Saturday, May 31, 2008

Roots of the modern shaman

While the word shaman comes from the Tinglit in Siberia, the roots of the practice go much deeper. It's easy for us to look at those living in traditional societies and believe that we are better off without the trappings of tribal community. After all, there's always someone looking over your shoulder. Everyone knows your business. There's no privacy. Why would any self respecting person want to live in such a cloying web of connections and relations? 

The question says it all. A member of a tribe doesn't respect self before clan. While those of us raised in the modern "Western" culture see the rugged individualist as the pinnacle of social evolution, this has been a relatively recent phenomenon - and not all that wide-spread. Most of the world still has much stronger "family values" than we can even conceive of. 

It's common in the US for people to pick up and move to a different state for the sake of their career or education. No one thinks any less of them, and they are encouraged, because this is what individuals are supposed to do. Moving away from your roots, however shallow they may be to begin with, is seen as right and proper. After all, you wouldn't want to be tied down to your family and friends. Those coming from more traditional cultures, even in Europe, may shake their heads in wonder at the apparent lack of feeling and connection we display. 

But what does this have to do with shamanism? I'm glad you asked! In a traditional setting, the shaman works in service to his or her community. So what happens when there is no community? Does the role of the shaman simply evaporate? No. If anything, the need is greater. Part of the work of a shaman is to remind the people where they come from; to help them develop their spiritual roots and to recognize the gifts of their ancestors. These are needed more by our "rugged individualists" than by anyone living in a tribal culture. 

While the shape of society has transformed, the substance of what it is to be human has not. To a certain extent, the function of a shaman reflects the context in which he or she works. If their is a coherent community, it makes sense to work within that structure. However, if that community does not exist, the shaman still has work to do. What that work is will reflect the nature of the society we find ourselves in today. 

There are those who believe that since the definition of shamanism that we "Westerners" developed from observing indigenous healers included "service to community", there can be no shamans without that element. Some even go so far as to claim that the practices of the shaman "belong" to the indigenous cultures in which they were found and that for us to use them is to steal them from the source. I would argue that this is a misunderstanding of the nature of shamanism and of the human condition. Shamanism is rooted in the human experience. The fact that people in our modern culture can be effectively healed by shamanic methods is one proof that they are valid and appropriate. The fact that moderns can also become effective shamans is another. 

This is not to say that all modern "shamans" are relevant, valid or even sane. Nor do I approve of the tendency of some to wear the trappings of other cultures - dressing up as native Americans or other tribal people - and offering their traditional teachings for a fee. 

An effective shaman is not just someone who has taken a few workshops and uses a drum to put their clients into an altered state. While the cultural setting has changed, the shaman is still a person who has passed through initiation and transformation; who has met their demons and survived; who speaks with the spirits and who is able to use that experience to assist in the healing of others.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

What is a shaman today?

The work of the shaman is in service to community - but what does that mean in a culture that has lost its traditional ties? What is the community the shaman serves? This question has many answers. For myself, the community I serve is made up of those who seek out my help. Clients, students and friends - these have become the community I need in order to be of service. And yet we still lack a community in the traditional sense. This is one of those "invisible wounds" that plague us as individuals and as a society. 

Perhaps the single most important aspect of social evolution with regards to the role of the shaman, is the movement from the most important element of our culture being the clan or tribe to it becoming the individual. When we put the individual before the communal, the ties of traditional community break down. And the sovereign emerges. 

Now imagine what it might be like to develop a community of sovereigns. . . .

Monday, May 26, 2008

In our modern world we generally think about the soul as an abstract principle that has little or no impact on who and how we are here and now - in this physical world. Perhaps because of this, there is confusion around where the soul goes after death and if any part of us lives on. 

In many tribal cultures the story goes something like this. When you die, a part of your soul stays on in here, eventually dissolving into the natural substance of the world, where it remains. The rest of you goes into the lower world where it reunites with your ancestors and begins to process the unresolved parts of your life. When enough of that has been accomplished, yet another part of your soul rises up through the world tree to the upper world, where it may choose to be born again into a new body. 

Of course this outline differs somewhat from one culture to another, but it shows up even in Hebrew/Jewish spiritual tradition where the three parts of the soul are called neshem, neshemah and ruach. 

I was struck by this while preparing for my meditation practice this morning. My wife and I have a room set apart for our spiritual practice. We have space there to honor our physical ancestors and our spiritual ancestors. I had originally thought of the spiritual ancestors as some sort of conceptual background for my spiritual/shamanic path in this life, but as I looked over at them this morning, it struck me that they were in fact the real ancestors of that part of me that will eventually rise back up the world tree - to return again with a different face. 

That part of us - of me at any rate - tends to process information a bit differently than the ego. It has a deeper sense of what is true and of the relationship between all the pieces of the whole. It's in realizations like this that this deeper part of the self reveals its nature - and its gifts. It keeps reminding me that this is another good reason to continue my daily practice. 


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Getting focused

Sometimes there's nothing like getting your hands dirty. I've just spent today and yesterday out in the garden getting earth under my fingernails and it's amazing how much it calms my spirit. Mind you, it also stiffens my back and knees, but that's a different matter. 

Sales of the book are beginning to climb - even without all the promotional material that got disappeared off my hard drive. One of my old students from the workshops up in Ann Arbor came down for a visit a couple days ago and asked me if I knew that my book "bounces off walls." Apparently it managed to trigger her to the point that she had to throw it. I'm thinking this might be a good thing. At least she's not bored.

I suppose I should start applying this blog to shamanism. But I have some questions coming up in that process. For instance: I need to maintain client confidentiality, so I can't talk about work in progress. And the conversational tone that I'm working on may lull me into the sense that I'm just talking to myself - which could be dangerous. 

One of the issues that comes up around doing this work is that the word/term Shaman doesn't come from English. I think it says a lot about where we are in our culture that we have had to adopt the word from the Tinglit, because we no longer even have the concept readily available in our cosmology. Having done so, however, the word has become more widely used and relatively understood than it ever was when it referred only to those people in the Tungus region who practiced altered states healing techniques for their traditional communities. In fact, if it wasn't for the Russians who brought the word to the attention of their colleges, we might have had to create our own term from spare parts of other words. I can only image what we might have come up with. Soulhealer; Journeyerinotherworlds; Ekkar. . . the possibilities are endless. And if you think the topic is confusing NOW - just imagine. . . .

My own, somewhat biased, perspective is that the term Shaman has been firmly and successfully co-opted by the modern western world. Just like we are not about to give back Manhattan, we are not going to return the less substantial elements of traditional culture that we've appropriated over the years either. In pragmatic terms, Shaman is now in the dictionary. It has meaning in our language too. And - ever so gradually - it is becoming a meaningful part of our spiritual awakening.