Intoxication, a Puritanical Hangover and the Shamanic Spirit

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Something that has interested me for a quite a while is an apparent split I have observed in the modern shamanic community between those that endorse the use of teacher plants and other intoxicants in shamanic practice and others who seem at times vehemently against such use.

I have often experienced a strong charge amongst people who are anti-plant use, labelling such teaching and healing aids as ‘drugs’ with at times the direct accusation that people using them are little more than drug addled freaks. At other times, there is the softer implication that this isn’t really shamanism, and that people are just seeking a way to ‘get off their heads’ or a short cut to a visionary state, thus diminishing the realness of such practice.

Of course, as with most prejudices and judgements, the people doing the accusing have often never sat in plant ceremony in their life- they just go on what they perceive as the affect of their use on people, coupled with a kind of righteous indignation that anyone could ever suggest that such practices have anything to do with shamanism.

Now there are many issues with the use of such ‘medicines’ (let’s use the word that really describes what they are) in the modern world, especially with our strong tendency towards addictive behaviours and the seeking of short cuts to enlightenment.

However, if we are to have an intelligent discussion of these issues we might have to get to the root of what causes this split, between those that have such a strong negative charge regarding any kind of intoxication in shamanic practice and those that can can only see the positive in medicine use, ignoring the very real pitfalls that such a path can involve.

For me though, the issue actually goes much deeper than the to ingest or not to ingest debate and may cut to the heart of a fundamental issue in our retrieval of these ancient ways of being in the modern world, and also how we approach healing and spirituality in general.

Something I have observed with a western approach to many traditions is our almost obsessive need to sanitise them. This is often done under the guise of making them palatable to modern taste. Hence, something like mindfulness which has the spiritual heart taken out of it to leave a secularised set of techniques for dealing with the stresses that a secularised society creates. This is presumably so that no one can be offended by the fact that service to a greater power is inherent within such practices, as this would be counter to our individualistic consciousness that presupposes everything begins and ends with the human.

Core shamanism which in itself ‘stripped away the cultural baggage’ of different traditions to provide a set of techniques, can arguably have been said to have done the same thing. To be fair to Michael Harner though, who created core shamanism, this was done with the intent to provide a framework so that different cultural trappings could then be put back on by different communities. Which was probably something quite necessary when dealing with a people in the West whose old shamanistic ways had been all but wiped out by successive oppressive regimes of church and state.

However, one of the side effects of such stripping away of culture influences is again a sanitation of traditions. This is because the minute we take these spiritual technologies out of the context of the indigenous cultures that gave birth to them, we immediately load them with our own cultural baggage.

One of the biggest illusions we have in modern world is one that comes from our scientific paradigm- that we can in any way be objective when observing reality. This is counter to the indigenous world view that all reality is actually subjective- it is a reflection of the way we dream.

Thus, it is impossible to strip away cultural influences from any spiritual pathway, because in that very act you are already loading these techniques with your own cultural prejudices. It is the same when someone completely embraces a tradition or path, there will always be a tendency towards and focus on the parts of that path that tie in with their own cultural inheritances.

So how does this relate the debate around ingesting plants and why we sanitise traditions so much? The answer I believe lies in that the dominant cultural hegemony in the modern world has come from WASP culture- White Anglo Saxon Protestant. And that this culture for the past 500 years or so has had a tendency towards puritanical and reformation based ideologies. The result of this is that religious experiences (or nowadays anything that touches the soul) must be constantly cleaned up and reformed- hence the need to sanitise, which of course just creates a huge shadow.

Thus it is when we approach spirituality in the modern world, there is very often this underlying puritanical edge. Everyone is unconsciously attempting to appear whiter than white. Or, the other game is to be as ‘purist’ as can be. This is seen as a sign of authenticity. Which is ironic as there is nothing authentic in being pure, as it in no way reflects the nature that surrounds us. More a concept that our minds might create.

It’s very different when working closely with indigenous people in my experience as they tend not to have this cultural baggage. Thus, their approach to spirituality appears much more earthy and real. But, also much more light hearted, a thousand times more accepting of the imperfections in life and people that I have seen in the west. There is also a distinct lack of idealism or ideology- the sort that might separate earthly realms from that of heaven. Or, intoxication from connection.

