The truth is that there is too much to say. Too much for an essay, too much for a single monograph, or even perhaps a series of them. What shamanism – in whatever form it may take, for whatever methods and techniques or ways of knowing that may be assigned to the word – has to offer to the modern West, what possibilities it opens, and what contradictions and conflicts it may introduce, is a subject upon which it would be unreasonable to expect a single endeavor to have any hope of approaching a fully definitive statement. The hope of this short essay then cannot be to architect the weight-bearing structures of a comprehensive argument, but rather to bend down to the earth, and humbly plant a seed. A seed not arrogantly offered to the mind of the reader for whom such seeds and ideas may have long since found their place – likely to the point of broader and more efficacious expansion or contestation – but to the mind of the author, that by having been offered, they might not so soon be forgotten.
The modern West seems to have reached a crisis of faith. Economic structures tremble on the verge of collapse. Political ideologies have become brittle, unable to adapt or evolve at pace with the changes in the societies they are meant to guide and represent. Natural “resources” – consciously objecting to the anthropocentrism inherent in this characterization apropos of a Heideggerian ‘productionist metaphysics’ (see Zimmerman 1990) – have begun to manifest signs of being overtaxed, their further exploitation requiring ever more elaborate measures or invasive devastation to tap, with all the attendant disastrous consequences these entail. The 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico is only the latest and most public example. It is increasingly difficult to trust that our water, our air, and our soil are free of contamination. Increasingly difficult to trust our banks not to fail, our officials to ethically and responsibly govern. Anxieties and repressions betray us, working like an undertow against our own more noble endeavors. The modern West seems to have, in many cases simply and perhaps quite rightly, lost faith.
But this wound is one wound. The existential anguish too easily discernable in the modern West, and the all but unchecked ecological devastation being wreaked moment by moment and day by day on the natural world, are not, as they may at first glance appear to be, two separate cancers. Our wound is one wound, but as evidenced by the Cartesian divide so entrenched in the ontologies of the West, we witness this wound made manifest in two seemingly distinct realms: that of mind, and that of body. That is to say that there is an existential crisis, this ‘loss of faith’ or a Weberian ‘disenchantment’, visible in the life patterns of both groups and individuals, evident in their ways of living, thinking, and desiring. But concomitant with this, and here it is necessary to assert that it is concomitant and not simply correlated or contemporary with, are the ecological disasters and apocalyptic scenarios so often painted in the rhetoric of environmental collapse, global warming, and ecosystem disruption or obliteration. If our social and often individual alienation and nihilism are the wound in the mind of our Cartesian dualism, the ecological disasters are the wound as manifested in the body. It is a single wound, expressed multiply, anthropocentric and Cartesian thought dividing humanity from nature as mind is divided from body.
Shamanism stands in a unique place among the many methodologies of healing and integration to approach such a wound, able to act simultaneously upon physical and psychological realities without an absolute division between the two. Indeed, it is just in shamanism’s focus on the underlying ‘spiritual’ reality of illness and disease that this potential efficacy can be found, whether spirit itself is posited to have an ontological reality, or is seen to be simply the affective space of play between these two other Cartesian-established polarities. Though spirit may ultimately, upon investigation and using shamanic techniques – by taking shamans, as Jeremy Narby suggests, seriously and “at their word” (108) – prove to be more than simply the becoming-space of difference between the mind and body, even if spirit is limited to this notion alone, it would not of necessity lack the salutary power to be effective in the healing of this existential/ecological cancer.
Such a pronouncement, of course, cannot be granted without evidence. To consider shamanism potentially viable as a methodology of healing and integration, a number of considerations must be taken into account. First, and perhaps foremost, is the techno-scientific lens through which the modern West views itself and the world, and the critique of this way of knowing that must occur in order to make both conceptual and ethical space in the discourse for the radically different way of knowing and acting that shamanism entails. Such a radical difference in ways of knowing and conceiving bring to mind, and to the discourse, the necessary “change in consciousness” that has been posited by many participating in the movements that can be broadly located within the phenomenon that Bron Taylor has termed “Dark Green Religion”, especially those, for the purposes of this discussion, of deep ecology and neo-shamanism. That the elaboration of this idea does not fall into the ever-present trap of utopianism, the limitations of importing shamanic concepts to the modern West must be considered, and the oft-ignored dark side of shamanic activity must also be recognized and given place. Finally, however, despite and in some cases even because of the constraints and limitations inherent in shamanism, it may prove possible to consider shamanism as a viable ‘spiritual’ methodology to engage with the crises of the modern West, as it may present a uniquely egalitarian, anti-centrist, holistic, and local-as-global form of spirituality.
