  

When problems are easy, you may not need an internal model. If the stove is hot, simple reinforcement-learning will do the trick. No consciousness required. But as problems get more difficult, we need to be able to simulate possible solutions to work out the best attack. 

Human brains allow us to project ourselves into alternative futures to explore the potential consequences of our actions and choose accordingly.

But sometimes problems are extremely difficult, and we simply don't even know what we're looking for. If someone is dying ,and you don't know why, or you must predict how to win a war against a neighboring tribe for which you presently stand no chance, solutions aren't just dripping from the walls of your mental model.  

You're going to need a search engine that know hows to do what Google can't: generate search terms for a problem that you don't yet fully understand.

3. Turn up the temperature.

Shamans often engage in trance or meditative states that dissolve the boundaries of ordinary conditioning.

To understand why this works, consider a search algorithm called simulated annealing. It is a simulation of a process whereby metal, when slowly cooled, becomes harder.  

The first step in this process is to heat the metal so that it becomes more flexible. During the cooling, the metal recrystallizes. If it cools too quickly, the grain size of the crystals will be too small, and they will be out of phase with one another, making the metal brittle. But if it cools slowly, the crystals grow larger and are more likely to be in phase, making the metal stronger. 

In other words, annealing works by allowing the metal to "explore" different configurations. This exploration stage is the high-temperature phase. As the temperature cools, low-energy states (better solutions) reveal themselves and are locked in by the crystallization process. 

High temperature search is all around you. It is why we talk things over with other people and form committees with diverse members. Similar kinds of search processes exist in nature. Evolvability is an evolutionary process whereby mutation rates can be increased in specific areas of the genome when the environment becomes stressfulSex, especially outbreeding, is another method for increasing genetic variance in a population. Bacteria, when stressed, often engage in sex-like activities to share genetic material in an effort to produce new solutions to hard problems. 

Shamanism and other forms of taking the vision seriously are methods for turning up the temperature, of bending space and time even further than our usual mental models allow us to.  

4. Take your visions seriously.

Taking the visions seriously means you allow new solutions to come into consideration. You silence the critic, as good writers often say, and let yourself get down to the business of creating (hunting).

Inventors, writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and so on will tell you that if you want to create something new, you have to be willing to fail, to generate a lot of bad ideas, before you come up with something completely new. 

Comedians sometimes call it the rule of nine. If you come up with ten jokes, nine of them will be crap, and one of them will be okay. If you come up with ten okay jokes, one of them will better than okay. Repeat.

Apply that rule to your visions, and you will re-envision the world. 

5. Listen for the story.

There is more than turning up the temperature to the power of shamanic cultures. There is also the power of the story.  

Stories represent the footpaths of the dreamscape. They create the landscape over which search happens and provide the values and connections that allow the mind to do its work. They are the connective tissue of meaning.

Few people dream in numbers. We dream in imagery. The images are the vehicles of thought. Their associations are how the mind gets from one place to another.

No one does a better job of explaining this than Joseph Campbell in the The Hero With a Thousand Faces. In Campbell's book, he sets out the basic images that have been shared across countless cultures. If you like, they are Jung's archetypes, the Rosetta Stone by which our unconscious minds make sense of reality.  If you are an evolutionary psychologist, they are the modules that compete for our attention ("Is it a threat?" "Is it an opportunity for love?" "Is she someone I can trust?" "Am I being neglected?" "Is this the end?"). Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright is a thorough romp through this space of mental stories.  

The power of any kind of prediction lies in its stories. Shamanic cultures create stories, because these are how the mind gets from one place to another.  

The creation story of the Tohono O'odham people, who live near Tucson, Arizona, explains how the universe gives birth to the Papagueria, the land upon which the "people" live. Elder Brother, I'itoi, is the god who lives near the mountain that rises above the Papagueria. Characters abound, from grandmother's skeleton to coyote.   

We dream in the stories that we live in.

Our stories help us to better understand ourselves and our reality, because they create the potential for emotions and a scope of possibility that extends far beyond what our day to day lives will allow. In doing so, they create a web of relationships that allow us to see beyond the ordinary horizon. Our visions are the shoulders we stand upon to see over the land of possibility.

So will shamanism solve the world's problems or bring great-grandma back from the dead? Well, maybe. I suspect if you think otherwise, you may give the tried-and-true methods of finding solutions for things too much credit. 

Einstein didn't discover relativity by getting together with a committee and working harder on a problem that he had yet to solve. He had a daydream of flying on a beam of light.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote Kubla Kahn in an opium dream.

Kekule dreamt of the Benzene ring.

Steve Jobs wanted a computer screen that could do calligraphy. I consider that a high-quality vision.

Indeed, Descartes had a dream about the unification of science and offered a huge push to what we currently consider the scientific method. And he did this while he was studying the Bible for its codes. 

Some may argue that this isn't shamanism. (I'm not sure who owns that term. The shaman I've encountered don't agree.) But whatever "it" is, it takes the unconscious seriously. It accepts a truth in visions and uses the value they create.

So yes, if we do find a way to bring Grandmother Skeleton back from the dead, you'll need to thank the high-temperature prophets for their capacity to bring things back from the unconscious.

References

Aiello, L. C., & Wheeler, P. (1995). The expensive-tissue hypothesis: the brain and the digestive system in human and primate evolution. Current anthropology, 36(2), 199-221.

Winkelman, M. (2002). Shamanism as neurotheology and evolutionary psychology. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(12), 1875-1887.

Gibbert, M., Hampton, J. A., Estes, Z., & Mazursky, D. (2012). The curious case of the refrigerator–TV: Similarity and hybridization. Cognitive science, 36(6), 992-1018.

Salganik, M. J., Dodds, P. S., & Watts, D. J. (2006). Experimental study of inequality and unpredictability in an artificial cultural market. science, 311(5762), 854-856.