Social Justice and the Shaman as Intermediary

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?