Tag Archives: Sofia University

Future Implications for Fishing: A Universal Therapeutic Skill, Part 4

In the first post of this series, we looked at the idea of fishing and metaskills. In the second post, we explored the idea of fishing in the context of individual therapy. In yesterday’s post, we looked at this idea of fishing in the context of couples’ therapy and group therapy. In today’s post, we’ll look at implications for future research and wrap up the paper.


Future Research

Mindfulness. Fishing can be a very important tool in the therapist’s toolbox. Since Mindell’s publication on fishing (1995), there has not been any research conducted about fishing. It is possible that what Mindell called fishing, some people call mindfulness. According to Krasner (2004), “Mindfulness-based interventions ask of the participants to consciously shift that locus of control internally . . . and apply wise attention . . . to the present moment” (p. 208). Mindfulness asks the client to be conscientious of one’s own processes and fishing is a way for the therapist to acknowledge these processes in the client. In mindfulness, the person sits with unhurried attention and notices what is happening inside them at that moment. In fishing, the therapist is sitting with unhurried attention in an effort to notice what is going on inside the client. Comparing and contrasting the mindfulness techniques to fishing could yield practical results for therapists who use either of the techniques. A study of like this could determine if it is more advantageous to be mindful solely on one’s own or if it is better when someone else (a therapist) is being mindful of one’s processes. In the next section, implications for future research on fishing within the field of transpersonal psychology are explored.

Transpersonal psychology. According to Mindell (1995), “At present there is no one unified system of techniques which all practitioners of transpersonal psychology employ” (p. 36). This can make it very difficult to categorize the techniques used by transpersonal psychologists who have a private practice of therapy. As stated by Hammer (1974), “Transpersonal psychotherapy concerns itself, ultimately, with helping consciousness transcend its identification with the various limiting and relative self-defined personal labels, concepts or images which comprise the apparent and illusional ego and awaken to itself” (p. 202). Given that there are conflicting viewpoints, it would be essential to conduct a study to discern the techniques that are the more effective techniques used in transpersonal psychotherapy. After having witnessed a transpersonal therapist conduct a psychodrama at a transpersonal graduate school where the technique of fishing was utilized, it would be appropriate to include fishing as one of the techniques in a study of transpersonal psychotherapy. There are many different techniques used in transpersonal psychotherapy, but it is possible that much of the techniques are derivatives of fishing. Transpersonal psychology is known for focusing on more than just the person. It includes what is beyond the person. Meaning, transpersonal psychotherapy includes the spirit in therapy. In order to be able to notice the spirit in the client, it is important for the therapist to sit with unhurried attention, much the same as a therapist using the metaskill of fishing would. In this section, there have been ties made between transpersonal psychology and fishing. In the next section, there are connections made between fishing and massage therapy.

Massage therapy. Up to this point, fishing has been referred to in the context of mainly talk therapy applications. If during therapy, the therapist notices an instance where the client’s words are not congruent with the client’s actions; this could be considered a fish. However, the concept of fishing could be applied to a discipline that is mainly a touching discipline. According to Moyer, Rounds, and Hannum (2004), “Massage therapy (MT), [is] the manual manipulation of soft tissue intended to promote health and well-being” (p. 3). Within massage therapy, the therapist does not necessarily have to speak to the client in order to administer the therapy. In most massage therapies, the client lays face down on the table, and the therapist massages their neck, shoulders, and back. It is conceivable that the therapist could go into a state of consciousness where their hands are not moving by their own will. In this state of consciousness, similar to unhurried attention, their hands could be ‘fishing’ on the client’s body. The therapist could be massaging the client in one area and have a sense to move to a specific part on the client’s body. This would be very similar to fishing. In moving to this new spot, the client’s body could give the therapist feedback telling them that this spot is a good spot to continue working with or a spot that they need to move stop working with immediately. In this section, there have been implications for how fishing could be researched further with the topics of mindfulness, transpersonal psychology, and massage therapy.


Initially, there was a description of metaskills and the fundamental metaskill of fishing. Within the comprehensive explanation of fishing, there were details on recognizing a fish and determining fish from non-fish by way of the feedback given from the client. There were explanations of individual therapy, couples’ therapy, and group therapy, which contained examples of how fishing is present in all three kinds of therapy. There were also areas for possible further research that tied fishing to mindfulness, transpersonal psychology, and massage therapy.


