” … Rather than viewing the shaman as sort of a vestige of some savage and primitive world view … they’re harbingers of the future evolution of humanity.” (Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove in conversation with Alberto Villoldo)
This is the concluding part of my series “The shamanic shadow“, an enquiry into primal spirituality from a contemporary christian viewpoint.
After a brief survey of shamanic practice, relying chiefly on accounts garnered over the last 150 years (but looking at the topic somewhat generally and globally), and emphasising the commonality of shamanic practice across continents, I looked for these same urges in the narratives of the Old testament, and then the New. I concluded from this that much of what Christ represented had deep resonances with the “pan-shamanic” traditions (if such a thing does in fact exist).
I noted that I was not trying to wholly repaint the biblical tradition, by representing the Biblical books as primarily shamanic in nature, because they are not. They address a broad set of concerns, with the central “bigger picture” a story of YHWH’s reaching out to his creation in order to reconcile it back to its source. There are many features of the Judeo-Christian tradition that exist apart from primal and the shamanic. However, and this is the point at hand, there is a significant overlap between what we often assume to be mutually exclusive worlds.
To discover how shamanism can be relevant to our lives in the 3rd millenium, we will examine this overlap, looking at
Primal treasures: the depth of treasure stored in sacred primal imagination and practice.
The contemporary spiritual bankruptcy: appreciating what has been lost through our inherited religious systems and “progress”.
The shamanic and the gospel: an introductory critique of the shamanic urge in the light of the bible.
Shamanism Now: a reimagining of the work of G-d in our age, with reference to shamanic gifts, and authentic practice.
Appreciating Primal treasures
If we can overcome our cultural judgements of primal spirituality and peoples, seeing them as pre-christian, animist, barbaric etc, we start to realise that many of their number have faithfully curated a close, reverent relationship with both the manifest world as well as the world beyond, the spiritual dimension.
This relationship includes their total environments, animals, land, and weather, as well as their people. Such an immediate and intimate relationship meant that the life of the cosmos was their life. They were not for instance insulated from nature, relying on large abstracted systems or economies for food. Their care for land was wrapped up in their own survival.
“The air is precious, for all things share the same breath. The beast, the tree, the man-they share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. … This we know. The earth does not belong to man: man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood, which unites one family. All things are connected.” (Chief Seattle of the Salish tribes, 1854)
At the spiritual heart of many ancient cultures, such as that represented by Seattle, lie the shamans. These highly skilled operators understood not only the subtleties of their surroundings, the movements of ice or wind or animals, and the healing qualities of roots or plants.
Furthermore the shamans worked with the inner dynamics of the non-ordinary world. This included dreams, visions, healings and “miracles”, divination, spiritual journeys and battles as standard. The relationship between the ordinary and the non-ordinary seems to have been continuous if not seamless; this psychic holism counts for a lot on any index of wellbeing.
“A shaman has in his mind and heart the attitude of conserving nature because he knows that life is for enjoying the company of this worlds countless delights.” (Pablo Amaringo, interviewed by Howard G. Channing)
The shaman is a master of the symbolic. In literal, overly masculine, rationalistic cultures the imagination is suppressed, creative engagement with imagery is demoted, and the symbolic (as in dreams for instance), is silenced. Jung observed,
“Primitive man was much more governed by his instincts than are his “rational” modern decendants, who have learned to “control” themselves. In this civilizing process, we have increasingly divided our consciousness from the deeper instinctive strata of the human psyche… Fortunately, we have not lost these basic instinctive strata; they remain part of the unconscious, even though they may express themselves in the form of dream images. These instinctive phenomena … [their character is symbolic] … play a vital part in what I have called the compensating function of dreams.” (Jung, Man and his symbols p 52.)
In a conversation betweeen Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove, Ph.D and shamanic practitioner Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D on intuition.org, they discuss the role of the instinctive, the soul, in the “re-enchantment” of western culture:
Jeffrey Mishlove: We typically in Western culture think of this as primitive animism, but what you’re suggesting is that our view of it is really an expression of how we are actually cut off from the life force, cut off from our own power.
Alberto Villoldo: The word animism itself is an interesting word. Animism comes from anima, the soul, the feminine, and it refers to a time when the world was enchanted — when trees had spirits, when clouds had spirits and you could speak to them, you could dialogue and interact with them. And through our scientific revolution and the reductionistic education that we’ve had, we have created a world that is no longer enchanted. I think that one of the tasks that we have today is to reenchant the world.
To achieve this re-enchantment, to re-apprehend the symbolic, Villoldo goes on to detail the four steps to power: “facing fear, facing death, facing immortality, and … exercising vision.” Much of this is echoed in Jung’s psychology, where he might say that the shaman is a highly individuated character.
