Fried Brains and a Side of Expectations

Ugh. This grad school thing is quite possibly one of the most challenging endeavors I’ve ever taken on. I spent last Friday through Monday spending every day, all day, at school, getting my brain stuffed full of information. Not that this is horrible, of course, but other events have left me with little time to process all of it.

Saturday and Sunday were all ecopsychology. I got a LOT out of the two days, both theoretical and experiential. I’m already finding ways to weave it into my shamanic stuff as well, and in fact was able to work some of the material into my 21st Century Animism workshop at esoZone on Saturday night. I haven’t been doing much in the way of journeying and other formalities this month, since school has taken precedence. However, part of the reason I’m in grad school in the first place is to help integrate my spiritual/magical life in with the rest. The role of therapist is about the closest this culture has to a shamanic figure, and so it fits in neatly with everything else in my path. That being said, I’m not going to stop journeying entirely; however, I’m not going to kick myself too much for going a few weeks without when I’m occupied with activities that also contribute to my work with spirits. (The spirits themselves haven’t complained, either, FTR.)

As for expectations…I was thinking a couple of weeks ago about the motif of dismemberment and rebirth in shamanic practice. This is something that neoshamanisms have really latched on to; some people swear up and down that you cannot be a True Shaman (TM) unless you have gone through this experience–never mind that there are traditional shamanisms that lack this experience, or even any ordeal whatsoever.

I’ve seen this motif pop up in neoshamanic literature to the point where it’s become almost a cliche’. Often it’s used as part of guided meditations (not journeys), which are carefully scripted and there’s not a lot of room for individual experience outside of the script. I’ve even had it happen to me in things that clearly weren’t Major Initiation Rituals wherein my life was changed forever and I became a Real Live Shaman. Nor did I spend days and days recovering from the experience, and I’m guessing that most neoshamanic writers aren’t going to lead people through things that can potentially leave them insane and/or otherwise fucked up long-term.

So is this merely a watering-down of yet another traditional shamanic experience brought on by softer living? Or is it because this is one of the motifs that shows up commonly in anthropological literature about traditional shamanism, and therefore since the experts say it’s so, we come to expect it as part and parcel of any shamanic experience? Do we just expect that if we go through the right paces, say the right things, do the right rituals and read the right books, that we’ll someday find ourselves being eaten by bears, down to our bones, only to be recreated into an authentic being?

I have to wonder, too, about other patterns that neoshamans often expect to be there. Take journeying, for example. This is par for the course for Siberian and other shamanisms. However, it’s not universal. Korean shamans, for example, are more prone to channeling than flight, taking in rather than going out. And the same could be said for “sucking shamanism”, healing through the removal of illnesses by literally sucking them out of the patient’s body; or drumming; or the Upper, Middle and Lower Worlds attached by a World Tree; or shamanic sickness; and so forth.

Do we experience these things because they are objectively and near-universally shamanic? Or do we experience them because we expect to, because that’s what other people have experienced and we want to be like them? How much do we, even subconsciously, let our expectations control what we experience?

Food for thought…

6 thoughts on “Fried Brains and a Side of Expectations

  1. You bring up some very good questions in regards to this–something I’ve been musing over a lot lately myself. In fact, just a little bit ago I finished a discussion with my partner where we discussed shaman-sicknesses, and comparing them to my frequent migraines, and how they tend to occur around certain (important) visionary experiences that might happen, etc. (more on this later?)

    I think it is a little bit of a lot of things. A watering down of things due to softer living (as I think a lot of it has grown to be), but also a combination of people’s expectations and what the “experts” say. Then here’s another question…how much does the seeker expect it to happen enough to make it so (wishful thinking, etc.) and how much of it is the spirits genuinely saying, “Hey, this one has potential, lets give him/her a test”.

    Ugh, I’m not sure if I’m conveying my thoughts properly, or the way I want to–speak of the devil, I am currently riding in-and-out of Migraineland(tm) as we speak (giving me an automatic stupidity-label for even being on here typing, lol).

    I think, in summing up, what I’m trying to say is that many factors are involved. Current postmodern western lifestyle, traditional shamanic practice you’re trying to compare, what the experts say, what people’s expectations are…Hm. This is partially why I started the “neoshamanism” lj-group, to try to compare notes with other postmodern practitioners. I will say that I for one certainly didn’t ask for this chronic pain I live with, but after the migraines set in with the Lyme disease, my visionary experiences got that much more wilder and vivid, and now it seems as if I gained an extra sense in the trade-off. Or something.

    Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about this right now. lol.

  2. Do we experience these things because they are objectively and near-universally shamanic? Or do we experience them because we expect to, because that’s what other people have experienced and we want to be like them?

    Having met some people who claim that they are shamans because some terrible thing happened to them (particularly when that experience has no actual spiritual significance to them), I’d guess it’s an issue of expectations.

  3. “The role of therapist is about the closest this culture has to a shamanic figure”

    This is so true. Which is also why I think so many therapists are actually bad at their jobs; because they don’t have the calling within them, or alternatively, because they just aren’t really interested in doing more than earning a paycheck.

    I can count on one finger how many good therapists I’ve seen. People I would consider true, eager healers. I can count on two hands how many I’ve seen which only helped because I got something out of the *literature* – and it had nothing to do with them as people.

