Luca Panseri




Shamanism as the first integrative psychotherapy




Intervento presentato al XX International Congress of the Society for the Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration – Amsterdam, June 2004




The main question of the Sepi Conference is “What makes a good therapist ?” .

In my opinion a good therapist is someone who tries to be aware of as many elements as possible of the therapeutic enterprise. Our field is fragmented in a number of different and often incompatible theories and techniques: we are constantly battling our colleagues and imposing our  paradigms of the mind’s functioning or our world view on our patients. Progress towards a more integrative attitude  may be possible through the search for a common ground wherein we can identify the main relational and therapeutic factors that are common to all practices and describe them in a language that is as experience-near and theory neutral as possible.  

This is why the shamanistic model is a precious point of reference since it is truly integrative, containing, at least embryonically, all the main features present in every therapeutic relationship.

By examining the practices of our therapeutic ancestors we can rediscover and reintegrate what has been lost in contemporary psychotherapy.

Modern psychotherapy, born with Freud, was fundamentally anti-spiritual. Freud, in an attempt to gain scientific status for psychoanalysis, tried to clearly disassociate his practice from any kind of magic or religion and, as a consequence, all spiritual experiences  were seen as regressive,  remnants of infantile states and expressions of primitive drives  and structures. (M Eigen, 2004). Also the bodily dimension was expelled from the therapeutic relationship through the cardinal rule imposing the avoidance of any physical contact between therapist and patient. Psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on the role of sexuality, was already shocking the Victorian sexual prudery of that time and it seemed politically correct not to give its strong critics further reason for attack. (Mintz, 1969).

Only in the last decades of the last century the spiritual and bodily dimensions have been re-accepted in the therapeutic context, thus recovering what had been lost and restoring the original unity of our ancient predecessors which had never been completely forgotten. As mentioned earlier, the shamanistic model was integrative.  

According to Lewis’s description of the shamanistic session, the patient is to be treated in a cosy atmosphere where all types of thoughts, emotions, problems and behaviours are accepted and where a blend of supportive and expressive interventions is the rule. During the session there are abreactions and the  expression of repressed desires and impulses with strong emphasis on the bodily experience.

Shamanistic therapy is both verbal and experiential, it explores dreams and furthers insight and induces behaviour changes.

The main feature of shamanistic treatment is that the patient is put in touch with his own spiritual dimension through the shaman’s mediation in a transformative and integrative process.

In most cultures, as Hilde Rapp underlined, the shaman experience relates primarily to soul travel -“the capacity to allow inspiration and intuition to guide our attention to realms in which we experience aspects of reality that are not easily grasped in ordinary waking consciousness”-.

This is why the social anthropologist Lewis states that the shaman is not less than a psychiatrist but more. And in my opinion Lewis is right, at least if we consider how much modern psychotherapy has lost in comparison with the original integrative interventions of our shamanistic forerunners.

I hope not to be considered too naive for my praise of the shamanistic approach and indeed I think it is important to weigh the objections to the above concepts.

In the pre-conference debate, for instance, some participants found themselves in disagreement with the idea of being considered new shamans. For them it was not at all clear as to whether the word shamanism is to refer to an ancient healing technique or to a modern umbrella or worse if it is a wishy-washy, new ageist, fashionable word and therefore a useless concept for contemporary psychotherapists.

But despite these doubts, the anthropologist Geoffrey Samuel reminded us  that “there is something there which need a label and so far “shamanic” seems to be the best and most general word we have”.

Something” as Hilde Rapp wrote “which has been researched by anthropologists  who sit on the bridge between communion and communication” and which “serves as a place holder, a conceptual marker” for a new language and a new paradigm for understanding ourselves as embodied spiritual beings.

It is undeniable that the shamanistic culture is complex  and very differentiated.

There are as many kinds of shamans as there are psychotherapists  but as Kakaz (1982) pointed out very clearly “the line of cleavage in the healing profession is not between “traditional and modern” or between “Western” and “Asian”. The real line of cleavage, cutting across culture and historical eras, seems to be between those whose ideological orientation is more toward the biomedical paradigm of illness, who strictly insist on empiricism and rational therapeutics, and others whose paradigm of illness is metaphysical, psychological or social.”

Shamanism originated in a time that predates the East-West split and the two metaphysics it has brought about. As Tullio Carere pointed out “ shamanism does not choose spirit to the detriment of matter, or vice versa, or heaven to the detriment of earth, or vice versa. It does not choose, it mediates. It is basically dialectical”.

So I think it is worth referring to the shamanistic approach and trying to clarify its implications for our psychotherapeutic practice because of its dialectical attitude which may be an antidote to any kind of one-sidedness.

The awareness of our origin drives therefore the integrative process into a holistic frame avoiding the risk of following the heavy objective bias introduced by the model of Evidence Based Medicine and the opposite subjective bias brought to bear by the “romantic” schools (hermeneutic, phenomenologist, radical constructionist, etc.) which show a definite preference for the subject to the detriment of the object.

The shamanistic approach dealt with here refers to an  ideal type which according to Max Weber is  “the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged into a unified analytical construct."

An ideal type of modern shaman is to be found in the model proposed by Tullio Carere where the modern shaman is primarily a mystic, “one who dares venture into the dark night of the soul, only supported by the basic shamanic faith that passion and (symbolic) death give place to a rebirth.” As Nietzsche said “ready must you be to burn yourself in your own flame; how could you become new if you have not first become ashes!”.

A person able to burn and sacrifice all certainties and take the flight into the unknown or willing to let the unknown get into his/her body in the form of some ‘spirit’.

But as Carere emphasizes, the modern shaman “is not a naive new-ager, to the extent that she does not take the truth of her intuitions for granted”. Besides being a mystic “she is a scientist, both in the sense of the 'local scientist', who transforms every intuition in a hypothesis to put to test in the laboratory of the therapeutic interaction; and in the sense of a scientist who belongs to the scientific community of her time”.

But this is not enough: Like her forerunners she has to deal with the basic psychological needs of her patient.   Namely, “she has to create a relational environment endowed with a holding, unconditionally accepting, maternal quality on one side, and a confronting, reality-testing, paternal quality on the other side”.

“Her attitude is dialogical, because she knows nothing for sure, and dialectical, because she shuns all one-sidedness and flows with the contradictory nature of all phenomena”.

To conclude, the term shaman and the others correlated to it seem appropriate as the ‘address’ for concepts and experiences which might help us  realise an integrative process both at a personal and professional level.


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