Mircea Eliade- Shamanism: Archaic Techniques Of Ecstasy. 1964
Sept. 23, 1998
On Eliade's Shamanism
While I did not get to finish the reading, parts of the first chapter reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend over the summer. It was around one or two in the morning, the bottle of whatever we were drinking was mostly depleted, and we were talking about existential dread. Greg pointed out that most people reach a point in their lives when they wonder why they are here, what the next step is. This happens generally around our age or younger, and we both felt like we were ourselves in the throws of ignorance and fear. He said that if a person is able to see that there is something beyond the every-day life, some spiritual plane, then they must make a decision. We drew an analogy to climbing a mountain. If you see the mountain top you can either climb up to it or think about it, be content with where you are, because if you do make the climb you have to give up everything that you have learned and held true down in the valley. This is like a shaman having an ecstatic experience, seeing the beyond, having been pulled by it in some way. Eliade notes (p. 23) that the desire to enter into contact with the sacred is mixed with fear of having to leave everything behind and give yourself over to these powers. It could be that Greg happens to have read a lot about shamanism and practices drumming and journeying himself, but I think that we happened upon a correlation between a "modern" experience and one of tribal societies. The time around adolescence when shamans are initiated (although their visions may come earlier) is a strange and unstable period of human life not matter what culture you are in. You are between the defined categories of child and adult, your body is going though changes, and with that comes the intellectual questioning of one's place, both present and future.
Beyond the physiological side, not everyone who goes through adolescence sees this "mountain top" - you have to be sensitive to it, predisposed in some manner to see beyond the "mundane" world, or you may pass it off as a bad dream, a wandering of the mind. Eliade notes (p. 109) that the "premonitory dreams of future shamans... become mortal illness if not rightly understood." I wonder if this illness perhaps connected to the troubling aspect of the dreams, causing the person to doubt their mental or physical health. For societies where religion and spirituality are more ubiquitous, where you have a shaman practicing or a church nearby, it would be easier to interpret experiences as having spiritual significance. When you hear stories of characters in visions they inevitably enter your subconscious and could come out when your guard is down - during sleep or a period of physical or mental weakness, during fasting or some other ceremony.
This is not to degrade the visions of shamanic elects or make them sound like complex mind tricks, but rather to say that the reason we do not have more medicine men in downtown Manhattan is that our culture (as a whole) has no structure for recognizing those who could help us connect to the spirit world. Shamans go through their initiations to rise above the plane of the profane and communicate with all that is sacred, including history and religion. For us this has either been institutionalized (books and schools) or removed from the immediate context of society (separation of church and state in our mixed-religion culture). No wonder new-age cults and eastern healers are seen as aberrant, strange - we are not used to people rising above the concerns of business world in such a strong manner. There are so few places to do it - high school and college is sometimes a free enough environment to allow spiritual wondering, or you can escape into the night. What better place to contemplate your existence or be open to spiritual influences than in the middle of a dark field or on a midnight rooftop? Notice both involve solitude, being a loner, or at least a dreamy individual. Probably not too popular in school, perhaps an art freak or computer geek. Greg and I both were to some extent. So it is the exception, the odd one, that is closest to the "modern" shaman. They may be all around us, but they rarely have mentors to train them or people that will accept their healing powers.
Upon reflection I may be overlooking what is right in front of me - artists and musicians, poets and playwrights, (and religious figures), they all have at some level a connection to some universal truth, some "vital plane" of "fundamental data" (p. 27). They make for us the rainbows, "bridges to the heavens", and even though they might not have dreams of being dismembered, they in some way follow the path of the shaman, or at least a close enough approximation that can exist in our culture.