A Short Critique of Western Modernity
The Kogi, after nearly four hundred years of seclusion, emerged from the Sierra Nevada with their warning to Younger Brother, bringing a message “from the heart of the world.” Their warning of rampant deforestation, unchecked mining, and pollution of the natural world was designed to alert us that these actions were not simply going to lead to ecological and spiritual collapse at some point in the future, but were already producing effects of that very collapse. That warning came over twenty years ago, and despite some tentative political rhetoric, little has substantively changed in the intervening years. At best, the rapidity of certain depredations has been slowed, but the attitudes embedded within socio-cultural realities of globalism, modernization, and capitalism have not abated. We hurtle ever more quickly toward environmental and ecological collapse, and though there is perhaps a need to remain intellectually wary of any message with such an apocalyptic tone, these dire prognostications are backed increasingly and more urgently by scientific investigations, those both of micro-environments and local ecologies, as well as those more globally situated, especially in terms of global warming. It is beyond the scope of this essay to provide sources for the elaboration and justification of these ideas, but Al Gore’s work such as Earth in the Balance or the film, and literature surrounding, his An Inconvenient Truth would act as excellent primers toward the same.
The fact of these warnings on impending ecological collapse, though, does not answer from whence the courses of action that have led to such a state originated, nor what modes of conceiving of the world produced the frameworks wherein such action could occur. There is no simple answer to this question. Philosophies, religions, cultural idiosyncrasies, the expressions of political power, technological advancement and industrialization, along with many other possible currents of motive force, have all done their parts to shape any meaningful answer to such a question. However, for the purpose of opening space to the introduction of shamanism and shamanic ideas, it is possible to limit the necessary critique, for the time being, to a much smaller subset of these forces, taking on only the conflicts that must be directly engaged with to move forward. The most central conflict that must be addressed in the dialogue between shamanic worldviews and that of the modern West is the techno-scientific anthropocentrism that lies at the heart of Western ways of engaging with the natural world. It is arguably from the implications of this worldview that a great deal of the specific ecological and existential damage can be traced. To engage with this idea, however, we must investigate it in its parts.
When techno-scientism is spoken of in this context, it is not the process or procedure of science as a way of knowing that is being brought under critique directly, though there is a distinct argument to be made in terms of an intellectual colonialism on this front as well when it comes into imperialistic contact with indigenous ways of knowing. It is rather this worldview’s roots in what Michael Zimmerman has described as, in terms of Heidegger’s thought, a ‘productionist metaphysics’. By way of a minor explication of what is a significantly more complex argument, this is the notion that beginning as early as Plato in the history of Western thought, concepts and ideas themselves had begun to be positioned as artifacts of production, insofar as both concepts and objects-in-the-world were given epistemological veracity and ontological status only insofar as they ‘functioned’ toward some human-oriented goal or end. As Timothy Clark summarizes the argument, “the hidden anthropocentrism of Western thought, its unacknowledged projection of instrumentalist or technological modes of thinking upon the cosmos as a whole” (Clark 30) is that which underlies the exploitative cast of the structures of Western consciousness. Techno-scientism, as a means of knowing-and-production, is blind to realities that cannot be made to directly serve human interest, for it is only in terms of human interest that they are appropriated as knowledge. For modern techno-scientism, the essential nature of the factory is built into this very insistence upon proof-as-repetition for the production or manufacturing of any value of truth.
