Shamanism and mental illness coil around each other, switching off in a dance so wild few dare to watch it.
Or so I would like.
I am secure in my mental illness, to the point where I would rather call it an “alternate mentality.” While I take certain medications to make life more manageable, I would never seek to eliminate all the symptoms of my mental differences.
“Alternate mentality” seems to me a good way to describe the shamanic point of view as well. The shaman seeks out alternate realities, alternate states of consciousness, and alternate modes of spirit.
When you get down to it, the difference between mental illness and shamanism seems to be merely that the latter is deemed useful while the former is not.
My experience of alternate mentalities is fairly broad, I think. I have been known to play a bit recklessly with my states of consciousness. Moreover, I identify as a multiple, as I experience multiple simultaneous personalities.
These personalities are not mere moods or states of mind. They are individuals who can come into the body and express a consciousness separate from my own. They experience rich inner lives as well, even when not occupying the body. They change and grow in character just as I do, but they have a consistency of spirit that makes them people rather than emotional states.
When I go “in,” which is to say, when I leave my body and let another consciousness take over, the process and experience is very similar to a shamanic journey. Since I absolutely believe in the reality of shamanic journeys, this does not suggest that I think my inner world of personalities is “mere magic” or “mere imagination”. Both are purely real to me.
I have a very organized inner system of personalities, and this may have something to do with my shamanic practice. I am accustomed to talking to spirits and learning to map out my experience of the spirit realms. So too I have a map of my inner world. It is laid out as a home and a landscape, and my personalities live and play here when they’re not out in the body. They have inner lives when I’m not looking, just as spirits do.
Both shamanism and multiplicity typically involve some stressful ordeal. Shamans are often initiated through physical or mental illness or misfortune, while multiples are usually created by traumatic experiences. So shamans and multiples are both wounded warriors and experts in healing. In shamanism, a key mode of healing is the concept of soul retrieval, which bears significant resemblance to the way a multiple locates and identifies an alternate personality so that the personality can be heard and have its needs met.
I have an Ethiopian friend who understands my multiplicity in a very shamanic sense. In her culture, people can be born to have other spirits inside them who have their own needs and require respect. Spirit doctors (a term I use in talking with her) can help people with illnesses or other problems by talking to the spirits inside them. Sometimes these spirits spontaneously take over a person’s consciousness and when this happens, people are very careful to fulfill their requests.
So I hope that societies around the world will evolve to value alternate mentalities. It seems the only way to true healing for ourselves and each other. And I don’t want to hide anymore.