The acheivement of shamanic power is largely due to the fact of initiatory experiences, which in almost all cases will involve facing death in some form or another. The deep rites of passage around this initiation create a spiritual and psychological wholeness and connectedness from which the shaman can draw in their vocation.
This connection often included a strong awareness of the past and the future. Ancestors form a central part of all sacred activity, and at times they would go to extremes to appease their perceived wants or will. Additionally, many were aware of the sustainability of every action, for generations into the future.
But the primary attraction that shamanism or the shamanic archetype hold for me, is that of direct, powerful, and authentic relationship with life, with things, people, spiritual beings and the Divine. These explorers are able to live and operate unmediated by religious constructs, or external, imposed authority.
The contemporary spiritual bankruptcy
In order for us (as 3rd Millennium post/christendom westerners) to see any relevance or virtue in primal spirituality, we will have to transcend our delusions of progress and superiority. And moreover, we will have to move beyond the growing despair of seeing the earth destroyed and western society in the grip of greed and fear.
It is one thing to discover that the world is in a far worse state than you have been told by corporations or governments whose trade is in the “feel good factor”, at the expense of the truth. It’s quite another to know where to turn once you see past the illusions, and not to slump into a catatonic affluent cynicism.
When I hear the words of Chief Seattle, something deep and frightening starts to rise within me. A deep remorse wells up, and a bigger view of our tragic state appears. I enter into a state of repentance, on behalf of our cultures arrogance. The roots of this arrogance go back many centuries, and the blame lies at the greedy, power hungry heart of man, and in particular, western man.
Of course, the symptoms of the disease have been brought to our attention, and these include Rome’s persecution of authentic faith in the inquisition, Europe’s plunder and genocide of the Americas in the name of gold and ownership, the Nazis massive delusions of racial purity, the Americans megalomaniacal destruction of Hiroshima, the Soviets annihilation of the Aral sea, Exxon’s responsibility in the destruction of 1400 miles of Alaskan shoreline, the impending global warming disaster resulting from uncontained industrial profit seeking, and innumerable other instances of modern mans alienation from his own home.
I’m not saying that non-western cultures or pre-industrial peoples therefore provide the solution. Nor am I saying everything in the west or in christianity is tarnished. But in a very fundamental way, the trends that began to consolidate during the enlightenment, individualism, the deist “removal” of God, industrialisation, and endemic profiteering have pitched the world headlong towards economic, environmental and spiritual disaster.
The roots of this malignancy, I have suggested, lie within. And our religious structures seem somewhat powerless to address these issues. We have seen miraculous interventions from spiritually disciplined and attuned people, even in recent history – Wilberforce and slavery, Ghandi and Colonialism, Mandela and apartheid. And there are I have no doubt untold stories of sacrifice and goodness. But by and large, western spirituality seems unable to help us in developing a powerful, authentic, integrated response.
The Shamanic and the bible
If we accept that the shamanic myth can provide a new direction, can “bind us back” (the meaning of the word “religion”) to ancient roots, it is a radical shift, and we should be proceed with caution. In taking on wholesale a set of techniques, a worldview, or a new approach to spirituality, we need to reference where we come from, our current ethics, or what good exists in where we are as westerners, or perhaps, as myself, as followers of Christ.
I have been endeavouring to explore shamanic elements in the biblical narrative. By and large, I see these correlations positively, or at least neutrally, from an ethical point of view. In the interviews I have been conducting as part of this series, I asked the question “Would you trust a shaman or a minister more?” and every respondent was careful to emphasise the trustworthiness of the individuals, whatever their cultural affiliation… “There are many charlatans in both categories” to quote Anthony Paton. And that is key – to judge each and every practitioner on their own merits.
So the question of shamanism and the bible is asked advisedly; it assumes a general pan-shamanic identity, and ignores the ways in which the shamanic varies from community to community, from nation to nation, and from age to age. A more localised, in-depth investigation is necessary to satisfactorily address it and the further questions it raises. I will not be able to give these questions any in-depth treatment in the space of this essay, but this at least serves to highlight some of the difficulties in the primal-christian interfaith dialog.
With that in mind, let us examine some of the typical concerns of the traditional biblical worldview, including christian orthodoxy, in respect of the “shamanic”. These include the questions of Grace and sacrifice, Faith and superstition, Divination and sorcery, Ancestral worship, Idolatry, Animism and pantheism, Mediation, and Induced experience.
Grace and sacrifice
‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them … I have come to do your will’ … And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb 10:8)
It appears that sacrifice, including that in which blood is shed to appease divinity, is widespread in primal culture and shamanic practice. The atonement for sin is explicitly and cosmically fulfilled by Christ’s death. Any attempt to deal with sin by further sacrifice that ignores this fact is seen as unnecessary (or even abominable) in the context of the new covenant. (This does not refer to the ongoing sacrifice of thanksgiving and worship, only the guilt sacrifice for sin.)
