Right now, I’m pissed off about a number of things. I’m angry that the death penalty is still used in the United States, and that today two men, one of whom had a lot of evidence pointing to his innocence, were killed by lethal injection. I’m angry that racism still exists in neopaganism. I’m angry that many areas of neoshamanism still seem to be largely concerned with white people flying to “exotic” far-off lands and spending money that could feed families in those lands for months. I’m angry that pagans and shamans and their ilk aren’t questioning the inherent privileges associated with even being able to consider things like wilderness and environmentalism and sustainability.
We face HUGE problems these days. It’s not just whether the crops will fail or whether the next village over will send their warriors to attack us, though these can even today be massive localized catastrophes. Instead, we have systemic racism, sexism, and other inequalities and injustices. We have a precariously balanced economy based largely on promises and virtual currencies, and which favors increasingly unequal distributions of resources. We have wars involving unbelievably lethal technology, and those who suffer most are the most disempowered. Climate change is a scientifically proven reality, and regardless of whether we caused it or not, we still face the unknown consequences of this shift, never mind the things we are responsible for like numerous species extinctions. We are much larger groups of people, and our problems have escalated in scale to match.
And yet neoshamans persist in working with templates that are based on older, smaller cultures’ shamanisms. To an extent, yes, you can learn from your predecessors, but it doesn’t do a damned bit of good if you can’t apply it to your own community’s unique situation. We face greater systemic problems than ever. It is no longer enough to only treat the symptoms of the client. The shaman’s role is not just on the person-to-person level, though this is important, and will never cease to be important. But most of the material on shamanism out there is on that level alone. We need to refocus neoshamanisms in ways that increase the shaman-to-society level of engagement, because society is the matrix in which clients and shamans alike are conditioned, and an unhealthy environment makes for unhealthy people.
I maintain that the fundamental role of a shamanic figure–at least as close to anything “universal” as you can get with varied positions in numerous cultures–is as an intermediary. Shamans bridge gaps between their society and other societies; or between humans and the rest of nature; or the physical world and the spiritual world; or between the individual and their self; or some combination thereof. In order to do this, you have to be ready and willing to engage with your community to the fullest extent possible. You have to meet your clients where they’re coming from. Our job is to be the one willing to reach out when no one else will. We have to challenge our comfort zones to a great degree, more than the average person in our communities. And we have a lot more potential discomforts to face.
This is no easy task. In many ways it is every bit as challenging and dangerous, if not more so, than traversing the riskiest realms of the Otherworld. But it is our duty as shamans to be the ones to make the first move, to reach out into the uncomfortable spaces and extend ourselves towards those in need, even at risk to ourselves. Shamanism as intermediary work requires us to bravely confront both the internal landscape where our biases live, on through potential interpersonal conflict involving other individuals, and the greater systemic problems that we as a society face regardless of background (though our unique background does affect the angle at which we face the system). Neoshamanisms, for the most part, leave their practitioners woefully underprepared to approach the systemic level of things, especially the human systems.
This is what I propose we need to do as shamanic practitioners if we are to more fully take on a role as social intermediary:
–We need to stop hiding out in other people’s cultures, and root our neoshamanisms more consciously and deeply in our own.
All cultures have things of great value, and I love how globalization has allowed a greater and more varied interplay and exchange of ideas, practices, and materials around the world (though access to that interplay is still mediated to a great degree by various factors such as socioeconomic status and access to education). But cultural elements are not plug and play. If you take something out of its original culture, to include a shamanism, it is necessarily changed by exposure to the new context. Just as a shaman needs to be able to bring things back from the places s/he travels to and utilize it in hir own community, so we need to be better at integrating what we learn from other cultures into relevant frameworks for this one. Most clients in the U.S., for example, aren’t going to want to work with someone taking ayahuasca, let alone take it themselves. But what is the ayahuasca trip supposed to do, and what’s a corresponding practice that is more appropriate to this culture? Great, take your five-figure trip to Peru and have your seminar and special training–value what you bring home, but then make it useful to home. If you’re from Brooklyn, don’t try to be a Peruvian shaman in Brooklyn. Be a Brooklyn shaman who brought some neat stuff from Peru to add to your Brooklyn toolkit. (P.S. Yes, I know ayahuasca isn’t from Peru. The examples of ayahuasca and Peruvian shamanic retreats were two common examples, but not linked together by anything other than proximity in the same paragraph.)
