A Weekend With The Shaman

Classical shamanic practice has generated a renewed and widespread sense of interest within modern spiritual seekers. At issue is how well traditional shamanic concepts and techniques transfer to the denizens of contemporary societies. Can a practice considered by many to be an archaic remnant of earlier cultural thought worlds square with our current scientific and philosophical perspectives of existence? A weekend seminar sponsored by one of the anthropological fields leading authorities on shamanism may hold some revealing insights into these issues.

Michael Harner is an anthropologist and one of the world’s leading authorities on shamanism. Many consider shamanism an archaic and superstitious remnant of primitive and traditional cultures. However, broader awareness of individual claims of spiritual experience and a wider recognition of unseen forces by the physical sciences has rejuvenated contemporary interest in shamanic practice. Though many have studied shamanic methods Harner has distinguished himself in two respects: he’s identified and analyzed a technique known as “sonic driving” that he claims creates the state of altered consciousness necessary to engage in spiritual contact and believes this process allows virtually anyone to directly interrelate with such higher forces. Responding to growing interest, Harner established a network of instructors to teach this core technique of shamanic practice through a series of specialized workshops. As an anthropologist with an abiding interest in this topic the opportunity to directly experience the highly ritualized and esoteric spiritual realm of the shaman was too good to pass up. When a weekend workshop passed within driving distance I readily enrolled. I quickly learned while many anthropologists are interested in Harner’s work these workshops tend to draw less from the university set and more from the burgeoning pool of modern practitioners and the legions of the spiritually curious.

Romantic notions abound as to how the spiritual secrets of traditional cultures are taught. Such deep communion is often envisioned in a forest clearing on an open blanket of soft earth under a darkened sky amid rings of simple huts and the sounds of nature. Contrary to any idealistic impressions, I discovered the character of modern life has necessitated certain changes. This weekend the role of the tribal village was played by the ground floor conference room of an airport hotel with banks of fluorescent fixtures filling in for the moon, stackable imitation leather chairs substituting for logs and a field of grey industrial ply carpet starring as Mother Earth. Any ambient bird sounds were supplied by those of the Boeing variety. Under these conditions forty two seekers convened in the hopes of learning and understanding the deeper secrets of our spiritual being.

Most in attendance (typical for such events, women outnumbered men six to one) were not detached scholars come to dryly absorb the facts and ethnographies of shamanic practice. The exotic variety of elaborate and highly personalized drums, rattles and other shamanic tools brought by many of the attendees suggested this to be a hard core group of seasoned practitioners. However, this collection of fur, feathers, hide, iconography and beads reflected only the material intensity of their devotion. Much more revealing were the names printed on the stick-on tags skewed across the registration table. Joining the usual host of Betty’s and Bob’s were such suggestive monikers as Madam Orca, Soaring Eagle and Joyful Panther. That the proud owners of such names looked more like members of the local library board than any secret or ancient sect only added to the intrigue. Amid such a confused cultural context we began absorbing the techniques practiced by humans whose life circumstances differed so radically from our own.

Two trainers of forty years combined experience led the group. But first things first. Before any instruction began we were asked to join hands in a circle to sing a shamanic hymn of unspecified origin. Having earlier been handed a sheet filled with lyrics I feared this would be a recurring practice. I suspect this exercise was intended to psychologically orient us to a more natural perspective at a more tender stage of our history as the last handholding sing along I’d attended was at fourth grade summer camp. Though the words were simple enough, somehow I had trouble fully committing my voice to “circling around the Earth with my long wing feathers.”

