“In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery…”
– Cormac McCarthy
Life on this planet lives through virtue of interconnectivity. All of nature exists as an evolving web of consciousness. The light of the sun floods the elemental networks of the planet with energy that builds fractal realms of biological sentience and experience. This world-creation is a sparkling summit of universal complexity.
And yet, modern humanity lives in a state of distraction and fragmentation, lost within an exclusive, secular faith of primitive linear reason, disconnected from the many modes of understanding and perception that bring balance and health. The loss of a harmonious participation with ones bio-region results in a tragic destruction of bio-diversity and diminution of quality of life.
Re-cultivating our full humanness and interconnectivity can assist the wholeness and integrity of our communities and the ecologies we are inextricably one with. Many existing indigenous communities retain traditions that maintain interconnection with the spirits and ancestors of their bio-region. For the ancient indigenous ways are expressions of the land itself, not human creations. Over many hundreds of thousands of years, the ceremonies, medicine, arts and stories generated through shamanic practices have assisted human groups in maintaining harmony between nature and culture, body and mind.
There are many different names across cultures for people who initiate ecological and spiritual knowledge and healing within their communities. Some of these names include Shamans (Tungus, Siberia), vegetalista (Mestizo, Peru), Dukun (Indonesia), Huna (Hawaii). Such people cultivate ways of understanding that employ intuition, creativity, and exploration of the Divine Imagination or ‘Dreaming’. From within their own unique traditions, they traverse the underworlds and heavens of the World Tree to divinate, to cure, to learn. They are often deeply knowledgeable of the medicine of plants, therapeutic touch, and work as helpers and guides at the transformational passages of birth, living and dying. They work as initiators of collective ecstatic ritual.
People living within technological capitalist cultures cannot healthily appropriate or mimic these traditions, but we can still learn much from contact with traditional wisdom and their methods of spiritual development, and ‘Learn How To Learn’ from that wisdom. Such wisdom can help to deepen our own connection with the earth where we stand, honoring the spirit of the land and developing our own rituals, celebrations, healing ceremonies, rekindling our ancestral memory, and reawakening our innate planetary memory…
Animist cultures view plants and features of their ecosystem as fellow sentient subjects, not as material objects. Plants and fungi are revered in the many Amazonian cultures as ‘plant teachers’, non-human people who are fellow subjects in the universe, communicable, and to be respected.
In Amazonian vegetalismo practices, the ritual consumption of the sacred plant potion Ayahuasca reveals the world of nature multi-dimensional society, a system of spiritual relations in an all-encompassing fertility circuit. From the inner dialog, the vegetalista learns the medicinal and magical properties of plants, and learns to see deeper into the spiritual ecology of the deep forests.
The attitude of dialog even extends to the mineral kingdom and features of the landscape(stone people,crystal realms,earth elementals). Such dialog or ‘eco-sophy’ with ‘more than human’ nature is common to Animist cultures. In Tibetan Bon Po, mountains are considered spiritual mandalas, with the summit being the center-most point where the deity of the mountain is most present. In African Animist cosmology, rivers are presided over by the orisha (spirit, totem) Oshun, present in the currents and eddies of the river where her force moves ever onward…
The deep ecologist Rupert Sheldrake suggests thinking of our bio-regions and ‘places’ in terms of “spheres of action, operation or investigation”. Humans with shamanic awareness do not treat their environment as contemporary humans tend to do, as inert backdrops for their ego-drama, but rather as nested, interacting field of sentience which one must relate to appropriately, with respect and receptivity.
“Places traditionally associated with the presence of nature spirits are not distributed equally across the landscape. They are concentrated in particular areas, such as hill tops,waterfalls, springs, streams and rivers, in and around various trees, in caves and grottoes … these fields must be embedded within larger fields, such as the fields of river systems and mountain chains… and ultimately Gaia and the entire solar system.”
Sacred places would be protected across generations, no one would want to upset the balance as they knew the consequences would ripple throughout the entire web of creation. This way of respect encompasses the animal kingdom and the hunters respect for the spirit of their life givers.
In such a cosmology, the entire universe consists of ‘vibratory organisms’ ranging from elementary particles to galaxies, with each organism participating in every other. Shamans, curanderos, develops a sensitivity, a sympathetic resonance with this vibrant sentient whole. The purpose of cultivating harmonious communication is to maximize the nurture and fertility within the ecosystem and community.
Communal Shamanic Rituals
Compared to the often solitary heroic image of the shaman that capitalist cultures have inherited from new age literature, it is common that shamanic practices operate within groups of close affiliation, extended families and tribes. A communal context supports ecstatic experiences, creates bonding, filial love, and communal cohesion. By communities collectively entering into catharsis and mystical union, differences and conflicts in the community are worked through.