–We need to stop hiding in the wilderness in order to “purify” ourselves of the “taint” of humanity.
This has been weighing on my mind a lot lately, if you haven’t been paying attention to recent writings here. As an ecopsychologist, I am fully aware of and supportive of the restorative powers of nonhuman nature, from gardens to wildernesses to a single potted plant on a sunny windowsill. Walking through a downtown city park is nowhere near the same as hiking through remote old growth forest. And the latter has benefits that many people may never find in the former. The problem is in seeing ourselves as divorced from the wilderness–and whether we justify it through saying we’re superior, or through saying we’re a blight, the consequence is still the same. We widen the artificial divide that we perceive between ourselves and everything else. Worse, those of us who have learned to appreciate “nature” deny others the opportunity to do the same when we enter into the wilderness to “get away from everyone else”, as though “everyone else” has no right to be there with us. Solitude is one thing. Solitude can be healthy. But when we reluctantly re-enter human civilization as some loathsome fate, we are less likely to see fellow humans as deprived of the slaking draught of wilderness we have received. Anyone is a potential client, and those who have the most negative view toward nature may be those who are in the most need of reconnecting with it in a healthy manner. If we see our role as facilitating that connection, we have to examine our biases against humanity as “the enemy”, and instead have compassion for those who may see the wilderness as a worthless or even dangerous thing. We can’t bridge that gap if we only spend our time on the wilderness’ side of things.
–We need to stop hiding behind the spirit world as a way to keep from engaging with the physical world.
Yes, many shamanisms are largely about serving the spirits. But what good is a shaman who can only interact with spirits, and can’t complete the connection back to the physical world? If you only spend your time journeying and only serve the needs of the spirits, then you’re only doing part of the job. And it’s easy to get lost in one’s own Unverified Personal Gnosis. I have seen entirely too many shamans, spirit workers, and other such practitioners blatantly displaying all manner of dysfunction toward themselves and others while justifying it as “well, the gods/spirits/etc. told me, and it fits in with the rest of my paradigm, so it MUST be true!” Word to the wise: be a skeptic, especially when you don’t have much in the way of external validation (and especially if your outside validation consists primarily of people who think and believe like you do). If your UPG is saying you should isolate yourself from people you normally enjoy spending time with (when engaged in healthy activities), or that you’re justified in self-gratifying behaviors that wreak havoc on the relationships and lives of others, or that you should make some drastic decision in the moment without considering other alternatives, then it’s a pretty good indication that you’re getting too detached from the physical end of reality. Would you do these things in good conscience if you didn’t have spirits supposedly telling you what to do? Are you just engaging in escapism to ignore the problems of the world and your own life? All too often shamanism and other spiritualities neglect to ground themselves in the physical for fear of being “disproven”, yet the strongest shamanisms are those that can successfully navigate both the spiritual and the physical.
–We need to stop hiding behind mental illness challenges as though they are the only things that define us.
Again, I am not talking about invalidating mental health issues that are genuinely debilitating. I am talking about ceasing to even try engaging with everyday society because of challenges associated with mental health, and calling it shamanism. Some shamans face pretty damned significant mental illnesses. However, there’s a huge difference between “I am a shaman with a mental illness but I do my best to work around it and use it if/when possible” and “I have a mental illness and that makes me a shaman/mental illness is what defines shamanism/mental illness IS shamanism/wheeee, I don’t need meds or treatment because I’M A SHAMAN!!!!” If you can make your condition work for you, great–I’m all for people making the best of a situation. However, once again, part of what is required of shamans is the ability to engage with general consensus reality, because that is where most of our clients are coming from/wanting to get back to. If you’re so busy being in your own alternative headspace that you’ve given up on even trying connecting with more conventional headspaces, and especially if you justify this disconnection as your right as a shaman, then you’ve lost that crucial ability of a shaman to fully bridge two (or more) disparate worlds–in this case, losing connection with the sort of headspace that many, if not most, clients are going to want to stay in, regain a place in, etc.
