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The Ancient Wisdom in Shamanic Cultures
AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL HARNER CONDUCTED BY GARY DOORE
Gary Doore: What are the distinguishing features of a shaman?
Michael Harner: I think we are on safe ground if we use the kind of definition employed by Mircea Eliade in his classic book Shamanism, which is the kind of definition used by anthropologists who study this phenomenon worldwide. The main defining characteristic of a shaman is that he or she is someone who enters an altered state of consciousness (which I have called the shamanic state of consciousness, or SSC), usually induced by monotonous drumming or other percussion sound, in order to make journeys for a variety of purposes in what are technically called the Lower and Upper Worlds. These other worlds accessible to the shaman in the SSC are regarded as an alternate reality, and the shaman's purpose in journeying to it in the SSC is to interact consciously with certain guardian powers or spirits there, which are usually perceived as power animals. The shaman solicits the friendship and aid of such power animals in order to help other people in various ways, and he or she may also have spiritual teachers in this hidden reality who give advice, instruction, and other forms of assistance.
Many of the so-called medicine men, medicine women, and priests of Native North American cultures also do work of immense value, but what they do is often not strictly speaking shamanism if they do not make journeys to the Lower and Upper Worlds.
G.D.: Does the shaman regard this other world entered in the SSC as a mental or imaginal world as opposed to the "material" world of ordinary experience?
M.H.: Views on the nature of reality differ from culture to culture. For example, an extreme position is taken by the Jivaro of South America, where they say that the only reality is that which is accessible in the SSC, and that our ordinary state of consciousness is just an illusion, or "lies." They maintain that any significant event in this world is the result of hidden events in that other dimension.
The position I prefer when introducing people to shamanism is characterized in terms of Carlos Castaneda's distinction between ordinary reality and non-ordinary reality. It is useful because it does not introduce the concepts of mental and material. In shamanic experience, when one is in non-ordinary reality things will seem quite as material as they are here. One feels the coldness or warmth of the air, the hardness or smoothness of a rock; one perceives colors, sounds, odors, and so forth. All the phenomena that characterize the so-called material world will appear just as real and material there as they do here if it is an extremely clear shamanic journey. But the shaman does not view these non-ordinary phenomena as mental in the sense that they are regarded as a projection of one's own mind. Rather, the mind is being used in order to gain access, to pass through a door into another reality which exists independently of that mind.
G.D.: What is the typical shamanic conception of the ultimate basis of these different realities? Is there, for instance, an absolute spiritual power or principle "behind" the universe, so to speak, as its fundamental reality?
M.H.: Usually the shaman views the universe itself as the ultimate reality. In many shamanic cultures there is no preoccupation with the idea that there is some spiritual being who is either in charge of the whole show, or who once was but is now on permanent vacation. Most shamans seem to believe that this universe is "just the way things are." We are given the fact that there is a universe where everything is alive, that there is an interconnectedness of all things, and that there are hidden purposes which we can attempt to investigate to some extent through shamanic methods. But shamanism ultimately is only a method, not a religion with a fixed set of dogmas. Therefore people arrive at their own experience-derived conclusions about what is going on in the universe, and about what term, if any, is most useful to describe ultimate reality.
G.D.: You said that shamanism is not a religion, but what is its relation to religion?
M.H.: Yes, I characterized it as a method rather than a religion. It is a method which is often associated with the religion known as animism, but distinct from it. Animism is basically the belief in spirits, and spirits are defined in shamanism simply as those things or beings which are normally not seen by people in an ordinary state of consciousness, but are seen by the shaman in the SSC. Moreover, they are entities that the shaman respects, having some sort of integrity or power.
So, as one gets involved in shamanism and thus keeps seeing, interacting, and talking with spirits, one quite naturally tends to believe in their existence. And those who continue doing shamanism will most likely also start to believe in the existence of the human soul. That is another step. But animism is in many ways the "bottom line" of any religion that considers the existence of spirits. Of course, more supposedly "sophisticated" religions may then be built upon that base.
I think it is noteworthy that modern physics seems to have elements of animism. Some physicists today are like animists in that they believe everything which exists is alive. It is the sense of our unity with a living universe, the feeling that we are all just parts of that greater life, which is basic to animism.
G.D.: Do you find in shamanism the concept of a higher component of the individual that is somehow in close contact or at one with the ultimate reality?