Having dispensed with the preliminaries it was time to get to the meat of the matter: contacting the spirits. Harner believes most shaman traditionally attain the altered state of consciousness necessary for spirit contact through aural stimulation or what he labels “sonic driving.” He claims this method is historically more common than the popularly recognized use of psychotropic drugs or rigorous physical austerities. Sonic driving requires a continuous drone of at least 220 beats per minute be struck on a percussive instrument for a period of between fifteen and thirty minutes. This powerful and monotonous rhythm is claimed to create a trance like condition allowing entry into Non-ordinary reality or NOR. NOR is a metaphysical dimension of being existing simultaneously with what we recognize as Ordinary Reality. Within this realm dwell the spirits who Harner defines as “animate essences having intelligence and different degrees of power.” Shaman prevail upon these powers to help or heal.

Addressing the vast literature dealing with the authenticity of spirits is a topic for another forum. However, personal experience combined with anthropological and scientific study predispose me to favor the idea of the existence of powerful influences lying beyond the limits of our perception. Such forces have acquired many identities and biographies pending on context and culture. I have no problem with the shamanic concept of identifying these forces as spirits nor the conviction they may be effectively engaged by human beings. The enduring presence of this practice within such a vast sweep of cross cultural references speaks powerfully to the authenticity and efficacy of these concepts.

Our first shamanic exercise asked us to place our consciousness within a different context: specifically our favorite natural setting. Our leaders began the driving process by pounding their frame drums while rhythmically shuffling around the room for emphasis. All quickly joined in by drumming, rattling or clicking in unison on their own percussive tools. Through the throbbing din instructions were called out to help the envisioning process (“hear the sounds, feel the earth, smell the air.”) I must confess I was surprised how readily and vividly I mentally placed myself within my selected destination. No spirits were found but this was just a training tool. The subjective nature of this exercise made it impossible to tell how effective this workout was for my fellow classmates. Such uncertainty would not last long.

Next up was the ritual known as “Dancing with the Animals.” Virtually every shamanic culture accepts the notion we all have our own special spirit animal with whom we interrelate. This was our chance to use sound and motion to identify and merge with our particular guardian animal. Under the droning pulse of the leader’s drums we were instructed to circle the room in a clockwise direction with eyes almost entirely closed (good advice, forty two blinded people moving around could create a lot of collisions.) We were told to try and sense our spirit animals, allow them to inhabit our bodies and indulge whatever behavior ensued. If a bird took over you may find yourself flapping your arms, a horse may wish to run. To me this all sounded a little contrived but having already paid my dime…. Though trying to focus on my own experience it was impossible to ignore the sights filtering through my partially closed eyes. What happened next will stay with me forever.

Before I’d taken three steps I was passed by a person racing on all fours and grunting like what sounded to be a buffalo. Unfortunately I couldn’t look long enough to be sure. I quickly had to sidestep a woman on the floor who was writhing on her stomach. Wearing muted red sweatpants and a crimson tube top she looked like a cranberry snake. Rounding the corner I came upon someone squatting behind the trash can with the backs of their hands pressed to their chin who hissed and bared their teeth as I passed. Another dozen steps revealed a corpulent fellow in a Transformers T-shirt jumping up and down and flapping his hands violently at his sides. His loud buzzing suggested he was possessed by a bee. This rapidly devolving scene seemed reminiscent of some poor medieval village whose grain had gone moldy. And so it went. Whether it was someone trailing me on their hands and knees sniffing at my butt or a woman trying to climb the drapes each revolution revealed new peculiarities. When the drumming finished only myself and four others had failed to engage a spirit animal.

Though predisposed to accept the existence of metaphysical forces influencing our reality and trained to remain open minded I confess the Dance of the Animals disturbed me. I was troubled by the instantaneous animal transformation experienced by so many. Truthfully, most of what I’d seen seemed more wishful indulgence and affectation then metaphysical phenomena. There was much to suggest I was right. Harner claims listening to the drone of 220 beats per minute on the drum may lead to altered awareness. Nothing suggested a few quick percussive notes being adequate to the task. I also had serious reservations about the seemingly premeditated and contrived manner in which these incarnated animal spirits behaved. In their natural habitat most horses are rarely predisposed to continually rear up and neigh. Most eagles don’t pose with their wings elegantly folded across their chest, lording their presence over those condemned to the ground and any rhino who spent its time indiscriminately spearing objects within its path (in this case the coffee cart) would soon die of exhaustion. The following hour of discussion seemed to confirm my suspicions. Many poured out tales of being instantly seized by a particular spirit and offered up observations and perspectives all too corporeal in nature. I found it hard to believe the overwhelming concern of a buffalo would be the lack of brotherhood between all human beings. However, later events would unsettle the confidence of these feelings.

