I have a keen interest in shamanism and have read scores of books on the subject. However, this should not be seen as an interest in comparative religion or spirituality for its own sake. What I am really interested in is the visionary mind and inspiration. Inspiration is directly pertinent to creativity. Unfortunately it is the fashion to discount inspiration. No serious studies have been done on inspiration.
Shamanism intrigues me because it appears to be the universal manifestation of spirituality in its most primitive form. But shamanism should not be thought of as a primitive form of religion which has been superseded by more advanced forms of religion. A better way to think of it is as the most essential form of spirituality, spirituality before it becomes codified in any way.
So what does shamanism have to do with inspiration? “In Greek thought, inspiration meant that the poet or artist would go into ecstasy or furor poeticus, the divine frenzy or poetic madness. He or she would be transported beyond his own mind and given the gods’ or goddesses own thoughts to embody.” I love this quote from the Wikipedia article on Artistic inspiration. I have quoted it often. Shamans have been called the technicians of ecstasy (see the book Technicians of Ecstasy: Shamanism and the Modern Artist by Mark Levy). A shaman can go into a trance to visit the spirit world (the unconscious mind) and thereby come into contact with something greater than himself (perhaps only his unconscious mind). So a shaman is transported beyond his own mind or at least his conscious mind, and is given the thoughts of an inner god to embody. In other words the shaman becomes a conduit to the divine by transcending his small self to connect with his greater Self. The word inspiration comes from the notion that the inspired individual is speaking for a god or goddess who has given the breath for divine utterances. I don’t think shamans literally journey to the spirit world and channel the gods, but they can reach into their unconscious mind and give voice to what is hidden in the unconscious mind. In this sense they are the voice of the spirit that is great within us.
Many creative people develop an interest in shamanism. For example, the poet Ted Hughes was very interested in shamanism. I suspect this is because creative people are more in touch with their unconscious mind and feel more compelled to explore and express their inner self. But there is another reason to take an interest in shamanism. Shamans are visionaries. The visionary mind experiences a form of imagination that goes beyond conscious invention. It is an imagination that wells up imagery from within as a instance of extraordinary inspiration. Inspiration often goes far beyond conscious invention. It can be far more impressive and obviously far more mysterious. It compels your attention because it is strange and novel. It is strange and novel because it wells up from your unconscious mind, which by definition contains everything that is pertinent but unknown to you. In other words, all that is deep which you are not directly conscious of. But for whatever reason the shaman and visionaries can reach these depths and become conscious of their own hidden depths. This ability to go beyond conscious invention to get at something deeper, something inspired and given as a gift, is obviously of great interest to the creative person.
I first became interested in visionaries and the visionary mind after reading a biography of the poet Arthur Rimbaud. Rimbaud sought a derangement of all the senses to sacralize the disorder of his mind. Rimbaud wanted to serve as a prophet, a visionary, or, as he put it, a voyant (“seer”). Unfortunately, none of the Rimbaud scholars ever traced this ambition to shamanism so it took me a long time to seek clues to the visionary mind outside the sphere of visionary poets. But eventually I made the connection since some visionary poets develop an interest in shamanism. And as the phrase furor poeticus, the divine frenzy or poetic madness suggests the poet’s inspiration can come from a disorder of the mind which allows the deeper self to come through.
So what does shamanism have to do with playwriting? A playwright is an explorer of the depths of the human spirit much as a shaman is an explorer of the spirit world. A playwright should delve below the surface of human interactions to reveal the deeper meaning. A playwright should be your guide to the spirit world, in the sense that he should guide you to reconnect with the spirit. When we reconnect with our spirit we recover what has been lost to us, a sense of the deeper meaning. In this sense a playwright performs the sort of spirit retrieval that is the expertise of the shaman. One of the main attractions of drama for me is its ability to restore meaning to a banal existence. It does this by allowing deeper emotions to be expressed than are expressed by our banal conversations and pleasantries. All the bitterness and hurt buried within comes out in a great play and takes the stage and gets our attention. A great play is always a cry from the heart and every significant dream is an effort to get the attention of a too rational mind which is going about its business with no regard for how the inner self is suffering. A great playwright gives a voice to the deeper self much like a shaman channeling a god.