It is not, however, this techno-scientism alone that must come under critique, for ultimately it is the anthropocentrism that is bound up with such a worldview that lends the exploitative cast to such a way of knowing. Drawing a uniqueness around, and within the circle of, the ‘human’ as it divides from ‘nature’, as Von Stuckrad says of Schelling’s thought, “reduces nature to a ‘mere mechanism’” and that it “practically forces nature under humankind’s interests that do not shrink from nature’s destruction – ‘because as long as nature serves man’s needs, it will be killed’” (786). Such an effect on the ‘mere mechanism’ of nature seems evident in the ecological crisis facing the planet, and yet the deleterious effects of such anthropocentrism cannot be limited even to this. Much of the Weberian ‘disenchantment’, psychological dysfunction, and existential unrest in the modern West can also likely be laid at its feet. Positing as the ultimate end and final answer that from which the question itself springs is the very essence of nihilism. Anthropocentrism is doomed to failure as a worldview because it is in the end tautological. It insists upon the essential validity and necessity of the “human” just as it asks the question of what is essentially valid and necessary in that same “humanity”. That which cannot point beyond itself, dies, and in the death of such a worldview, the values upon which life and society are built have no referent beyond their own positing, leading inevitably, like an edifice with no foundation, to collapse.
Dark Green Religion
“’More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one’” (White, quoted in Taylor 11). It is to the nihilism that the failure of an anthropocentric worldview leads that an insistence upon a radical “change in consciousness” and even a kind of “spiritual awakening” is often suggested as the only potentially efficacious antidote. In Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion, such sentiments can be found in the rhetoric of those running the gamut from mystically-inclined poets to staunch atheist-materialist scientists – albeit with differing significance given the specific kinds of supernatural or naturalistic world views – but perhaps nowhere more clearly stated than in a discussion of Dave Foreman of Earth First!:
As Foreman put it in an early Earth First! Publication, ‘Until the paradigm of Western Civilization is replaced by another worldview’ – and here he alluded to the goddess religions of the ancients and to Native American worldviews – ‘until children see wisdom alone on a mountain rather than in books alone,’ the restoration of earth-harmonious communities will be impossible.
Without making any claims toward predicting what form or fashion such a change in consciousness or spiritual awakening might take, it does not seem to be suggesting too wild a notion to affirm that remedies leveraged toward only the symptoms of the existential and ecological crises in the West will invariably fall short. If the critique leveraged against a ‘productionist metaphysic’ does in fact show itself capable of standing up to a more rigorous investigation than space permits to undertake here, then it cannot be but by a radical alteration in the very way we ‘produce’ or engage with and create concepts, as well as their technological and mechanistic ‘products’, that such a change in consciousness could come about.
If no prediction on the form such a change in consciousness might ultimately take can be definitively put forward, it might no less enhance the discussion to attempt to locate within modern “Dark Green” movements forms that seem at least to precipitate such a change, if they may be themselves – in current configurations – uncertain to act as the sole agent of the same. Deep Ecology and Neo-Shamanism – or what Kocku Von Stuckrad terms, following Annette Høst’s lead, “modern western shamanism” (774) – both provide notable examples of existing systems of belief and action that have already attempted to begin incorporating the kind of radical changes in consciousness that seem in line with those suggested to be necessary more globally. As Bron Taylor reports in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (ERN) “many deep ecologists believe that only by ‘resacralizing’ our perceptions of the natural world can we put ecosystems above narrow human interests and learn to live harmoniously with the natural world, thereby averting ecological catastrophe” (456). Such a ‘resacralizing’ would position the natural world as having value intrinsic to its own existence, above and beyond its utilitarian value to humanity, a restructuring of value propositions necessary to a more fundamental change in consciousness. It is beyond the scope of this essay to offer either a defense or critique of deep ecology as such, but the movement bears notice in the current context given its concerns with ecological devastation and search for more radical methods by which a new way to live can be imagined and undertaken.
Just as deep ecology seeks to engage with ecological wrongs as perpetuated by human actors by means of a retraining or reimagining of consciousness and the actions so guided, so too do many forms of neo-shamanism attempt to salve the psychological and existential crises felt by many in the modern West. Though there is an undeniable overlap between ecological concerns and neo-shamanic themes, the majority of neo-shamanic theory and practice is done within the context of a kind of ‘therapy’ or spiritual healing. As Vitebsky states speaking of neo-shamanism, “Through the idiom of therapy, it is also relocated inside the self” (in Harvey 293). Though it is to Vitebsky’s point that neo-shamanism fails to engage with the essential holism that is entailed by shamanic cosmogonies and cosmologies, such an ‘internalizing’ of shamanic realities provides what can be seen to be, for a modern rational-positivist mindset ubiquitous in the West, a kind of necessary bridge between what would otherwise present too radical a departure from Western worldviews. This bridge may yet, as with deep ecology’s ‘resacralizing’, prove to be at least a preliminary model from which more radical departures from dominant Western worldviews may begin to take place.
