The hidden doorway: do neo-shamans and indigenous shamans utilize the same doorway, do they share the same qualities within a different context or has shamanism evolved within a Western perspective into something entirely different? What is it that is actually being practiced in our ‘civilized’ communities and how does it relate, if at all, to tribal prehistoric life?
The evolution of the hidden doorway: the invisible feature which clearly identifies the shaman or medicine man of any tribe, culture or period of time by his ability to access otherworldly realms, retrieve messages and communicate with ancestors. How has this remarkable quality evolved through time, does it and can it exist in the modern Western civilized world? Do neo-shamans and indigenous shamans utilize the same doorway as prehistoric shamans, do they share the same qualities within a different context or has the doorway evolved within a Western perspective into something entirely different? By comparing tribal indigenous people, neo-shamanic and new-age styles and applying the growing trend of neuro-psychology, I am asking what is it that is actually being practiced in our ‘civilized’ communities and how does it relate, if at all, to tribal prehistoric life? Should we, in fact, be calling neo-shamanism shamanism at all or should we, in honor of the real ancient tribal traditions, be calling it something else entirely?
“Lucy felt a little frightened, but she felt very inquisitive and excited as well. She looked back over her shoulder and there, between the dark tree trunks, she could see the open doorway of the wardrobe and even catch a glimpse of the empty room from which she had set out. (She had, of course, left the door open, for she knew that it is a very silly thing to shut oneself into a wardrobe)”. The Lion, the witch and the wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
A shaman or medicine man/woman is the person traditionally in a tribal setting who is charged with the spiritual, otherworldly or one could say the psychological well being of the tribe (I say psychological because that is how it translates to the modern civilized world). The actual word shaman originates from Russian Evenki and Tungus tribes of Siberia but has been adopted in the West as a generic term for the priestly, wise person who provides spiritual advice to the tribe by means of communication with ancestors, natural spirits and the hidden otherworld.
The tribal shaman is inherently endowed with a set of instructions regarding the intricacies of the magical and spiritual properties of life and the natural world. He has an instinctive understanding of the principles within which all of life is organized, not just life in the visible, physical realms, as he translates between the worlds on behalf of nature, the spirits and his tribe – the methods by which I refer to as the ‘doorway’. He is fluent in the symbolic language of nature, reading omens, interpreting signs and acting out significant rituals which express honor and influence the natural spirits and the ancient ancestors of his people. He is also charged with protecting this gateway to the hidden otherworld, indeed he can become the gateway in that he transforms or ‘disapparates’[i] to become the much hidden fabric by which nature and her spirits can come through to this world and communicate with us.
“…to be a Chovihano [Romani shaman] you had not only to be in contact with nature, but also needed to be a true spokesperson for her in many forms, telling her story for her since humans had severed their ancient spiritual connections with her.” Patrick Jasper Lee – We Borrow the Earth (Thorsons 2000).
It is worth mentioning here that within primitive tribal communities, everyone (not just the shaman as is often portrayed) in the tribe would communicate with the spirits as it is, and would have been, a part of normal everyday life. The shaman would only be brought in for specific tasks or rituals or because he himself notices something is awry within the tribe and needs to address it.
The Shamanic Psychology
It is common within neo-shamanic, new-age and some anthropological communities to hear people talking about shamans entering ‘trance-like’ states and even ‘states of ecstasy’, that which allow him, or provide the right conditions, to access to the magical realms of the Otherworld. The journey, or experience itself is often referred to as an ‘alternative reality’ or an ‘altered state of consciousness’.
