Transpersonal psychology has two distinctive features: first, it is interested in a broad range of human experiences, including those marginalized by other psychologies; and, second, it is willing to incorporate these understandings into its clinical practice. Thus, transpersonal clinicians have worked with meditation, active imagination, guided imagery, dream sharing, breathwork, and psychoactive substances; and they have looked at clinical phenomena in light of their expanded interest in such areas as shamanism. Thus we have the clinical concept of the shamanic crisis.
In 1989, Stanislav and Christina Grof first proposed an idea, now widely accepted among transpersonal clinicians, that some experiences, otherwise diagnosed as schizophrenia or depression, are in fact analogous to the psychological turmoil experienced by prospective shamans in a variety of cultures. Such experiences, if appropriately understood and respectfully handled, can be initiatory — that is, ultimately positive and leading to spiritual growth, “an amazing process of healing and profound restructuring of personality that facilitates resolution of a variety of life problems” — rather than reason for stigmatization and incarceration.
Transpersonal psychologist David Lukoff, for example, offers a deeply personal account of such a shamanic crisis; he also maintains a Spiritual Emergency Resource Center which discusses the shamanic crisis here and here.
The concept of shamanic crisis is based largely on the work of Mircea Eliade, who writes that this shamanic madness “reveals certain aspects of reality to him that are inaccessible to other mortals, and it is only after having experienced and entered into these hidden dimensions of reality that the ‘madman’ becomes a shaman.” Stanislav Grof says that shamans find their calling through “a spontaneous initiatory crisis conducive to profound healing and psychospiritual transformation … an experience of psychological death and rebirth followed by ascent into supernal realms.”
There is little doubt that some shamans have had such experiences, and that such experiences may be more or less normative in some shamanist cultures, but certainly not in all. Among the Aguaruna and Canelos of the Amazon, for example, shamanic power may be purchased for money or trade goods; among the Shuar, young people may become shamans to avenge the death of a relative. Indeed, as Stanley Krippner has pointed out, the shamanic crisis could be a political strategy that limits the number of contenders for the shamanic role.
Yet, as a clinical tool, the concept of a shamanic crisis can serve as a heuristic device, providing a framework for understanding and a mode of guidance which validates rather than denigrates the patient’s experience. For example, the Grofs claim that people experiencing such crises can “show spontaneous tendencies to create rituals that are identical to those practiced by shamans of various cultures”; entirely apart from the anthropological claim, such self-created rituals, especially if placed in a positive initiatory context, can be powerful tools of healing.