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January 31, 2008

Unique Spirituality and Unusual Health

Dr. Campbell mentioned a general commonality of Native American Cultures was that the societies tend to fully incorporate unique people by giving them specialized roles usually linking human abnormalities to a closer spiritual connection as a opposed to Western society’s tendency toward shutting out people who are different in some way as having something wrong with them that must be fixed in order to allow the person to have a chance at functioning in society (Campbell January 24 2008). This relates to a lecture Dr. Adam Frank gave in my Core III class where we were looking at Shamanism specifically the Korean Shamanism is of special interest in tying into this idea. In Korea, an obvious tell-tell sign that a person is meant to be a Shaman is that the person is very prone to illness as though her constitution has been weakened due to the strong spiritual connection she has. This was detailed in a book by Laurel Kendall on Korean shamanistic rituals (Kendall 1990). Adam mentioned that in similar cultures this is often the case. This has me wondering if there is something here ie. a need that is being met, even it is purely a social need as Durkheim would write about, that is and has been ignored in Western Society (Dunman 2003). Has the “take this pill” montra of this society become a chemical solution to a social problem?

I discussed this idea with Adam at one point last fall and he agreed. Following with the anthropological concept of cultural relativism, humans are in general the same everywhere that the major differences are based on cultural perspectives of people brought up in different societies and therefore they have been indoctrinated with different cultural knowledge (Hofstede 1997). So it follows that in all societies there are all kinds of people and all kinds of social needs that different types of people are better suited to filling. In his discourse on the Division of Labor Emile Durkheim wrote "...Social harmony comes essentially from the division of labor. It is characterized by a cooperation which is automatically produced through the pursuit by each individual of his own interests. It suffices that each individual consecrate himself to a special function in order, by the force of events, to make himself solidary with others" (Durkheim, 1933, p.200). There are people who would fit into a special societal niche, such as that of the Korean Shamans, and these people have no place in the modern Western world.

It makes sense in the modern era that has long since replaced God with science that a person who is spiritually sensitive would naturally be out of place. However, there are subculture and counter-culture movements here in the United States as well as in other Western Nations that do reach out to these unique individuals which the modern world has forgotten. While these groups provide an alternative and usually a very open-minded environment, this does that mean that these people cannot be fully be their selves without going against the grain of their society. When a person is forced to face the choice between being “normal”* and trying to become a self-actualized person, it seems like a very unfair choice to be forced to make. More than unfair, it is unhealthy. Could self-denial be the root of the health issues that apprentice shamans have been facing?

*By “normal,” I mean to be everything there society has taught them is good, right, expected, and decent for a person of his or her social indicators.


Campbell, Brian B. “Early Woodland Lecture,” Native American Cultures. University of Central Arkansas. January 24 2008.

Frank, Adam. Gods and Ghost of East Asia. University of Central Arkansas. Fall 2006.

Kendall, Laurel. Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits: Women in Korean Ritual Life. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

Dunman, L. Joe. Emile Durkheim: Emile Durkheim Archives. “Divison of Labor.” 2003. http://durkheim.itgo.com/divisionoflabor.html

Hofstede, G. (1997). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the mind. New York: McGraw Hill. http://www.tamu.edu/classes/cosc/choudhury/culture.html

Peak Experiences

Abraham Maslow was a professor of psychology, best known for his work on the hierarchy of needs and characteristics of self actualization. His article Religion and Peak Experiences presented a view of spiritual experience in terms of an actual mental, emotional experience that can be documented and studied by scientist. By removing the cultural relativity from the peak religious experiences, he managed to create terms and methods for analyzing “core-religious,” “peak experiences,” and “ecstasies.” He also develops a hypothesis on why some people never experience these transcendences and offers possible solutions in hopes of bridging the gap between the “mystics” and “legalists.” He closed by concluding that these experiences while entirely naturalistic in nature also fall under the subject of religion.