David Lewis-Williams[ii] has studied the neuro-psychology of prehistoric shamanism, the human ‘consciousness’ and the relationship between mind, the material world and various dream or autistic states. He attempts to substantiate his work with indigenous credentials by linking it to the rock art of the San Bushmen in South Africa and in North America. From his findings, he claims that the Mesolithic cave paintings of Lascaux in northern France are depictions of the shamans’ journeys within the spirit world, experiences which he describes as ‘alternative realities’, encountered via a trance-like state. He defines hunter gatherer shamanism as “fundamentally posited on a range of institutionalized altered states of consciousness”. He claims that modern humans experienced a ‘creative explosion’ or ‘the upper Paleolithic revolution’ about 40,000 years ago when we developed ‘consciousness’ and so, theoretically, the ability to comprehend what he terms alternative realities such as that of the unseen spirit world, leading to the achievement of progressive ideas such as art, elaborate burials, sophisticated jewellery and body adornments. His view is that Neanderthals had not the consciousness (nor intelligence) to develop these concepts and that therefore led to their extinction.
He describes consciousness as an awareness of self and that a variety of methods can be utilized to induce a shift along an intensified trajectory of our consciousness “towards the release of inward generated imagery” (visions or hallucinations). Therefore, we can derive that the unseen otherworld and any interaction with it (i.e. shamanic journey) is interpreted by Williams as a hallucinated projection of the ‘inner self’, of what is within our own personal, psychological realms, provoked by sensory deprivation, psychotropic drugs, flashing lights and so forth. Trance is the key to unlocking that stream of ‘consciousness’ that enables our inner world to speak to us and is according to him a neurological condition or state, hard-wired within the brain.
So where does Nature fit into this palaeo-psychological analysis? To broaden our perspective on the primitive mind we need to appreciate more of the social anthropology or ethnography relating to tribal hunter gatherer communities. Nature and the tribal relationship with nature are at the heart of every tribe’s existence, wherever they are in the world or in time. Their reality is simple and interwoven with the natural principles of life which are very much external and apparent in their environment, their relationships with each other and the spirits. Therefore their dreaming or visions and the way they perceive and experience all the worlds (upper, middle and lower) are gently and subtly traversed as a part of everyday life– it’s not a question of turning on the TV like we do and getting sudden, chaotic, hard-wired abstract images.
The Amazonian Pirahãs[iii] experience dreaming as an extension of their waking consciousness – the dream is immediate and very real and the boundary or doorway to that dream world is so subtle, almost unseen, so that the spirits they encounter in their dreams they sometimes also see during the day as they’re walking around. The entire tribe can share these spirit visions or sightings; they are not the inner ‘hallucinations’ of one person or shaman. The visions are often communal which demonstrates the tribal mind, thinking and behaving and experiencing as one entity with everything on the outside to be shared. This is something that civilized individuals are incapable of due to the intense development of ‘self’ which in itself cancels out the ability to be ‘self’-less (or neutral) and therefore tribal in the real primitive sense.
“One morning at three o’clock…Xisaabi suddenly sat up and started singing about things he had just seen in the jungle, in his dream…recounting a trip to the upper ground, the sky and beyond. The singing woke me up but I wasn’t bothered because it was hauntingly beautiful, echoing back from the opposite bank of the Maici, a full moon shining brightly, illuminating him clearly.” Daniel Everett, Don’t Sleep There are Snakes.
The early Greek atomists in around 500BC were the ones who first made a clear definition between the world of spirit and that of matter and so began the fragmentation of all things down to the smallest atomic particle. Along with this split during the Iron Age came the birth of philosophy, Christianity and other organized religions quickly followed as the problems of soul became problems of ‘self’, now separate and isolated, and required their own explanations and understanding. Rene Descartes developed his 17th Century philosophy on this idea of spirit/matter dualism and so contributed to the development of mechanism (Cartesian physics) and the anti-animistic world view that all physical matter is in fact dead. Fritjof Capra in his book the Tao of Physics discusses the impact of this split on humanity “As a consequence of the Cartesian division, most individuals are aware of themselves as isolated egos existing ‘inside’ their bodies.” He talks about how our “inner fragmentation mirrors our view of the world ‘outside’” so we interpret our environment according to our own personal fragmented identity. Tribal people have no inner world or fragmentation of self – there is only them as an integral part of their environment and the qualities therein.
