Sept. 30, 1998
Why Isn't Everyone a Shaman?
In reading about the powers of shamans, the ability to travel and come to know other planes, to heal a single person or an entire group, I have found that I wish more and more to be one. Of course, there are down sides to the job, like having to bite my own tongue and use the blood as a convincing prop for healing, yet I admire the strength and truth of shamans. They understand more about the whole of this world than I, and I have seen the old cities, the high mountains, the dark forrests. So how is it that they became shamans while I sit at a computer, subject to sickness and spiritually ignorant? Were their eternal souls chosen at the beginning of time to be spiritual leaders, or where they simply in the right place at the right time? Both the sacred and secular explanations seem to have their validity. If I can determine what a shaman really is, them I can understand why I am not one (or perhaps why I am).
A key element of the young shaman's experience is a strong vision or dream. This serves first to suggest the existence of other planes, and then gives him familiarity with that space. The dream symbolically detaches the soul from the body, often involving dismemberment or death (Eliade, 33-4), which then allows the soul to journey at will. His knowledge of this territory is troublesome because it does not fit into his reality, even if the surrounding culture is highly spiritual. Imagine a person in our society (defined as late twentieth-century North America) with these kinds of dreams. He would either cast them aside as nightmares or else be traumatized by them and given treatment for his psychological "maladies". The young shaman is has to be allowed to be curious about the visions, enough so that he will spend time trying to make sense of them, encorporate them into his world. Even if the ideas are troublesome they can not be eliminated because they are as much a part of his past as any other memory. I may very well have had dreams of this nature, but I have either allowed them to fade because of their apparent absurdity, or else allowed them to stay in my subconscious, as of yet untapped.
So these visions, whether of divine origin or pure human imagination, leave behind a confused kid. It is only through an assisted self-healing, such as Black Elk's re-enactment of his vision during the Horse Dance (Neihardt, 163-76), that a shaman can harness his experiences and use them to heal others. This self-healing gives the shaman conscious knowledge of the nature of sickness, giving him confidence that he can then project onto an ailing patient. In order for the shaman to heal there must be belief, which envolves "three complementary aspects: first, the sorcerers belief in the effectiveness of his techniques; second, the patient's or victim's belief in the sorcerer's power; and, finally, the faith and expectations of the group." (Levi-Strauss, 168) This is an intense confluence of forces. Can a shaman bring about this much belief just by his own charisma and confidence? His manipulation of the patient and the audience depends on a setting where he is the most powerful, most respected individual. In this way it does take a certain kind of person, either trained from a young age to be able to "grab the spotlight" or else shocked into greatness by his visions. His strength is measured in comparison to those around him, and if they doubt him he is useless to others and to himself. Modern society does see strong characters like this, usually involving the media - the people we are attentive to and seem beyond our touch, the stars. Yet it seems that most stars do not take full advantage of their healing powers, and when they do we become jaded and tend to disregard them as "just doing their job." We want this same strength for ourselves, and we are not willing to put our personal faith in their ideas. I may very well have enough confidence to help friends heal themselves, but for the most part they will not allow me to be significantly stronger than them. We all strive to control our own lives, turning a deaf ear to possible good advice.
All of this shamanic initiation falls in a specific period of human developement - adolescence. The model for visions and other sacred events matches that of the adolescent experience, involving transition from a structured life (childhood), through to a strange liminal space where special learning can occur, only to return to structure again (adulthood), hopefully a changed person. The liminal space is where reality is not as it once seemed - there are holes and questions that must be explored and answered, and we are receptive to new ideas. The shaman is only able to heal people because he answers questions they have about reality so that the problem can "re-integrate with the whole where everything is meaningful." (Levi-Strauss, 197) He has had strong experiences during his own adolescence and understands the liminal territory well enough to guide people through similar time in their lives. Now it stands to reason that, since each and every person has gone or will go through adolescence, should we not all be able to concieve of liminal space where there is little structure and which is ripe with doubt and fear? This is like a parent remembering the good old days when a teen-ager wrecks the car. While we all have recolection of this period, we may not have true understadning or mastery of it. It takes a forceful experience during that time to force you to consider it fully, to study it, in a way. This is what the formal initiation of the shaman is primarily useful for, be it intense teaching or a vision quest involving hardship, or else the realization of certain truths and necessities that the shaman becomes more sensative to. This point in his life is marked. He knows it; the people around him know it. There is a framework to facilitate his establishment as a person with power, and as Levi-Strauss noted, that may be all it takes to be a successful healer.