The Problem of Holism
In a trenchant discussion of shamanism, especially an emergent or re-emergent neo-shamanism, Piers Vitebsky presents what is perhaps the single most critical argument against the possibility of translating shamanic worldviews to the lives and minds of those in the modern West. Though he traces a number of features of what can be seen as boundary-markers of shamanistic worldviews, it is his discussion of holism that proves to be his most central and devastating set of assertions against the Western appropriation of shamanism in its totality, and it is this holism that must be investigated and incorporated into any projection of shamanism as a potentially viable methodology and worldview as it relates to the crises of the modern West. Concurrent with this notion of holism, is the need to take a longer and further look at what has been termed the “dark side” of shamanism, in the form of sorcery, magical violence, and the ritual production of death, for such a “dark side” is by no means absent in indigenous worldviews upon which neo-shamanism purports to be patterned.
“The one thing global culture cannot recapture is the holistic nature of indigenous knowledge. Even where the epistemology is admired, there is a lack of appropriate context for belief and application” (Vitebsky 296). The problem is, perhaps at its heart, a postmodern one. Whatever the hopes and beliefs placed in neo-shamanism by Western practitioners, it is still ultimately “just another” way of viewing the world, a particular set of methods or means by which to gain insight or understanding, the revelations and knowledge acquired able to be multiply interpreted and applied. Neo-shamanism can be cross-pollinated by psychological therapies and insights, interpenetrated by the spiritual realities of other religious traditions, bound up with the scientific understandings, and simply ignored when other ways of knowing provide more direct or immediate results or responses, especially those that fit more fully or clearly with ontological structures already cognitively established. While this may be seen as a strength, in some senses, in that the useful or functional aspects of many traditions and ways of knowing might be made use of simultaneously, what it lacks is a cosmological unity, a single and coherent way of making the cosmic, local. “The shamanic sense of place, at once cosmic and local, becomes difficult to sustain but is replaced largely by a sense that each person carries the totality of space within themselves” (Vitebsky 295). This interiorization of shamanic realities ultimately denies them the radically transformative powers that are their birthright, leaving such power waiting, latent but non-actualized. If the power of shamanism is, as Joanna Overing suggests, its potential for ‘world-making’ (see Overing 1990) – which is to say, its capacity to construct and create worlds from the components of other worlds, such that novel experience is brought within cosmologically and ontologically meaningful parameters – then for shamanism to be effective in its most potent ways, the worlds that it creates from must fall within its purview. This is not to say that shamanism cannot draw from worlds and aspects of worlds that are not explicitly shamanic in nature, but rather that the worlds and worldviews of participants in shamanic experience must grant the authority of shamanic world-making to work in, over, and through the aspects of other worlds, such that it is not excluded from the totality of experience. If the reality of shamanic experience and power is seen to be something only “interior” to the participant or practitioner, then it is excluded from the breadth of the cosmological reality that shapes experience, and ultimately fails to be holistic in a meaningful sense.