–We need to stop hiding behind the idea of persecution as an excuse to avoid engaging with people about whom we are uncomfortable.
I am not, mind you, talking about directly engaging people who are real threats, those who have abused or assaulted us. I am talking about moving past dealing only with “people like us” in general. I keep coming back to the example of how most Americans wouldn’t go to a shaman because they think shamanism is immoral or crazy or otherwise discredited. Fine, then. Don’t engage with them as “a shaman”. There are plenty of other analogous roles in this culture that you may be able to draw on in addition to “shaman”, and which offer more perceived legitimacy that we can use to engage with a greater population in need. Again, it’s our job to make our way into that murky discomfort zone, to approach people that we may worry would persecute us if they knew we were “shamans”. We don’t have to use that word, though; instead, we meet them where they are and go from there. If you genuinely feel unsafe working outside of your preferred boundaries, at the very least take the time to examine why this is, and what would be the risks and benefits of challenging yourself, even if it’s only in theory. It’s preferable to assuming that anyone who is Christian, or a mental health care practitioner, or politically conservative, is automatically the enemy and therefore should never, ever be offered any sort of help because they might dislike us or discriminate against us. Owning your fear and your biases is action.
Do you see a pattern here? It can be summed up as “Helloooooooo, your clients are over here, and the best you can hope for is that they’ll meet you halfway–otherwise, plan to do more than your fair share of the walking”.
Social justice cannot be rendered by people who are not actively engaged in the society they wish to see justice in. Nor can shamans effectively shamanize if they turn their backs on the society that their clients are coming from. How one interacts with society is, to be sure, a personal set of boundaries. But how is it that so many of us will push boundaries in the spirit world, and yet won’t challenge physical-world boundaries, if not for our own sake, then for the sake of our clients?
I’ve been beating on this drum for a long time. It is good to see someone beating on it to. Because of a lot of the frustration you stated in your first paragraph, I’ve abandoned the labels of pagan, shaman, etc . . . thus the term postpaganism 🙂
I hope you don’t mind, I am going posting some excerpts and link back on my own blog.
Of course I don’t mind, and thank you 🙂
– “The problem is in seeing ourselves as divorced from the wilderness–and whether we justify it through saying we’re superior, or through saying we’re a blight, the consequence is still the same. We widen the artificial divide that we perceive between ourselves and everything else.”
I totally agree with this. The very concept of wild (non-domesticated) land as being “untouched” or by humans perpetuates this disconnection. What about the humans who lived there for thousands of years before the colonizer culture killed them and forced them off?
– “Worse, those of us who have learned to appreciate “nature” deny others the opportunity to do the same when we enter into the wilderness to “get away from everyone else”, as though “everyone else” has no right to be there with us.”
I may be misunderstanding what you mean by this, but I think I disagree with this. To indigenous cultures, if a person wants to be away from other humans, they don’t build themselves a house of their own, or a separate room in their house, they just walk out on the land in any direction. And going out alone on the land is a fundamental part of many cultures’ initiation ceremonies, and is a common method used to open to the spirit world to receive guidance or insight. Going out onto the land to be away from other humans does not in any way, in and of itself, deprive other people from doing the same (I don’t understand your logic here).
– “If we see our role as facilitating that connection, we have to examine our biases against humanity as “the enemy”, and instead have compassion for those who may see the wilderness as a worthless or even dangerous thing. We can’t bridge that gap if we only spend our time on the wilderness’ side of things.”
I totally agree that we need to have compassion for all people, regardless of how arrogant, insane, pathological, or stupid they may behave towards the land. However, people’s shamanic paths are not always focused on helping civilized humans – for myself, I have pledged my primary allegiance to the earth, the land and all the non-human life that lives upon it, and the humans that are trying to live in a harmonious way with the land (i.e. the indigenous). To me, the “wilderness” is primary – no compromises. If someone attacks the land, I stand in opposition to them, even while maintaining compassion for them. As my martial arts teacher says: “I love my enemy, but I can only love them as much as they will let me.”
