Chitta-Vritti-Nirodha and Shamanic Experience

In this blog, as well as in other works of mine, I have more than once mentioned shamanic roots of yoga much as of other psychopractices. However there comes a question: are the key goals and practices of yoga as laid down by Patanjali correlated with analogous goals and practices of shamanism? It may be difficult to see the commonality at first (and unsophisticated) glance; but in terms of a more detailed analysis based upon an attempt to comprehend the underlying content of the psychotechnical experience described by means of available metaphors rather than the externals that each system is known by, the continuity of shamanism and yoga in this aspect will become obvious.

The reader who has partially forgotten my interpretation of the Yoga Sutra lines dedicated to the basic point of the chitta-vritti-nirodha state shall be referred to the corresponding articles of the blog, while in this post we shall start discussing the shamanic experience. The key constituents of this experience are: a shamanic journey, a battle with a spirit and its capture as a way of magnifying shaman’s personal power, loss of a “soul” as a means of explaining the reason of the disease, recapture of the “soul” as a healing technique and feasibility of a person’s affection by “hostile”, offended “spirits”. Let us so far leave aside the issue of the journey and focus on the two latter points.

Now – if modern ethnographers are to be trusted – in terms of shamanism they believed that a person could fall ill due to two reasons. The first reason is the “loss of the person’s soul”. The second one is person’s obsession (or affection) by hostile spirits. Of course the terms “spirit” and “soul” were not used by shamans and they have “become naturalized” in ethnography because the first investigators happened to be Christian missionaries or simply people who have linked the descriptions given by them to the only system of terms they had at their disposal – the Christian one [1]. That’s why sometimes it becomes difficult to understand what is actually meant, or better to say, what kind of experience has been conceptualized by means of such inapt words. Of course when we speak about loss of one’s soul is this very case it must not be identified with the way this issue is viewed by a religious European for whom “losing a soul” equals to “death”. But for a shaman it only means a disease, and this disease is curable. Moreover, it was not one but several, up to five (according to Popov) souls that shamans believed a man to have. Thus “loss of one’s soul” comes as merely a metaphoric description of some experience or sate of consciousness. Of course we cannot claim for sure which state was actually meant. But we can suppose. Let us take two considerations as a basis of this supposition. First, the states behind this metaphor are to be experienced by a man of today as well; second, the metaphoric description of this experience is to be preserved in modern language. Both these states and metaphors are available today. For instance, “to come into one’s own”, “to find oneself “, “to be beside oneself (with rage)”, “to be not all there” and so on. All these metaphors mean some degree of the state disequilibrium that is reflexively sensed as one’s being not within one’s own body but is some other space. This can be a “re-pronounced” talk that was improperly finished, an engrossing reminiscence or fantasy, some interaction with an object of one’s fear or guilt, and so on. That is, the very something that Patanjali referred to vrittis. Moreover, if we recollect our definition of chitta as substantiated self-sentiment of psychological activity, we will come to see clear analogies as well. The metaphor of a “soul” leaving a body describes the same experience that is expressed through the metaphor of “chitta leaving the body through the gates of feelings”. In this sense the usage of the term “nirodha” that among its meanings has the one of “confinement” can be understood better.

In the context of the aforesaid one may easily conceptualize another metaphor, the one of the external (strange) spirits affecting a person. It fact it is a description of emotional and energetic link between people with non-harmonious relationships that has an obviously negative impact upon one’s health. As far as the metaphors of fighting a spirit and starting out for a journey are concerned, I hope to come back to them later on.

I believe the reader has noticed that I once again illustrate the thesis that all systems of psycho-techniques in fact work with the same states and methods, the only difference between them been the metaphors used for their description.


[1] Those eager to learn authentic variants and to understand the way these terms differ from their Christianized analogues may see, for instance, the book “Altai Shamanism” by Popov.