Faith and superstition
But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. (Romans 14:23)
There is a case to be made that much primal spirituality is based on superstition, which is fear, rather than faith. However it is also clear that superstition and fear are fundamental forces in all societies, including our own. Also it would appear that shamanic experiences are often about the overcoming of fear.
Divination and sorcery
When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God. (Deut 18:9-13)
This was the Old testament instruction given to the Levites. However it is easily quoted without any deeper understanding of the original context, concepts and myths contained in the words or phrases detestable, divination, sorcery, omens, witchcraft, spells, medium, consults the dead, or blameless. In many other places, these things were in fact reported from those considered moral – Josephs (Genesis 44:15) or Laban’s (Genesis 30:27) divination, for example.
The Deuteronomy scripture above refers to those “who consult the dead”. This consultation may take the form of advice, forgiveness, or merely of opening a channel for communicating with the dead. In their travels, shamans encounter realms beyond normal space-time, and this includes encounters with the dead.
However, any objections based on notions of “Ancestral worship” needs to take into account the following, (Ex 20:12) “Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” This at least puts an emphasis on a positive relationship with ones forebears; this should not be taken to stop applying after they pass on.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Ex 20:3-6)
It is for the fear of such punishment that in Hebraic culture, sculpture was taboo. The question of whether shamanic practice uses idols must be asked in parallel with the question of icons, else it becomes extremely literalist and spawns a very superstitious attitude towards things used as part of imagining divinity.
Idols are a replacement for G-d, while icons draw us towards G-d. (I have explored this in a essay idol-icon). Determining whether something is idolatrous or iconic is as difficult as discerning the contents of the heart of the worshipper. Most protestants err on the side of caution, and are over sensitised to the potentially idolatrous.
Animism and pantheism
Pantheism is the belief that creation is divinity. Many shamanic worldviews come close to identifying G-d and the World as one, with no space for divine transcendence. The shamanic association with totem animals or entities form a part of this complex, wherein animals are ascribed a protecting role over clans or tribes. But this type of animism stops short of pure pantheism.
In any case, pantheism is not as easy a topic as might be imagined by christians. The mystic catholic priest and archaeologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin declared both pantheism and deep spiritual devotion to christ, when he said
“Through your own incarnation, my God, all matter is henceforth incarnate.” [Hymn of the universe]
The shaman is both one who experiences direct unmediated contact with the divine, and assists others to do so by mediating on their behalf. Protestant christianity demonstrates confusion here, for its basic tenant is that man can know G-d directly through faith (Luther’s thesis), but it is simultaneously highly insistent on Christ as mediator. In any case the priesthood is deeply institutionalised throughout christianity, and the laity is generally removed from direct experiences of the divine. There are exceptions of course, Shakers, mystic contemplatives, Quakers and some charismatics for example.
The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:12)
One immediate objection to shamanic technique by christian orthodoxy is to its approach to induced experiences, and this usually to the use of entheogenic or hallucinatory plants or substances. Such practices are widespread in shamanic practice, and especially amongst those who live amongst high density vegetation such as the Amazonian shamans, a very highly evolved craft.
In fact, this is a very large subject and its discussion will need to include natural and artificial medicine, substance use and abuse, or non-ordinary realities to begin with. See Shamanism’s weblog for information and an in-depth treatment of these issues.
Controversy surrounds the use of cannabis in the bible. According to Polish anthropologist Sula Benet, there are 5 references (translated “calamus”, an aromatic reed, or sweet cane) in the Old Testament to its use in the oils used in temple worship.
Regardless of our views, we need to recognise that highly developed cultural practices and bodies of knowledge exist, especially in regards to “plant wisdom” (also known as the science of vegetalismo). Pablo Amaringo (already quoted), notes:
“I consider myself to be the ‘representative’ of plants, and for this reason I assert that if they cut down the trees and burn whats left of the rainforests, it is the same as burning a whole library of books without ever having read them.”
Induced experiences also include those brought on by sleep deprivation, isolation, fasting, and trance states via dancing or rhythm. It needs to be acknowledged that induction is a form of manipulation, which is rife in many sectors of the church, be they covert (fasting and prayer) or overt (forceful laying on of hands, loud music, or emotive preaching).
For a follower of Christ, the question is whether or not the shamanic metaphor or specific shamanic practice is reconcilable with the gospel, person and mission of Jesus. As we have shown there are many examples through out the christian scriptures of shamanic practice. But in the modern mindset, much of this is cast as evil, anti-God, outmoded or irrelevant.