This means their spirituality has so much more depth as it embraces the very natural conflicts that arise when a bunch humans live that close together in communities. In fact it embraces every aspect of life, good bad and indifferent and thus is central to their lives and not something to be practiced as some sort of adjunct to life, to help make it sweeter or more tolerable. Or to be used as something to escape from life.

The idea then for an indigenous person, that a medicine that grows in the ground, a medicine that is gifted to us from the Mother, might in any way be ‘wrong’ in a spiritual context, i.e. it takes us away from spiritual experiences, is then more than a little absurd. The plants have an intelligence and an awareness so much greater than ours, why in the world would we allow our prejudices to stop us from bowing down and honouring them as such? Or, from being humble enough to ask for their assistance in our healing journeys?

Unless of course there was a hangover of a puritanical tradition that praised and worshipped sobriety, hard work and a kind of ascetic cleanliness when meeting a distant God. Which coincidently makes that tradition very good at appearing somehow superior to others engaged in the much more messier process of meeting God in actual life.

One of the greatest teachings the plants can offer us in my experience is the dissolution of boundaries. The loss of the individual self to the vast expanse and continuum of life, in all its mystery-sometimes awe inspiring at others terrifying. This is experienced on a visceral level, far beyond any intellectual understanding which often also involves a breaking down of any mental constructs, or belief systems we have around reality.

This may be why the plants have come to us at this time in the West. Because it is our fundamentalist and obsessive belief systems that are separating us from nature and making us sick. Inherited cultural belief systems are an important part of this, and I believe we need to dismantle a lot of these when undertaking these journeys into the spiritual realms.

The plants are far from the only ways we can do this. However, coming directly from the earth, as beings, they can assist us in getting over our cultural and human hang ups.

There are of course many issues in the use of these plants, intention of how we interact with their spirits is incredibly important. There is the very real possibility I have observed that we could just use them in the West as another kind of spiritual bypassing or distraction from life. This is when the medicine becomes the poison, as in all cases of addiction.

To have this conversation though we may have to get over ourselves a bit and accept that intoxication, be it plant, or simply life induced, might be an inherent and potent aspect of the shamanic spirit. It’s what can take us to the edge of ourselves and beyond. As the word intoxication suggests, true medicine contains poison, as poison contains medicine. Shaman’s need to learn to know and handle both.

Duality is Fine, it’s ‘the Divided Self’ which is the Problem

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A lot is made in modern spirituality, heavily influenced by Eastern traditions and the legacy of Christianity, of the negative influence of duality in that it prevents us from realising our true nature. Duality stops us from seeing that we are all One and that there is no separation- it is but an illusion. This is seen as causing the suffering inherent in human life.

Of course, coming from ancient traditions, there is much ultimate truth in such philosophy. However, I want to approach this from a slightly different angle and explore the affect in practice that such ancient truth can have on the modern, western psyche.

To begin with, there is an inherent wounding in western culture, in that we have separated from our bodies. This is due to at least a thousand years of religious influence that demonised the body and all the natural processes it gives birth to- sex, desire, death, bodily functions- anything to do with our earthy natures.

This has created a repression the magnitude of which we have probably never seen in human history and one that I would argue, still haunts us today. Freud based a large part of his theories of neurosis and mental disorder as being caused by this repression.

R D Laing took this further, when he argued in the ‘Divided Self’ that not only do we repress our sexual desires and base instincts, but also as a society we heavily repress any transcendental or mystical experiences, denying they have any validity and instead seeing them as psychopathological disorders.

This then creates a schizoid split between our true nature, with all its ecstatic, raging, subjective, transcendental, bodily and tumultuous experience of life, and the one we must present to the outer world in order to be deemed mentally stable.

So we have two things in progression here- a religion that represses our instincts, desires and earthly natures, creating a huge shadow that gives birth to the worst kind of fundamentalism and sexually fuelled violence -the sadistic nature of the witch hunts is an example of this.

When this is overthrown in an intellectual revolution it goes on to create its opposite and gives birth to an age of ‘reason’. This reactionary age then represses our religious, transcendental natures- yet still manages to continue our addiction to violence. The result of which is a kind of secular/ rational fundamentalism.