At the end of the day one of our instructors demonstrated the process known as the “retrieval of power.” He intended to drop to the lower spirit world (not to be confused with hell) and engage the curative assistance of an animal to heal one of the workshop participants. Six people with distinct physical problems volunteered to be the subject. A random twirling of a drumstick on the ground determined who would be healed. I was pleased to see the stick point to a woman who’d also been “unaffected” by the Dance of the Animals. The instructor and subject lay side by side on a mat while the group provided the percussive stimulation. After ten minutes of drumming the instructor arose with clasped hands as if preventing something from escaping his grasp. Bending over the subject he seemed to blow whatever he held onto her stomach, then repeated the process while aiming at the back of her head. With this simple gesture the “retrieval” ended.

Moments later, both shaman and subject now resting on their elbows, he explained while journeying in NOR he met a lion who gave him his healing power. He asked the subject how she now felt. “Not much different” she replied. Unfazed, he admitted the healing may take some time. However, he suggested she thank the lion by allowing its spirit to enter her. Appearing embarrassed and uncertain what to do she remained seated. Suddenly, like a switch had been thrown her expression and carriage changed. Gone was the appearance of self-conscious restraint she’d worn all day. Instantly her eyes seemed to draw deeper into her head and her stare crystalized. She gracefully uncoiled herself from the floor in a coordinated pattern of movement similar to that of a large animal; the stretch of limb and articulation of joint completely at odds with normal human motion. Now fully erect, she began striding, her arms and legs swaying in tight alternating coordination. Moving through the room this conversion from human to animal seemed to authentically touch every aspect of her appearance. Every detail of eye and facial movement was in complete harmony with the new character of her body. No trained actor I’d ever seen emulate an animal performed with such depth and synchronization of movement. This was unlike any of the clumsily affected animal behaviors I’d seen earlier. So thorough was this transformation she indeed seemed a woman possessed. After about two minutes of this action she spun to the ground in front of our leader. The intense leonine countenance on her face quickly drained and was replaced by her normal appearance. After whispering something about being “completely taken over” she suddenly began softly crying and quietly returned to her seat. This seemed a fitting moment to call it a day.

Showing little mercy for the other guests, the next morning began with the lot of us chanting songs to the sun on the front lawn of the hotel. The rest of our time was filled with aurally induced journeys to the upper world for more contact with our spirit animal, detailed instruction in the use of the “retrieval of power” and learning how to divine answers to personal questions from rocks. After each exercise we were encouraged to openly share our experiences, impressions and feelings. All who spoke had been much more successful than myself who was still struggling. Each claimed to have left the sensory realm of ordinary reality to quickly meet a bevy of powerful spirits ready to befriend and help with their problems. Would that I had this kind of rapport with any of my neighbors. O.K., some might accuse me of being intellectually imperious, snide or just plain jealous and they may be right. However, I was puzzled none of this feedback showed any degree of reserve or critical assessment. This was strange. After all, every one of these people also lived and had been enculturated within a modern world highly skeptical of such perspectives. Was there nothing within their histories at odds with the workings of such a contradictory thought world? One would expect a certain degree of doubt or reluctance when tribal shamanism is taught to contemporary people. While I don’t question the ability to move into alternate metaphysical realms of existence I was having specific issues with this wholesale acceptance of such culturally incompatible practices.