Shamanic ecstasy – the legal high
Lewis-William’s interpretation of the sacred doorway as an ‘alternative reality’ accessed through an ‘altered state of consciousness’ is also that which neo-shamanism shares on a more practical level. Michael Harner, the creator of core (neo) shamanism, is also of the view that the otherworldly journey is a trance-induced ‘non-ordinary reality’. He refers to everyday life as ordinary and any shamanic journey, vision or dream as non-ordinary. He introduced the idea of ‘states of ecstasy’ as the means by which shamanic visions and dreams can be accessed – Susan Grimaldi from the Foundation of Shamanic Studies (FSS) states “[Harner] offers new participants a useful and classic shamanic entry point for exploring the rich fabric of non-ordinary reality. Moreover, I can attest that [Harner] often encourages advanced students to explore their own avenues for achieving ecstatic states.”
Mircea Eliade, who is responsible for many of the new-age ideas about shamanism, actually refers to tribal shamans as ‘ecstatics’ and claims “…shamanism is precisely one of the archaic techniques of ecstasy.”[iv]
Ecstasy or euphoria is defined by the medical profession as a brief but intense experience such as sexual orgasm or a competitive victory, the main emphasis being on brief. Euphoria develops to a disorder when the experience becomes prolonged. There are a number of disorders that have (prolonged) euphoria as a symptom, one being Bipolar II where episodes of euphoric hyper-mania are demonstrated by sexual recklessness, excessive and impulsive shopping and unnecessary risk-taking (poor judgement). This is likely to be followed by an episode of depression and lethargy. Many people actively searching for a prolonged euphoric experience, whether through psychotropic drug use or neo-shamanic or new-age trance states, declare a very strong need for creative expression that these periods of euphoria can provide.
Some sufferers believe that hyper-mania feeds their creativity and as such the incidents of Bipolar disorder is high among poets and writers. Carrie Bearden PhD, Clinical Neuro-psychologist and Assistant Professor at UCL deals regularly with intense cases of Bipolar and other euphoric disorders. She says; “A lot of patients I’ve seen, even if they are not in a creative field, pursue some sort of creative endeavour – writing songs, playing music, writing screenplays.” This intense need to be creative is a modern cultivation which has intensified over the last few hundred years and is principally a civilized (intellectual) exercise, in that it is not a primitive exercise. The need to be creative for the sake of being creative does not exist among tribal primitive people, a fact which David Lewis-Williams and I do agree on.
So, going back to neo-shamanism then we also find this intense focus on the release of creative energy and ‘dormant potential’ which the ecstasy, journeying and altered states of consciousness can provide, according to Sandra Harner of the FSS; “Not only does the shamanic journey have elements of the creative process in it as a creative act, it can also be exercised in the service of productive creativity. Journeying increases access to creativity and stimulates its cultivation.”
Creativity is encouraged and valued as an expression of our individuality and the awareness of that individuality is itself a product of evolution and civilization of the mind. Being creative is the act of going outside ritualized behavior as it involves reorganizing and/or replicating something for its own sake and that is valued by the community in isolation, rather than organizing something for the sake of influencing luck, domestic harmony or the security of the tribe and so forth.
Michael Harner’s version of shamanism is a manufactured product which has taken fragments of primitive healing techniques and eastern religious doctrines and placed them in a modern context for the benefit of one’s ‘self’ and personal empowerment. The core shamanic practitioners adhere to the new-age concept that ‘self-transformation’ is at the root of all healing, illustrated by subjective comments such as “transformative” and “the most important spiritual experience of my life” from advanced core-shamanic students[v]. This is vastly contrasted with the traditional tribal beliefs that your people are in the powerful hands of the spirits and the otherworld, your fortune and destiny being inextricably woven in with their whims and purpose. ‘Transformation’ is a creative endeavor and contradicts tribalism and primitivism as a fundamental principle – civilization transforms (evolution), primitive people endeavor to stay the same.
