for the last few days, i have been contemplating how to speak about shamanism. the question started with how to describe it, and then got lost describing how indescribable and foreign it truly is.
the thought that haunted me was one of nagel’s. he says we will never know what it is like to hear like a bat.
my thought was this: how do we ever come to understand the thought processes behind shamanism. these are oral traditions passed on by the elders. their cultural myths infuse everything they do, from the houses they build to the baskets they weave, from the plants and animals of their environments, to the very acts of birth, sex and their very food, their ancestors and stories saturate everything they do.
we already know there are neurological differences between the literate and illiterate, between professions which involve heavy memorization such as a taxi driver and generations who are heavily influenced by video games and television. our environments shape us, shape our very brains, the way we interact and understand the world.
as my spiritual teacher said when i told her about this class, “shamanism is a religion at the tips of your fingers. the spirits are in your ears, they delight in what you see, what you taste, they’re in your hair. anything else is too shallow.”
she had said this in response to my statement that i was aiming to make the class more academic, more like an anthropological study. that was my way of dealing with the indescribable aspect of shamanism. my way of dealing with the complications trying to give a mental window into a world that typically takes the lifetime of a tribal person to incorporate. a world with a different history and relationship to knowledge and the self, a very different mind and brain.
“people will feel hollow if you just give them information, it won’t have life,” she said.
and she was right. i had forgotten the first aspect of anthropology. you have to try and see through the eyes of the culture, you can’t just study it from outside.
i spent a week trying to figure out how to talk about this, how to present a class that is attempting to understand a completely different world.
that Saturday i had a client who told me that during our hypnosis session she felt herself soaring as a hawk, the wind in her feathers. she then told me she once had a dream that she was a greyhound and knew how to run on four feet.
a kogi once said, “to think is to listen.”
instantly the thought came, the inspiration that she was talking of shape shifting, the shamanic belief and practice of becoming another animal, sometimes in dream, sometimes in vision, sometimes they believe in physical reality.
a similar concept had been brewing in my head for months, particularly around the shamanic use of masks, of assuming different roles.
when i hypnotize people i never sneeze, hiccup, cough or do any of the things i used to believe were unavoidable. my body knows it's not the time, i am in a different role, one where these functions don't work, and so when i feel them coming on, my body shuts them down. essentially i put on a mask, a new role.
this happens all the time in our lives. gruff men become loving fathers when they get home from work. neurotics step into the position of psychologists and do wonderful jobs. trauma victims become energy workers and healers. good, kind men and women find themselves in positions of authority and suddenly become tyrants. we are constantly donning new masks, and with them comes a whole new way of perceiving and interacting with the world.
shamanism knows this the world over. it is the very answer to nagel’s bat. shamanism says we can hear like the bat, we can fly like the hawk and run like the greyhound, it is its own answer to how we understand the shamanic mind.
of course, this creates a paradox. we do not truly, empirically know that we are having anything close to the sensation of flying, hearing by echolocation, or running four legged. we must simply believe that we are.
in a way we know and do not know.
the world of shamanism is filled with such paradoxes. to the mythic mind these contradictions indicate a vital truth, to the logical mind it reflects an invalid premise. just one more rift that we must bridge if we are to understand a way of life so different than our own.
on Sunday i was editing a work i am piecing together, following the year with poems and musings. in editing i came to the piece for that very day, something i hadn't read in a year, a piece written in February years before, a piece that speaks most clearly to the shamanic beliefs of visitation and inspiration, more so than the other 365 pieces that have taken a rather roman tone.
the poetic piece was unique, spoke of visitations and the very questions i was asking, how do i bridge this rift of premises and tell of what i have learned from shamanism?
the answer was simple, i listen.
two days later i heard that quote from the kogi, “thinking is listening.” it comes from a movie called aluna, one i was watching to see if it would be appropriate for the class.
it feels as if something is teaching, moving, guiding the shaping of this class, whether it be unconscious archetype, synchronicity or spirit.
this is another experience of shamanism, the guiding experience that walks us through the paradoxes, teaches us both sides of the coin, and arranges life in such a way that we know something true is speaking to us.
this answered for me a question I had also been asking since Friday: what do i share from my own personal experiences of shamanism? can i separate my experiences from what i know.
the answer came as a no.
so here we are. we see where the difficulty is, we’re trying to understand a whole other world. we must find a way to don a new mask, to enter into a completely different mindset so that we may understand this beautiful culture and paradigm.
first we must identify what that mask is. what is our definition of shamanism?
then, once we see the mask we don, we need to see how this is different from our traditional role.
in shamanism everything holds a sphere of influence, whether that be a tree’s roots, the sun or a shaman's drum, we affect the world around us.
just like modern physics and anthropology ask us to take note of the observer of a system, we must see how our normal mask is viewing and creating this new role.
together we will see how all of this information, experience and our own interaction move and develop this new entity of understanding, the interaction between ourselves and a new vision of the world.