Both the body and a true experience of spirit, for some reason are seen as dangerous in their different ways to the western psyche.

It might then be fair to say that by the time we get to the twentieth and twenty first century, we, as a society, might not be the most mentally stable. How could we be when such systematic cutting off from our nature has occurred over so many centuries?

And what affect does this have as a whole? Well it leaves us pretty much in the position that we can’t trust our bodies or instincts and at the same time we can’t trust any extra sensory perceptions. The result of this is that it creates a people that are disconnected and disassociated from any sense of reality, both in this world or the other, and easily succumb to fantasy.

Also, a people that are easily to manipulate for what can we trust? Quite simply- any expert, authority or philosophical system on how we should live our lives.

Enter then a different kind of religion, one that seems much more whole, yet still views the physical universe as getting in the way of experiencing true reality. What affect then does such teaching have on a people that are already disconnected from the physical universe, both through their bodies and the nature that surrounds them?

I would say, it has the affect of separating them further from their true natures. Thus, a system or philosophy designed to enable people to realise their selves has the paradoxical affect of dividing them once more.

To put it much more simply, we have to come into our bodies and into life, before we have any hope of transcending them in a way that won’t just send us mad.

So how do we transform this? Well, maybe we could view the whole thing differently. Maybe we come here to experience the wonder and excitement of duality so that we are able to actually give birth to something- ourselves. As two people do when they come together to create another human life.

We come from unity, from spirit, and to that we shall return, but what of our time here? Is it not one where through experiencing life in all of its forms, in all of its seasons and in its extremes, through the incredible vessels of our bodies, we are then able to ecstatically dance to the song of nature?

And as we dance something magical and organic might happen- we simply return to the awareness, or more importantly the experience, that we are both dualistic and a part of a greater whole. The paradox is reconciled and we can get on with life again, instead of spending whole lifetimes in the futile pursuit of escape from our earthly natures.

 

Hallucinations, Delusions and the Western Mind

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The word hallucination has an interesting history, in that it derives from the Latin alucinari which means simply ‘wondering mind’. It was introduced to the English language in the 17th century by the Physician, Thomas Browne, who gave it its contemporary meaning- to experience a perception in the absence of external stimulus, that appears real.

Today, as it was when first introduced, it’s often associated with madness. And shamans have always had a close relationship with what we label as insanity. Their whole universe, with its reliance on invisible beings that influence so much of this reality, is one big hallucination to most people. As it was when anthropologists first studied tribal people and labelled the healers/ shamans as dangerously psychotic.

However, to turn things on their head, if we are to take the meaning of the word on face value, then it could incorporate a whole lot more seemingly sane, rational parts of society which is what I want to explore in this article.

Let’s take the example of money. There is nothing in nature that suggests that a piece of paper or metal has a value to it that can mean life or death. The fact that this piece of paper is attributed such extraordinary power is then, I would suggest, a collective hallucination.

It is a perception of reality that has no physical basis in truth, other than a presumed agreed upon preconception. And yet we base our whole governance of society upon this delusional perception.

The irony is that if you were to go to your doctors to explain that the whole of society is based upon a hallucination and that people don’t realise they are hallucinating constantly, the chances are that you would be deemed the delusional one.

And so it was with religion previously, which like shamanistic cultures, always has its basis in visions- the seeing of invisible beings, be they angels or God, that have a message for humanity as transmitted through certain individuals.

The main difference that I can see is that religions have a tendency to fix their hallucinations in reality and then take them a little too literally and to the nth degree (a little like we do with money), whereas shamanic cultures tend to remain flexible as they realise that the invisible source of reality that creates these ‘hallucinations’ is constantly evolving and changing.

The experience of the visionary realms is also more democratic as it is not just the domain of a few prophets to get the message out there but a good proportion of society. I once visited an indigenous village in Guatemala of a couple of thousand where one in two persons was a shaman. That’s a lot of visions to incorporate into the collective perception of reality!

Whether it’s money, religion or shamanism, what appears clear to me is that hallucinations are an essential and potent aspect of being human. If we then take the word back to its original meaning, of wandering mind, then it can make a bit more sense as our minds can never be static.

