Micheal Harner - The Way of the Shaman
Oct. 21, 1998
On Harner's The Way of the Shaman
I came into reading this book with hope that perhaps it would help me. I had to overcome my impulse to dismiss Harner as a flake trying to bring a new religion to a culture seeking meaning, so I cooked some garlic bread, rearranged the furniture in my room to give me space to stretch out, and put on some didgeridoo music. I then read the section on "First Journeys" and went through the steps. I believe it worked. I didn't get far, but when I recounted my experience to a friend who found me lying in my darkened room, she said, "Well, that sounds like a start." So now I think Harner has got something, which means I have to figure out what it is.
There are several parts of Harner's description or understanding of shamanism that appeal to me. The most basic is that he puts an emphasis on darkness. I have always felt, long before I read literature on the dark side of human nature, that darkness allows us a certain freedom. The freedom is at once sensory, in that we have less images/sounds to deal with, as well as conceptual, because it is a time when people are not supposed to be active, and philosophical, since we know not what lies beyond us when we can not see it. Darkness allows us to reach beyond our normal (for the most part) methods of survival, changing our reality by means of a wholesale change in our environment, just as a snowstorm makes our familiar landscape look surreal and otherworldly. Try scuba diving or driving at night with just a tunnel of light as a reference, and it feels like you are flying - because you don't have the standard 360 degree references. I can run faster at night than I can during the day because somehow I don't feel bounded by the same laws, even if I do feel twice as tired when I'm done. So why does darkness help the shaman to journey? For all of these reasons, the same ones that drive people to party when the last licks of sunshine have disappeared - we feel somehow supernatural.
Harner feels able to preach his beliefs and methods because he feels shamanism is pervasive, which I agree with. His reasoning, however, seems to me to be subtly weaker then he might intend. In the second paragraph of his introduction, and again later in chapter one, he states that shamanism was arrived at in disparate parts of the world through thousands of years of trial and error. This makes it sound as if it were a medicinal plant in the Amazon forest, hiding among many other colorful flowers, waiting to be stumbled upon. Once people found it, they determined it was useful and true, so they kept it. I like to look at it in a different way. Harner would agree that shamanism, or at least the desire or ability to contact a nonordinary reality, is something fundamental in us as humans. If this is so, it seems that we found it not by experimenting with different manners of spirituality and healing, but rather that we had to excavate our inside, scrape away layers until we could identify the core of humanity, where we store our truths. Once one person did this others would follow. While I am not even sure that my distinction is recognizable, I think perhaps it could fit inside Harner's idea of the emergent origin of shamanism.
Stepping back from the book I think perhaps the modern view of shamans as new-agey, counter-culture, or funky in some way is too limiting. Harner talks about the how "The shaman is forever trying to articulate his personal relevatory experiences as though they were pieces of a great cosmic jigsaw puzzle." (p. 45, emphasis added) So in essence shamanism is also looking for the "big picture", the larger patterns. Isn't that just like the search of a philosopher for universal truths? Or of a writer for fundamental human narratives? Or of an anthropologist for archetypes? Or of a scientist for the shape of the universe? Harner's shamanism, that which he can encapsulate in a book, seems to be but one of many methods for furthering our quests, as humans, for a grand understanding. In this way we may not all be shamans, but we are all knights in search of our grail.