Much to the same end, the vast majority of neo-shamanism finds itself situated within the “therapeutic” model as presented earlier. As Michael Harner himself says of his ‘core shamanism’, “The way I offer you is that of the healer, not the sorcerer, and the methods given are those for achieving well-being and health, and for helping others” (xxiv). While this is not to suggest that practitioners of neo-shamanism should be investing their energy in causing or perpetuating harm, much of the discourse surrounding neo-shamanism has very little space for recognizing that among indigenous practitioners of shamanism, the exercise of power is very often thronged about with the dialogues of ambivalence, inasmuch as power, shamanic or otherwise, is never seen to be inherently beneficent, but is rather capable of both harm and healing, at the same time. Indeed, in many indigenous cosmologies, the powers that heal stem from much the same source as those powers that kill (see Harner 1990 for a discussion of tsentsak among the Jívaro or Shuar, or Wright 1998 for a discussion of Kuwai and the origins of manhene among the Baniwa). This darker aspect of shamanism can ill-afford to be ignored or misunderstood, if the power of shamanism, even as it is translated into neo-shamanism, is to be hoped for as a source of transformative healing in the West. This, however, points more broadly to the problem of evil in general. In indigenous cosmologies, evil is very rarely something to be overcome, once and for all, and done away with permanently. Rather, evil – which is perhaps not the most precise term, but is meant to include without being limited to, disease, illness, hurt, sorcery, loss, and death – is an inarguable and unavoidable aspect of reality itself, given no less place or even necessity than the cosmological good. By being a presence that is not meant to be conquered, vanquished, or done away with, evil presents itself in dialogue with good, in a place of negotiation then that can include the human actor in both the resistance to and expression of both good and evil. This dialogue or negotiation is a crucial aspect of holism, for without cosmogonic or cosmological precedent for the persistence and ineradicability of evil, its presence presents a mortal obstacle to the viability of good. Daily life will consistently reaffirm the existence of both “good” and “evil” realities, and a spiritual methodology that does not intimately grapple with both, that does not present a coherent cosmological case for the existence and presence of both, will fail to be holistic in the ways most critical for such a spirituality to express and make use of power.
In Defense of Shamanism
How then is it possible to present any kind of answer to Vitebsky’s challenge of holism? Any such answer must engage with questions of ‘local’ spirituality, bioregional-oriented ecological and cultural action, cosmological holism, and a distinct wariness of the utopianism that can spring from an overly romanticized view of shamanism itself. Inasmuch as the nature of this essay is, at best, probative, no comprehensive argument will be undertaken, though certain possibilities will be pointed to, as avenues of further exploration. However, as cosmological holism is the most salient aspect of Vitebsky’s critique, and is that aspect that is least easily answered, the surrounding elements will be addressed first, by way of preparing the space.
To return again to a current within the broader umbrella of “Dark Green” movements, bioregionalism affords a number of correspondences with indigenous cultures that might be described as shamanic, or participating in shamanic worldviews. “Bioregionalism is both a philosophy and social activism that favors a small-scale, decentralized, and place-based approach to life,” (McGinnis in ERN, 188), a philosophy which
has also been influenced by a diversity of voices in social and ecological movements that support the spiritual, sacramental, psychological, and biophysical connections between human beings, the human awareness of place and community, and the understanding of nature as part of a larger circle of animals, plants, and insects.
(McGinnis in ERN, 188)
A philosophy or set of beliefs oriented in such a way show a profound resonance with many indigenous ways of life, already migrating toward the “animism in practice” (779) that Drury, cited by Von Stuckrad, states shamanism to be. Even further, “Bioregionalism is not a new idea but can be traced to the aboriginal, primal and native inhabitants of the landscape,” (McGinnis in ERN, 188), which is to say that it may be possible to see bioregionalism as simply a modern recapitulation of the same basic principles that shaped indigenous outlooks on a sense of place in the natural world. If it is possible to consider bioregionalism along these lines, then the possibility that shamanism, as a spirituality already proven to be effective in such a socio-cultural milieu, might be able to integrate into this Western development becomes one significant enough to note.
Bioregionalism is often associated with concepts of “self-rule”, the local and place-based styles of living quite understandably extending to systems of governance and authority. This dovetails nicely into one of Vitebsky’s statements on the core traits of shamanism, describing shamans as “often politically dissident or anti-centrist” (in Harvey, 279). Shamans and shamanic knowledge, especially that as revealed in ecstasy or ‘trance’, is regularly considered to be ill-conducive to the establishment of centralized forms of hierarchical power. This is not a wholly uncontested notion, however, as Nicholas Thomas argues explicitly, saying, “It would be wrong to assume that shamanism is in any sense essentially antihierarchical or essentially dissociated from hierarchy” (in Thomas and Humphrey, 16). Thomas and others in the same volume (Shamanism, History, and the State) put forward a number of arguments to the effect that shamanic power can be co-opted by the state, or by other politically-minded actors, toward the establishment of hierarchy. While there is neither time nor space to engage in such a debate in this essay, it is worth noting that in many of such examples, shamanic power was certainly made use of for the establishment of hierarchy, but significantly less often used in its maintenance, implying that shamanic power can be utilized to effect change, but is often too difficult to constrain to the formal outlines of more rigid hierarchies once that same change has been established. Shamanisms that remain coupled tightly to hierarchical power have a distinct tendency to bend toward priesthoods, the ecstatic and revelatory nature of the practice giving way to liturgical and dogmatic structures. As Stephen Hugh-Jones says of Horizontal Shamanism (HS, the ecstatic-tending type) when opposing it to Vertical Shamanism (VS, the priestly-tending type):
In many Amazonian societies, HS occurs on its own. It appears to be associated with more egalitarian, forest-oriented societies…. Secular power is often separated from sacred power…. Shamanism is individualistic, open to all adult men, frequently involves widespread and relatively free use of hallucinogenic substances, and is only peripherally involved in the ritual reproduction of society.