Aposhyan, S. (2004). Body-mind psychotherapy: Principles, techniques, and practical applications. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Bugental, J. (1987). The art of the psychotherapist. New York: W. W. Norton.

Carere-Comes, T. (2007). Bodily holding in the dialogic-dialectical approach. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 17(1), 93-110.

Doss, B. D., Thum, Y. M., Sevier, M., Atkins, D. C., & Christensen, A. (2005). Improving relationships: Mechanisms of change in couple therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73(4), 624-633.

Hammer, M. (1974). The essence of personal and transpersonal psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, 11(3), 202-210.

Krasner, M. (2004). Mindfulness-based intervention: A coming of age? Families, Systems, & Health, 22(2), 207-212.

Mindell, A. (1995). Metaskills: The spiritual art of therapy. Tempe, Arizona: New Falcon Publications.

Moyer, C. A., Rounds, J., & Hannum, J. W. (2004). A meta-analysis of massage therapy research. Psychological Bulletin, 130(1), 3-18.

Oei, T. P. S., & Green, A. L. (2008). The satisfaction with therapy and therapist scale – revised (STTS-R) for group psychotherapy: Psychometric properties and confirmatory factor analysis. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39(4), 435-442.

Yalom, I. D., & Leszcz, M. (2005). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy, fifth edition. New York: Basic Books.


If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

Couples’ and Group Therapy: A Universal Therapeutic Skill, Part 3

In the first post of this series, we looked at the idea of fishing and metaskills. In the second post, we explored the idea of fishing in the context of individual therapy. In today’s post, we’ll look at this idea of fishing in the context of couples’ therapy and group therapy.


Couples’ therapy. In couples’ therapy, the therapist may help each person in the relationship hear what the other person is saying. It could be easy for the therapist to get lost in the words of what is being said to her or him during the therapy session. However, if the therapist is sitting with unhurried attention, while listening to what the couple is saying, the therapist will be much more likely to hear the fish. According to Doss, Thum, Sevier, Atkins, and Christensen (2005), “When couple therapies target specific aspects of the relationship, they are typically able to achieve the desired change” (p. 624). When the fish presents itself, the therapist must catch that fish in order to help facilitate and achieve a desired change within the relationship. Working with the fish in couples’ therapy can be trickier because the two people present may be bickering with each other. The therapist must remain centered within himself or herself to notice the fish when it presents itself. Even if the therapist misses the fish, the fish may present itself again in a different way (Mindell, 1995). With all of the possible commotion happening, the therapist could miss the fish that is presented, but because the fish will present itself again, it is not catastrophic if the therapist missed the first fish. So long as the therapist notices one of the fish and then follows it, the therapist will help to achieve the desired change.

An example of fishing in couples’ therapy could be the husband of the couple talking about his wife asking him to do chores around the house and during his speech about the chores, the husband has a somatic reaction. The therapist notices this somatic reaction and sees it as a fish, so the therapist follows it. As the therapist follows this fish, the therapist uncovers the root of the problem, which is really that the husband does not feel like his wife is listening to him. In following this fish, the therapist achieved a desired change for the couple because they wanted an improvement in their relationship. There have been examples of how fishing is present in individual therapy and couples’ therapy. In the next section, there will be examples of how fishing is present in group therapy.

Group therapy. Some people consider group therapy easier than couples’ therapy and some consider it more difficult. Two foundations to group therapy are universality and cohesiveness (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005). Universality is the principle that all human experiences are potentially shared. That is, it is highly unlikely that a single person’s experience is unique. Cohesiveness is when all of the members of the group feel a sense of belonging. Once the group has the sense of universality and cohesiveness to it, the therapist usually has an easier time conducting group therapy. It is possible for the therapist to use the technique of fishing during the opening stages of forming the group, even before the group therapist gets to what some might call therapy. Beginning stages of group therapy can be anxiety producing for some people and because of this, it is possible that they would show all kinds of ‘fish’ to the therapist. As the therapist is scanning the group, he or she may notice that one client is particularly troubled. Because of this, the therapist may want to pose a question to the troubled group member to see if this will lead anywhere. According to Mindell’s fish theory, the group member will then give the therapist feedback to let the therapist know if there is a fish.