This is the gift/ burden of being human. It is our minds that attribute a meaning to reality that is beyond what we merely perceive with our physical senses. And this invisible perception of reality holds the key to the kind of world we create. It is, to use a shamanic term, the way we dream.

This is a big part of shamanic healing, learning to release limiting perceptions of reality, often stories based on previous wounding, so that a person has the opportunity to re-deream their existence. It is the power of the mind in healing.

A Native American quote I once read summed it up perfectly- ‘we create reality with our thoughts, isn’t it about time we started thinking about what we’re thinking about.’

For, as it has been said before, if you deny or forget you’re dreaming, you are more likely to create a nightmare.

Thus it is with the Western world at the moment and it’s potentially catastrophic separation from nature. We’ve started to believe our own hallucinations so much that they’ve gone beyond delusional and into total meltdown. By simply creating an  economic system that destroys the environment we are getting close to threatening the very survival of our species. That is one powerfully devastating hallucination.

We are also incredibly delusional in the way we are sleep walking into such a catastrophe, denying that our actions (or inaction) could ever result in the end of the human race, yet it could.

So how do we change this? Well maybe the first step is to reclaim our hallucinations and the visionary realms from which they arise from the collectively agreed insanity that has been created. This involves brave people going into these worlds to bring back the advice/ guidance we may need to assist us in this crises.

But more importantly, we need to connect that visionary realm back again to nature to avoid spirally ever more into fantasy and delusion. In this way, the ‘hallucinations’ are actually connected with reality. They are portals that allows us to see deeper into nature and what She needs/ wants.

We can then repair and re-enliven our relationship with the earth. We can begin to ground our visions so that they assist the human and the natural world to live in harmony again, so that both are fed.

These things are what I believe the shamanic path can offer and why it is so needed in these perilous times.

 

Shamanism, Disillusionment and Seeking a Path

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Shamanism has a strange history in that essentially it was invented by academics. Taking the word shaman from the Tungus tribe in Siberia, they invented the study of a role that they saw occupied by many different individuals in indigenous cultures. To simplify things they called them all ‘shamans’ and the practice ‘shamanism’.

These medicine men and woman did indeed have many similarities in the way they worked, the main one being the going into trance to call on supernatural entities to bring advice and healing to the community as well as to divine the future, find lost things/ people and insure success in hunting.

Also, their role would be, as ceremonialists, to make sure that correct balance was kept between the manifest and invisible worlds, essentially feeding and appeasing the gods/ spirits of nature so that they would in turn feed the human world back.

Yet, as many have noted, there were also important differences in the way these ‘shamans’ worked which reflected the important cultural differences between different peoples.

There is a tendency we have in the West to want to collate things into one singular concept so it is easy to understand and we can then file away in our minds as ‘knowledge’. Essentially this is a cultural need we have, as ‘knowledge is power’ and it fits well into our idea of capitalism which we use to govern our societies. If something fits into a singular concept it can be replicated and then mass produced and sold to a consumer with a promise that it will do what it says.

So is the danger with shamanism and a lot of other modern spiritual paths, is that they can be packaged and then sold this way. If you follow these instructions you will gain this and end up here. It is also what turns so many pathways throughout history into a religion, as I believe a lot of people would like to turn shamanism into.

The path becomes about attaining something or achieving something else. This may enlightenment, a place in heaven, peace, everlasting love or power and success. A spiritual pathway is then turned into a set of instructions that if followed correctly will provide the required results. The only thing that can go wrong is if you don’t follow the instructions, the ‘rules’ correctly. Yet life, is always far messier than that.

I feel that this unconscious desire for attainment of something is often what drives a lot of people onto the spiritual path, I know it did for me. And the disillusionment that follows when what is promised isn’t delivered is what equally drives a lot of people off of their paths.

It’s what turned so many people off of religion as the justification becomes if God is so Great then why is their still suffering in the world? The promised salvation simply hasn’t been delivered. So let’s get rid of religion or any belief in the supernatural as it hurts more to believe in something and then be disappointed than it does to not believe at all.