I guess the point of this is that I totally agree that we need to relate our shamanism to the rest of our lives, in a fundamental way. Our spiritual paths (and powers) should be used in service to a greater purpose, that is relevant to our lives and the world we live in.
For me, that greater purpose is clear – to defend the earth and its people (all those who love the earth and who stand to defend her, human and non-human) against the insane destructiveness of the dominant culture – industrial civilization. For me, “nature” and “the wilderness” isn’t a tool I use for my shamanism, rather it is the community of life that my shamanism exists to serve.
Going out alone is one thing. What I was critiquing was the idea that humans don’t belong in Nature, or at least the vast majority don’t, that we are no longer natural beings but intruders. The focus in the attitude I brought up wasn’t solitude, but escape.
Not everyone has the same focus on humanity, true. Each person has to determine what communities they serve, human and otherwise. However, if we forsake our own species entirely, then we are neglecting a huge part of the equation, if for no other reason than one must engage with humans to get us to change our ways. Additionally, what constitutes attacking the land? Everything from driving a car to eating meat to using a computer can be seen as an attack according to someone. And, too, acting toward someone as though they are “attacking” is not likely to make them receptive to change; putting people on the defensive is counterproductive.
I do agree there is great value in those who are more canted toward wilderness as community, especially as so many have lost that connection and would benefit very greatly from relearning it. I just don’t see where detaching entirely from any area of shamanic focus–humanity, wilderness, spirits, etc.–is recommended, and unfortunately what I see is a lot of imbalance that ends up doing more harm than good.
When I started actually walking the shamanic path I founda book: Shapeshifting: Techniques for Global and Personal Transformation. It, really made me think about applying the skills and path I was learning not just at the local level, but macro one as well. I would say that some of the gifts of a shaman is being able to work in multiple levels at once, still moving toward a goal, as well as being able to bring the macro to the micro, and vice versa. While not every little thing I do, teach, or encourage will show immediate results, they are steps in the right direction to encourage direct change in the problems we face. While I think it is very good to focus on the big picture, go for big changes and the like, the anti-nuclear proliferation movement started small then was able to get big.
Similarly, Rosa Parks started off the preceding 12 years before her stand on the bus working with the local chapter of the NAACP, learning how to take stands, and attending workshops and seminars from civil rights activists. All of our biggest upsets started from small trickles, and developed into crashing waves. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle started people thinking about how their food was handled, and in no small part, it helped contribute to the founding of the USDA and FDA. The smallest things can start great revolutions. So while I appreciate the idea of going large with our work as shamans, sometimes the best thing we can do, for the micro and macro, is encourage the little victories and revelations so the way can be paved for the big ones.
“–We need to stop hiding out in other people’s cultures, and root our neoshamanisms more consciously and deeply in our own.”
Agreed. It is interesting you mentioned Peruvian shamanism in application to modern life: I know Peruvian shamans here in Michigan who are doing just that. Because there aren’t what the Peruvians would call mountains out here, at least in the Lower Peninsula, some have started to treat the Great Lakes as our kind of mountain spirits.
In my own practice, I’m a Northern Tradition shaman, and I work with landvaettir and my Gods in the context of where I live. I’d have a damned hard time trying to somehow have ayahuasca relate to the places around me, but tobacco, sage, and mugwort, meanwhile, does. Not only do all three grow well here, but the offerings I give of these plants makes sense in the context of where I live, where my Ancestors come from (who are mostly the ones who get tobacco offerings), and what the landvaettir have told me they like as offerings.
“–We need to stop hiding in the wilderness in order to “purify” ourselves of the “taint” of humanity.”
Divorcing ourselves from Nature gives us permission to act as we will within It, or without It rather than living in concert with It. If we’re not ‘of’ Nature, then whether we’re wiping out other species or wiping ourselves out in ‘defense of Nature’ is pretty morally ambiguous. Something that Chosen by the Spirits made me think about was how the shaman in their culture exists to balance. Shi makes sure the people are neither too much of something or another thing, such as neither too happy nor too sad. Perhaps this is the role that shamans can serve: helping people reconnect to Nature, inside and out, while facilitating better relationships between them.