The first was the tacit assumption contemporary humans experience and interpret such NOR phenomena in the same manner as those of traditional cultures. Specifically, I find it unusual modern urbanites would perceive the unseen elements of existence in natural or animal forms. My fieldwork supports the notion metaphysical and mystical forces are perceived and understood in a culturally determined manner and reflect local sensibilities and experiences. I suspect those of traditional cultures encounter the spirits of specific animals because these are the dominant influences within their lives. Amazonian shaman come upon boas and toucans as opposed to the buffalo and moose common to their Native American brethren. As such, it seems more reasonable that twenty first century urban Americans would apprehend these presences in forms more reflective of our own specific experience and way of knowing. As a product of the scientific paradigm I tend to envision the mystical forces of existence in the form of energetic processes more resembling waves, particles or statically charged informational fields. That these images may not seem as warm and nurturing as animals or rivers and forests does nothing to diminish their capability of holding a deep and highly personal relationship. Lifting the beliefs and practices of traditional cultures in their entirety and transplanting them intact within the fabric of our contemporary world seems problematic. I had to wonder if the deliberate desire to change one’s spiritual perspective is enough to remove a person from their “deep” enculturation and allow them to move effectively within another. However, more perplexing was a key discrepancy between Harner’s study of shamanic practice and the bulk of traditional anthropological literature.

Harner’s conviction that sonic driving can transport human beings into NOR may be correct. However, these workshops imply that upon transcendence you’ll have the ability to maneuver the spiritual forces for your own purposes. In other words, anyone can have certain degrees of shamanic power. This contention contradicts prevailing anthropological study where shaman are understood to be much more than metaphysical cosmonauts moving in and out of ordinary reality at will. Most shamanic study claims only those of unique circumstance can become shaman; something profoundly sets them apart from their tribal peers. Such defining circumstances may be specific physical or mental disorders (epilepsy or schizophrenia), distinctive heredity or experiencing an unusual event such as being struck by lightning. In addition to such predispositions shaman are the products of long periods of training and arduous initiation. Mastering the curative and divining arts usually requires years of rigorous apprenticeship in the channeling of the spirits and their formidable forces. Tremendous amounts of practice, singular dedication and a high degree of innate talent are crucial to any success. Then there is the matter of initiation. After acquiring such knowledge and skills the worthiness of any prospective shaman must be proved through their ability to endure arduous ordeals on both the physical and metaphysical plane. Granted, my experience of fighting interstate traffic and sleeping in a room next to the ice machine with shaky wi-fi service was no picnic. However, revealing a much higher level of commitment, the hardships the traditional initiate commonly endures include lack of sleep, starvation, prolonged exposure to the elements and physical mutilations. In fairness, our leaders noted patience and practice were needed to enhance our shamanic success. However, I couldn’t help but feel this crucial and imposing caveat was not emphasized strongly or frequently enough. When it comes to the shamanic arts, it would seem somewhat ambitious to expect a weekend seminar could compensate for a lifetime of enculturation and years of training.

During our last lunch break I privately approached the instructor with my reservations. As the depth of his knowledge clearly exceeded the specifics of this workshop I suspected he was aware of the same issues troubling me. He quickly conceded not all the attendees would have the ability to work with spirits nor could the depth of instruction offered rival or compensate for the extensive training and cultural submersion traditional shaman experienced. Perhaps the most appropriate and confounding response came when I noted many of the participants seemed more possessed of their own desires and affectations than any genuine spirit animals. He quickly agreed but cautiously noted decades of studying the shamanic phenomena had led him to believe “the universe has always been and will always be self- selecting.” I had to appreciate how deftly, yet appropriately he’d resolved what could have been a difficult position. The gist of his response was to delicately say that none decide for themselves or others who the higher forces of existence respond to. All our convictions, intentions and efforts aside, the grander powers ultimately anoint their own emissaries, or not. The class material was a faithful transmission of established shamanic techniques. However, factors outside individual control will play a strong role in how well it works. Unfortunately, diligence and desire may not compensate for those whom fate has yet to touch.

