Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Shamanism: Being vs Doing

(Also published at my other blog In the early 80s, after university, I decided to live in a Buddhist community. This was a great disappointment to my father, who had assumed I would have a stellar career that he could be proud of. On
one visit back home, he got a bee in his bonnet about what Buddhists ‘do’. I didn’t really have an answer, as it hadn’t occurred to me to think like that. And the more I couldn’t answer him, the more incensed he got, because for him it was a simple matter, with what should be a simple answer. He kept repeating along the lines of well plumbers fix pipes, poets write poetry, what do Buddhists do? I tried saying stuff about meditation and ethics and enlightenment and all that, but it was nothing he could understand in terms of doing. I was, as it happens, working in a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, but that, of course, wasn’t a general activity of Buddhists that I could invoke.

Black Elk
Buddhism, like any spiritual path, is essentially an attitude to life, on the basis of which the ‘doing’ happens. For us shamanistas, this attitude is well-expressed by Black Elk:

“Hear me, four quarters of the world - a relative I am! Give me the strength to walk the soft earth, a relative to all that is! Give me the eyes to see and the strength to understand, that I may be like you. With your power only can I face the winds.

Great Spirit, Great Spirit, my Grandfather, all over the earth the faces of living things are all alike. With tenderness have these come up out of the ground. Look upon these faces of children without number and with children in their arms, that they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet.

This is my prayer; hear me! The voice I have sent is weak, yet with earnestness I have sent it. Hear me!”

I haven’t found this attitude so fully expressed anywhere else but in what we in the West have come to term ‘shamanism’. Attitude is the wrong word, because it is not something added on. It is a way of being, a beautiful and loving way to relate to the earth, that is also true and real. It is based on how things are. And in bringing humans ‘down’, as we might see it, to the level of the elements and other forms of life, it elevates us, it shows us how to be noble human beings.

And for me, this is the essence of shamanism.

The Wikipedia definition reads: “Shamanism is a practice that involves a practitioner reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with a spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world.”

This is a definition in terms of doing rather than being, and it is typical of us westerners to come up with such a definition. It is like saying a Christian is someone who performs miracles. OK, technically the shaman is a special type of person who can do the healing stuff, or rather his spirits can. But shamanism has come to mean our western re-interpretation of indigenous spirituality: the healing work is just a special instance of that broader engagement. And for the traditional shaman him/herself, the healing work takes place in the prior context of this sacred but natural connection to the world, without which the healing would be unthinkable.

So I think that shamanism is not to do with whether you can do healing work or lead ceremonies. Shamanism is a context, a context of profound gratitude and relatedness to the natural world. These days, the world is something we take from. But the traditional (and more adult) attitude is that it gives to us. That is the basis. And it’s not the natural world in just the modern, material sense: it is that, but more, it gives us the power to live, and it is the spirit world. Spirit and matter are the 2 poles of life, inner and outer, if you like.

But it is hard to get away from doing definitions. Maybe it always has been. Material existence presses hard upon us, it can seem like it is all there is. One of the main functions of the shaman is simply to remind people about spirit. In my mid-30s I realised that the power to live was not a given, it was something that could be taken away from me. And it had been taken away from me because I had not listened to the call of my spirit. It was a deep turning around for me, my eyes turned inward to a place that was alive and beyond any words or dogma. And at that point I had very little definition of myself in terms of doing. I was being dragged through a deep lesson in being.

So it is this way of being, which is sometimes just an attitude because it’s the best we can do, that matters. That sense of profound connection to the natural world, for me, is occasional, if at all. I enjoy the natural beauty of the beech trees outside my caravan, and I enjoy watching the sheep eat, and sometimes my breath is taken away by the sight of the horses in the field beyond. But when I read other people writing about the importance of feeling our identity with the natural world, I easily feel wrong-footed, like I only have a faint glimpse of it. I also feel wrong-footed when people write (usually in their intros to their healing services) about how they’ve been seers, or something like that, since childhood. I know I certainly wasn’t. (Though I confess I’m slightly suspicious when people do that.) And then of course there are indigenous people, and I’m certainly not the real thing in comparison to them. Maybe I’m just human, and need to forgive myself, and remember that others probably feel, and have always felt, the same way.

Protestant Work Ethic
But the main point here is that more than ever, we live in a 'doing' culture, and we easily define shamanism in those terms, and when we do that we have missed the point. The term 'shamanic practitioner' seems to me to carry some of this bias. 'Doing' is easily the enemy of being, as it devalues being, says that if I can’t measure you, then you are nothing. Astrologically, I call it the western negative Saturn (see my astrology blog). It’s deeply rooted in western culture, I don’t think we can help but do it. It’s a dark spirit we carry with us. Being able to take a holiday from it sometimes is itself an achievement.

What matters is the sense of appreciative connection, firstly to ourselves and then to the natural world and its people and to that thing beyond, however we experience it. If a calling to do healing work, or whatever, comes in as well, let it come to you, don’t seek it out. I don’t think it likes being a day-job.

1 comment:

Sherril Bowman said...

Thank you. This speaks to me more than anything i've read for a very long time.