A Letter, Concerning Shamanism, June 2015
I am happy to see that your group is undertaking an exploration of the meaning and background of shamanism, a subject of long interest to me. I know that many of you know a great deal about this, and so I know your meetings will be deep and meaningful. Although I will not be able to attend your meetings, I would like to add my own “two bits” to your gathering basket.
When many ordinary people in our culture hear the words shamanism, they likely think of either an alluring “special magic” or a dangerous, pathetic “pagan nonsense.” Neither is what I think of when I hear the word, but there is an odd sense in which each is partially true. Understanding that, it seems to me, is key to any such exploration as you are all involved in.
Let me begin with my own premises (and premises they modestly are, not presented as “facts”).
I assume that there is such a thing as consciousness, which I assume to be awareness. Experience tells me that consciousness is always dynamic, changing, and multi-layered.
Shamanism, as I understand it, is an ability to experience and to operate safely from different levels of consciousness. Shamanism is a practice in the alteration of consciousness in order to move to different levels for particular purposes.
The first level, that of “ordinary consciousness,” which is normally understood to be “what I am aware of right now,” is of necessity limited.
The computer analogy goes a long way: my hard drive has various programs available and often resting in potential on it, but only one or two programs can be utilized at once or the overload will cause the computer to “crash.” Likewise, if I were attempting to hold in ordinary consciousness at once every single thing that was happening at any given moment, my ordinary consciousness could not process it; I could not, indeed, hold it all in awareness at once (can I even notice, all at the same time, for example, the velocity of the wind moving against a car I’m driving, the way the oil is circulating through the car’s engine, the deer in the distant field, the cloud scudding by, the temperature of my left wrist, the child’s snore in the back seat, the list in my purse of what I need to remember to get at the store, the words to the tune on the radio, and on and on ad infinitum?)
And it is the ad infinitum that is the deeper “level” of consciousness, beyond the personal, that shamanism ultimately has to do with—all that is beyond the ordinary level of consciousness, or the acquired cultural level of consciousness, or the preformed archetypal level of consciousness, or the instinctive or biological level of consciousness, or even the physical level of consciousness. It is with the level of ultimate infinite that shamanism, if it is legitimate, concerns itself.
And it is just this divergence of levels that makes shamanism such a difficult thing to discuss, let alone to experience. As Zen Buddhism informs us, to reach deeper and wider levels of consciousness, one must perforce move beyond the normal consciousness which calls itself “I.”
One must redefine the self altogether, placing identity in non-identity, in an undivided state of wholeness. And few and far between are those moments when any of us can achieve this, let alone stay there long enough to give ourselves the title of shaman, or bear the burden of others putting that title on us.
Hence, the varieties of definitions of shamanism and of such distinctions as “white shaman” and “dark shaman,” and the difference between those who think that what they do is to dive deeply to access or embody forces “for good,” or those who are stuck on the ego-level of “I-ness” that says, in effect, “I can manipulate things, I can control things, I can achieve magic effects, I can acquire totems, I can heal,” etc.
Even to aspire to such things as “becoming a healer” signals that the “I” level of consciousness has not dissolved into the broader context that encompasses health and illness in a certain wholeness, a wholeness that appears to ordinary awareness as paradoxical at best and incomprehensible and even demonic at worst, as any good psychotherapist can attest.
What am I saying? Who knows. (Punctuation intended)
“Who–” in your group, an “owlish” sort of person-making word for “Whatever-all-there-is.” All-there-is does know, and hence, since everything is contained in this All-that-is, everything knows.
And that’s the point of shamanism for me. There is a knowing, there is an all-consciousness, there is an all-completeness, and whatever is meant by “I” is in it and so is everything else. I do not stand apart from it, needing to “journey” toward it or “acquire” it or “achieve” it.
As my own personal chant goes “I am in the center of a Circle of Love; I am in the center and the center is Love; Love is all around me, love is what surrounds me, I am in the center and I am Love.”
I may not hold that in consciousness all the time, of course. Most of the time I’m scuttling along unmindful of most everything.
But my spiritual practice is to maintain, as much as possible, various intermediate states of consciousness, and at the least, a consciousness that there are other ways of seeing and being.
For this there is the necessity of an exquisite kind of “multi-tasking,” being aware of using ordinary consciousness in order to look at and perceive and acknowledge and allow into awareness another infinite layer of possibility, clarity, activity, potential, etc., etc. that exists beyond the level of ordinary consciousness.
Even to attempt to put this multi-layered consciousness into words leads to contradiction and negation. Hence Zen koans and shamanic gibberish.
For simplicity’s sake, I refer to the “layers” or “fields” of reality as I experience them: the personal, the familial, the cultural, the collective consciousness, the archetypal, and the Wholeness. Just words. Mental constructs. But they help me. Arrows pointing toward reality. Road maps pointing to infinity.
