Friday, July 29, 2016

Modern vs Traditional Shamanism: Ponderings from the Front-line

I've been blogging about this Shamanic thing since January this year. 3 days after my Dad died, to be exact. A few weeks before, in my last conversation with him, he said twice that I must be thinking of retiring now. Well I'm some years off that yet, I hope, and he was in a morphine-muddle. But it was interesting in that for him, material achievement, and the social status that comes with that, was all. And it was as if, in my last conversation with him, he was releasing me from that shadow that has always hung over my life. Because for me, it is the soul-making that has always mattered.

And then after he died, I had dreams, and in one there was a young polar bear. And then a few weeks ago, I spent 5 days on my own own in a yurt in Wales, and the polar bear was there the whole time, adult now, protecting me. And I was reading about the Medicine Wheel, and as I left the site, I was shown by the owner how the whole place was dedicated to medicine wheels, one for each element. I hadn't known!

And when I got home, I built a wheel of stones, about 18ft wide, outside my caravan, and then I painted the stones. And I am with that wheel a lot, it represents a dream for the future, but for now that dream is taking care of itself. I just sit and wonder.

Some people say I shouldn't be saying this personal stuff, that I shouldn't talk about the polar bear. They are right, but only up to a point. I love that she is there, and I want people to know about these things, because they can happen, maybe already do, in their own lives.

And I feel like I'm at an interface, trying to work out what this shamanic thing is about, for myself at any rate. In the 90s I did lots of the things many of us have done - shamanic journeying, healing work, sweat lodges, trance dance, pipe ceremonies, being buried, medicine wheel, vision quest, ayahuasca in the jungle.... and I loved all of it. And it was with westerners. And I ended up teaching some of it.

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And then in the noughties I began having a Canadian Indian come to stay with me, and I began learning (informally, around the breakfast table) in quite a different way. Unfortunately, he was also quite dismissive of all that 'New Age' stuff (as he called it) that we do over here, and it faded from my life. And I was also teaching myself to write and to practise as an astrologer, which was a great adventure in itself. And I was also slowly sorting stuff in myself that would, eventually, give a bit more depth to what I had to offer.

But now all that 'New Age' stuff is coming back at me. I love it. And I also have in me something of the more traditional spirit. Something, not all, by a long chalk. I'm not being modest. And I want to put those 2 things together. That is the interface I am at. I am trying to work it all out, and I'm using this blog to do so, so it needs to be treated as work in progress. In fact, I hope to always be work in progress.

And there are certain things I think as I try put together what I learned from the Canadian guy (and another Indian who more recently came my way) and modern shamanism.

1/ This thing is essentially about becoming a balanced human being. It is not about becoming a healer or a teacher or about being able to talk to spirits or about getting 'qualifications'. We may or may not end up doing stuff that helps people in various ways, but I think it gets diluted, and creates a superficial attitude, by being presented in course-form that most people can attend, as an 'add-on'. And it's not the main thing, either.

2/ Change takes a long time, and it's not under our direction. It takes a whole lifetime. Traditionally, it is the guys in their 80s and 90s who are the elders, who are seen as really having something to say. In our culture we want quick change, and we want something to show for it, an identity, perhaps. So this can be very hard for us to understand. As well as being more real, this perspective takes the pressure off us to 'achieve' or to try and 'be' someone.

3/ Shamanism requires an engagement with nature that we have forgotten. Everything is grounded in our relationship to the natural world. That is what we pray to, what we are grateful to, what we feel to be sacred, what we are part of. If we approach nature in this way, she will respond. Her messages may be symbolic, like when an unusual event occurs. But not everything that occurs is symbolic. And we will feel cared for.

We started to lose this being in nature thousands of years ago, and I think in our short lifetimes we can only ever get part of the way back. I recommend The Dream of the Cosmos by Anne Baring, who traces, through the gods and goddesses we have worshipped, our gradual distancing from nature, and evokes very well what that closer relationship would have felt like.

4/ A good teacher does not make claims. Nowadays it seems very common for shamanic healers/teachers to present themselves in terms of their connections to spirit guides or their childhood experiences, as if they are 'born' seers, or as visionaries, or as having experienced the shamanic illness, the closer to insanity the better.

It is an authoritarian way of functioning. The teacher becomes the one with the special vision, and everyone is meant to look to that. This way of presenting oneself has become embedded, but I also think it is untraditional and egotistical. My Canadian Indian friend never presented himself like this, as having 'special' experiences that qualified him. No, he used reason and experience. One of the guys I learned off in the 90s, Leo Rutherford, also declined to operate in this way. But he was an exception, it is that common.

Maybe it is because our religious history in the west is authoritarian. It is the priest who has the hotline to God. It seems to me that is what we are replicating. Like a bunch of Old Testament prophets mouthing off what 'the spirits' have told them. Even with their hotline, Christian priests don't do this, why do we?

If the spirits tell you something, and you want to persuade others of it, you need to use reason, not the 'authority' of where it came from: if you say 'the spirits told me', many people will then take what you say on board, but for the wrong reasons.

A good teacher presents themselves as an ordinary person who has some worthwhile things to say. He/she will, if they are the real thing, be substantial within themselves, have their own inner knowing. But that is for the pupil to spot, not for the teacher to boast about. 

Of course, we may well have unusual or profound experiences that we'll want to talk about, and there will be times when it is important to do so. But I think that needs to that occur in the context of relationship, not in the context of presenting your services to people you don't know.

