Shamanista, mama, elder, metastatic cancer survivor, SoulCollage® facilitator, Sagittarian in the Ophiuchus window, snake clan, scar clan, and a whole lotta other labels that don’t really contain me.
Embrace of the Serpent is fictionalized biography, but if you’ve seen the film then you came to know the starring shaman, Karamakate, as an angry, suspicious, impatient, racist, and sometimes petty man who withheld healing on the basis of his very human traits. And most of us in the shamanic community have at least read other’s accounts of real-life shamans in the Amazon who have lacked integrity- if we haven’t had the direct experience of this ourselves. Shamans in Mongolia can also develop reputations of having ego inflations, of being territorial, and petty. Specific South America tribes have an anthropological reputation of engaging in all-out shaman wars, resulting in the death of tribal children. So historically, shamans have been very human and subject to all sorts of human conditions.
Shamanism is a role much more than it is a title. It’s an expectation that the individual fulfilling the role will perform certain necessary functions for the community. This is universally true. But in indigenous cultures, cultures perhaps less poisoned by the waters that muddy contemporary societies, there’s a pristine innocence that not only puts the shaman on equal with every other member of the community, it allows the shamanic expression to be far less complicated than it ever can be in modern cultures. This lack of complication may actually be the impetus driving our very high expectations of the modern shaman.
I’ve been grappling with this idea for several months now, trying to understand exactly why it is that in the West we have such high expectations of anyone who would dare call themselves “shaman.” Not only do contemporary shamans come up against this pervasive idea that broken lineages and modern life (complications and consequences of imperialism, colonialism, industrialization, class, race, ethnicity, etc.) prohibit one from ever being a ‘real shaman’, but the standard set for what a shaman should look like is so high that one must nearly be Jesus to attain the right to call oneself a "shaman."
Why is it that in contemporary cultures we expect our shamans to be more than just spiritual intercessors, but to also be emotionally intelligent, to have complete mastery of their emotional states, their ego projections, their psyches, as well as their spirit bodies? We expect an uncompromising maturity, a total ascetic discipline that is free from hedonistic human desires and temptations, and the ability to present all of this in service to the community in a very demanding, post-industrial culture with all it’s politics, it’s unspoken rules, and complications brought through rapid technological expansion.
The conclusion I have undeniably arrived at is that those of us in technologically advanced cultures are bombarded, day-in and day-out with sorcery. It’s all around us. Through our music, our televisions, our computers and handheld devices, through the books we read, the magazines and newspapers, even the billboards we pass by in our communities. Everywhere. And maybe, if there ever was a ‘shaman war’, we’ve actually been in one and not even known it, lulled to sleep by a poisonous and pervasive vapor. Maybe our shamans have been here all along, and the lineage hasn’t really been broken. It’s been forgotten, repressed, suppressed, as part of the grander scheme of things.
I know I run the risk of sounding like one of those crazed conspiracy theorists. But we don’t have to look far past the American colonialization of the First Peoples (think Wounded Knee here) to see that the very foundation was rotten. It’s not my intention to get political, but social issues are intricately intertwined. And I’m well aware of ‘revisionist history.’ But this is exactly how deep and thick it’s gotten- we can barely tell what is truth and what is not anymore. We truly are in an information war, and one that systematically seems to want to keep trapping us in a feedback loop (the ouroboros, perhaps). No matter what you believe of history and the powers that be, the undeniable fact is, our modern culture is built around sorcerous, life-destroying, soul-eating machinations that have attempted to mentally enslave us all.
I am often telling people my motto in life has long been, ‘question everything.’ And I am fully convinced this is more relevant today than it was even back in my childhood Sunday school days, when I innocently wanted to know the answers to the questions that arose from careful examination of the Christian dogma. I believe we are living in times when ‘it’, whatever we want to call it or however we want to think about it (think A Wrinkle in Time here), is in and through everything.
We have to have the skills to delicately unravel and divide truth from untruth. This means neither swallowing anything whole, nor throwing the whole baby out with the bathwater.
All while we are tempted heavily to do one or the other- to make firm decisions and draw hard lines. We have to carefully inspect each thing. And yes, it’s demanding and we’re (perhaps intentionally) being overwhelmed. You all are so incredibly brave to be here now!
