Thursday, May 09, 2013

Michael Harner - Our World: Shamans and Spirits

Reality Sandwich posted this excerpt from the new book by Michael Harner, one of the pioneers in bringing shamanic practices into the modern world. His new book is called Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality, published by North Atlantic Books.

Here is the publisher's promotional blurb for the book:
In 1980, Michael Harner blazed the trail for the worldwide revival of shamanism with his seminal classic The Way of the Shaman. In this long-awaited sequel, he provides new evidence of the reality of heavens.

Drawing from a lifetime of personal shamanic experiences and more than 2,500 reports of Westerners’ experiences during shamanic ascension, Harner highlights the striking similarities between their discoveries, indicating that the heavens and spirits they've encountered do indeed exist. He also provides instructions on his innovative core-shamanism techniques, so that readers too can ascend to heavenly realms, seek spirit teachers, and return later at will for additional healing and advice.

Written by the leading authority on shamanism, Cave and Cosmos is a must-read not only for those interested in shamanism, but also for those interested in spirituality, comparative religion, near-death experiences, healing, consciousness, anthropology, and the nature of reality.
For the sake of honesty and full disclosure, I don't buy into the "reality" of heaven realms or the underworld. I see them as archetypal inner worlds all of us can access with a little training. Nor do I believe the "spirits" people encounter in their journeys are real - rather, I see them as inner figures, not unlike CG Jung's spiritual guide, Philemon.

Our World: Shamans and Spirits

Michael Harner

The following is excerpted from Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality, published by North Atlantic Books.

Close your eyes,
then you will find the way.
--from a Puyallup Indian myth

Based on archaeological and comparative ethnological evidence, shamanism is believed by many scholars to be at least 30,000 years old and quite possibly is more ancient. Without dispute, it is the most time-tested system for healing through the purposeful integration of mental, emotional, and spiritual capacities. Although the word "shaman" comes from the Tungusic-speaking peoples of Siberia and north China, the worldwide similarity of the basic practices led anthropologists to apply the term generically elsewhere.

Until the present century, shamanism was practiced on all inhabited continents by indigenous peoples, including such widely separated peoples as the Sami (formerly "Lapps") of northernmost Europe, the aboriginal peoples of Australia, the Kung Bushmen of southern Africa, and the indigenous peoples of North and South America. However, due to such factors as introduced disease, wars, missionization, and persecution, the numbers of indigenous shamans were drastically reduced in the last five centuries, commonly along with a radical erosion of their culture's shamanic knowledge. In the last few decades this situation has started to change.


Definitions are often a contentious matter, particularly in the case of shamans and shamanism. What I offer now is what I have personally found useful in my work with shamans, and within shamanism, for half a century. The following words are not intended to satisfy everyone, or perhaps even most, but they are intended to communicate what I am talking about in this book.

While the work of shamans encompasses virtually the full gamut of known spiritual practices, shamanism is universally characterized by an intentional change in consciousness (Eliade's "ecstasy") to engage in purposeful two-way interaction with spirits. Its most distinctive feature, which is not universal, is the out-of-body journey to other worlds.

It should be noted that in some indigenous societies, there are shamans who do not journey at all, and others who journey only in the Middle World or, if they journey beyond the Middle World, may not go to both the Upper and Lower Worlds. What they all do share is disciplined interaction with spirits in nonordinary reality to help and heal others.

Whether journeying or not, shamans depend heavily upon the assistance of their tutelary entities, or helping spirits, with whom they interact in the altered state of consciousness that worldwide is most commonly achieved with the aid of auditory (sonic) driving. Both in traditional indigenous settings and in contemporary society, shamans work within a holistic framework. They address the spiritual side of illness in a complementary relationship with the nonspiritual treatment of illness and injury.

Shamans must be distinguished from sorcerers. Sorcerers are not healers and commonly cause pain and suffering.