In the West, narcotic and opiate addiction continues to become more and more prevalent, psychotropic drug use has become part of modern life, an essential commodity for ordinary people to help deal with social anxiety and personal emotional turbulence. Carlos Castaneda instigated the post-hippy new-age lust for entheogens such as Peyote and Ayahuasca via the neo-shamanic trance trade-mark, and now many neo-shamans openly advertise the ‘ritualistic’ use of these plants in their ceremonies. Issues of cultural appropriation and indigeneity are raised here which I don’t have time to go into. However, the point is that neo-shamanism and altered states of consciousness are inextricably linked but more obviously reflect a post-apocalyptic drug culture rather than the unpretentious tribal healing techniques of indigenous communities in Mexico and the Amazonia, from whence these entheogens originate. For new-age communities, the apparent (legal) highs or peak experiences (Maslow) obtained from meditation, repetitive drumming and trance dancing means an individual can obtain a similar psychotropic experience but without the strain on the physical body.
When civilized individuals take recreational drugs, they are ‘escaping’ – an individual, or the ‘self’, is making a definite request to leave the ‘ordinary’ reality within which they experience everyday life. The point of note here is that the destination is not in question, it is the flight that is the foremost desire and what provides the essential and immediate relief. This relates directly to the neo-shamanic non-ordinary reality or ecstatic state – the need for ‘ecstatic flight’ is triggered by discomfort within one’s ‘self’ and where one goes or travels to is not questioned, it is merely a relief. Also, there is no natural structure or set of rules which they are required to adhere to that relate to the fundamental principles of life. Neo-shamans are, however, given guidelines which are specified by their shamanic teachers but these are not guidelines as set out by the otherworld. They are constructed via an intellectual process like a religion by civilized and educated human beings from fragments of myth and ancient and tribal traditions to flatter the psychological needs of its disciples.
“…in civilized society individuality is constituted rather by the individual’s departure from, or modified realization of, any given social type than by his conformity, and tends to be something much more distinctive and singular and peculiar than it is in primitive human society.” George H. Mead
Peace and love
Often accompanying the need for euphoric experiences is the new-age idea that ‘unconditional love’, as a cause rather than an effect, can heal. I asked Kwan-Sun, shaman (or Mudang) from South Korea how do the concepts of love and fear play a role in his work. He told me “Unconditional love is the fear of fear. The lower-world is modest, because it has to accept those who honor the bad or the real negative, which includes being frightened, having the courage to take it on, and using courage to pass the test. Then you can be honored and be allowed to pass through.”
The fears that neo-shamans are addressing in their clients are civilized psychological conditions derived from loneliness, boredom and lethargy, lack of belonging, emotional insecurity, inadequacy, lack of fulfillment or satisfaction. These are psychological problems and cannot be defined as ‘fear’ and certainly do not exist in primitive tribal communities. That which holds a tribe together is not ‘unconditional love’ rather it is the ‘care’ that is inspired by the spirit of the tribe and natural code which everyone honors. The neo-shamanic approach to healing is one of comfort and reassurance with the idea that fears are superfluous and the true ‘self’ can overcome them. In response to my question, John-Luke Edwards, a neo-shaman practicing the ‘Wolven path’ in Canada; “Surrender is equally an act of love; this is [an] act of relational love, acknowledging each other’s resources, limitations, abilities, vulnerabilities, strengths – ‘ this is far as I can go in this on my own – together we go somewhere else’. These are the words spoken by each party in unison as they surrender in the love of each other.”