I imagine that although most indigenous cultures have been touched (or intruded upon) by the advancing technological cultures, many still maintain a simplicity and innocence that those of us in contemporary culture, no matter how hard we try, can never have again- at least not in our lifetimes. It’s simply too late to turn back. We’re already tainted. Sure, many of us, most especially shamanic individuals, are feeling that archaic impulse. We long for the connection with nature, with one another, with community, with the simple purity of village life. But these two things- the archaic impulse and the shamanic impulse- are separate. They are often confused, and they do overlap. But they are distinct things. And so, here we are, in the post-modern, post-industrial culture, with all the complexities of government, politics, social structure, the isolation of the nuclear family model, the market economy, and the constant bombardment of information coming at us while trying to make the way for these rising archaic and shamanic impulses in a way that salvages the good, while actively trying to subvert, alchemize, or at the very least recognize the dark matter, the ‘it.’
This is not a task for the faint of heart. And again, what brave warriors we truly are, to be here now, in this time, doing the work to harness these shamanic and archaic impulses in a way that translates to our culture and evolves us forward. You are not alone. This is a team effort that doesn’t just demand a fierce bravery, it also demands a disciplined restraint, a high level of discernment, and an unwavering commitment.
We literally are raising up the shamanic archetype from the dead, where it was subverted and chained long ago. In and through us.
And so, perhaps this is why there exists a high standard for our shamans in urban culture. We expect them to be of the priest class really, ascetic, astute, well-educated (and I don’t necessarily mean in systemic public schools) - well trained and well disciplined warriors. And this work, to do this work, to have the clarity and discernment necessary, there’s not really any other way to acquire that without also being an alchemist to some degree.
But let’s be clear- a shaman and an alchemist are two distinct things. Through the lenses I wear, these two things are mutually exclusive. I recently had a discussion with another shaman who shared that he had heard Michael Harner speak in person, and that Harner also made the distinction between the sorcerer, the shaman, and the alchemist. I was unable to find any written or video material where Harner makes such statements (and only found this pertaining to it), but if it is true what this shaman told me, then I wholeheartedly agree with Michael Harner. Because one can be a shaman, and not an alchemist. And one can be an alchemist, and not a shaman. But also, one can be both. And I am beginning to believe that to be an urban shaman in this incredibly complex time, one must be both.
Some have compared the alchemical transmutation process to the shamanic initiation process. And there are striking similarities- almost indistinguishable, actually. But having an initiatory experience, going through the death, descent, and resurrection (or re-birth) is alone not enough to make one into a shaman. Because, remember, shaman is a role of service. Alchemy is about self-work. It’s about knowing self, doing Shadow work, clearing out debris, and becoming a clean channel, or ‘hollow bone.’ It’s a process of self-actualizing, and is very self-determined. And the difference between shamanism and sorcery is often exactly the difference between whether one has engaged a transmutation process, or not. Some sorcerers are consciously intentional, but many more are not. They are simply acting out of Shadow impulse, not even conscious of it. And so, just like with alchemy, a sorcerer can be either a shamanic individual or not a shamanic individual.
So it’s interesting to consider alchemy in terms of a sorcerous, modern culture, a culture which has been subjected to a psychological understanding of self (‘psyche‘ meaning ‘breath, soul, spirit’ and ‘logia’ meaning ‘study’), and also to psychological warfare (or psyops) for decades. When we contrast our culture with indigenous, animistic cultures (and shamanism and animism are also distinct things) there’s little to no conception of ‘self’ in animistic culture. We would do little good to talk to an indigenous shaman about Shadow work, or Ego, or self-actualization and self-determination. These concepts simply don’t fit into the experiences of indigenous communal lives. In fact, as the White Shaman mural in Southern Texas may indicate, the ancient peoples of the Americas often didn’t see themselves as corporeal beings at all. So this concept of Ego is relatively new in the linear process of the evolution of human thought. And along with that came the concept of the Shadow.
The Shadow came onto the scene in the early 1900’s, as Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist, successor to Freud, spent from 1913-1917 experiencing a “confrontation with the unconscious.” It was through this experience that his theories about the Shadow emerged. But keep in mind, this was only a hundred years ago. And while people in contemporary society may only know of Jung with some vague familiarity, and they may know nothing of his theories on the Shadow, the theory itself speaks to an experience that, if correct, transcends all culture.
