Here Comes the Left Brain Again!

I’m in the middle of reading The Secrets of Shamanism by Jose and Lena Stevens. I’m probably about 2/3 of the way through, and it’s turning out to be your usual neoshamanism flavored by core shamanism text o’ techniques. Doesn’t have much context, and throws in some decent psychological exercises in there for flavoring. Like so many authors, the Stevens insist that you don’t have to go through terrifying dismemberment and other ritual torture to be a shaman (however, to be fair, they also make it clear that reading this book won’t make you a shaman, either).

I also read some articles on Northern Tradition shamanism. This included a good comparison of “classic” (what I usually refer to as “traditional”) and core shamanisms. It’s not the first such comparison I’ve seen; I first read James Endredy’s comparisons of classic, core, and eco shamanisms in his text, Ecoshamanism.

It’s often assumed that anyone who isn’t trained in an indigenous cultural shamanism is a core shaman. While none of the sources I referenced above do this, I’ve run into the assumption more than once (online and elsewhere) that neoshaman = core shaman. True, Michael Harner has had a huge influence on modern (neo)shamanism, being the first person to really bring it into public practice in postindustrial cultures. I do, however, have disagreements with personal practice involving core shamanism; while it’s great for some people, not so much for yours truly.

However, I don’t really fit the definition of classic/traditional shaman, either. No indigenous teachers, and no cultural context other than that which I’m living in. My experience with the spirits is decidedly gentler than a lot of traditional testimonies, though I’m not under the illusion that things will always be easy, or play nice, or be successful.

I wish there was a term for modern postindustrial neoshamanism that was expressly not core shamanism, but that was understood to not be classic/traditional shamanism, either. I like “neoshamanism”, but it does have a lot of core shamanism assumptions around it. And therioshamanism is wayyy too narrow, being what I call the relationship I am creating between myself and “my” spirits. I like the concept of shamanism for postindustrial societies, but it has to be understood that you can’t ever take something entirely out of any cultural context whatsoever. Even if you completely divorce a particular practice from its original context, you are still practicing it within your own cultural context, whatever that may be. Therefore it needs to be tweaked to match the context it’s practiced within.

There aren’t very many non-indigenous shamans who are not practicing A) something based in core shamanism, or B) something based in traditional shamanism but also influenced, to one degree or another, by core shamanism, and who are practicing C) something that is based in a post-industrial cultural context. At least not that I know of, anyway. Maybe they’re all hiding from me.

Of course, sometimes I also wonder why I’m so reluctant to go and try to find an indigenous shaman of one culture or another to train under, and quit trying to mow my own path. I think a lot of it has to do with trying to keep the cultural context as focused on mainstream-America-flavored-by-neopaganism as possible; I feel that if I were to base my shamanism in any other cultures’ practices, then my shamanism would forever have that influence in it–and some things simply just don’t translate well from one culture to another. Of course, if I’m reading about other cultures’ shamanisms in books, then I’m being exposed (thirdhand) to those cultures (which is a poor substitute for actual involvement).

However, books also allow me enough detachment to be able to look at what the goals are, and then be able to figure out how to do them myself, coming from my own context. This way I can pull a “What Would Lupa Do?”, rather than, say, automatically falling back on a cosmology and context learned from another culture which may not be entirely appropriate for where I am. And that’s what I really want–a shamanism that is created from where I’m coming from, that addresses the problems that my culture faces, and that allows me to interact with the spirits in an individual manner, however they–and I–see fit.

6 thoughts on “Here Comes the Left Brain Again!

  1. While I don’t think that shamanism is required to ruin one’s life… I do think that, when it’s valid, it challenges aspects of one’s life in ways that can be pretty devastating. Gods know that no aspect of my spiritual life has been without agonizing reappraisal. And honestly? I think if it’s not doing that, it’s at lest somewhat bogus. maybe what a given individual needs at a given time… but still somewhat bogus.

    My best relationships have challenged me to be better.

  2. I agree with you about the idea that an American post-modern Shamanism needs to be developed by an American post-modern Shaman (or Shaman-in-training). For example, the relationship that say a Chinese or Quichua indigenous practitioner has with the Dog totem will be very different than an American (i.e. the Chinese view dogs as consumable, the Quichua see dogs mainly as tools and guards, not friends or pets). I’m not knocking traditional practices, but if Shamanism is going to help people in America it has to be able to speak to soccer moms, truckers and vegan emo-goths. 😉

  3. I hear ya. You make some really good points. My first exposure to shamanism was Michael Harner, which was a great starting place, but not the end goal. I was then led to study with someone who practiced shamanism based in the Scottish Highlands but influenced by a Native American tribe. But even traditionally, many shamans were not taught by another shaman, but by the spirits. A lot of my training has come that way as well. Yes, I had an initiatory experience at a young age – the classic illness version – and found later that the spirits came to me then. Since I’ve been walking a shamanic path, I have experienced death and dismemberment in the Other World, and it is a bit disconcerting to say the least, but I knew that was what it was.

