Modern Shamanism is an attempt to re-create the spirituality ofindigenous peoples. It is hard to say how successful it is in that. What I think we can say is that if we listen to nature, listen to ‘the spirits’, listen, perhaps above all, to ourselves, we won’t go far wrong. It is this listening, this paying attention that is timeless. It is in itself a transformative, magical act.
It is also what has been lost. Nature reminds us of who we are. Yet there is little space for nature in urban life. And the voice of the collective is also very powerful, telling us how to live our lives, what makes us a ‘good’ person, what makes us a ‘bad’ person, what is sense and what is nonsense – and listening to ‘spirits’ generally comes under the nonsense, if not sectionable, category.
Shamanism could be seen as the act of listening to ourselves at all levels, and with that comes something that is uniquely ourselves, and with that comes the power to live.
The connection to the spirits that is made in shamanic journeying and other practices is also the connection to the imagination and the intuition – a level that is both deeply ourselves yet beyond us, connected to the whole web of life and matter.
Shamanism gives an initiation into the Imagination – capital ‘I’, a connection to the Otherworld, without which we are not fully human.
So the creation of an individual self lies at the heart of Shamanism, a self that does not exist without a deep connection to something beyond itself. It is hard to know how much room there is/was for this individuality in indigenous societies. No doubt it depended. But the pressure just to survive can demand conformity. In the West, we have been part of a large collective for a long time, a collective that for 1000 years has veered towards fundamentalism, whether of a Christian or scientific materialist bent.
Fundamentalism occurs once you think there is only one reality. I once asked a Chippewa-Cree friend if his people got fundamentalist about their own creation myth, and he said that was difficult, because they had several creation myths, some of them contradictory! For this reason I think it is good that children are taught both evolution and creationism: both these ‘isms’ can think they are the only reality and, like the Chippewa creation myths, it shows children that there is more than one way of looking at things. (Personally, I prefer creationism, because it at least has a transcendent reality.)
Shamanism itself can of course veer towards fundamentalism, just like anything can. At the heart of that veer is our very human need for certainty – ‘this is how it is’ – and we look for it in creeds and teachers or in a rigid sense of our own rightness, or the rightness of our spirit guides. Here's a test: how do you respond if someone disagrees with your 'spirit guide'?
This is where the ‘this world’ aspect of shamanism needs to come in. It is not enough to have a deep connection to the Otherworld. We need an understanding of our own psychology and the ability to dis-identify from it. In the American Indian stories you get Wisahitsa, a character who is always getting into trouble because of his own self-importance. So the Indians (as they call themselves, not ‘Native Americans’) spoke to and were helped by the spirits, but they were also, it seems, trained in human psychology.
So Shamanism needs to involve the cultivation of both the ‘this world’ and the ‘otherworld’ aspects of the personality. You could say that shamanism needs psychology, while psychology needs shamanism.
Part of the beauty of shamanism is its emphasis on direct experience. There is very little in the way of a particular worldview that can be turned into an ideology. The key is not to take things literally. Don’t, for example, take the idea of the upper world, middle world and lower world literally, as a cosmology that if embraced strongly will somehow bring one closer to the world of indigenous peoples.
Literalized reality presses very strongly upon us these days in the form of ‘facts’. Science doesn’t have creation stories like every other tradition before it, it has ‘facts’, how things ‘actually’ happened. My Chippewa Cree friend saw evolution as a story, not a ‘fact’, and that is how I try to treat all of science: a set of stories, useful stories in many cases, but still stories.
What we have lost is the reality of the inner world. Shamanism is an initiation into the ‘inner’ world. When that world is awake, the outer world becomes more relative: it is a manifestation of mind, of consciousness, it does not need to be taken so seriously any more.