M.H.: Yes, this component is called simply the spirit or vital soul of the person, and it is definitely in contact with that reality. Moreover, it is believed that at death it becomes even more closely in contact.
G.D.: Doesn't the shamanic journey in fact begin with experiences that are very much like what have been described recently as near-death experiences?
M.H.: Yes. The shaman's journey starts with an experience of going through a tunnel of some kind, usually with a light at the end, and this is very similar to descriptions of the so-called near-death experiences. But the shaman goes all the way through the tunnel and explores the world into which it opens at the end, the world that people feel themselves passing into at the time of death. So, when one is ready for death, or preparing for it, it is a good idea to have explored the region in question beforehand by shamanic means, since then one will not be so surprised by what happens in the post-mortem state. The geography will be known to some extent.
G.D.: It is interesting that Socrates defined philosophy as the preparation for death. And there are well-known stories about him standing for hours in what appeared to be an altered state of consciousness, which he explained in terms of a communion with his guardian spirit or "daemon." Is there evidence for shamanic influence in ancient Greece, perhaps through the Orphic/Pythagorean mystery schools?
M.H.: Yes, Orpheus does seem to have been a shaman. He was called a "doctor of souls," and the Greek Orpheus myth is a version of the same myth found in a variety of shamanic cultures all over the world. It is basically the story of a shaman who performs the typical shamanic activity of journeying to the Lower World in search of the soul of a person who has died. Usually this means that the person is comatose by Western standards. But he gets into trouble on the return journey because he is emotionally attached to the person in question. This myth constitutes some of the strongest evidence we have that shamans were known very anciently in Greece.
G.D.: Does the shaman attempt to help others in the process of actually dying?
M.H.: Yes, but beyond this, after they have died he continues to assist them in terms of getting located in the afterlife in circumstances where they will be happier. He is the psychopomp or conductor of souls to the other world. So it is very much an applied skill; applied to help others. But it also has the result of helping oneself, because as one works with power in attempting to help others, one tends to receive help; whereas those who are greedy with power, or who use it for bad purposes, tend to get the negative consequences for themselves that they intended for others.
G.D.: Many anthropological studies and films seem to emphasize the use of shamanism for sorcery. Are you suggesting that its use for destructive purposes is not as widespread as it has often been portrayed?
M.H.: There are, of course, people that stray from good purposes with shamanism. But, as I have seen in the upper Amazon, they do not last very long, and they usually come to a very grievous end. Sorcery is extremely self-destructive, and this is common folk knowledge all over the world. Naturally this does not mean that people never practice sorcery. Such things do exist in many tribal groups, but they are very much a function of the social, economic, and political problems of a particular society—problems of how power is used—which is true of any kind of power in any society.
I was in one upper Amazon tribe of thousands of people where no one had been murdered for twenty years, and the tribe was very shamanic. Another tribe, also very shamanic, had murders occurring constantly. So shamanism is not the problem. The problem is how this knowledge is used.
G.D.: Then it is very important for would-be shamans to have a strong sense of ethical responsibility.
M.H.: Certainly. One of the things I have noticed is that people in general have shamanic abilities, whether they are conscious of them or not. The basic forces of anger and love, for instance, have a tremendous influence in the world on many levels of reality of which we are ordinarily unaware. Thus, when one person gets angry at another it is not just an exchange of words and emotions; because from a spiritual point of view anger is terribly destructive, both for the person who is giving it as well as for the one receiving it. I submit that not knowing what spiritual damage we may do to others in anger is not a good thing; and therefore I think that one of the biggest dangers connected with shamanism is to be ignorant about the unconscious shamanic abilities we all have. For this reason I do not subscribe to the argument that shamanic practices should not be taught because the knowledge might be dangerous. Ignorance is far more dangerous, because those who are unaware of the existence of these powers are more likely to endanger others than those who have shamanic knowledge. Anything people can learn from the wisdom of shamanism about the effects of our thoughts and feelings at those hidden levels can be beneficial, and therefore should be available.
G.D.: Do you find in shamanism the idea that one of the purposes of life is to unfold the latent powers of consciousness?
M.H.: Most shamans of my acquaintance in tribal cultures are not too preoccupied with that question. They do know, however, that we are here, that we are going to die someday, and that we have various difficulties to face in our daily lives. Therefore, the focus is on what we can do to help each other with the problems of existence, of life and death.