It’s easy, perhaps, to be aware of the constant influences on us of the traditions of the family we grew up in, or the nation we occupy, or even the collective mindsets of our time. On deeper levels, we find influences that are “more than skin deep,” influences that come from the whole sweep of human history, and influences from the physical and natural world, influences that even transcend time and space. Native American practices and some mystical traditions help us to navigate these worlds. We learn to recognize and “speak the language” of these forces, and to treat them as “relations,” something we are in right relation to and can thus draw upon and give ourselves to in good order. Hence terms like archetypes and allies and elementals, etc. Hence shamanism as a practice.
But let’s return to the computer analogy. If something pops up on my computer screen (read ordinary consciousness), let’s say, I immediately need to know where it is coming from in order to interact with it properly; is it something downloading from the cloud, is it something from a program that came with the computer when I bought it, is it merely an updating of old content, is it something I acquired years ago that routinely operates in the background, is it coming from a virus that is attacking from some unknown dimension, etc. It is helpful to know a bit about these different sources of information and activity, as well as to have, as it were, a good psychic search engine that can run through all the programs on the computer to access what is needed and to keep things in good order, if we are to be able to move rapidly and efficiently on the computer. Or, to use this as metaphor, if we are to move from one level of consciousness to another safely.
After discussing all this with a friend after I had written my first draft of this letter, she wrote the following:
“Shamanism is about having the training or know how to live in ‘both worlds,’ so to speak. Shamanism involves a dissolving or breaking down of a lot of the veils and boundaries we have used to define reality in order to create a world in which we can operate. Learning to live every day in this expanded reality takes spiritual and mental muscle and discipline. If we are in an expanded state of consciousness and are not able to transcend the boundaries of ordinary consciousness successfully and move with the energy that encompasses such infinite awareness and responsibility of creative power, we can be left with the rubble of a reality we can no longer return to. Having a compass and a teacher can help insure our travels into infinite reality and back. Well, you don’t ever really come back to ordinary consciousness after you have once been aware of those deeper levels; you may ignore or push away awareness of that greater dimension, but you now know it’s there, and that makes all the difference. It requires things of us, it requires an egoless state of surrender and conscious decisions and acts of responsibility for dimensions unseen. And yet, you have to operate in an ordinary world that often is clueless as to those deeper dimensions.”
Hence the need for shamanism. The shaman is often a soul guide, sometimes a soul retriever, sometimes a midwife or a surgeon. Always the shaman is a participant, creatively involved, while egoistically emptied, being open “out the back,” as Joseph Campbell often said, to the infinite. Quite a big deal.
As our level of technology and the complexity of the information age has increased so dramatically, it is becoming more and more difficult for the ordinary person with limited multi-tasking abilities.
And so, some old folks, myself included, sometimes ask, “Why am I bothering with all this?” Good question.
For me, the answer is crucial, and simple. I must.
Not use the computer, to be sure, but deal with the complexities of consciousness, yes. Constantly, daily.
The writer Thomas Moore has written:
“In his writings on archetypes, Jung says that only through archetypal images can we know the archetypes that seize us or subtly shape our behavior and thoughts. Such images are especially important, as they allow us to glimpse the source of our feelings and even our thoughts…We need images that effectively give us insight into the archetypal depths of our life experience; otherwise, we are left with surface explanations that remain on the purely personal, social, and physical levels…But most of the studies done these days in professional and academic circles rely on research methods and assumptions that don’t reach down to the level of the archetype, and so our thinking on any subject is often insufficiently profound and imaginative…(On the other hand, those who deal in archetypes) are often tempted to shrink these archetypes to a certain number and to develop interpretations and methods of exploiting them. If we know all about the archetype of the shadow, for instance, it’s assumed we won’t be caught in problems of the shadow. But as Jung often said, archetypes can never be known, only glimpsed. The purpose of glimpsing them is not to explain them away and then have control over them, but rather to be guided by them toward our own instinctive way of life, to feel the very roots of our identity, and so be able to live in intimate relation to our own soul.”
Shamanism, of course, takes into account the level of archetypes and then goes beyond even that to the source itself, the ultimate Self.
If I were in attendance at your gatherings, as I wish I could be, I would no doubt be the worst possible sort of participant, constantly muttering under my breath either “yes that, not that,” or “and in addition to that” etc., driving you all mad with my circuitous reasoning and non-reasoning. For it seems that shamanism transcends reason or at least the limitations of intellectual categorizations, and goes into the imaginative possibilities of creativity itself.
Creativity. The bringing into Being of Newness. There is, then, indeed, that “special magic” that is associated with the word shamanism. And, there is also that pagan sort of non-sense about it, that which goes beyond the ordinary five senses but nonetheless exists and informs and influences us at all times.
Since I can’t be at your gathering, I’m just sending these thoughts, to say not only, “Yes!” and how grateful I am that you are all people who care about this holy task of consciousness, which is to say, soul, heart, wholeness, ultimate reality, etc., and also “Beware!” for any superficial or egoistic pursuit of a mere “shamanism” is dangerous. Dipping into the deeper levels of consciousness can bring on some “bad trips” if the journeyer is not sufficiently fit (in the sense that an athlete would use that word fit). Knowing you, I am aware that the very purpose of your gathering is to make yourselves properly fit, and this I whole-heartedly acknowledge with much love.
I would like to continue to send my thoughts on this subject, if I may.