  4. Hey there,

    Well in Raven Kaldera’s NT Shamanism writings he does point out that he was not trained by an individual but was spirit-taught, that is, by the Gods and wights. Now, YMMV, but Raven Kaldera was born and raised in the US (to my knowledge), not Siberia, and I don’t claim to be the ultimate expert on his life but I know from my own Life in America Experience that we are pretty much far removed from any kind of indigenous shamanic culture in 21st century America. So, um, it was a matter of the spirits grabbing him up and They have done that to plenty of other people, myself included. I won’t call myself a shaman for various reasons, mainly that I feel I have not earned the title, but most of the spooky people who know me agree that I have been through shamanic sickness/deconstruction or something similar, and am not experiencing that now, and have been “done” for a goodly amount of time. This of course does not preclude life being life, and my mortal body experiencing various health issues, but… yeah.

    Also, once again, shamanism may not ruin your life, but the procedure of becoming a shaman is not easy and is not anything that can be learned from a book. You can learn shamanic techniques for altering states of consciousness and dealing with the Deities and wights, but it’s the Powers that Be who determine whether or not someone is a shaman and shamanism does fundamentally change your life.

    Anyway, though, as usual, good post, and lots of things to think about and discuss 🙂

  5. Cissa–*nods* I think anything involving more than basic spirituality (and even basic, to an extent) is going to shake your world up and get rid of the unnecessary parts. There are certain things that will get in the way of whatever it is you need to be doing, and those need to be sent on their way.

    Matt–I agree. I keep meaning to read “American Gods” for inspiration, since people keep telling me what an awesome book it is.

    Denise–To be contrary, there’s also the idea that “spirit-taught” is an excuse to do whatever you want. Which is why I’m being so damned cautious about my UPG. I don’t have a tribe behind me saying “Here’s the way things are, here are the tools you use, and here’s what you do with that knowledge”. But OTOH, there’s also plenty of validity to being spirit taught. I “check my work” by seeing what the end results of my work are; if they show focus and benefit, then I keep on with what I’m doing.

    Sigrun–*nods* I’m going primarily by the articles, since I haven’t read the books (yet). I’m really curious to read more since there’s a definite traditional flavor to it, at least in the interaction between shaman and spirits, and it’s not like the usual modern neopagan-ish shamanism you see. I’m also curious as to what extent the Northern cultural influences come in; most cultural influences in shamanism are from existing indigenous cultures (Native American cultures or otherwise). (I’m also interested in reading about seidhr for the same reason.)

    As for books/etc., they offer a starting point, but you’re definitely right–it won’t matter how many books I read, if I don’t do the work. hence my multi-layered approach to the whole thing–listen to the spirits to see what they have to say, read the books to see where others have been, and do my own work to see where I fit into all this stuff.

    As to changes…so far, the changes that have occurred have been ultimately mutually beneficial. However, this is just training, baby steps. Talk to me in a couple of years and see where I am 😉

  6. I find a lot of “shamantic” groups out there who say they borrow from Native cultures but never give the important context of their ceremonies or even give credit to these nations quite offensive. I’ve found myself agreeing with the majority of your statements. I was even delighted to read that you recognize the use of bad medicine on others.

    Coming from a southwestern tribe, I’ve witnessed all sorts of extraordinary behavior from medicine people. Note my use of the term “medicine people” instead of “shaman”. I’ve never encountered another Native person who referred to her/his traditional healer as a “shaman”. I’ve also never seen an ad for any medicine people back home. People just don’t try to sell themselves like that. And each medicine person knows what ceremonies and prayers they can and can’t perform, so they’ll refer you to someone who can help if necessary. I haven’t heard of a single person who can treat every problem.

    Anyway, a couple years ago, I was blessed with a gift to diagnose and treat illness through my hand. I guess I’m a hand-trembler, but that’s about all I can do at the moment. I can’t see images in crystals or fire or even when I close my eyes. I can’t hear spirits. When I look into ash, I have to try to see the image in every angle to make it out and sometimes I still can’t see it. I have to ask my spirit yes and no questions to figure something out. I’m told I have spirit helpers, animal helpers who are both spiritual and real, (I get a visit from them when something bad is going to happen, no joke) and even my grandmother comes to help me sometimes (She can really tire me out with all the energy she provides).

    I didn’t ask for this gift and I certainly didn’t pick up a book and decided that I wanted to be a medicine person. I was selected. Despite the surprising things that happen when I try to doctor myself and bless people, I harbor huge doubts about my ability. I don’t consider myself a medicine person right now because there’s much more training for me and I currently live far from my reservation. I’m not allowed to work on people other than myself and my immediate family, so I’d have to go home to learn more. Plus, I think too much like a scientist (I graduated with a B.A. in biology) and rationalize my ability with things I read in medical and scientific journals.

    Anyway, I just wanted to share with you that I like your blog. I encourage you to develop your way of healing that’s appropriate for your people. Like my medicine woman tells me, “Everyone’s way is different.” Even in my tribe, every medicine person has a particular diagnostic and treatment method. You can’t learn your way from a book. You may even get help from spirits of indigenous cultures who see that what you’re doing is good. I wouldn’t deny that kind of help. Looks like you have something to give to your people and It’s great to see that you recognize it.

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