    “Often it’s used as part of guided meditations (not journeys)”

    This is terrible. Utterly terrible. Why people would choose to voluntarily invoke some of these experiences (especially when it’s not as though most human lives are devoid of pain in the first place) is beyond me. Going through torture or torment doesn’t automatically confer any sort of wisdom or learning. And in many cases it can be even *more* damaging than helpful. Especially without anything approaching support.

    I did go through the cliched dismemberment experience (and literal clinical death), so in some ways I can’t talk about knowing what it’s like to be a dedicated shamanist without these things. But I do know of other dedicated, helpful, genuine shamanists who haven’t been through these things. It’s not necessary for everyone. It’s certainly not something people should go looking for. :/

    “So is this merely a watering-down of yet another traditional shamanic experience brought on by softer living?”

    Possibly, though I think the responsibilities of neoshamanists are often far less than those Shamans in indigenous cultures. Very few neo-Shamans today are actual custodians of a culture or cultural lore, for example. They might be saving lives through soul retrieval of the individual, helping small sections of land in a day to day basis, but this still isn’t the same level of responsibility.

    In response to this, I imagine the initiations or the quality of the initiations change. I still don’t believe it’s necessary for everyone at all, that it is possible to be custodian of culture and cultural lore without these sorts of initiatory rituals – but I certainly think it’s more common in those cultures / Shamans who are called to shoulder a greater responsibility than just offering healing on a one on one (or couples) basis.

    “Do we just expect that if we go through the right paces, say the right things, do the right rituals and read the right books, that we’ll someday find ourselves being eaten by bears, down to our bones, only to be recreated into an authentic being?”

    The silly thing is, a lot of the literature actually shows that this doesn’t happen in every shamanic culture. So neo-shamanism clearly isn’t just regurgitating the literature here, there is a specific hanging up on this particular traumatic experience.

    My most significant initiation wasn’t actually being eaten / regurgitated / putting myself back together. It’s happened, because I had to learn how to integrate a soul so that it was functional again, but it wasn’t my ‘big experience.’ Mine was dying on a surgical table. It wasn’t even meant to be a spiritual experience, but that’s what it became. I wasn’t looking for it, I didn’t want it, and the literature doesn’t say ‘clinical death creates shamanists,’ because very few cultures probably put people in this situation.

    And in some Indigenous cultures, eating/dismemberment may not even be the primary initiation. Depending on the culture in Australia, everything from being buried in the ground, to scarification, to swallowing quartz, was considered far more ‘shaman-making’ than any dream or journey of simply being eaten and put back together again. The hang up is on a ritual that actually isn’t ‘near-universal,’ but is sold as being near-universal because anthropologists got hung up on it.

    People are getting hung up on the dismemberment / eating / regurgitation theme I think for reasons more complex than the literature saying so.

    I think the fact that anthropologists can place especial emphasis on these particular initiation rituals over others is another sign that people – not even shamanists – are particularly fascinated by this rite of intiation. Moreso than other ‘big’ initiatory procedures like circumcision or scarification.

    So one has to ask what the appeal is. Is it that a spiritual ritual that is entrenched in bodily function, gore and blood is just so rare in a world where we are raised to treat the body as separate and not as sacred as the mind? Is it that we lack stories and exposure to wars that show us that these things actually happen so this is the only way we can look at something that approaches bloodlust? Is it a deathwish that has nothing to do with the nature of these initiatory rituals? Is it the satisfaction of saying ‘the spirits tried to kill me and they couldn’t, I’m better than them,’ thus sating some subconscious need to preserve ‘humans as superior beings’?

    There is something about this specific initiatory ritual – which isn’t necessarily the hardest shamanic one out there – that draws people’s attention again and again. Not only shamanists, but movie-makers, artists, anthropologists…

    It’s a complex issue.

  4. I’ve thought about this for a few days and I have to comment.

    My personal gnosis is that someone who purposefully journeys is a shaman and everything else is optional.

    However, my initiating journey (before I’d studied anything about shamanism and had no preconceptions) had some striking similarities to things I read in Eliade. My journey was involuntary, I was just drumming around the fire at an event. I DID have a strong desire that I would become a good drummer and not an embarrassment to myself but I had no intention of going on a journey.

    I was suddenly struck down with nausea and everything but the fire was “gone” and I was alone before a Power of some sort. I didn’t experience actually being dismembered but I perceived myself as having already been divided into several piles. I was “loaned” knowledge about the nature the afterlife but was only able to retain a small amount of that knowledge. It was not at all clear that I was coming back from the experience. It was terrifying but darkly beautiful. Fortunately, a friend who was present was able to penetrate my journey and retrieve me.

    As a side note, from that point on it became apparent to me that some sort of spirit possession had befallen me in regards to my drumming. I gained abilities and perceptions that exceeded what could be logically expected from my experiences so far in drumming.

    It’s not too surprising that my interest in shamanic practices was stimulated by this experience.

  5. Every time I journey now, I wonder if I’m making this all up. I try to center myself beforehand and avoid “planning” my journeys.

    Or does it really matter if these experiences are objective? Is that even possible? Wouldn’t a more traditional shaman also be “limited” by his/her own culture? I don’t know.

    When I took my first few journeys, I didn’t know what to expect and really didn’t know much, so it is interesting to ponder those things that did pop up. In some ways, those first journeys felt more powerful. But then again, they would–they were the first tentative steps.

    Don’t have the answers but thanks for the post. And don’t study too hard!

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