This section has defined therapy and outlined some of the things that happen in therapy. There has been an explanation of individual therapy, couples’ therapy, and group therapy, along with examples of how fishing is present in all of the stated therapies. In the following section, there will be possibilities discussed for how research can be conducted on fishing in conjunction with mindfulness, transpersonal psychology, and massage therapy.


Check back tomorrow for some implications for future research and the conclusion.


Individual Therapy: A Universal Therapeutic Skill, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, we looked at metaskills and this idea of fishing. In today’s post, we’ll look at fishing and metaskills in the context of individual therapy.


Fishing as a Therapeutic Skill

Therapy is a very broad term that has many meanings to many people. According to Mindell (1995), “The practice of psychotherapy, unlike religion or science, is the combination of the techniques and metaskills unique to each practitioner or therapeutic skill” (p. 41). Given this definition of therapy, it is fair to say that therapists use metaskills in therapy. In particular, therapists use the metaskill of fishing in therapy. As stated by Bugental (1987), “The most mature psychotherapists are more artists than technicians and they bring to bear a wide variety of sensitivities and skills so their clients can release their latent potentials for further living” (p. 264). Though fishing is a metaskill that a therapist can use, it is important that fishing not be performed merely as a technique. For effective therapy, the therapist must use the metaskill of fishing as an artist would use their skill of painting on a canvas. The therapist must wait with unhurried attention for a fish to come along and then switch to precise awareness in order to follow the fish. The artist does not attack the canvas, but instead, gently waits with unhurried attention for the art to flow through them. Then, they switch their focus to a more precise awareness as they paint the images that are coming to them.

It is important to note that even though the therapist takes on the role of the therapist and the client takes on the role of the client, neither is devoid of their human qualities. Meaning, underneath the roles they are playing (therapist and client) they are still human. Carere-Comes (2007) wrote “In a sense, every human relationship, however technical and impersonal, is also inevitably more or less interpersonal, since a person never manages to completely hide behind their technical role” (p. 95). The therapist can attempt to put on the image of being all knowing and important, but the therapist that knows the least, does the best. “If you are too intelligent, you are not helpful. If you are too smart, you try to make something happen instead of following nature. You have an inflation that you are the creator of life and not the assistant” (Mindell, 1995, p. 114). The metaskill of fishing is important in individual therapy because it allows the therapist to go with the flow of the session and not force change into the client. The therapist waits patiently for the client to reveal a fish, and then the therapist uses the feedback from the client to determine if there really is a fish. In the following sections, there will be examples of how fishing is used in individual therapy, couples’ therapy, and group therapy. The first form of therapy to be explained in more detail is individual therapy.

Individual therapy. According to Aposhyan (2004), “[There are] three general tasks of psychotherapy: 1. healing developmental deficiencies, 2. resolving trauma, [and] 3. supporting further development” (p. 65). Fishing is an important skill to have for achieving these general tasks of therapy. An example of a developmental deficiency is a client not being able to form social bonds very well. The client may present with a seemingly unrelated issue such as being bored at work, but a fish might reveal itself during the session. It is the job of the therapist to notice this fish and follow it, so the two of them together, can explore the developmental deficiency. Fishing can also be useful in resolving trauma.

If a client had been sexually abused as a child, they might not present with this issue, but this issue might arise from therapy. For example, a client could be talking about playing at the park with their friends and then they suddenly become agitated. The therapist could interpret this agitation as a fish, and follow the agitation by probing it with more questions. The client would then provide feedback to these questions indicating to the therapist that there is a fish. The therapist could then follow the fish and from this fish, the therapist might end up discussing how the child had once been kidnapped at the playground by their uncle and taken to his house. At the uncle’s house, the uncle proceeded to sexually abuse the child. This information about the sexual abuse would not have arisen had the therapist not followed the fish in the form of the agitation. Not only is fishing useful in developmental deficiencies and resolving trauma, but it is also helpful in furthering the development of clients.