To make any sense of how the shamanic might be relevant we will have to be imaginative in our theologising; and this should be true for ALL theology, anyway. In the context of this discussion it would be worth noting the interpretation techniques exegesis and isogesis. Exegesis means to “read out of the text”, while isogesis is to “read into the text”, and you will see that it is this I have employed in my approach.
Modern christianity accepts the role of the prophet, at least from a theological point of view. However, as is true for all that constitutes the prophetic, the prophet is either domesticated, nominally tolerated, or in fact demonised.
The prophet does not play the game of the empire. The empire is essentially a political entity whose interest is self preservation. But the prophet is free, speaking or enacting their vision of G-d, and will come into conflict with conservative forces. I have shown this in previous essays.
The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us. (Walter Breuggemann, “The Prophetic Imagination”)
To the extent that the prophet supports the status quo, they are celebrated. But to the extent that the prophet is shamanic, demonstrating freedom and wildness, they will experience the ire of orthodoxy and the priesthood, cast as extra-biblical, rebellious, fractuous and heretical.
Once we accept our bias, reverse superstition, and our technological delusion, we can begin to engage with both the metaphor and practice of shamanism. I see this operating on various levels.
Let the primal critique our own culture
If we don’t think there is anything wrong with our culture, then there is nothing more to discuss. But to examine ourselves critically is painful and might take many years to do. Some degree of “isolation” from our immediate culture, assumptions or experience through travel, relocation, or abstinence might be called for.
We have to ask how we got here. We have to start listening to the subtext; deconstructing that which the Artifice of this civilisation – corporate, governmental, cultural and religious voices – presents to us as true. We have to come up with a shopping list, and search hard for satisfaction.
Engage with existing primal practitioners on their own terms
Primal cultures, together with ancient knowledge, language and spiritual tradition, are fast becoming extinct. But there are a few outposts of the primal where such knowledge is still available. Also there are travellers within western culture who have a degree of expertise, their mediated knowledge is vital.
I have been interviewing several people who have been either communicating or workshopping shamanic practices.
Engage with the idea and myth of the shamanic through direct and indirect knowledge
Creatively interpreting the teachings and practices of other cultures is not easy, but can be very rewarding. If we can see what lies behind shamanic practice, especially in its “healthy” or “appropriate” expressions (acknowledging this as a subjective, culture bound view), we can discover a wealth of wisdom that can apply directly to our own contexts.
It is always best to get first hand knowledge of other cultures, but an advantage of the literate tradition is that we can be exposed indirectly to these cultures via other research as well. And when we bring this together with the needs of our own culture, we have the makings of a new practice of spirituality.
Reinterpreting and invent new practices.
The most exciting aspect of this investigation for me is what it implies practically. I feel that this alone will be holding my attention for a long while to come. I do not want to say too much more in the scope of this essay, and before I have investigated the practice of shamanism more fully myself.
There are many books taking a practical angle on the topic. Many of these read like pop psychology, although I have always found them of some value. Examples include Serge Kahili King’s “Urban Shaman” based on the Hawaiian way of the adventurer, and “Shamanic Christianity” by Bradford P. Keeney.
I should mention Matt Stone’s interesting post “Types of Religious Practitioners” which brings the discussion squarely into the church, if not right onto the altar. His schemas, which investigate the Priest, the Prophet, the Teacher, the Worship Curator, The Intercessor, and the Shaman, draws attention to the dynamics
Before the Divine for the people;
Before the people for the Divine;
Direct Contact with the Divine;
Indirect contact with the Divine.
(I replace his term “transempirical” with “Divine”). The priest for example is before the Divine for the people, indirectly. The shaman, in other quadrant, stands before the people for the Divine, directly.
It is worth noticing Matt’s suggestion that the evangelical equivalent for the shaman is the intercessor. A key point is leadership from the centre (as in pastor) vs. leadership from the fringe (prophet or shaman).
Of course, such direct encounter with traditional church roles and structures might be quite out of the question to those already on a shamanistic journey. As for myself, I have an interest in both christian and alternative traditions, and a desire to actively revision the message of the bible in a postmodern age. A part of this is to reacquaint ourselves with the ancient. If we can see the correlations between the shamanic and the prophetic, and can take Walter Brueggemanns view to heart, we may in fact acheive this:
The new future in which no one believed was born in staggering amazement, for it was correctly perceived as underived and unextrapolated and therefore beyond human understanding (Phil 4:7) and human control. It is the task of every would-be prophet to present such underived and unextrapolated newness. (Breuggemann, ibid.)
I hope that this vision of authenticity “underived and unextrapolated” fires your imagination as it does mine, and that these enquiries have proved as interesting for you the reader as they have for me.