In response to the growing spiritual desires within our modern world many different people with divergent pedigrees offer shamanic arts programs. Variances in approach and style aside, I suspect all bump up against the same problems and limitations. While learning shamanic techniques doesn’t automatically endow one with shamanic powers this does little to diminish the value of the Harner workshop. An enhanced appreciation and understanding of some of the methods and theories associated with traditional shamanic practice is itself of great value. Additionally, if Harner’s theories of sonic driving are accurate it’s reasonable to assume some of the participants will have acquired an effective tool for accessing realms of non-ordinary reality. This is no small virtue.

The events of the weekend brought to mind many different issues. Perhaps the most important was how an ontological perspective and practice having its roots in the most archaic moments of our history relates to the manner in which we now understand the nature of existence. Does the idea of a world filled with spiritual entities conflict with the major scientific and philosophical perspectives dominating our current understanding of the higher forces of existence? Certainly for many the concept of shamanic practice is dominated by superstitious and mythological factors long dismissed as remnants of a darker more naïve period of human development. However, I would argue a wider evaluation of the specifics reveals a surprising consistency between the perspectives of shamanism and those of the modern scientific paradigm. It would also seem in some respects the core tenants of shamanism offer a possible means of interacting and dealing with such forces absent within our scientific understanding.

The key to reconciling the metaphysical views of the archaic with the scientific is often found in navigating the confusion of language and sidestepping the traps of literalism. In many respects there need not be anything mystical or divine within the shamanic thought world. In complete accord with our own science, shamanism is convinced of the presence of powerful forces outside the realm of our physical world constantly interrelating with every entity within existence. Shaman conceive of and refer to these forces as “spirits.” Modern physics conceives of the operation and characteristics of these same forces in more detached and objectified terms consistent with our science. They may label them as being electromagnetic in nature or conceive of them as existing in the form of various types of energy fields: zero point, holographic, morphogenic or informational to name a few. Stripping them of personality does nothing to eliminate their causative capabilities or the higher insights their presence may suggest. Science merely identifies and explains their function within an empirical framework. Many scientists have also begun attributing to these forces characteristics similar to those a shaman may articulate. They suggest these energies may have relationships to consciousness and react to human activity and intention. Whether understood and expressed in either spiritual or materialistic terms it would seem the essential phenomena intriguing both shaman and physicist remains the same. If such a thing as spiritual forces truly exist their presence and behavior by necessity have objective explanations.

This same perspective also allows the multi-spirited, animistic shamanic realm to comfortably coexist with those time honored philosophies that conceive of existence as a singular spirit, intelligence, consciousness or other unified concept. Over the last five thousand years the model of existence being created and controlled by a vast pantheon of divinities has fallen distinctly out of favor. However, when the spirits of the shaman are viewed as different kinds of metaphysical phenomena any sense of divinity quickly fades. This in no way diminishes the wonder of their power or the functions they may serve within our lives. Instead it more accurately redefines their position within any higher ontological scheme. Accordingly their presence and influence become no more or less an expression of Ultimate spirit than anything else. This is an important distinction because of the time honored tendency to assign divinity to spiritual forces. To be spiritual does not by necessity remove any entity from the fabric of physicality nor elevate it to divine or god like status.

Such “demystifying” of spiritual or metaphysical phenomena is not intended to denigrate the manner in which these forces are perceived by earlier cultures. In fact there’s much to commend the traditional shamanic perspective of these unseen powers over those of modern physicists. Endowing otherwise impersonal energies with consciousness and personality allows us to understand and manage them in much the same manner as the more ordinary conscious entities (people and animals) within our lives. Granted, all may not conceive of these forces as containing any degree of consciousness. However, any lack of consciousness within the “spirits” or “forces” doesn’t change their causative potential or their ability to respond to our actions. In the fine mechanistic and interconnected fashion of modern science such forces would by necessity affect and be effected by human activity. It would seem with or without intention, humans will forever be fated to be active agents in influencing the course of worldly events. Science as yet offers us little to intentionally harness these energies. Shamanic theory on the other hand has codified and institutionalized a wide variety of practical approaches to engage and manipulate these forces for personal benefit. One may argue the efficacy of the particulars but not the principle.