It is important for the therapist to support further development within their clients. A fish may present itself in the form of an edge for the client. An edge is a place where a client is at the limit of their comfortableness. If the client were to push their edge, they would be attempting to extend their ability to feel comfortable beyond where they initially felt comfortable. In short, when someone pushes their edge, they are seeking to grow. An example of a therapist supporting further development within a client could be assisting the client to push their edge. The client might be talking about something that took place in their business meeting that morning. The client might say that they had an idea that might have contributed to the advancement of the discussion, but chose not to voice their opinion. The therapist might notice the client shift in their seat, as they mention not voicing their opinion. The client shifting in their seat could be a fish. The therapist tests to see if the shifting within the seat is a fish and discovers that it is. The therapist and client then discuss the possibility of the client speaking up in meetings to further the development within the client. There have been examples of how the three general tasks of psychotherapy relate to fishing. If the client and the therapist worked specifically with one of these tasks of psychotherapy and achieved the task, the client and the therapist would deem the therapy successful. It is important for the client and the therapist to feel like therapy is a success.

According to Oei and Green (2008), “Individuals typically undertake therapy on the assumption of it being a valid endeavor; therefore, the patient’s level of satisfaction with his or her therapeutic experience is fundamental” (p. 435). Because of this, it is imperative that the therapist and the client work together in an efficient manner to achieve the desired outcome – successful therapy. In order to facilitate an expedient process, it is most appropriate for the therapist to use the metaskill of fishing because fishing allows the therapist to get right to the heart of the issue. There have been multiple examples of how fishing is used during individual therapy. The next section will discuss some examples of how fishing can be used in couples’ therapy.


Check back tomorrow for the second half of this section where we look at fishing in the context of couples’ therapy and group therapy.

Metaskills and Fishing: A Universal Therapeutic Skill, Part 1

I spent all day yesterday packing and preparing to move, which is what I’ll be doing for the next few days. I’ll be in transit (from one city to the next) for a little bit, so I thought this would be a good time to share another one of the papers I wrote. This one was for a class called: “Proseminar in Somatic Psychology.” In today’s post, we’ll look at the introduction and talk about ‘fishing’ in the context of metaskills.


This paper will give a brief summary of metaskills, followed by what is proposed to be the metaskill present during individual therapy, couples’ therapy, and group therapy – fishing. There will be examples of fishing in the three kinds of therapy to support this idea. There will also be implications for possible research of fishing as it relates to mindfulness, transpersonal psychology, and massage therapy. In the proceeding section, there will be an explanation of metaskills.


There are many different kinds of therapies and many different techniques of administering therapies. Some therapists find it more effective to use cognitive-behavioral therapies and some use emotion-focused therapies. No matter the kind of therapy administered, it is important that the therapist have the right skills. The universal skills present in therapy are what Mindell (1995) calls “metaskills.” Metaskills are the underlying feelings of a therapist and can be cultivated (Mindell, 1995). It is highly unlikely for a therapist to be devoid of feelings. Mindell (1995) wrote “Often these most significant beliefs and feelings are not clearly defined, yet strongly influence a therapist’s interactions” (p. 19). A therapist might not know that he or she has strong feelings about the way a person looks or talks, but these feelings can still influence the interaction between the therapist and the client. “The client feels these attitudes whether the therapist uses them consciously or not” (Mindell, 1995, p. 19). These feelings can potentially have a strong influence on the relationship between the client and the therapist. Even though the therapist is not consciously expressing the feelings he or she might have about the way their client looks or talks, the client may be able to sense these feelings. In sensing those feelings, the client may be less apt to share certain aspects of himself or herself with the therapist. Mindell (1995) stated “Metaskills are found in many therapeutic systems and in the work of individual therapists” (p. 21). When working in individual therapy, couples’ therapy, or group therapy, the metaskill used by the therapist is “fishing.”