“–We need to stop hiding behind the spirit world as a way to keep from engaging with the physical world.”
Nothing but good points here. ^_^
“–We need to stop hiding behind mental illness challenges as though they are the only things that define us.”
I haven’t actually run into the problems you’ve mentioned in this section from those who are actually diagnosed mentally ill. If anything, those who have had mental illness, in my little experience of interacting with them, tend to discard what I might take as a clue or hint, such as the Gods poking me in a direction, or direct communication. Some might have deep bouts of doubt if it comes to anything BUT consensus, physical, defined realities. I’m not calling myself better than them in the slightest; skepticism is a very good thing. I’m also not about to say that every time I followed up on one of these ‘hits’ that it turns out well. Sometimes I just have heard sock puppets in my head, other times I misheard but would have been on the money. It is part of why I tend to divine quite a bit on what I think I hear, run it by other people, and do a good deal of reflection.
“–We need to stop hiding behind the idea of persecution as an excuse to avoid engaging with people about whom we are uncomfortable.”
Very true, and I agree with you that this means not engaging with people who DO directly threaten us.
Thanks for writing this. It’s an excellent post, and it will hopefully push people to think on how they interact with the world around them. Engaging the whole of the world around you is part of being a shaman, and us humans are part of it.
Admittedly I’m heavily focused on the human and social elements of shamanic practice right now–not surprising given that I just spent the past three years being trained in counseling. I do agree that the small steps do matter–they’re the building blocks for bigger things, and I’m glad you brought that up.
In a way, i think also divorcing ourselves from humanity makes us feel as though we have no responsibility toward it, which is a shame, because if we are the poisoned well as so many think, then what good is it to let the poison become more fetid through suffering?
If you want examples of “mental illness = shamanism”, look up the Icarus Project sometime. From what I’ve seen of the relevant essays on their site, the shamanism bit seems to be mental illness = bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia = SHAMANISM! I would love to see how they explain how a client who has spent the past two decades self-medicating for a severe anxiety disorder with methamphetamine that they pay for through theft, and who is completely incapable of safe, independent living, is really just a misunderstood spirit worker. If a person with a mental illness/condition/difference/etc. can make their lives genuinely better with shamanic practice, great. I am all for people getting better without making other things unnecessarily worse. But mental illness is not shamanism, and people in indigenous cultures know the difference as well as anyone else.
“Admittedly I’m heavily focused on the human and social elements of shamanic practice right now–not surprising given that I just spent the past three years being trained in counseling. I do agree that the small steps do matter–they’re the building blocks for bigger things, and I’m glad you brought that up.”
Thanks, Lupa. I’m glad it was brought up to me! A lot of time when I used to look at activist movements, it was as though they sprang out of nothing. Hearing those stories helped me a lot, both as a person, and as the member of the communities of concerned citizens, the activists, these movements depend on. It makes the steps so much more human when they’re broken down, instead of some far-off goal where you need to know everything right now about your cause, activism, etc.
I think that it is good you’re narrowing your focus. I know that my own practice, until recently, suffered because of a lack of focus. While I felt being called by this God and that spirit hither and yon, letting myself be pulled in more directions than I needed to go didn’t help myself, my practice, or the people in my community who need me. For me, this has been dropping the idea that as a shaman I need to know every little thing. I don’t know herbs very well, for instance. While I am trying to learn more about them, bit by bit, it’s not with the same kind of “KNOW ALL THE HERBS!” zeal I had.
“In a way, i think also divorcing ourselves from humanity makes us feel as though we have no responsibility toward it, which is a shame, because if we are the poisoned well as so many think, then what good is it to let the poison become more fetid through suffering?”
I think that divorcing yourself from humanity is pretty antithetical to shamanism. Unless you’re doing purification or initiation work, I don’t know of many other instances in which separation from other humans is practiced. Helping people in my communities is pretty central to my own practice. Sure, some the training for that may be done in isolation, but it can equally need to be done with people. Even if not all your human clients aren’t flesh-and-blood anymore, or even human, it still requires ‘people’ that you work with, and that work with you. Some of my work involves the Dead, and some of it involves the living. What I am finding more and more, is that it doesn’t matter how you do your work, no shaman can work in a vacuum. There are always spirits to work with, encased in human flesh or not.