G.D.: In other words it is much more of a practical discipline than a speculative enterprise?
M.H.: Yes. People seek help from a shaman for all sorts of problems, about very practical matters such as the location of food resources needed for the tribe, or today about some question in their lives such as whether to change a career or move to a new location. But classically, perhaps because health problems are the most common and serious, they tend to come up very frequently.
G.D.: What are the main methods of shamanic healing?
M.H.: Shamanic healing is done basically in two ways. These involve either putting something which is lacking back into the person who is ill, or removing something that does not belong in the person's body. The latter kind of healing, usually employed for more localized illnesses, does not involve the shamanic journey, but consists of working here in the Middle World, using divination techniques and moving back and forth from ordinary to nonordinary reality in order to see the illness and to remove it by certain methods. The other technique, restoring something that is lost or lacking, does involve the journey. This might be the restoration of the simple vital soul of the individual, typically in cases where someone is at death's door or suicidal. In such cases the shaman can move in search of the lost soul in the other world, and can find it and restore it to the person.
G.D.: How does the shaman restore lost power?
M.H.: This is a more common practice than bringing back a lost soul, and the shaman's client does not by any means have to be in dire straits for this method to be used. The technique is to make a journey to the other world to search for the lost power, which is usually perceived in the form of a guardian animal. The journey to restore such a power animal is undertaken in order to help energize the person in question, to strengthen resistance to illness, dispiritedness, and so forth, and generally to help him or her lead a good, successful life. In this kind of work the shaman does not need to know the specific nature of the illness in order to go out and search for a power connection to the universe, because protective power fights illness in general.
G.D.: Does the shaman ever search for power animals in order to heal himself or herself?
M.H.: The search for power animals is generally done for others. One of the reasons that shamanism is a powerful tool is that it is the intercession of one human being on behalf of another in a spiritual quest. If you intercede merely on behalf of yourself you are less likely to get results. This is why most shamans have at least one partner. They help each other. It is important to keep in mind that in shamanic work one is primarily engaged in helping others.
A comparison can be made between shamanic methods and certain visualization techniques as they are used today in trying to heal oneself. Thus, in some native South American tribes the shaman is the one who takes a pharmaceutical (usually a strong psychedelic) for the patient's illness, and it is the shaman who then makes the visualizations which are instrumental in the healing. It is not the patient who visualizes. We might contrast this with something like the Simontons' methods of working with cancer patients, where the person who is ill is asked to visualize his or her illness and then to work on it. Visualization of illness is a shamanic method independently discovered by the Simontons. But if it were even more shamanic, there would be a shaman present visualizing the illness more intently than the patient.*
G.D.: Is the idea of self-healing then entirely foreign to shamanism?
M.H.: There is indeed something that might be described as "self-healing" in shamanism—or rather, something that looks like self-healing but really is not. I refer to the experience of drawing on a power greater than oneself. For example, if a shaman does need personal help, it is possible for him or her to make a journey to visit a healer in non-ordinary reality and to ask for assistance. The healer may then work on the shaman, who may get well without appearing to have received any outside aid. Observers might then describe this as self-healing. But if you take the whole thing seriously, "self-healing" is not an accurate description. It merely looks like self-healing from the standpoint of ordinary reality.
G.D.: Will you explain the other method of healing you mentioned: taking something away that does not belong in the patient?
M.H.: We all know how, in ordinary reality terms, infections can exist in the body, or some malfunction can take place. The shaman sees the spiritual nature of such localized problems in the body and extracts them, much as someone might do a surgical removal of a tumor or suck out poison from a snakebite. In the same way, the shaman removes what is undesirable or "dirty" from the person. But this is all done in non-ordinary reality, on a spiritual level.
G.D.: When you say that the shaman sees the spiritual nature of illnesses, you do not mean seeing with the physical eyes.
M.H.: That's right. What is called in some traditions the "third eye" is referred to, for instance, by the Australian shamans as the "strong eye." But it is the same thing. Or they may refer to "seeing with the heart." In other words, it is a type of "vision" which can be done with the eyes closed. It is not seeing in the way that people ordinarily understand it.
G.D.: Does this type of seeing involve the clairvoyant or psychic observation of the energy field or so-called aura of the patient?
Excerpted from Shamanism by Shirley Nicholson. Copyright © 1987 Theosophical Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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