In South America the complex interweaving of many spiritual lines from different cultures have come to mix and be re-formed within the overwhelming natural vitality of the Amazon. Such community traditions include Barquina, Unio de Vegetal and Santo Daime. These shamanic lineages combine elements of African cosmology and ritual with Amazonian plant traditions and the symbology of Christianity (itself a syncretic mythology). They are living traditions, evolving their doctrines (teachings) through songs and chants received in the shamanic ‘miracao’, the realm of visions, akashic memory and contact with spiritual intelligences.
In such lineages, the entire community, not just a solitary shaman, imbibes sacrament, dances, sings, chants, prays, channels spirits and heals. Mystical and transpersonal experiences are held in the ritual vessel through the consecration of prayers and the collective experience of the group. Different spiritual works are developed, some for healing, some for spiritual purification, some for jubilation and festivities.
In such shamanic ceremonies, end is joined with beginning. The shamanic dance connects to the first dances deep in mythic time. In the transcendence of history, one returns to cyclic time, creating a sympathetic bridge to all cultures and peoples across time and space. In the deep ecstatic trance people will dialog with or even physically incorporate spirits of ancestors, of the land, and of higher dimensions. They emerge into the group experience to share wisdom and healing energies. In the African Jurema and Cambondle cults it is common for people to personify and enact representations of the ecosystem, such as Yemanja, the ocean, or ‘Princesa Jurema’, the ‘princess’ of the Jurema tree imbibed in ceremonies.
These new lines of tradition indicate that ancient methods for collective shamanism can migrate and adapt to new conditions in order to work with the specific plants and energies of the bio-region.
Shamanism and Reason
The role of shamanism in the Western world diminished through complex social forces. In the Classic world the role of the shaman sometimes survived the development of agriculture and city-states in the form of gnostic mystery schools. Such groups preserved and cultivated ancient lines of Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Hebrew and Christian spiritual wisdom, but became dispersed and suppressed by the development and centralization of the Roman Christian Empire, with its vast mandate to standardize religious beliefs, and so the western world lost the intuitive, metaphoric and systemic perceptions of shamanic ecstasy.
The demands for social conformity under the militaristic and economic values of Empire lead to a ‘mono-phasic’ consciousness – a way of life that insisted upon just one limited perceptive mode; rationality, and an essentially materialistic orientation toward the natural world.
“Monophasic consciousness, most often embodied as the scientific method, disavows the validity of any knowledge accessed through transrational processes. Perceptual diversity is important for evolutionary competence and human adaptability. Already, without it, the monophasic consciousness of Western, developed nations has led to loss of cultural diversity and biodiversity.”
– Perceptual Diversity:Is Polyphasic Consciousness Necessary for Global Survival? By Tara W. Lumpkin
Because western civilization suffers from mono-phasic consciousness – the inflexible rigidity of a primitive and linear ‘reason’, which arrogantly exalts itself as a superior approach to existence – we have neglected the intuitive, metaphoric, integrative and non-linear capacities that bring balance to reason and allow a meaningful connection to the natural world and the imaginal realms.
As a counterbalance to the unprecedented split between mind and nature which was the Industrial Revolution, the art and prose of the Romantics inaugurated a quest to break out of the tyranny of ‘Newton’s sleep’. The psychologist Jung, influenced by Romantic and Gnostic lines, exhorted an enrichment of reason “with a knowledge of man’s psychic foundation”, the lower stories of our “species’ house”. Jung encouraged the holding of both reason and the primordial mind in consciousness simultaneously, so a new synthesis could emerge. His work opened the way for a myriad of inquiries into the mysteries of consciousness which has transformed the fields of psychology, ethnography and anthropology.
Establishing a living bridge between the primal and the modern may be the evolutionary task of our time.
Shamanism and Simulcra
The New Age movement represents the desire to reclaim full humanness but often falls into the entrapments of simulation. In seeking to cultivate a ‘shaman-ism’ we often fall into simulcra. In his critique of the modern age, Baudrillard claims that contemporary society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that the modern human experience is of a simulation of reality rather than reality itself.
‘Shamanism’ within the New Age is arguably a simulcra. It is a term invented by anthropologists to refer to the practices of spiritual healers and communal rites of passage in nature-orientated communities. By employed this singular umbrella term, anthropologists, ethnographers, and other Western scholars have simplified and exaggerated the universality of traditional cultures, who have their own names for their sacred practices.
Neoshamanism and ‘core shamanism’ are based on the idea that removing the cultural references and symbology reveals a core system of practice, which can be taught through commercial workshops and courses. This concept overlooks the unique influence of ancestral connection to place, and that symbols and metaphor are of essence to shamanic practices. The weave of symbols used in prayer, invocation and healing interconnect with the bio-region, community, ancestors and spiritual powers.
The symbols and metaphor of shamanic ritual have a powerful integrative potential because they express deep structures of relationships between the false dualism of inner and outer, mind and matter.