Reflecting further on the value of my weekend workshop, certain conclusions seem obvious. Any inability to approach or understand traditional spirits in the same manner as our tribal ancestors doesn’t mean these same forces can’t play a powerful role within our own modern lives. As noted earlier, any conflation of identity and biography has no bearing on the inherent characteristics such forces may possess or our potential susceptibility to their presence. If bestowing biological personalities to these influences creates a better way of conceptualizing and relating to them, so much the better. Some may claim trying to “depersonalize” the spirits into a more scientifically coherent system is of little constructive value to any except blinkered materialist’s intent on forcing all phenomena into their own idiosyncratic paradigms. And they may be right. However, I should think any program or study that encourages a heightened sensitivity and understanding of the unseen forces of existence and offers a potential method of access to be valuable.

And what of the controversial contention that all possess some degree of ability to control and manipulate such forces? Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to accept the traditional concept of the exceptionality of the shaman. Deeper investigation into the cultural dynamics surrounding traditional shaman often reveal many practical reasons why contact with the spirits should rest in the hands of only one rather than many. Obviously, social organization and stability could be threatened should more than one person within any group have the ability to collude with higher forces. If the notion only very unusual people can manipulate metaphysical energies is indeed more survival strategy than existential fact than Harner may be correct when he claims many people may possess this ability to varying degrees. As all are interrelated pieces of the greater whole there is a logical sensibility to the claim all have causative powers whether consciously exercised or not.

Beyond any intellectual discussion, perhaps the most important requisite in evaluating shamanic practice is emotional and academic reserve. The events of the weekend clearly demonstrated what I’d long realized: the modern study of shamanism is permeated with powerful convictions by acolytes and deniers alike that poorly serve a deeper understanding of this most ancient of practices. There is a distinct tendency on both sides to accept or reject the concepts of shamanism in their entirety without qualification or exception. Clearly both sides need to pull back a bit on their conviction. To those enamored of the certitude of our science I would caution about blithely mocking or dismissing the ontological sensibilities of traditional cultures as the products of primitive superstition or ignorance. There is much to commend the perspectives of these earlier peoples regarding their understanding of the higher issues of our being. In truth, many more similarities of perspective exist between such people and our modern selves than are at first evident. More importantly, forever bound by its empirical limitations, there is much science has yet to understand about the world in general and the nature and operation of consciousness in specific. Conversely, to those convinced the keys to higher wisdom and spiritual revelation lie in the sensibilities and practices of tribal cultures of a more natural and innocent time I would suggest keeping a tight rein on your desires and idealized notions. Granted, modern science is not without its problems. However, only the foolish completely ignore its assertions. We must remember that earlier peoples understanding of existence was in its own way as limited and slanted as any of their modern counterparts and they were just as capable of operating within their own earthly agenda. As such, a high degree of critical evaluation and wariness regarding the sensibilities of traditional cultures is always in order.

Despite our commonality of senses, everybody approaches, perceives and interprets reality in different ways. External circumstances of time, location and culture and internal structures of experience and psychological orientation combine to shape the truth into a wide variety of different forms. This is not to say all perspectives are equally valid but only to remind no phenomena are universally ordered and understood. Under such circumstances it seems the more productive approach to evaluating shamanic practice is making an attempt to bridge the similarities within our diverging existential schemes rather than exploiting the differences. We may come to appreciate the broader and enduring truths surrounding our existence are more varied than ever before imagined.

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