One of the central metaskills is “fishing” (Mindell, 1995). Fishing is the fluctuation between “diffuse, unhurried attention” and “precise awareness” (Mindell, 1995, p. 112). It is very similar to how one would fish on a lake. The person fishing casts a line into the water and then uses ‘diffuse, unhurried attention’ to wait for a fish to bite the line. Once the fish has bitten the line, the person fishing uses a ‘precise awareness’ to reel in the fish. In therapy, the client may be rambling on about something that is not important to follow deeply, until the client reveals the ‘fish.’ The fish could be a somatic response, in that it is something displayed by the client’s body, or it could be something the client says. Mainly, the fish is something presented by the client that is incongruent with their current state of being. When the client reveals the fish, this is where the therapist must use the skill. One potential example of a fish could be the client talking about their grandmother who had recently died. As the client is talking more about their grandmother’s death, the therapist notices movement by the client’s body when they speak about death. It does not have to be a grandiose expression, but just a subtle twitch or movement that seems to contrast with the client’s way of being. The movement is not exaggerated, but quite subtle. The movement could be a slight tension in the client’s shoulders. Specifically, when the client mentions the word death, the therapist notices that the client’s shoulders tighten and rise up ever so slightly. At this point, the therapist could check the line to see if there is a fish. That is, the therapist might stop the client and ask them more about death, to see if what the therapist thought was a fish, really was a fish. Even if what the therapist thought to be a fish turns out not to be a fish, that is part of the metaskill of fishing. There are times when there might appear to be a fish, both on the lake and in therapy, and it is appropriate to check and see if there is a fish. In order to know if there is a fish on the end of the line, the therapist must listen to the feedback from the client. The client could give the therapist negative feedback, which is when the client’s responses to the therapist’s tests indicate that there is not a fish. The client could also give the therapist positive feedback, which is when the client’s responses to the therapist’s tests indicate that there is a fish. There has been a thorough explanation of fishing. In the following section, fishing will be tied to therapy.


Check back tomorrow for the next section: fishing as a therapeutic skill.


Belief Matters More Than You Think

I came across an article in Scientific American last week that reminded me of a story of mine that I haven’t yet told. When I was a PhD candidate at Sofia University, one of the classes that we were required to take was aikido. I really enjoyed learning this martial art having had past experiences with taekwondo and karate — specifically, Gōjū-ryū. (In fact, I did some googling and even found the dojo where I spent a great deal of my youth!)

Anyway, while at Sofia University and learning  aikido, I remember one of the classes quite vividly. In this class, we were learning about the five elements, as they related to aikido. In particular, we were learning about earth. The Sensei (teacher) asked one of the smallest women in the class to come to the front and then he asked me to come to the front, too. He asked her to stand normally and then asked me to lift her off the ground from under her arms. I did it easily. Next, he asked her to imagine that she was the earth element — planting roots deep into the ground. After a few dozen seconds, he then asked me to try lifting her again (in the same way I lifted her before) — nothing. I bent my knees a bit more and put some more force behind my lift — nothing.

I was amazed.

It was quite clear from the first half of this exercise that I could lift her off of the ground, but when she was imagining that she was the earth element, I was — so it seems — helpless. I’ve written before about the importance that our words/thoughts can have on ourselves (and on each other!), but this is a tangible example of how someone’s beliefs are actually effecting reality in a very tangible way. Is there something you’re believing about yourself that may be limiting your ability to lift yourself off of the ground?


I realize that my story is anecdotal, so I thought I’d also include one of the many examples from the Scientific American article:

Psychologists Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan recently asked two groups of people to answer questions. People in one group were told that before each question, the answer would be briefly flashed on their screens — too quickly to consciously perceive, but slow enough for their unconscious to take it in. The other group was told that the flashes simply signaled the next question. In fact, for both groups, a random string of letters, not the answers, was flashed. But, remarkably, the people who thought the answers were flashed did better on the test. Expecting to know the answers made people more likely to get the answers right.


Editor’s Note: As an aside, I’m in the process of moving from Washington, DC, to Ottawa, Canada (the Glebe!), so my posts may become a bit sparser over the next few weeks. I’ll still do my best, but if you don’t see anything for a couple of days, it’s probably because I’m busy with planning/arranging the move.

Conclusion: A Brief Overview of Shamanism, Part 4

In yesterday’s post, we explored the numerous roles of the shaman. I can remember that when I was first writing this paper about shamanism, I had a vague sense that shamans were responsible for many things within the community, but when I started listing them, I was still a bit surprised at just how many roles there were. In today’s post, we’ll conclude the paper. I’ve also included the list of references I used. Enjoy!