The Two Realities

A basic assumption in shamanism is that there are two realities, and the perception of each depends upon one's state of consciousness. This assumption is explicit in core shamanism but usually is implicit in indigenous shamanism, where there is commonly not as much interest in a disciplined distinction between realities. Indeed, some indigenous shamans I have known seemed to enjoy the drama and romance of a blurring between realities.

Shamans access another reality especially in order to work with helping spirits to heal, divine, and accomplish other tasks for their patients and clients. This other reality is accessed by entering the shamanic state of consciousness (SSC), as I described in The Way of the Shaman. The SSC can range from light to deep and is most commonly entered temporarily with the help of auditory driving.

Those in the ordinary state of consciousness (OSC) perceive ordinary reality (OR); those in the SSC are able to enter into and perceive nonordinary reality (NOR). These states are both called realities because each is empirically encountered and has its own forms of knowledge and relevance to human existence.

NOR is not a consensual reality, and indeed if it were, shamanic practitioners would have no function, for it is their responsibility to perceive successfully what others do not. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the shamanic practitioner is the ability to move back and forth at will between these realities with discipline and purpose in order to heal and help others.

"Seeing" in Shamanism

"Seeing" is an important aspect of shamanism and shamanic journeying. As Eliade remarks, "‘Seeing' a spirit ... is a certain sign that one has in some sort obtained a ‘spiritual condition,' that is, that one has transcended the profane condition of humanity." The word "seer" in English may refer to the ancient European shamans, those who were "see-ers." Similarly, the Matsigenka Indians of the Upper Amazon call a shaman one "who sees." At the same time, "seeing" is a gloss in shamanism for more than visualizing, for it refers to perceiving with all the senses, including hearing, touch, smell, and taste.

Shamans differ from those who believe in spirits, because they know from firsthand experience that spirits exist. They see the spirits, touch them, hear them, smell them, and converse with them. This is why in many tribal societies around the world, the shaman is referred to not only as "one who sees" but also as "one who knows," or as a "person of knowledge." Shamans no more believe spirits exist than you believe your family, friends, and acquaintances exist. You know your family, friends, and acquaintances exist because you talk and otherwise interact with them daily. Similarly, shamans know spirits exist because they interact with them daily or, more often, nightly, for it is usually easier to see spirits in darkness. Also, darkness is an important medium for identifying spirits, for it eliminates the possibility of confusing them with the ordinary images of daylight reality.

The familiar concept of the "third eye" from Eastern spiritual practices crops up elsewhere. It is often known among Australian aboriginals, for example, as the "strong eye," located similarly in the center of the forehead. Sometimes a quartz crystal, a uniquely important stone crossculturally in shamanism, is pressed into that center to help the beginning shaman see shamanically more clearly. In former times, a Paviotso shaman in America could carry a quartz crystal on the cave power quest described in Chapter 1 so as to be able afterward to "see through anything." The seeing of shamans is not restricted to perceiving in darkness but commonly extends to seeing through things that in ordinary reality appear to most people as opaque. In shamanic extraction healing work, one sees or senses the illness within the sick person.

A power to "see through anything" is a common feature of shamanic experience. This power brings its own light to penetrate darkness and matter, as Knud Rasmussen notes for the Iglulik Eskimo:

"The first time a young shaman experiences this light, while sitting up on the bench [in the darkened igloo] invoking his helping spirits, it is as if the house in which he is suddenly rises; he sees far ahead of him, through mountains, exactly as if the earth were one great plain, and his eyes could reach the end of the earth. Nothing is hidden from him any longer."

In shamanism, "seeing" also involves seeing with the heart, or knowing in your heart that what you are perceiving is truth. This emotional certainty is fundamental to the experience of direct revelation and is one of the features that usually characterize shamanic seeing.

