In 1997, I was organising some shamanic journeying at a small festival in the UK, and the space was packed for each session, like 70-80 people. The word shamanism had a buzz to it, and I think it still does, even though it can also be a cliché.
But the buzz was genuine, and I think it was about people wanting a taste of the Otherworld, something which has almost become a race memory, because it has been so squeezed out by religion and then science. But it is still there in us, this desire for an untrammelled experience of Spirit, that feels ancient, and that is not hedged around by dogmas of what is and is not possible.
It is Spirit that ultimately teaches us about Reality, not humans and their books. Shamanism – a recent, western phenomenon – is about that return to a direct experience of Spirit, that connects us to a universe that is so much more than the literal, material universe of modern science.
That taste of the Otherworld is, for some, enough as an accompaniment to their regular existence. For others, it is not enough. Or we may think it is enough, but the spirits have other ideas!
And this is where the idea of the 'shaman' comes in. A slightly problematic word, as it carries connotations of spiritual stature, which ain't a good thing to claim. And a shaman is technically also a healer and diviner, a spirit consultant.
But the spirits can drag us kicking through that initiatory journey without the end result being a healer. You may end up as a counsellor, or an artist, or a stand-up comic - or as Mozart: what was it that spoke through him if it wasn't the Otherworld? Or you may be nothing in particular that you can put a name to! You just have that look in your eye that says I've been somewhere else.
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As Leonardo da Vinci said: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
Or as the Ancient Mariner said:
"I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach."
|The Ancient Mariner|
The archetypal event has become, for us, the shaman's illness, which will often bring him or her to the gates of death or madness, and once she has accepted the wishes of the spirits to be a vehicle for them, he recovers.
And I think this illness, this trial, this ordeal, needs to be interpreted broadly within our shamanism, even though the original definition was quite specific. And I think we need to be quite broad too about 'the spirits'. Yes, some of us will have guys upstairs that tell us stuff, or who work through us. For others, it may just be this other place in us, and when we speak or act from it, there is some kind of deeper wisdom or insight there, that may not even make sense to us at the time, but we learn to trust it. The so-called 'mid-life crisis' (which can go on and on - see The Middle Passage by James Hollis) has a resonance of this type of ordeal.
As an astrologer, I encounter these trials in the form of Neptune and Pluto acting on people's charts. I had my own experience of Pluto for much of the 90s: after 10 years running Buddhist institutions, I was unable to do anything for several years. Anything I tried to do wouldn't work. And it was like the plug on my life-force had been pulled. I realised that it is not 'I' who lives, it is something from deeper within that calls the shots, and it was saying we're not going to let you carry on in that wilful way, we're going to fuck with you until you listen to us. And there was this deep, magical pull towards that other voice.
At the same time, I felt like I’d had major abdominal surgery, and that I’d been brought about as low as I could be, to this faraway place. And after a few years I had a dream telling me to pursue shamanism - as well as something else, which was a trick dream that catapulted me out of my old life.
And since then there has always been this place within me that is a kind of dark wisdom, that I can forget about sometimes, but when I'm coming from there I am aligned with my life. It is the glittering eye of the ancient mariner. And in the last few years it's been happening all over again, but under Neptune's rule, and I'm still in the thick of it, so I can't say too much. But it's been like this overwhelming call that I haven't quite known what to do with.
|Pluto with his hellhound|
The classic story behind Pluto, who is Lord of the Underworld, is that one day he abducted Persephone, daughter of the nature goddess Ceres, who went into mourning and the earth went into permanent winter. Eventually it got sorted, but Persephone was by now Pluto's wife, and spent half her time in the underworld.
So this is a good way of understanding the shaman's illness. There is another side to life, beyond what is presented to us by society, and you can be taken there forcibly by the demands of the spirit, which has no regard for conventional niceties and sanities. And in a deeper kind of way, you grow up, move on to the next stage - as did Persephone, in becoming Pluto's wife.
A traditional society understands this ruthless dimension to Spirit. As Holger Kalweit writes in Shamans, Healers and Medicine Men:
“The suffering and exhaustion that accompany a vision quest do not correspond to the mild and gentle style of modern psychotherapy. Westerners do not want to have to exert themselves to solve their problems.” (p102)
And Goethe understood what happens if you resist the call:
“And so long as you haven't experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.”
So this initiatory journey that the shaman undergoes isn't just about acquiring magical powers under duress. I don't think it is like that. The main emphasis is on the development of psychological depth, in the sense of moving beyond the narrow, conventional self that tells us how to live, and whose rules are shared by the other members of society. That kind of living is 'normal', it gives a kind of psychological security to many people, and it is necessary for the stability of society.
But that ain't what the shaman lives by. No, he/she has another loyalty, a deeper loyalty, that is not to the rules and 'shoulds' of the tribe, but to the spirits, to the daimon, to the Otherworld, to the Jungian Self. And that other place to which we have our loyalty is more real, for it recognises that the world isn't what it seems, it is not to be taken at face value, for it is only one pole of existence, the other being the spirit world, and these 2 poles are profoundly interconnected. The world is not an absolute, it is fluid.
So it is this loyalty to the Otherworld that is the real qualification to be a healer - or whatever. It is the shaman's wholehearted response to the imperatives of the Otherworld and its values that make him/her a shaman. Once you have that new basis to your life - that look in your eye - then the spirits will allow you to be a healer, or require you to be.
Of course, this is a kind of ideal scenario, because we are human, and we fuck up, and sometimes people have real healing abilities who seem in other respects to be such messes.
But the principle remains, and it is the 'depth psychology' of shamanism referred to in the title. It involves a radical turning about, so that the guiding principle of our lives becomes not what society expects, nor is it based on our personal desires, but on a commitment to something beyond us, that also is us, and that is more real than a purely conventional notion of existence ever can be.
It is a completely different basis for living, and that is why the shaman's illness can take him/her to death's door: the conventional, which is so deep-rooted, has to die. It can almost be like I cannot continue to live like I have been, so how can I live? And the answer is there within, and always has been.