5/ A bit of contact with indigenous people doesn't make you an authority. A little knowledge is dangerous. This is the other side of the interface. On the New Age side, we want quick results, we treat shamanism as an add-on, and do not understand the profound relationship with the natural world we need to build. On the Indigenous side, we can think that a few weeks in Peru with some 'elders', or inviting a few over to run some events, counts as an initiation on our teachers CV, and gives us an authority to speak on what shamanism is and isn't. It becomes another 'claim'.

Real teaching, or learning, is being-to-being, it is about developing an inner attitude towards oneself and towards the world, that one gradually absorbs from someone else. And this takes personal relationship, and it takes years. And one may learn something of the traditional attitude through that. But even that does not make one an authority. It can become yet another identity. You may not be a born seer, you may not have had the shamanic illness or the prophecies from spirits. But you have had a bit of contact with the 'real thing'. And that is also another trap that I have observed - another way of becoming stuck.

6/ Let us get away from the emphasis on talking with spirit guides or other forms of non-ordinary awareness, as though that is what shamanism is about. I don't at all want to undermine those of us who do, it can be profound.

It's probably got to do with origins: the shaman is originally a guy from somewhere in Siberia who can talk with the spirits and do healing work and offer counsel on that basis. That, I think, is why we have that emphasis in shamanism in the west, even though it has come to mean something much broader: the whole western attempt to engage with, and be inspired by, indigenous ways.

Many of us our drawn to this project. Only a minority will have that natural leaning/ability to talk with spirits. I certainly don't, and I spent years feeling inadequate on that account! I'm good with words in this reality, crap in non-ordinary reality. When called on, something takes me over and I seem able to do some good work from that place, or rather what comes into me is able to. I guess that is shamanic in the formal sense.

But it's not the main thing. The main thing for me is becoming a balanced human being, and having a strong relationship with the 'spirit' side of existence is central to that quest. And we all have that relationship, and it is very important to find and develop our own particular relationship with that spirit side.

If you're going to run courses in shamanism - and why not, if it doesn't include a qualification - then I think they need to be grounded in this very broad approach to spirit.

That is why I like the Medicine Wheel - it is an approach to the whole human being.

7/ Rationality and discernment are needed as to what is and is not 'spirit'. When I learned shamanic journeying, we were told over and again that the spirits know you perfectly, and that we need to learn to trust what we get told or shown in our shamanic journeys.

I don't think it's quite like that. Shamanism came in on the counter-cultural wave of reaction to western one-sided rationality. And I think that rationality can need reclaiming. What is needed is a sense of attunement to Spirit, and if you're having a bad day, what you see in your shamanic journey may well be bilge. Just like someone who functions psychically, if they haven't trained themselves well, personal stuff and moods will get in the way.

So far from blindly trusting 'the spirits', we first need to develop self-awareness, and that takes time. It is ridiculous to ask someone to trust everything they get shown in a shamanic journey. What they need to find out is what they can trust and what they can't.

And it's the same with prayers and calling on Spirit for help. I read someone the other day saying you need to 'know' you will be answered. Again, that is blind faith. It is our Christian heritage. If you are wanting 2 plus 2 to equal 5, that ain't going to happen. You need to ask and to pray from a sense of attunement to Spirit: then you will be answered, but quite possibly not in the way you intended!

There is This World and there is the Other World. A solid grounding in This World is needed as a basis for navigating the Other World. Practices in self-awareness are, I think, needed alongside practices such as shamanic journeying. The dis-identification of the North of the Medicine Wheel, the bodily awareness of the West, the awareness of the emotion of the South are all needed to encounter the Spirit presence of the East.

8/ I think that shamanism needs to find ways of integrating some of the understanding of ourselves that western psychology, particularly perhaps the transpersonal forms, has developed. Many western Buddhists have found that Buddhism is not necessarily very good at addressing the particular psychological issues that we in the west have. And I think the same can be said for many indigenous ways, acute as their psychological understanding can be. At the same time, we can bring to psychology some of the transformational methods that it does not have so much: energy work, putting back bits of soul, ceremonial work. This is a big subject.

9/ How long are we going to keep looking over our shoulders to the indigenous people for authority and for authenticity? Especially when the great majority of us have no direct experience of them, certainly in the matter of what counts, which is personal relationship.

What we DO have is our own inner knowings, and that is what any tradition worth its salt promotes. Religion goes in the opposite direction, encouraging reliance on the teacher, which as I have said is what many teachers are doing when they advertise their 'special' experiences.

And I think if we do look to indigenous people - and remember some of them can be dodgy too - then it is the spirit and attitude we need to look to, and if we encounter that, it is a great gift.

But quite possibly not the letter. I will never the learn the letter of a pipe ceremony done traditionally. But I have been around them enough to get at least some of the basic attitude, and it is a beautiful and helpful and connecting ceremony, and currently I do them on my own and kind of make it up as I go along.

So I think absorb the indigenous attitudes where you can, if you have the chance, but ultimately it is our own inner knowing that matters, and that will go on to create a distinctively modern shamanism, which I think is the thing that the world needs more than anything.


Gilly said...

I love your posts, so full of native wisdom. They always make me think - not always directly about the subject you're speaking of, but often, your words spark all manner of ideas and thoughts in me. Thank you.

Jemma said...

Excellent article. You nailed it!


Jocelyn said...

Barry. You really clarified so many misconceptions I've had studying shaman principles. I don't have to eat the whole loaf of bread.
Only what nourishes me.

weaver said...

so many excellent points here - great post.