Nov. 4, 1998
Ritual in a Secular Culture
When I first tried to explain my atheism to a friend in Nicaragua I realized I might have undertaken a futile, or at least difficult, task. Not only was my Spanish vocabulary insufficient to communicate the subtleties of this (dis)belief, but I was fighting the engrained assumptions of a predominantly Catholic culture. In the end I had to give up, leaving her to contemplate how I could think humans came from monkeys (somehow we had connected Darwinism to atheism). As a member of "modern" American society, I often take for granted the long history of separation between church and state. Besides being an element of democracy, this shared concept has enabled us to live predominantly secular lives with little question. This is not to say that most Americans are not affiliated with a religion of some kind, but rather that it is not common for spirituality to play a large role in our everyday lives, or at least it is not commonly recognized or expected. Because of this underlying inattentiveness to our "spiritual sides", we are sometimes surprised to discover our ability to recognize or create moments of spiritual significance. We often arrive at these moments through a sort of spiritual education, be it conscious or not, which people are hesitant to acknowledge as such. If it is true, however, that spirituality is a fundamental part of human nature, then we should try to recognize it and understand it.
With the tearing down of a small forest of social structure in the last few decades, peaking in but not ending with the late 60's, there has been a visible rise in "alternative" spiritual groups, which have been called New Age. In trying to make spirituality more accessible to a modern audience, there is a trend in these groups to go back to less institutionalized religious forms, including earth goddess followings in their many forms, Native American dance revivals, and Shamanism. Michael Harner has been in the most visible in this latter field, made popular by his book The Way of the Shaman. In it he gives a step-by-step guide on finding your own potential for shamanic insight, all wrapped up in an exotic guise of tribal imagery and promising personal enpowerment. While it is difficult to question his exact methods, the purpose behind the book and its subsequent popularity can tell us a lot about both our culture and ourselves.
Using modern American society as the context, we must first recognize that Harner chose to disseminate his ideas with a book and with classes. This is the most common way for us to learn things - not from a mentor, elder, or personal quest, but through our own formalized institutions. This is not to delegitimate them culturally - these are to us as a practiced shaman would be to an initiate, adapted over time to our society. So Harner has chosen a common medium to reach the greatest number of people. What he preaches is in essence a watered-down version of what would be considered "true" shamanism in a shamanic society. He gives us methods to journey to a different plane of existence through prescribed visualization practices. It does not involve requisite epileptic seizures or dreams of dismemberment, but it does offer some of the benefits, such as self healing and the uncovering of some hidden inner knowledge. It is easy for us to swallow because it is not too extreme, and it caters to some of the insecurities or questions of people who normally lead a highly secular existence: what am I all about? is there something beyond the material world? is there a grand meaning to life? Democracy also stresses the individual, and Harner's guide is all about personal strength, requiring no communal recognition or investment in the person's powers. The experiences he leads us to are scary enough to be useful but not so much as to deter people from trying them. It is in a way backwards from the "normal" shamanic process as described by Eliade in his Shamanism - instead of a supposedly externally-imposed terrifying event leading to self-realization, here it is the promise of self-discovery if you can conceptualize and then produce a scary experience. By being told what to expect we are at least partially creating our own experience, hopefully leading to some connection with the subconscious and perhaps some part of the spirit.
It is easy to call Harner's version of shamanism illegitimate when help up against the original, practiced in a traditionally shamanic society. Yet just because it is not as pure does not mean it can not be useful. Harner does create a vocabulary and a method for bringing some spiritual aspect to the lives of those who want to look outside established religions. His use of exotic imagery like crocodiles and snakes may seem stereotypical or commonplace, but just because we see them used like that in movies doesn't mean they can't be potent symbols. It is dubious that he assumes these symbols to be universal, but when we look beyond that to the practical application he has created for his form of shamanism, this particular setting can make use of them, even if it results in the misunderstanding of "true" shamanic cultures. I come at all this from a practical stand-point because that is what it seems Harner is aiming for - a practical method, creating a tool to help people enhance their worldly lives. Why does (or can) Harner's method work when it is so removed from the potent original? It is designed for us, and to us it has its own potency.
