Shamanism and Subjectivity

I think I’m just going to give up on trying in any way to prove that my spirituality/belief system/etc. has any direct validity for anyone besides me, and anyone who agrees to take part in my subjective spiritual reality. The seeds for this post took root while I was detangling the thoughts for the last one. I started thinking about the subjectivity of nonindigenous shamanic experience. On the one hand, you have core shamans and their ilk who experience shamanism as a relatively safe, defanged thing compared to traditional shamanisms. On the other, you have people who are doing their best to emulate traditional shamanisms, particularly the most dangerous parts thereof. And then I thought about my own experiences, which are somewhere in the middle.

I look at where my path diverges significantly from these two ends of the spectrum. I do experience journeying as being riskier than what a lot of core shamans describe. However, I don’t do the complete submission to the spirits that I’ve seen on the other end. I do my best to not take the spirits for granted, but I also maintain autonomy–as in D/s, I have hard limits to my vulnerability, and ways to enforce them. And that is what has worked well for me, even before I began working with shamanism. I haven’t had experiences that have deviated significantly from that balance. And the thing is, the people at each end of the spectrum could probably say the same thing for themselves, that their experiences fit within a particular style of shamanism. Additionally, they could probably all find other people and sources that corroborate with their own experiences.

Really, how can I prove any of them are wrong, that they haven’t had the very experiences they claim to have had? How can I necessarily say that my experiences with shamanism are more objectively valid when in the end I really don’t have more proof of being right than anyone else? Sure, there’s looking at the shamanisms of other cultures–but that’s other cultures. To an extent, cultural context is crucial. And if a large portion of shamanic practitioners in this culture are reporting a certain way of doing things, then I should not dismiss that simply because it doesn’t corroborate entirely with the ways other cultures have described their practices. There’s something going on there, and beyond a certain point I cannot judge the veracity of what’s happening. Maybe someone really is working with harmless spirits, and another with savage ones.

But what’s the point of trying to judge the objective reality of the experiences themselves? Sure, I can discuss the conflation of neoshamanisms with indigenous shamanisms, and explain that certain practices found in the former are in no way, shape or form a part of any of the latter. But how can I judge whether someone else’s journey was valid for them or not? And, more importantly, does it really matter whether it’s valid for me if it’s not my experience (and I’m not the client or otherwise involved)?

All I can really say for sure is that my subjective reality is real to me, and that it is necessarily filtered through my subjective perceptions. I would wager that a good part of the reason that other practitioners experience things so differently in a lot of ways is because their perceptions–if not their experiences in their entirety–are also subjective. I would also add that it’s very likely that as my expectations about the world, conscious and otherwise, shape my experiences, that it’s also likely that others’ experiences are shaped by their own conscious and unconscious expectations. If you expect that shamanism is like in anthropological accounts where it’s a highly violent, dangerous thing, then that raises the chances that your shamanic experiences are going to be violent and dangerous. Likewise, if you expect that journeying is safer than dreaming, then you’re more likely to have safer experiences.

I can clearly see where my own expectations about reality, and spirituality, and related concepts, resemble my experiences as a shaman. And I can see where my perceptions also shape these experiences. Therefore, at this point I’m going to maintain that while it’s not impossible that there’s an objective spiritual reality, I strongly believe that spirituality is heavily subjective regardless of the existence (or not) of objectivity. I can see the physical world around me, the trees, the stones, the animals, and can agree on that objective reality for the most part with other people–but the animistic
end of things, that’s another story entirely.

And I’m okay with that. I’m tired of the endless wrangling over who’s right, regardless of what spiritual reality is being argued over. I’d rather focus on developing my subjective spiritual reality, which I know is real for me, and which is effective for me. I’m not sure I really care how real it is for anyone beyond those who have agreed to take part in it, whether to learn more about it, or even adapt it to their own practices. Beyond those functions and practicalities, is it really all that important that I try to prove that the journeys and so forth that I describe here actually happened beyond the scope of my own perception? And is it important for me to measure my shamanic practice up against those of others for experiential (rather than historical or other factual) veracity? If I didn’t have the exact same sickness, or have the spirits treat me the same way, does it really matter?