Yet disillusionment in any path you are following is, I believe, an essential part of the journey as it is only then can a fully meaningful relationship be formed with it. Disillusionment is the cleansing of preconceived promises and desires that we were sold/ bought into when we began.

The biggest one may be being that getting into this means your life is going to get better and you’re going to be happier! How can this be possible though when the spiritual path in itself involves the (often painful) stripping away of layers of ego desire, false masks and general bullshit so that we can have an authentic relationship with spirit?

Our lives may become richer, more meaningful and soulful but there’s no guarantee that they’re going to get better and why should there be? Or else we’re just bargaining with God.

Of course, a structure and some instruction is important to provide the framework of any spiritual path. However, I feel the mistake that can be made is to believe the structure is the path. Which is when people start to get attached to the path at the expense of their own inner wisdom/ journey that the path was supposed to prove an access point to.

The other mistake that can be made is that the stronger and more complex the structure is, is often misconstrued as a sign of authenticity, when it may just be the opposite.

So how does this all fit into the ‘invented’ concept of shamanism? Mainly I think it’s important to keep in mind that although shamanism is a cross cultural phenomena, paradoxically it also isn’t.

Any relationship with spirit, the way I see it, is also unique to the land and culture that it is born out of. Thus, the shamanism that I experience, influenced so heavily by the land spirits that surround me and the cultural conditioning I have come from, alongside my own natural temperament, necessarily will be different from that of someone in another time or place.

Of course there will be correlations, there always is, yet there will also be differences. And only by listening very deeply to my own inner wisdom, and maintaining a loose hold on the reigns of what this path is ‘supposed’ to be, will I be able to discover what it really is about.

So it is with this blog, which will be essentially an exploration into the path of shamanism (whatever that may mean!) in the very modern corner of the world from whence I came.

 

 

 

In the Light of Darkness

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There is a lot of talk around this time of year in the northern hemisphere about the descent into darkness, as winter envelops us in its velvet embrace. Paradoxically I have always personally found this a time full of light. It is as though my soul suddenly becomes lifted and lightened, as it knows that within the darkness there comes space to dream.

As the atmospheric days and evenings take hold, filled with a strange half light that whispers of neither life nor death, I find the boundaries between myself and the world dissolving. And in that dissolution I find a connection with everything, which fills my heart with an indescribable pleasure, with ecstasy. It is here that I feel the light of the world.

In many ways this time is the epitome of the shamanic state of consciousness, one that dissolves the boundaries between the human self and the vast continuum that makes up reality. There is no separation between you and me and the Stag and the rock and the many thoughts and ideas that ricochet through time; we are all beings made up of the same Prima Materia.

We are all light, energy, colour, dream; constantly dancing between the invisible and manifest worlds, shaking our tail feathers and bouncing off of one another in this crazy play that is existence.

This is why most shamanic initiation and ceremony takes place in the darkness, because it is here that it is more possible to really ‘see’ reality as it is. This is why our ancestors crawled into caves, into the heart of the world to initiate this who would become the seers or dreamers. Why we enter the darkness of the sweat lodge or burial ceremony. Why so much ceremony takes place at night, when the mystery of the dark makes it viscerally real to you that you are not alone, for better or worse.

Of course we have been neurotically programmed to push away this darkness in the modern world. Our cities and homes are full of false lighting, blazing our fear of the dark across space and time, as though it were a message to the mystery to please leave us alone. Leave us at peace in our false pools of electronically lit isolation.

And in our inner worlds we equally fear that darkness, that level of dissolution, of loss of individuality, loss of identity, lest it lead into the vast chasm of madness that we associate with the darkness.

Yet, what if the call to the dark, the primal urge to lose ourselves and our preconceived perceptions of the world, is really a call to the light- the real light that burns so bright that we have to go through a thousand doors of darkness until it can be reached?

When we enter the womb of the world and we go deep within that place where all potential is incubated, it is there we find the essence of our true, dreaming nature and how bright we really do burn, how bright the web of existence is. And that ecstasy is the source of all knowing.

What a blessing this time of year is then, as it is a calling to that place, beyond time and existence. And as I allow myself to go there, I feel my soul come to rest, preparing itself for the spring, when the fire will re enter the world.