A couple of weeks ago, I woke up to an irate phone call from a British shaman. The day before, while obsessively reorganizing the files on my computer, I’d come across an article I read in college suggesting that much of the healing attributed to shamans derived from the placebo effect. Curious as to what shamans themselves thought about this, I had sent him and a few others an email asking how much, if any, of what they did was, in their judgment, just the comfort of ritual—a placebo effect—rather than the power of magical soul retrieval. The man at the other end of the line was firmly in the magical soul-retrieval camp.
Despite growing up around folks who believed they spoke to spirits and attempted to treat my busted-up shoulder with a laying-on of hands (wherein everyone touched me and tried to will their positive energy into my rotator cuff), I’d always wondered how anyone in a thoroughly modern, skeptical world could believe in ethereal cures. Shamanism is a big-tent word that encapsulates much of what I was curious about. It describes living and dead traditions from the Amazon to the Central Asian steppe to the Arctic taiga that share a belief in the power of special, often chosen individuals to speak to spirits and use their powers to influence the health and well-being of the human world. Some do this through astral journeys and meditation, some through fasting, others through psychotropic drugs, masks and dances, vapors and ointments, or other number of rituals. Psychic surgeons, like the angry man who recently called me, attempt to draw physically manifested spiritual impurities and blockages out of a patient’s body, sometimes by creating fake incisions or by a laying-on of hands, then pulling out gnarly animal guts masquerading as impurities (though many nowadays just ask patients to take it on faith that their energy has realigned invisible vibrations).
But do all shamans legitimately believe that they are harnessing the power of spirits in their practices? According to University of Colorado Boulder professor and placebo specialist Tor Wager, the sleight-of-hand and ritualism involved make it “pretty implausible that they would believe in their own manipulation in that case.” That made me think they’d be open to discussing the power of pomp and ritual, independent of or alongside the spirits. Apparently not all are open to this.
Groggy and jet-lagged, I tried to sputter out a response to the surgeon’s frantic diatribe: He wondered where I got this ridiculous notion and told me it’s all spurious. He claimed he could show me amazing things and help people Western medicine could never touch. He asked me to read more and, if necessary, come by and learn directly about the power of his psychic surgery.
Medical organizations like the American Cancer Society, who’ve explored shamanic healing, hold the common wisdom that, even regarding ritual, shamans in traditional contexts wouldn’t have viewed their craft as a placebo, either due to a total belief in the magic of the acts or due to the effects they produced. Some scientists have even put forward the idea that mutual belief between caregiver and patient in any placebo, like the supernatural powers of shamans, rather than a quiet acknowledgment of the bluster and trickery of some rituals, may increase the results of a placebo effect. But the surgeon's argument was more like an aggressive denial—“what these people are telling you is lies, or half lies, or maybe unwitting lies; they may not even know they are lying, but it is wrong”—of the overlap between two known concepts existing within the same society.
“Only Western shamans are so precious about this,” says another shamanic practitioner, Jez Hughes, when I tell him about my wake-up call (and a number of subsequent beratings). Despite his non-shamanic, non-spiritualist British upbringing, Jez fell into shamanism in an archetypal fashion. At the age of 14, he suffered a physical fit and awoke for a time in a spirit realm parallel to his own—no drugs have ever replicated the experience, he says. For the next 12 years he suffered mental and physical illness, and the occasional visitation by spirits, until he got involved with some shamans, who gave his visions a context and a calling. As he accepted shamanism, against his own doubts, he found his experiences more commonplace and discovered that he could use them to help others.
At its core, says Jez, the shamanic tradition is pragmatic. Always, he maintains, there is a spiritual element at work, something happening beyond the scenes and deep within a patient. But he says that shamans were "aware that at times the human mind needs tricking in order to believe itself into getting well. This is why they would use sleight of hand when taking out energetic poisons and show these to the patient as bits of rusty nail or glass.” The resistance of certain circles to admit this, according to double-whammy shaman and psychotherapist Paul Francis, stems from a feeling of attack, wherein psychologists and doctors try to discredit the spiritual elements of shamanism and boil it all down to social and mental states like the placebo effect, and in return defensive shamans default to the aggressive belief in the spiritual cause of everything.
Not all modern shamans belong to traditions dislocated from one place and time and shoved into the urban West. Simon Buxton, another shaman who acknowledges the power of what he calls “psychopomp” in assisting spiritual action, has trained for 25 years in shamanic European bee mastery, something (honest to god) known as the Path of Pollen. But many in shamanic traditions have, in their friction, failed to mold the shamanic experience to fit the modern world, perhaps leading, Jez suggests, to a decline in its appeal or effectiveness.
Many shamanic traditions have managed to align themselves with modernity. One anthropological account of the shamans of the Oraon peoples of northeast India describes the shamanic view of Western medical traditions as a pragmatic resource—perhaps just psychopomp of a different sort, but harmless at worst. So they embraced Western terms and practices while attributing the primary cure to the spirits.
That acceptance has bled over into the Western medical tradition as of late. A few papers have started to describe the pre-operative rituals of hospital surgery as a sort of Western placebo ritual, and doctors have increasingly owned up to the liberal use of sugar pills and lab coats in the name of healing. Some hospitals, chief among them Mercy Medical Center in Merced, California, have even enlisted the help of shamans in facilitating the care of patients who grew up with spiritual healing.
The hospital realized that its large Hmong community, even those Hmong born and raised in America, still sought out shamanic cures and shied away from Western medicine, which they did not necessarily trust. So with the aid of Palee Muah, a Hmong community worker at Mercy, the hospital has invited over 130 local shamans to the hospital to show them precisely what they do and promote an understanding that the hospital provides complementary treatment for certain illnesses shamans don’t address, but that it does not replace the importance of the shaman to the health of the soul. Since 2009, the hospital has allowed shamans to visit patients unescorted, perform spiritual relocations before surgeries, and do chants in wardrooms.
Shamanism is a tenacious practice largely because it is adaptive. And as Paul says, “We really do live in a very different world to indigenous hunter-gatherers, not just physically but psychically... and some of the techniques and assumptions of indigenous shamans are no longer applicable or valid now. Or even safe.” For many shamans, part of the adaptation to that new spiritual reality has been the melding of their faith in the spiritual plane with the acceptance that their psychopomp fits best now into the lived and widely accepted reality of the placebo effect. It doesn’t, after all, have to dampen the belief in a spiritual power undergirding the whole process. If anything, accepting the overlap of the placebo effect and the ritual of shamanism can grease the tracks to belief and acceptance in the modern world, which, in the view of a man like Jez, can only help to heal the psychic trauma of a skeptical, cynical, pathologizing age.