In this paper, we have learned that there is evidence to support that shamanism has existed for 20,000 years or more. We have learned that the word shaman originated from a Siberian – the Tungus. We have learned that shamanism has a broad range of definitions that begin with an altered state of consciousness and can be as a specific as identifying the kind of altered state, prototypical experiences, and the shaman’s goal. We have also learned that some shamans do not like to call themselves shamans nor do they like to call their ‘religion’ shamanism. We have looked at the process involved in becoming a shaman and understood it to include the following: ‘schizophrenic’-like symptoms in adolescence, altered states of consciousness, dismemberment/reassembly of one’s body, and an ability to display one’s skills in communicating with the spirits to obtain information to heal people within their community. We had a dialogue around the possibility that people diagnosed with schizophrenia in America being candidates for shamans. We learned about the various roles that a shaman could undertake: medicine man, medium, master of spirits, ritualist, keeper of cultural myths, storyteller, weather forecaster, performing artist, and healer (psychotherapist/physician). We looked at some of the different types of shamans among the Cuna Indians of Panama. We learned about how shamans originally assumed many roles and then subsequently relinquished many roles. We also looked at some possible reasons as to why shamanic journeying was not undertaken by one of the many ‘specialists’ that emerged from shaman’s roles. Overall, the goal of this paper was to give a brief overview of shamanism. Given the vast array of literature and the fact that shamanism has been around for at least 10,000 years, it is clear that much more could and probably will be written about shamanism and the various practices associated with it.


Grosman, L., Munro, N. D., & Belfer-Cohen, A. (2008). A 12,000-year-old Shaman burial from the southern Levant (Israel). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(46), 17665-17669.

Harner, M. (1982). The way of the shaman. New York: Bantam.

Krippner, S. (2000). The epistemology and technologies of shamanic states of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 7(11), 93-118.

Krippner, S. C. (2002). Conflicting perspectives on shamans and shamanism: Points and counterpoints. American Psychologist, 57(11), 962-977.

Krycka, K. (2000). Shamanic practices and the treatment of life-threatening medical conditions. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 32(1), 69-87.

Larson, P. C. (2002). Teaching history and systems from a clinical perspective. History of Psychology, 5(3), 249-263.

Merchant, J. (2006). The developmental/emergent model of archetype, its implications and its applications to shamanism. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 51(1), 125-144.

Metzner, R. (1998). The unfolding self: Varieties of transformative experience. Novato, CA: Origin Press.

Peters, L. G. (1989). Shamanism: Phenomenology of a spiritual discipline. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 21(2), 115-137.

Rock, A. J., Abbott, G. R., Childargushi, H., & Kiehne, M. L. (2008). The effect of shamanic-like stimulus conditions and the cognitive-perceptual factor of schizotypy on phenomenology. North American Journal of Psychology, 10(1), 79-98.

Rosano, M. J. (2006). The religious mind and the evolution of religion. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 346-364.

Smoley, R. & Kinney, J. (2006). Hidden wisdom: A guide to the Western inner traditions. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

Stone, D. (2008). Wounded healing: Exploring the circle of compassion in the helping relationship. The Humanistic Psychologist, 36(1), 45-51.

Voss, R. W., Douville, V., Solider, A. L., & Twiss, G. (1999). Tribal and shamanic-based social work practice: A Lakota perspective. Social Work, 44(3), 228-241.

Walsh, R. (1989). What is a shaman? Definition, origin, and distribution. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 21(1), 1-11.

Walsh, R. (1996). Shamanism and healing. In B. W. Scotton, A. B. Chinen, & J. R. Battista, (Eds.). Textbook of transpersonal psychiatry and psychology (pp. 344-354). New York: Basic Books.

Walsh, R. (2001). Shamanic experiences: A developmental analysis. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 41(3), 31-52.

Winkleman, M. (1989). A cross-cultural study of shamanistic healers. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 21(1), 17-24.

Wiseman, B. (1999). Portrait of a therapist as a shaman. The European Journal of Psychotherapy, Counseling, & Health, 2(1), 41-53.


If you liked this paper/series, you might want to check out some of the other papers/series I’ve posted.

Roles of a Shaman: A Brief Overview of Shamanism, Part 3

In yesterday’s post, we looked at the ways in which people become shamans. I also shared an anecdote from one of my classes where I learned that a shaman in one part of the world may be seen as someone with a disorder in another part of the world. In today’s post, we’ll look at the various roles of the shaman.