Shamanism and Colonialism
Alice Kehoe in her book Shamans and Religion: An Anthropological Exploration in Critical Thinking, asserts that New Age forms of Shamanism, misrepresent and ‘dilute’ genuine indigenous practices and may also reinforce racist ideas such as the Noble Savage. Many members of traditional, indigenous cultures and religions, such as Native American and First Nations activists, are suspicious of ‘neoshamanism’ and ‘plastic shamanism’, believing it to rely heavily on cultural appropriation and the commodification of their traditions.
Hobson, a Cherokee writer, coined the term ‘the whiteshaman movement’, criticising the trend of ‘white’ authors to assume the persona of Native American shamans in their writings, or else work as interpreters of Native American spirituality, and in doing so inadvertantly reinforce cultural stereotypes and distortions. Adding to this contemporary confusion is that ‘indigenous’ is a colonial concept, as are ‘aboriginal’, ‘native’, and ‘shamanism’.
A promising solution to escape being enmeshed in polarizing colonial terminology is the recognizing of the diversity of original languages and traditions, anchored in the experience of a community within its bio-region. All ancient traditions have arisen from an ancient and unique interconnection with the land and sky, and with the discipline of self-enquiry, a ‘philosophical’ enterprise that must integrate and incorporate all aspects of being, including those so surpressed in our culture, the mythic, symbolic, imaginal, intuitive and creative. And so it is to the land and skies, both inner and outer, that the people living within material technological cultures must look to revive their true being.
Bioregional Shamanic Gnosis
The practices of the shaman, the vegetalista, the kuna, the priest, are each distinct expressions of the experiences of a peoples journey through time and the innate mysteries of the natural world. For people without their own shamanic traditions, the interconnection with the earth and the education it gives exists here and now to be rekindled. Even in our fragmentary technological world, we are still part of ‘The Dreaming’. All creatures, organic and inorganic, human and non-human, live by the Dreamings that play through them. This earth-centered, animist approach to reclaiming full humanity has been called ‘bio-regional animism’ or ‘deep ecology’.
Bio-Regional Animism seeks to re-cultivates the sacred relationship of humans and the eco-systems they inhabit by recognizing the lessons taught by animist cultures worldwide, past and the present, and applying the animist process to our eco-systems. It spiritually relates our modern culture to the forest, rivers, mountains, animals, energies, and scientific principles as individuals with inherent worth and dignity. Knowing where your water and food comes from, social activities of local wildlife, and the medicinal value of indigenous plants, builds the foundation for relating to our ecosystem through ceremonies and meditations. This is achieved by discarding the dualism of modern society, and realizing there is only spirit.
Such an approach, that negates the dualistic concept of mind and matter, spiritual and physical, has been termed ‘co-essence’.
Co-essence describes how the spiritual essence is shared and flows between beings and realms. Co-essence describes this experience of shared connection, symbiosis, the necessary and extensive interdependence, co-existence, of the Web of life. Co-essence recognizes that our essence is shared, that my essence is as much in you as in me.
Correlates to the concept of ‘co-essence are found in the pan-Mesoamerican beliefs of nagualismo and tonalismo, signifying the transformation of a person into an animal, and a person’s companion animal or destiny, which everyone is believed to possess. Such aspects of co-essence embody peoples ties to the earth, nature, and fate, as mediated by animals and bio-regions.
Co-essence is a body wisdom that is cultivated in many shamanic practices. By inducing altered states of consciousness through the body – prolonged dancing, singing, extreme heat or cold, plant psychedelics, hyper-ventilation – the gates of perception are opened, revealing the systemic co-essence of nature.
The cultivation of systemic perception and the experience of interconnectivity brings about a paradigm in health and living that is fundamentally ecological because we no longer regard nature as ‘other’. We feel, to use chaos physicist and evolutionary biologist Stuart Kauffman’s phrase, ‘At Home in the Universe’.
We come to feel ‘in’ the world rather than on it. We are brought down to our humblest bacterial roots and understand ourselves as channels of the elements in this creative, vivid and mysterious planetary process. We understand ourselves to be more humble than we may have thought, yet simultaneously more, through virtue of our fundamental interconnection with everything else.
This experience re-configures the ingrained and unquestioned mode of thinking of reality in terms of ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’, ‘mind’ and ‘matter’. The transpersonal experience confronts and calls into question these conventional categories with which we cut up and rationalize the flowing mystery of our experience within this world. There dawns an understanding that is much more supple, where the snake bites its tale, and the distinctions between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ become more dynamic and fluid.
We share and are connected in a greater movement we are creating together. Our thoughts are each others thoughts, a collective chorus of life, the unified thoughts of the uni-verse, the One Song. We are all part of each other. As the Huichol say “Todos unidos !” – All united.