Modern culture has little or no place for the kind of healing that a shaman can provide. Psychiatrists are about as close as we get, and the profession seems to draw nothing from personal visions or experiences, but rather a carreer choice and many years of post-graduate schooling. It may be that there are modern shamans around us whose power is nulified because they can not be recognized. When I was seventeen I took a train from Providence to Hartford. It was at the end of a summer in which I learned many things about myself, the world, my elders, and I was ripe for realization. I decided to open my journal and write, and for the next few minutes I had what an old teacher of mine would term "a mystical experience." Questions that had riddled my subconscious came out and forced me to either answer them or recognize them as unanwerable, and my sense of reality was rapidly augmented. I saw that there were more than the mundane concerns of everyday life to deal with, there were deeper queations, existential dillemas and spiritual connections that I had only begun to understand. This was my strong experience, my marking moment, which I have drawn off of since. Am I a shaman? Maybe. I've healed my own sickness of ingorance and wonderment. I've helped a few people make decisions for themselves that they would not have considered without my influence. But I was, perhaps, lucky to have been able to bring my own subconscious knowledge to light. Whatever brought it out - the confluence of certain circumstances on the train, or divine inspriation - I probably can not know. No one is out there to guide me, nor do I have a way to assign it definite sacred qualities and entrust it to that realm. So here I am, the Novice Maybe-Shaman.
So the answer to "Why isn't everyone a shaman?" seems to be answered by what anthropologists and psychologists have already noted - certain people undergo the right experiences at the right time, in which they are given power and the tools to use it. Is it fair of me, then, to blame the modern environment and culture for not recognizing those of us who may be able to do it good? I think so. I make a sweeping statement for what I believe to be ninety-percent true of the modern North American experience. There is no longer a place in our lives for the kind of individualized faith and belief that shamanism requires. This is a simple result of having too many people in our immediate environment. Cities, even small towns, are so large that creating (or maintaining) structures to recognize, train, and utilize shamans become impractical, or more accurately, removed from the context in which they work best. A shamanic university goes against all the necessities of the training - one-on-one attention, specific to the time and place when the shaman needs help, in an environment where he is free to question the world and search for the answers.
Even if he did successfully come to understand and control his powers, convincing such a large population of people would be difficult if not impossible, at least at first. Admitedly, early Christians had no structure for believing their leader and, surviving certain trials, did go on to become a prominant religious force. Is not the shaman just as institutional as a church, serving as a known source for personal healing that is maintained by continuous renewal of leaders and faith? Perhaps, then, shamanism has not disappeared, but been transmuted into a form different enough from present-day tribal systems that we have a hard time reconciling the two as cousins. There is, however, a difference in image between the modern priest and the shaman.
It is in this difference that we find the roots of the modern romantic desire to rediscover shamanism, and hence my own desire to exercise my possible powers. In Vine Deloria's forward to Black Elk Speaks (Neihardt, xi.), we are told that the grand chaos and shuffle of modernity detaches us from true ideas of priority, history, and eventually humanity and truth. If this is true, then what society around us is more connected with these things then any other? - those that live or have lived in smaller tribal units, most utilizing a belief system founded on the land, its resources, and the necessities of life. How much more fundamental can one get? We have found something to compare ourselves to, to degrade ourselves with. By putting ourselves down we are ignoring our own inherant abilities and potentials. We are the source of our own doubt, all the while trying to feel like we are setting spiritual goal for ourselves to possibly be as good and "true" as those we idolize. This doubt is just like a shaman doubting his own ability, removing his possible potency to do good himself. If we wish to learn to heal ourselves we must find our own power, our own visions, and run with them along which ever road we may be traveling.
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press, 1964.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Basic Books, copyright date not given.
Neihardt, John G. Black Elk Speaks. University Of Nebraska Press, 1979.