Primitive tribal life
Tribal life is fundamentally underpinned by the understanding and agreement by a group of people on the natural laws, qualities or values that govern life, and that the group behaves as one entity as a result of that understanding and agreement. Honoring these natural principles, or life code, enables the harmony and synchronization we see in daily tribal life that appears so effortless to primitive people. Estrangement and separation is common in families and communities in modern society, so why not in tribal society? Because individuals in tribes are not motivated by the ‘self’, they are guided by the spirit of the tribe, that which exists outside of themselves, not inside. Individuals in a tribe also have the very real threat (albeit in extreme cases) of banishment by their elders if they veer away from the code, or against the spirit of the tribe. “…the Pirahãs do not need to have a chief or laws or regulations to exercise control over their members. Survival and ostracism are all they need.” (Everett 2008)
So when there is a problem in a tribe, do shamans go into a trance like state and journey to the otherworld to find the solution? Rohan Doole (Nocte tribe, Arunachal Pradesh, India) replied by saying, if there is a problem in his tribe, he may get up in the dark and go and sit with a special tree and watch the sunrise and ask the rising sun for his help. With the sun and the magic of the dawn would come a realization, maybe an omen in the form of birds, maybe the wind would speak to him, there may be many natural elements that would join with him and communicate a clear message. Nature however is always at the heart of it. So, there is no abstract ‘journey’, no inward, psychological geography is navigated – it is an experience of dream-like refinement, governed not by the shaman’s ability to go into trance but by him allowing nature to entrance him, communicating to him in her powerful symbolic language of which he is the interpreter. Some shamans do use plants to enhance their visions and journeys, and from what I have gleaned from a variety of medicine people is that it’s not so much the individual having the vision and being helped by the plant as the individual joining with the spirit of the plant who is itself having the vision.
When tribal groups enter into what appear to be more intense, collective trance-like states, such as the Native American ghost dance, we are, as a rule, witnessing a desperate attempt to put something right that has gone horribly wrong. The ghost dance as a ritual was borne of a despairing community whose people and ancient nomadic traditions were being destroyed at the hands of white European settlers. Jake Page, an American journalist whose book ‘In the Hands of the Great Spirit’ tells of the 20,000 year history of the Native Americans, describes what the ghost dance meant to those natives; “For them, performing the dance would…lead to the destruction of the whites, the resurrection of the ancestors, and a nativist return to the pure old ways of the tribes.” There are many tribes world-wide who uphold the fact that prolonged trance-like rituals are acted out in times of great difficulty and are a means to expressing the frantic need they feel to appease or connect with the spirits and the ancestors that usually bless and protect them. Page continues; “The ceremony lasted for as long as two and a half days, during which the dancers fasted completely and many fell into trances or dropped from exhaustion, in a sense dying and visiting old ancestors among the stars.” When we observe tribal communities that are remote and uninterrupted (mainly only Amazonian tribes these days as the Rainforest provides their means of isolation), we find very little ceremonial behavior or intense ritual taking place because any problems they experience are simple and straightforward. This does not mean to say their lives are not meaningful or fulfilled but the simplicity of their way of life means they are closer to Nature, their experience and relationship with her is immediate with nothing in between that needs to be traversed. So the sacred doorway to a tribal person is invisible, it is made up of qualities, natural qualities that the shaman and the otherworld recognize and exchange.
“I see the acquiring of courage, humility and selflessness (and not to mention a good dollop of healthy fear) as being those qualities which enable one to access the otherworld. These qualities I see as a currency, an exchange, a pledge, without which one is the poorer. In my experience one cannot access the ancient indigenous otherworld unless one is equipped with them. The otherworld will otherwise be honorable enough to provide lessons to discover them. “– Patrick Jasper Lee, indigenous Romani Chovihano (shaman).
Ritual and ceremony
Ritual behavior in a tribal context is not ceremonial. Primitive people ritualize a process because it influences luck[vi] (or destiny) – the way in which you do something is a whole package and synonymous with consequences, good or bad. Ritual is also not a linear, sequential event. Truly primitive minds are unable to think sequentially and so the desired outcome is located at the centre of what they do and they revolve around it, acting out what they think is necessary to engineer the good luck which will bring what they need. It is the spirit of luck that is the thing that gets you what you need, not just the physical ‘doing’.
When we get married in the West, we have a ceremony, it is premeditated and planned and contains an element of ritual in that it follows a certain, albeit very formal, criteria. However, the premeditation and the acting without the intent of influencing luck is what makes it ceremonial and therefore pointless to a primitive mind. They might ask ‘why does that make you married?’ A great example of neo-shamanic ceremony is from the Wolven Path tradition;
“During this ceremony, they are permanently marked, shed blood, taken to their graves, undergo inspection and trial by the 4 Totemic beasts and are ritually dismembered by the Spirit of the Raven who then presents them to the First Shaman and then to the Community, with their new name.“ Dr. Rev. John-Luke Edwards, Wolven Path Tradition Canada.
