The Shaman’s Touch: “Giving Ease” in Post-modern Times

A theory of evolutionary psychology suggests there may be real curative powers underlying the techniques of the faith healer, or shaman as known to tribal peoples. The theory suggests a time when humans were reduced to a small population by stresses, and in that time certain individuals who had a positive response to shamanistic techniques conferred on them a survival advantage, which explains not only the so-called placebo effect, but our response to faith healing and shamanistic techniques. This evolutionary event may have been responsible for getting the whole shamanistic ball of wax rolling.

It is not just a matter of making the sick feel better about being sick. It suggests there are actual curative powers to altering our mental chemistry through exposure to shamanistic ritual that result in actual physiological changes that prevent or attack disease. It suggest that we have built-in responses that the shaman evokes.

The way the shaman evokes a response in people is completely different than the Western tradition of medicine and psychotherapy. In a reversal of roles from Western psychotherapy, the shaman becomes expressive and the patient becomes quiet. In psychotherapy, the therapist listens while the patient becomes expressive. (This is noted paper by Dow). This reversal is the most important quality of shamanistic healing for us to recognize. It reveals how materialistic, hierarchical, anti-holistic our view of psychology is. How even thoughts and dreams are treated as objects to be dissected, categorized and analyzed. Yet, there is no real proof that by analyzing the makeup of our thoughts and feelings does any good, or does as much as the shaman’s touch. To be analytic, to prompt the patient to expression, interferes with the transference of “magical” energy from the shaman to the quiescent and receptive patient.

This magic is no less fanciful than the electric feeling flirting lovers get when they touch. Our mental processes may be the result of chemical balances and imbalances in the brain, but they are still a mental chemistry manipulable from outside, through perceptual influences—what we see, what we hear, body language, facial expressions, the model of other’s minds we build in our own. The process by which the shaman operates remotely on the patient is by engaging in expressive actions that give rise to a transference of this force to the patient’s mind. It may well be that Western psychotherapy actually blocks the process by which the shamanistic techniques act on the body through the mind. If one is busy yakking about one’s problems, distracted from the expressions of the shaman, how can one be receptive to such changes in mental chemistry?

It is with this knowledge and framework that you should watch the film Tommie Bass. If things pan out, we may learn that the shaman’s touch is not a fantasy or a placebo, but a true healing touch.

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