“If you want examples of “mental illness = shamanism”, look up the Icarus Project sometime. From what I’ve seen of the relevant essays on their site, the shamanism bit seems to be mental illness = bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia = SHAMANISM! I would love to see how they explain how a client who has spent the past two decades self-medicating for a severe anxiety disorder with methamphetamine that they pay for through theft, and who is completely incapable of safe, independent living, is really just a misunderstood spirit worker. If a person with a mental illness/condition/difference/etc. can make their lives genuinely better with shamanic practice, great. I am all for people getting better without making other things unnecessarily worse. But mental illness is not shamanism, and people in indigenous cultures know the difference as well as anyone else.”
I checked out Project Icarus. While I can sympathize, to a certain degree, I think that blurring the lines can be precarious. I understand that some cultures can view mental illness at times as a kind of shaman sickness, but from what I’ve seen in anthropology papers, these cultures have ways of separating people they feel are truly called to shamanism, and those who are simply mentally ill. In our culture, as cut off as many of us are from having the background to evaluate this, I feel for both sides on this equation. As you note, “mental illness is not shamanism, and people in indigenous cultures know the difference as well as anyone else.”
I guess this is where I have some questions: at what point can we say that mental illness can function as shamanic sickness, propelling the would-be shaman into their role, and when is it only mental illness? How do modern-day shamans develop methods of differentiating? It’s one thing to say that shamans of tribes and long-tradition ethnic groups know how…but I suppose it will be a challenge that has to eventually face shamans not in those situations.
*nods* These are good things to chew on further; I appreciate that you ofer your own responses to what I write, even if I don’t always have something to reply with in return.
Sarenth – I don’t want to see the lines blurred between mental illness and spirit work. I think that a lot of the construction of shamanism as mental illness arose from the Soviet anthropologists who were trying to wipe out shamanic practices to begin with. These assessments were picked up without any real analysis by western anthropologists, and then by more casual readers who thought, like the guy at my talk on geilt and filidecht, that to be a spirit worker meant you had to be crazy.
You can separate the spirit workers, some of whom might also have a mental illness of some sort, from the mentally ill who are not spirit workers by this simple criteria — is the spirit work they are doing helping them to be more functional, or are they dealing in delusion and remaining nonfunctional? I’m not talking about “do they have a day job,” I’m talking about can they hold a clear conversation, do they help other people, can they cope with day to day life well enough to feed and clothe themselves, can they maintain normal human relationships? If they are not able to do so, we are probably looking at mental illness, not spirit work.
Ah, always cool to see someone referencing one of John Perkins’s books. I still cite The World is as you dream it as a big influence on me looking at shamanism over a decade ago.
I’ve seen so much of the behavior you’re talking about here. I know people who want to go out into “wilderness” to do spiritual work and who also deeply resent anyone else being out there while they are. It’s as though the place should be empty of anyone else except them, and no one else deserves or has the right to be in that park or on that trail or in that campground or at that seaside but them. While I certainly understand the desire to do ritual in a space where one won’t be interrupted, to resent others for wanting to be out in the wild *just like we do* seems distinctly uncharitable and totally counterproductive if we’re wanting others to get in touch with, to love, and to wish to preserve that same wild space.
And, as someone living with mental illness (medicated and generally under control most of the time), the reification of mental illness as shamanism or spirit work bothers me deeply. One year at PCon I did a talk on filidecht, touching upon the geilt phenomenon, and there was someone who walked away from my talk with the throughly wrong idea that to be a spirit worker you had to be crazy. It was exactly *not* what I was getting at, but there are people who will look for anything to excuse their inability to deal with consensus reality.