Roles of a Shaman

The various roles in which a shaman undertakes are closely related to the cultures that one is likely to find shamanism (Walsh, 1989). This is because a shaman plays many roles for their culture. The cultures in which we are likely to find shamans are “simple nomadic hunting and gathering societies” (p. 8). In these kinds of cultures, people do not generally rely on agriculture and have very little political organization or social class. As such, the shaman is left to play many roles: “medicine man, healer, ritualist, keeper of cultural myths, medium, and master of spirits” (p. 8). Krippner (2000) stated similar roles that shamans play: “Shamans were probably humanity’s original specialists, combining the roles of healers, storytellers, weather forecasters, performing artists, ritualists, and magicians” (p. 98). Krippner (2002) added “shamans appear to have been humankind’s first psychotherapists [and] first physicians” (p. 970). References to shamans as physicians can be seen more than once in the literature. Shortly, we will liken a shaman to a ‘general practitioner.’ Krycka (2000) argued that shamanic techniques are “the bridge between ancient and allopathic approaches to healing” (p. 69). The ties between a shaman and therapy are not hard to make, as there is evidence for similarities between shamans and therapists (Stone, 2008; Voss, Douville, Solider, & Twiss, 1999; Wiseman, 1999). Because of the lack of social class, shamans usually possessed a great deal of influence on their culture (Walsh, 1989). Winkleman (1989) noted that as societies evolved into sedentary, agricultural, and social/political stratification, shamanism seems to disappear. Instead of the shaman holding all of the previous roles that they had held, specialists assume some of the roles once had.

Walsh (1989) identified a noteworthy parallel to western society in that there was a disappearance of the old medical general practitioner and an “appearance of diverse specialists” (p. 9). Walsh continued saying that priests emerge as the representatives of organized religion and are responsible for engaging with spiritual forces. “However, unlike their shamanic ancestors they usually have little training or experience in altered state” (p. 9). Walsh explained that other members of the culture assumed the various roles of the shaman except for one – journeying. Walsh referred to the suppression of owning a drum in parts of Europe during the last century as being one possible explanation to this disappearance and made reference to the discovery of the powerful states associated with various yogic and meditate practices. It is not clear as to why this role of the shaman would have seemingly vanished into the nether, while the other roles were scooped up into other specialists’ responsibilities. Given how powerful altered states of consciousness are, it is plausible that the ‘powers that be’ when forming social/political stratification decided intentionally not to include this practice in their culture for fear of losing their power. There is no substantial evidence to support this claim, but that does not negate it as a possibility. Even given the seemingly intentional forgetfulness of the people in power during the formation of the earlier cultures that did not include shamans, shamanism is still around today and used by a variety of people. According to Larson (2002), “Shamanic healing was the first mode of healing to emerge, and it still thrives today in both traditional cultures as a principal form of healing and in developed societies as an alternative form of healing” (p. 256).

Given our discussion of the ‘disappearance’ of the shaman into ‘specialists’ with the introduction of social/political stratification, there is an interesting tribe that seems to have kept a ‘number’ of shamans. According to Krippner (2002), “There are many types of shamans. For example, among the Cuna Indians of Panama, the abisua shaman heals by singing, the inaduledi specializes in herbal cures, and the nele focuses on diagnosis” (p. 963). In this tribe, it seems as though instead of splitting up the various roles of the shaman and thusly doing away with the shaman, there already were various roles in place. Krippner does not go into much detail about the Cuna Indians and there is not any (that I was able to find) academic literature on the Cuna Indians. I was only able to find that it is more politically correct to refer to them as the Kuna and this was from Wikipedia, so it may or may not be accurate.

In this section, we have explored a number of topics. We have examined the various roles that a shaman can undertake: healer (psychotherapist and physician), medicine man, magician, storyteller, weather forecaster, performing artist, master of spirits, medium, ritualist, and keeper of cultural myths. We have also explored how the shamans originally assumed many roles and then subsequently relinquished many roles. We looked at some possible reasons as to why shamanic journeying was not assumed as the role of one of the many ‘specialists’ that emerged from the shaman’s roles. We also learned of some of the different types of shamans among the Cuna Indians of Panama. In the next section, we will summarize all that we learned about shamanism.


Check back tomorrow for the conclusion and the list of references.