In contrast to this, true primitive ritualized behavior is the actual behavior itself rather than an event outside ourselves that we are witnessing ourselves doing, an act that we have stopped our ‘everyday’ activities to perform. For primitive tribes, ritual is the everyday behavior and it involves the principles of life which the tribe instinctively agree upon, enabling everyone collectively in the tribe to know what to do. Hunting is a ritual, sweeping the hut is a ritual, washing is a ritual etc.
Daniel Everett describes a wonderful example of tribal ritual behavior in his book ‘Don’t Sleep There are Snakes’. The Pirahãs went to Everett one day and asked him to buy them a wooden canoe from the Brazilians. He asked them why they didn’t make one themselves and they replied they did not know how. Everett then brought into the tribe a master canoe builder who showed them what to do and the Pirahãs spent 5 days enthusiastically building a canoe which they were very proud of. Everett also traded them some tools with which they could make their own canoes in the future. A few days later they went back to Everett and asked him to get them another canoe, he told them to make their own and they replied ‘Pirahãs don’t make canoes’ and walked away. Although Everett was not using this story as an illustration of ritual, in my view it is a perfect example of how the whole event becomes the thing that gets you what you want. They cannot comprehend fragmenting the experience into bits and pieces which they are then meant to import and repeat in a completely different and sequential way. This is a truly ritualized event which is not analyzed or evaluated or understood intellectually by those who carry it out.
“Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium.” Ernst Cassirer[vii]
From the psychological perspective we have a problem in that we are facing backwards in time from a modern intellectually developed mind that has, by its own definition, too sophisticated an awareness of individuality and self to comprehend the simplicity and selflessness that is a primitive individual. Tribal life is about domestic and social harmony and the set up and structure of that domesticity is the key to how people behave and respond to so called ‘shamanic’ activity. It seems clear to me that we have needs and psychological problems that drive us to take fragments of ancient tribal traditions and apply them to our broken and unprincipled[viii] social environment and self-centered perspective. I agree with Michael York[ix] when he says “…that `core shamanism’ is also a Western and, in many respects, an artificial creation which has little if anything to do with traditional shamanic practices in indigenous or Asian cultures.”
For a primitive tribal person, the magic of the otherworld is close, it is all powerful, controlling birth, life and death; it’s in the wind, in the sunbeams and the raindrops, in all that grows, the trees, the rocks, the very earth itself. You could say that a civilized person in a city surrounded by a very harsh and artificial physical reality has a harder job in finding a doorway to the otherworld as it is more remote, our senses and intuition having to arduously travel through great barriers of entry that the modern world has constructed over time. Or is it that the otherworld has retreated from us because we have become so unrecognizable and difficult to reach? Is it that the sacred doorway has been removed from our grasp and we have been abandoned and discarded? Nature has become a backdrop for humanity and maybe civilized people have become so disparate in their understanding and agreement on the principles of life, that we require the otherworld to be so many contrasting things, it has become impossible for it to come close to us. That agonizing deprivation, that remoteness that we feel from the softer, dream-like qualities of a natural existence may be what drives us to find more and more ways of escaping the concrete within which we are isolated and contained. Ironically, after any artificial ‘high’ has receded, however it has been obtained, the experience merely exacerbates the sense of aloneness and lack of belonging because we are travelling in fact to our ‘inner’ selves, not to the otherworld, enhancing and substantiating that self-centered sense of individuality which we are in fact asking the shamans to ‘heal’. And they can’t.
[i] By the fact that he becomes a vehicle for what needs to be expressed and his own personal identity is put aside.
[ii] In the Mind in the Cave 2002
[iii] Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett 2008
[iv] Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy 1951
[v] Foundation for Shamanic Studies website
[vi] In terms of an otherworldly force linked to destiny and any spirits that have authority over events in our physical world.
[vii] An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer Yale University Press, 1944
[viii] Principles shared and derived from an external source.
[ix] The Role of Fear in Traditional and Contemporary Shamanism Michael York 2001