In 1968 I was discussing shamanic seeing with French ethnologist Jacques Lemoine, a specialist in the shamanism of the Hmong peoples of Laos. Although an outstanding fieldworker, he had never asked the shamans if they saw images, because they had already told him that they "saw with the heart." Therefore he assumed that no visual perception was involved. I urged him to interview one of his Hmong shaman friends further. Sure enough, a few months later he reported that they did indeed see images with their closed and covered eyes when they were doing their journeys and other work, and that they still said they saw with the heart, simply because emotional certainty was part of their direct revelations. Such an emotional certainty is also necessary for successful work in Western shamanic healing.

Are Shamans Born or Made?

For the Westerner, it is easy to assume that shamans practice their profession full-time. In fact, however, shamans usually spend most of their time doing ordinary work such as farming or hunting, food gathering and processing, and child-rearing. In the evenings, and upon request, they journey and do other shamanic work in a disciplined and controlled way. Their spiritual work in an altered state of consciousness is very intense. It is not possible even to eat a meal when doing it. So it is inconceivable that one could be working in this kind of altered state of consciousness all day on a regular basis. Shamans must be part-timers.

Persons may become shamans in many different ways. In Siberia, for example, shamans might inherit the power and knowledge through their families. Elsewhere in Siberia, and in some places in native South America, persons might suffer a serious illness, such as smallpox, and be expected to die but then have a miraculous recovery. Or perhaps it was a freak accident like a lightning strike that one survived. When such a thing happened, the community members characteristically concluded that healing power had come to save the person. They then sometimes asked the power-blessed person, upon recovery, to help heal someone else who was sick. The recovered person, even if unsure of his or her ability, could hardly refuse relatives and friends in need. If, in response, he or she successfully intervened, a shaman could be born.

In some indigenous societies, children were watched to see if they showed signs of being directly in touch with the spiritual realms, such as when they spontaneously sang a song apparently received from the spirits, as among the Pomo of Native California. If such signs occurred, then the children's healing powers might be tested by the adults. However, even in such cases the child was rarely recognized as a full-fledged shaman until becoming an adult. Shamanic practitioners worldwide were typically mature adults, usually with their own children.

In certain cultures, it was quite common to pay an established shaman for training. For example, East Greenland Eskimo shamans usually had several paid teachers. Among the Shuar in eastern Ecuador, the only known way to become a shaman is to buy the power, in the form of spirit helpers, from another shaman. The usual payment in the 1950s was in shuar kuit, or "Indian valuables." To pay a well-known shaman for a weeklong period of training and power transmission, a man might have to spend two or three years amassing enough feather headdresses, blowguns, curare blowgun dart poison, perhaps a hunting dog, and maybe even a muzzle-loading shotgun. Today shamanism remains strong among the Shuar, but the payment is usually in major amounts of Ecuadorian currency.

There are other ways, too, that one may become a shaman. In the Conibo tribe of eastern Peru, for example, the beginner, under the guidance of a shaman, may learn primarily from the spirit of a tall sacred tree (the ceiba). In the old days among Inuit of the Arctic, usually one of the most valued ways to become a shaman was to be initiated by the spirits in extreme isolation while suffering. To achieve this, an apprentice, under the supervision of a shaman, might spend days alone in a miniature igloo in the dead of winter without any heat, light, food, and little or no water, until the spirits brought enlightenment and healing power.

Perhaps one of the most mysterious and distinctive ways of becoming a shaman has been through experiencing the dismemberment of one's body in an altered state of consciousness. Accounts of this kind of initiatory experience are relatively common among Siberian tribes and Aboriginal Australian people. Later we will examine this important type of shamanic experience and its significance (see Chapter 11).

While there are many ways to become a shaman, how is not as important as the strength of the helping spirits supporting a person. In other words, the crucial issue is not whether one pays a shaman, as among the Shuar, or almost starves and freezes to death in isolated darkness on the ice, as among some Inuit in the days before missionization. Rather, the issue can be stated very simply: does one's shamanic work produce successful results for those who ask for help? If such results come, it matters little how or where one trained, or if one trained at all in a formal sense, for the people will recognize him or her as a shaman. Shamans are known by their works, and the ultimate judgment is by those on whose behalf they work for healing, divination, and other purposes.
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