(Hugh-Jones in Thomas and Humphrey, 33)
It can reasonably be suggested then, I believe, that “ecstatic” shamanisms – those involving direct experience of other worlds and beings, and entailing individual revelations – can be seen as following Vitebsky’s “anti-centrist” marker, even if the line between ecstatic vs. priestly shamanisms may not always be a perfectly clear division. If this is so, then shamanism fits again into the social and political ideologies implied by bioregionalism, another area in which a Western cultural manifestation has interplay with shamanic worldviews.
Vitebsky’s critique of holism, especially as it concerns the cosmological aspects of a true, living holism, still lie unanswered, if perhaps approached by the interplay between bioregionalism and shamanism. The reality is that the way forward is not clear. As long as an animist-shamanic-ecological worldview is simply another option among many, a way of knowing that is measured by its applicability to a particular subset or domain of knowledge, but not seen to pervade the discourses of all modes of knowing, all modes of being and living – from the social and political to the simply pragmatic and commonplace, from the spiritual or religious to the philosophical and technological – then it will lack the truly transformative power that it might otherwise lay claim to. It may well be that such social, cultural, ontological, and epistemological transformation must take its cue from a phrase common in Anarchist theory, to “create the new world in the shell of the old.” Radical change on a global scale driven by the ideology of a single movement is not only unlikely, but brings with it the possibility of all the attendant nightmares of any other hegemony bordering on fascism. But what Vitebsky sees as the fragmentation of the environmental movements (in Harvey 292), I would argue might be instead seen as a new kind of adaptive strength. In the short term such confrontations with established power may certainly result in failures, but they will not always, and the loose association, the decisions to band together to act when and where such action seems necessary, dictated not by the dogmatic pressures of a monolithic Revolution, but rather by the passion of those individually dedicated to specific change is perhaps the single best avenue of hope for the progression of change in the modern world. Our very disenchantment and alienation can be seen as a kind of inoculation against many of the more overt forms of “movement” rhetoric, meaning that – so long as lapses into apathy or nihilistic despair can be averted – those committed to change are likely to be committed with eyes open and consistently critical, in the most positive sense, of all new forms and expressions of power, even those in which they participate toward their own ends. Such loose organization and cause-oriented gathering has a dynamic, organic quality to it that makes it fit easily within a bioregional philosophy, one which has the very real potential to provide back a new holism, one that is concerned locally, one that understands its life and its spirituality as bound up with the immediate place within which it finds itself situated, but has the capacity to bear in mind the boundaries of becoming between what is the local and what is the global. A movement that is not a movement cannot be resisted by the normal repressive structures. And it is shamanism, as both a series of techniques or an expression of spirituality, that has the potential to navigate the new boundaries, re-establishing holistic cosmologies, unique to the locality of place, but in ways that allow an open-ended dialogue with alternate cosmological holisms, non-reductively expressing unique spiritualities of those populating bioregionally local spaces, while simultaneously providing practicable models for spiritual and social life that, through the eristic and dissident nature of shamanism, allow social and cultural realities that have been shaped by these models to be held open and in negotiation. In a new world where boundaries are not the divisions between Kantian things-in-themselves, but rather Deleuzian processes of becoming, the borders and edges of things better understood in a Derridian sense of différance than as clearly demarcating object-identity certainties, shamanism provides the transgressive and transformative potentials to navigate such boundaries, as it has done between heavens, hells, and human lives since time immemorial. What remains is only the question of catalyst.
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