I look at all the time people spend trying to get external validation. And I’m really thinking it’s a waste of time, at least for me. The need to prove an objective spiritual reality has been a weight I’ve been carrying too long. So–at this point, my running theory is that spiritual realities are largely subjective, and any objectivity is hidden to some extent by subjective perceptions. The quest for objectivity, in addition, is overrated. (YMMV, of course.)

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6 thoughts on “Shamanism and Subjectivity

  1. I can clearly see where my own expectations about reality, and spirituality, and related concepts, resemble my experiences as a shaman.

    Wouldn’t that be shamanist?

    I think objectivity definitely has its perks. It keeps people from slipping off into their own fantasy-worlds. One doesn’t have to go actively searching for it, however. Generally, it will find you, providing you keep your feet on the ground as well.

    I prefer keeping even parts of both in my experience. But saying one is overrated over another indicates, at least to me, a sort of imbalance. Kind of like the UPG argument…the verified and the unverified have equal stance in such things, one should not be totally glorified over the other.

  2. Very interesting article. I agree with your perspective that external validation is not the best of goals. And yet it is nice if it happens spontaneously. The trick is to be open to it while not looking for it. 😉

  3. I would at least tend to default toward “the Otherworld can be dangerous” rather than “the Otherworld is happy and fluffy and always safe” just for the sake of caution.

  4. You make an essential point here, one that I’ve been struggling with (and will continue to do so, I’m sure). When I was a Christian, it was my goal to live as authentically as possible and, basically, to show others that Christ was real–I was looking for that external validation. But over time, I realized that I could prove nothing and, most devastatingly for my Christian faith, my experiences weren’t all that different from non-Christians. Since I believed, however, in the ultimate truth of Christianity above all else, my little house of cards began to fall.

    I’ve noticed the same tendencies in shamanism and other pagan paths, but this search for validity really is useless. Christians spend so much time trying to convince everyone that their path is THE ONE–it’s exhausting. Just consider all the denominations and splinter groups, all claiming they ALONE have found the right way. This in itself should be proof that spiritual experiences are subjective and influenced by our own individual idiosyncrasies and other factors.

    Shamanism and certain other practices have meaning for me, but I can’t explain it. And I’ve decided I don’t have to. I love the mystery anyway. I am curious about all the many different experiences that others have on these paths, but I personally have no interest in proving my way is right. I spent way too much time trying to do that as a Christian.

    Some may find this unsettling, this lack of objective truth. But I think that there is actually truth to be found within this uneasiness. And–at least for the moment!–that truth is mucher wider, much more encompassing, more beautiful and more mysterious than anything we’ve yet to imagine or experience.

    The problem comes in when we try to get too literal about anything. Oh sure, I still worry about what people think of me, how silly I look and so on. But there will always be someone to refute what we believe, who challenges our perspective, who believes they alone are the one that can truly see truth. So instead of getting into a battle, we must keep our ego in check and consider that everyone–everyone–is wrong and right at the same time.

  5. I’m going to have to agree with you. Spirituality does seem to be extremely subjective. Regardless of what you say, everything we encounter we perceive a particular kind of way based on past experiences, so agreeing on something seemingly intangible is difficult. It just unfortunately seems as though people feel the need to find reassurance in their own realities through other people, so they feel the need to argue and debate who is right and who is wrong, as opposed to working together and finding commonalities to help each other develop and grow in their own ways.

    You also touched on a good point about how different experiences seem to take place based on an individuals feeling on a matter. Such as someones experiences with entities being negative due to them believing it will or should be. I don’t think it’s anything uncommon to get back what you project and I definitely agree. It’s what makes sharing experiences so difficult because what we believe or think seems to have a very strong relationship with what we experience.

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