Maslow’s hypothesis was that if you striped away the localisms, issues of linguistics, philosophies, and ethnocentric elements, then you would be left with this “core-religious experience” or “transcendent experience.” This is complete in agreement with the anthropological theories of ethnocentrism and cultural relativity. For Maslow the issue of non-peakers became an important issue for his research. After fine-tuning his questions and ways of explaining “peak experiences,” he found that the majority of people had had some peak experience or another. Most people who had not experienced something like this or rather had suppressed those feelings tended to be materialistic, mechanistic, and/or scientific based people, whose minds seems to be organized mostly in logical and/or legalistic. To these people such an experience would be a loss of control and a kind of insanity. He actually hypothesized that it was from these transcendent experiences that religion spring up. He pictured all the “high religions” as being founded off the extreme peak experiences of sensitive mystics (533)

Maslow explained, “Organized religion can be thought of as an effort to communicate peak-experiences to non-peakers, to teach them, to apply them, etc” (533). However, this task is stunted greatly because the non-peakers with natural pre-dispositions to be “legalist” or “mechanist,” so non-peakers end up controlling how peakers and non-peakers alike are taught to achieve the state of transcendence. It is here that Maslow pin points the majority of religious strife generated by organized religion, when the mystic and the legalist disagree. The “legalists” as the Pharisees in the New Testament are caught up in the details, going through the motions, far too concerned with mimicking every movement of the ancient rites, but they fall to see the true meaning behind the words and actions and symbols. The “mystics” or sensitive peakers, on the other hand, tend to focus on the idea behind the revelations and achieving peak experiences for themselves.

I chose this article because I had previously read Maslow on the subject of self-actualization and was intrigued. While it was not presented in a spiritual context it held spiritual meaning for me, so I was excited to attempt to see spirituality from Maslow’s point of view. I set out to find and seek to understand the spiritual other, however instead I found ideas that had been running around in my head since childhood, which greatly explain my view on religion in general. Maslow’s “mystics” and “legalist” very much fit my childhood understanding of spirituality in this world. But it was Maslow’s loose-end with his own findings was that some people are non-peakers and it isn’t because of some sort of ideological fear that is what began my personal questioning of religion and the spiritual world, while I was disappointed he had no better answer than I do feel that this piece and Maslow’s studies can be very useful in my research.

Maslow, Abraham. “Religion and Peak-Experinces.” Philosophy of Religion: Contemporary Perspectives. Schedler, Norbert O. Ed. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co.

Rough Introduction

Oh, where to begin… have you ever been over inspired to write a work? Normally, when I write it is based purely off of research, this is mostly because of my passion for learning and discovering the new or the old and forgotten, but that is not why I sit here today. My inspiration today is not passion, nor is it mere interest, but rather it is pure disgust, contempt, and confusion.

My disgust could be aimed at a million things and it could take a thousand words to attempt to name it but for the sake of time I will be using anthropological technique taken from the “Big Mac” chapter of Cannibals and Glass Box. I will admit my bed and its current contents as exhibit 1 for my case. On my bed currently sit 3 bags and a drawer containing a very large amount of medication that will be quantified at a later date. These pills and the doctors that prescribed them along with the symptoms they represent are the root of my problem. Not to mention the society I live in that demands I follow this protocol; as parts and as a whole the points of my disgust and the origins of this work.

However, my contempt lies within myself. How can I see what is happening to me and knowingly allow it to continue? My personal contempt is derived from my choice to remain a part of this system which is so obviously unhealthy for me. But before my resolve fails let me put to paper the reason why this “system,” Western Society, my world has done me such a grave injustice as to make an established order that has no true place for me. There are a million ways to say it, yet none can adequately convey my true meaning, I am a child of two worlds. I am very much in the here and now, intellectually, emotionally, and physically. For the most part I love life and the joys and pains that come with it. But that is not where the story ends, I am not “normal.” Through my life passion for learning and discovering new stuff, I thankfully learned I am not alone. I am a person who might in the broadest sense by regarded to as spiritually in tune. I am a person who experiences what Maslow referred to as peak experiences frequently and from the youngest ages of remembrance (Maslow 1964). As a young pious Methodist child, I had only the stories of the prophets to compare myself to growing up in a house Science and Reason. But with my church piety long sense, dust in the wind my search continues. I am far from holy enough to be one of God’s prophets, even if I should happen to decide to lump myself in with the believers that still believe in the prophets in modern times.

So while the origins of my confusion about how to lead this double life becomes a bit clearer on, what do my health issues, which for the most part are temporarily resolved, have to do with it? Well that is precisely my question. In many non-mainstream Western cultures spirituality and health are not seen quite as cut and dry as modern science might suggest. It has become my personal quest to examine a variety of healing and spiritual alternatives using research in historical health practices and modern anthropological and medical studies of alternative healing practices as well as conducting field research in the Arkansas Ozarks through interviews, clinical visits, case studies, and personal trails. I believe there is a place in the Post-Modern Western society for the spiritually sensitive to live healthy, happy, productive lives that may not have been as available and acceptable in the modern era. It is my intention to find this place, the niche of spiritually in tune.

Maslow, Abraham H. Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences. Kappa Delta Pi, 1964.