Shamanism, the Dao, new spirituality, new technology and cultural revolution
The Shaman
and the soul
Shamanic traditions The shaman and the scientist A new shamanism Stopping the world












Who am I?
I am Michael Roth, the author of all the material on this site. While training as a medical doctor, I was also an alumnus at the famed AntiUniversity of London (1968-1969), and became involved with the alternative psychiatry movement in that era and later.

I worked and studied with the existential psycho-analyst R.D.Laing, and was a founder-member of the Arbours Association (London), which provides alternative care for persons diagnosed with severe mental illness.

My research path has taken me into spheres of philosophy, social politics, linguistics and anthropology - whilst I have continued to seek out a genuine way of relating to other human beings in the troubled milieux of psychiatry, communal living, and twentieth and twenty-first century social and cultural instability.

I have been consistently inter-disciplinary in all of my reading and exploration, and the personal and philosophical insights to which this has given rise are almost always outside the prevailing classifications - or accepted lists of subjects.

The following authors are they whose work I have been most deeply occupied with, at different times in my life. This has often entailed exploring what the actual world feels like, within the patterns and definitions of life offered by these people. I have also written extensively, and often critically, about many of them.

Philosophy

  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • Martin Buber
  • Lao Ze
  • St Matthew
  • St Mark
  • St Luke
  • St John
  • Rudolf Bultmann
  • Paul Ricoeur
  • Richard Rorty
  • Robert Pirsig
  • Donald Davidson
  • Jacques Derrida
  • Benedetto Croce
  • Charles Peirce
  • John Dewey
  • A.N.Whitehead
  • J.H.Randall
  • Justus Buchler
  • Martha Nussbaum

Biology, Physiology, Ethology and Cybernetics

Anthropology

  • Mary Douglas
  • Gregory Bateson
  • Milton Ericson
  • R.D.Laing
  • David Cooper
  • Clifford Geertz
  • Victor Turner

Virtual Reality

  • Jane Austen
  • George Eliot
  • Dorothy Richardson
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Iris Murdoch
  • Joanne Greenberg

Psychology

  • Eugene Gendlin
  • Arnold Mindell
  • M. Scott Peck

I am the foremost exponent of Charlotte M. Bach's ground-breaking theories of emergent evolution, described in my A Bolt From the Bleeding Sky (Dielectric Publications, London, 1984). I continue to work as a psychiatrist and as a researcher into holistic methods of facilitating social change. This encludes facilitation and training sponsored by the organization, Community Building in Britain which continues to develop and disseminate the work of the holistic psychiatrist M. Scott Peck.

I am also involved in an exploratory research group seeking to fuse poetic, practical and fantastical modes of action to create significant cultural/political interventions in the here and now.

   Shamanism
   Shamanic Traditions
In its original use, the word "shaman" applies to the witch doctor or sorcerer who acts in the role of priest and healer amongst Siberian and also native North American tribespeople. The shaman operates in the world of invisible, disembodied good and evil spirits and has commerce with these forces in ways not accessible to ordinary members of the tribe.

Thus he or she mediates between primordial underground forces and the everyday life of the community. Such concepts had long been known to cultural anthropologists but they entered mainstream North American and European cultures primarily through the writing of Carlos Casteneda from the 1960s onwards; more recently the native North American shamanistic practices have been popularised and are widely taught in America and Europe.
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The cultural theoretician Charlotte Bach generalised the concept of "shaman" to cover any person who - through a visionary experience of some kind - contacts the deeper forces underlying everyday reality and makes these available to other members of the community. This is meant to apply to all artists, all charismatic teachers and leaders, to culture heroes of every shape and size.
Biologically driven
Bach also argued that the shamanic experience is fundamental to the human biological organisation - that something in us causes us to recoil from the world given to us through our instincts and through our culture. This recoil is likely to happen in every person's life, and in some cases repeatedly in a single lifetime. So this is a pan-human experience and in no way confined to a few non-typical cultures. Also, it has no intrinsic ties to beliefs in disembodied spirits or to the dualistic construction of "ordinary world" versus "spirit-world".
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The shaman and the scientist
Charlotte Bach's extension of the concept of shamanism can help us to recognize an essential affinity between the practices of the shaman and the scientist. For this, we need to make a clear separation between the scientific temper, and the particular story that scientists may be telling at some particular time. By "scientific temper" I refer to the traits which make a scientist a scientist: primarily her attitude to the story she tells, and her active participation in a methodical search for a better story.
Scientific "facts" are not scientific
So in this sense, there is nothing scientific about the latest TV documentary trying to tell us about the "first three minutes" of the universe after "the big bang". The "big bang" is merely the latest in the series of scientific metaphors - it is valid not because it is true but because it is an honest attempt to orientate ourselves accurately in the universe we find ourselves in.

Perhaps the TV journalist has got it right, and this really is the latest and best account we can give; even so a true scientist is not interested in the metaphor as such, but in the continuing collective effort to improve our stock of metaphors and our ability to orient ourselves in the universe.
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A new context for the shaman
In a similar way we need to separate the shamanistic temper from the particular story that local shamans may be telling about the how the universe appears from the perspective of their own tribe, time and place. Many of us today will want to discard the story of good and evil spirits, as being irrelevant to the world we find ourselves in. This is because we have a different consensual reality to draw upon than the Siberian tribesman.
Different in what way?
We have different assumptions and different problems. For in our cultural toolkit we have highly sophisticated accounts of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics and molecular biology, and we also have our collective experience of two and a half millenia of philosophy. For us to revert now to simplistic beliefs in evil spirits is to disregard a rich intellectual heritage.
What does philosophy have to do with it?return to the top
A new shamanism
If we seek the essential trait of the shaman, separate from the local mythologies and rituals, then we get something like the following:- the shaman, though fully versed in the consensual reality of his tribe at its own time and place, is willing and able to take the risk of letting this reality shrivel away - so that he or she may journey to another level of reality - actually a place where dream and reality have not yet differentiated themselves. This is somewhere he/she will discover new and different perspectives, new sensibilities. These are then brought back as a gift to the tribe, where they will function to disrupt and enrich the consensual reality that used to be.
A new assemblage point
The Shaman's journey to the underworld is often described as a shift to a different assemblage point for construing reality. It is also known as stopping the world - which means that the shaman's subconsciously generated perspective on the world is brought to a standstill, allowing a new perspective to assemble spontaneously. Thus a different reality is now able to emerge.
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A contest of realities
The fact that it is different means that there are now rival versions of reality in play; almost certainly they contradict one another in certain respects, but there are no clear grounds for judging that one is more, or less, valid than than the other. Thus we are confronted with a challenge and a puzzle: how to discover the best orientation in practice. This, in my view, requires the test of ongoing experience and experimentation.
The scientist is a shaman
Meanwhile the shaman's perspective acts as a standing challenge to the everyday consenus reality. I maintain that this is exactly the same dilemma which the scientist has to work with, once she has made the leap to a new theoretical construct. The new theory offers a reinterpretation of the reality she had previously believed she inhabited. Therefore she has to create suitable tests in experience, to clarify which interpretation is true. The progress of science depends on the co-operation between these two attitudes - the visionary and the experimental.
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Our philosophy is important because it is a continuous span of evolving arguments and orientations, from its tribal origins in ancient Egypt and Greece, through wise and witty cosmopolitan discussions in ancient Athens, and culminating in the global conversation which we initiated five hundred years ago with the invention of the printing press.
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© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004