What you’re saying here is deep and necessary and challenging to so many paradigms that people in Pagan and other communities espouse. Your discussion of the search for the exotic, to the neglect of what’s right here under our feet, seems to be a particular temptation for some forms of reconstructionist spiritualities — there is a desire to go back to “old ways” that don’t necessarily mesh well with the places we live (if those places are not the native lands of those cultures), and to condemn people who depart from “the lore” enough to try to make a comfortable fit with the land we actually live on. That process is almost inevitably going to involve some kind of syncretism and some kind of negotiating process with the spirits of the land and the deities who dwell here. Some people are profoundly uncomfortable with this. It’s relatively easy to bring the deities to new places — unless they are particularly linked to a specific river or mountain, for instance — and our ancestors are who they are, no matter where they’re buried or if they’re related to us by descent. On the animist level of dealing with land spirits, however, we have to adjust and we have to be flexible. We have to recognize and acknowledge that the ways of a particular culture may not work well with the land we live on, and find ways to inhabit our own places.
At any rate, thanks for talking about this. More people should be thinking about these things.
No problem. My realization of that first point actually came from a similar comment you made a while back, so thank you for that.
I also really appreciate your place as “professional madwoman”; you have a good balance of the different factors in that, and you’re honest about the downsides as well as the benefits.
I feel that too many neopagans, neoshamans, etc. feel ashamed of where they’re from or who they are. I want to change that, because romanticizing someone else does everyone a disservice.
It’s hard not to be sympathetic with your frustrations in regard to the state of the world, but I am utterly nonplussed with the idea that somehow they justify some reshaping of shamanism, neo or otherwise.
I don’t think you really get shamanism if you think it is primarily about one-to-one relations. Most ‘traditional’ shamans operate at the communal level, with rituals and advice that is geared to communal operations.
The one-to-one dimensions of it primarily occur within neoshamanic approaches, which I would dare say is exactly the sort of adaptation to its local environment that you desire to see more of. I would suggest that, for good or for ill, a lot of people in the U.S. are more comfortable with the idea of doing ayahuasca than they are with the idea that their personal healing demands fixing their relationship with the people around them, renegotiating them.
You have also strained the term shaman past the breaking point when you assign to it roles like social outreach or as a bridge between their society and another. Shamans don’t tend to do those sorts of things. It isn’t part of their ‘job.’ That you find this important is great, but that you are demanding shamans do this because it is what they are supposed to do has me thinking that you are projecting your personal shifts in priorities onto shamanism itself.
Shamanic practice might be the sort of thing that could be used to bolster and strengthen someone, like yourself, who is engaging with this work, but it isn’t identical with it. Some people don’t even need shamanism, but they might need a counselor or social worker. Shamanism is one tool, one modality, it isn’t the entire spectrum.
Traditional shamanisms are communal, yes, and don’t involve some of the elements I mention. However, this is not a traditional society, and the parameters are very different; here, it’s much more individualistic, for example, and so in order to meet people where they’re coming from, as well as be true to my own conditioning, there is more of a person to person approach, at least initially. My goal is to rethink shamanism for the culture I am a part of, which sometimes means breaking the rules and rewriting definitions. Is it a perfect system? Of course not. This is a blog of continued exploration, and always has been.
I think you and I definitely disagree on the basic definition of shamanism. Mine tends to be high functional–what is the *purpose* of a shaman, and how is that purpose manifested in each culture and its needs? How do you define it, if I may ask?
“I would suggest that, for good or for ill, a lot of people in the U.S. are more comfortable with the idea of doing ayahuasca than they are with the idea that their personal healing demands fixing their relationship with the people around them, renegotiating them.”
I’ve found that just because people don’t want to do a thing doesn’t mean that it isn’t a necessary thing. With almost seven billion of us on the planet, we really do have to start (if we have not already) negotiating our relationships with others and learning to live more harmoniously and to heal large chunks of what is broken in both us and in our society. I know this isn’t the larger point of your post, but I did feel it necessary to respond to this aspect of it.
Just going to second this all the way.
Thank you for this deeply personal, thoughtful post. I sat with it for a couple of days before feeling moved to cite you, and respond at length in my blog. Your thoughts deserve a wide audience.
I’ve been trying for days to think of something profound to say here, but all I can say is this: I hope a lot of people see this essay and take the words to heart and do some serious self-examination.