Alternative forms of spiritual inquiry have managed to subtly pervade other areas of our lives where we may not have noticed them. While it may not be outstandingly New Age, the teaching of some anthropology and religion courses in schools lends itself to the purpose of teaching practical spiritual methods, in a secular setting, based on what are seen as "tribal" or otherwise "primitive" religions. I use as an example an anthropology course I took senior year of high school entitled "Myth & Ritual", taught by a serene, gray-bearded man named Dr. Azoy. The object of the course was to eventually design a mock initiation ritual to then impose on a bunch of unwitting freshmen. Azoy was seen as one of the less conventional, yet admirable, members of a fairly conservative and "old school" boarding school faculty. He removed the table from his classroom (although it has since returned, by his choice) and had the eight or nine of us sit on pads on the floor. The environment was very much academic, requiring reading and analytical papers, but Azoy was able to sneak in an undertone of spiritual guidance that he made no attempt to hide.
Our first assignment was to write about a "transcendent experience" we have had. By this he meant some event or period during which we felt a clarity of vision that may have effected us spiritually, or at least psychologically, and opened up new understanding for us. I wrote about the summer after my junior year, a series of intense events that culminated on a moment of clarity while riding on a train from Providence to Hartford. Others wrote on times when they were lost or traveling and realized something about themselves or the world. It is not the specifics that interest us, but rather the fact that this question was posed to a bunch of high school students - When have you had a moment of subconscious release that effected you spiritually? Notice there is no mention of exotic cultures or beliefs - this shows that modern spiritual inquisition does not depend on sensationalizing others, but rather becoming sensitive to our own environments. This also had nothing to do with formalized religion, but rather with personal recognition of individual spirituality. We were made to realize our own potential for experiences outside the secular world. It was brought to us by the institution of school because that is the modern forum for adolescent education. The personalized angle was considered useful as a learning tool, but the underlying fact remains - we were being helped to understand our "spiritual sides".
From here the course got more involved with recognizing initiation rituals that we may have undergone or heard of. As adolescents we were either in or through that liminal stage of every human's life between childhood and adulthood, where initiation of some kind usually occurs. We were able to bring out subtle secular practices or events that could be seen as kinds of rituals. By choosing to inquire into this aspect of our lives we were admitting a curiosity about a "fundamental" kind of spirituality. By this I mean something seated in human nature, common the world over, that we could draw on even despite our secular lives. Because it is fundamental we already possess it, no doctrine required, which means that the distance between us and what we thought might be unlearnable can be suddenly collapsed.
We have seen at least two ways in which the New Age, as a dogma of variable strengths, is able to satiate the modern craving for spirituality. I see this as a positive addition to, or even basic element of, the established religions. By showing people that the unlearnable can actually be learned, are we in danger of degrading the value or potency of spirituality in general? In some cases we need a certain amount of mystery or unknown to maintain the importance of an aspect of our lives. Once we are faced with an answer we must chose to either accept it and use it, or else deem the entire process unvaluable or useless. Do we in some way need the unknown to keep spirituality significant in our lives? It is the grand question of other-worldly knowledge, i.e. If we all knew the truth about heaven and hell, what would then be the role of the Christian church? If we are all able to know or understand certain spiritual truths as brought to us though Harner's shamanism or a high school class, what will result? I would find a population of enlightened, or at least spiritually sensitive, individuals to be both enriched and perhaps ultra-mundane. People would be more rounded and full, understanding more the commonalities between them, yet they would have to become satisfied with their conscious states, which may or may not prove difficult. This is however an extreme image. A heightened spiritual awareness is really just another facet of the human existence, with variable influence over our movement in a secular world. It can provide answers if indeed answers are sought.
Eliade, Micrea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton University Press, 1964.
Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman. Harper Collins, 1990.