And we can certainly look to the warring shamans of the Yanomami, for example, and conclude that they needed to do some deep Shadow work. But this is admittedly a complicated issue that also deserves an article of it’s own. More relevant to this discussion- does the concept of the Shadow transcend culture? If it is indeed an archetype, as Jung suggested, then it must, because an archetype is universal. It may express itself uniquely based on the culture, but it’s universal in it’s essence. Yet, if it’s a construct of consciousness itself, and men and women in relatively undeveloped Amazonian cultures have not been exposed to the concept, how can they know? At what level and through what process would such a human engage in ‘Shadow work?’ It may not be true that the self-determination that characterizes the individuation process is universal. I don’t know. And I’m certainly no expert.
But here in the United States, and in nearly all other contemporary cultures, self-determination, at least on the individual level, is a characteristic of modern life. Jung stated that he took a lot of his ideas from European and Asian alchemy. But actually, alchemy predates both, going as far back as Hellenistic Egypt. In many ways alchemy can be seen as the precursor to modern psychology as a system for man studying himself, knowing himself.
So Jung and alchemy are intermixed. And while Jung is both 100 years young in his theory on the archetypal nature of the Shadow, he is also a hundred years old too. In this rapidly evolving, global, technological culture we find ourselves in, we have to consider that the inherent wisdom and gnosis contained within the alchemical treatises must be re-visioned for our current times, perhaps even beyond Jung’s contributions. In my opinion, many adherents of Jung’s concepts go astray and get stuck in the quicksand trap of solipsism. That again is better left for another article, but to shed light: according to Merriam-Webster, solipsism is “a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing.” This idea of projection (as an Ego defense) is intricately tied to solipsism, but as shamans we cut ourselves off at the knees if we get too carried away with solipsistic beliefs, because every intrusion we attempt to extract in another becomes a mere projection of our own making. Solipsism and shamanism are antithetical, in my opinion. They just don’t function well together, because one cannot effectively be in service to others and remain so self-focused.
Another facet of this discussion that can’t be ignored is the idea of duality. It’s unpopular in many non-religious spiritual circles these days to even entertain ideas that are dualistic in nature. Many people assume they are more evolved spiritually than others because they can see above, or beyond the duality contained in just about everything. But this is nature. It’s encoded. Male/female. Night/day. Sun/moon. And the integration of opposites is a major theme in most of the alchemical art.
And so, what does all of this have to do with being an urban shaman? The sorcery is thick and deep.
And the only way to combat it, to separate out the gold from the poisonous lead, is to have been through the process of transmuting it within self. It always has to start with self. But it doesn’t end there.
That’s the solipsistic trap. In modern culture, if a dominant aspect of the shamanic impulse is the Wounded Healer, then the Wounded Healer must transmute the wound to make the medicine which he/she administers to others through the role of healer. One cannot be both wounded and the healer at the same time, otherwise one is healing others from their wound, which is the insidious way the sorcery creeps in and works through the unexamined Wounded Healer. Discussion of the signature expression of that is best left for another day, another article. But the point is, an awful lot of sorcery occurs through well-meaning, but unexamined people. The alchemical processes, and they are many and sometimes harsh, serve to purify.
Quite simply, these complex and demanding times require shamans who can step up to the plate and meet the challenges. And it’s not that indigenous shamans are naïve. They’re just under-exposed to the complexities of urban life. I am certain if we were to bring an indigenous shaman into American culture, he could easily identify it and would be in awe of how much sorcery we contend with in our daily lives. And he’d probably want to return quickly to his own way of life, which is much freer from all these distractions. But it doesn’t make one any more or less shaman. Different cultures, different expectations. I’m not an anthropologist, nor am I an expert on shamanism, but I imagine the shaman in an indigenous culture that is relatively free of the inherent sorceries that we face, who comes from a strong lineage, this shaman has a very different initiation process than what urban shamans face. In urban shamanism the initiation process is usually surrounded by trauma, some type of abuse or catastrophic event, maybe even a major illness, injury, or near death experience- not brought about by the natural and harmonious relationship with the land, or a direct context of initiation, but through the daily normalcy of human-on-human violence, or the irresponsible actions of others, or even self-harm.
And for us, without the context of shamanic elderhood or supportive community to frame these initiations, the initiations themselves are less pure, less contained. Because being sent out into the wilderness alone with an initiatory mission of collecting samples from several different animals (claws, fur, quills, teeth, feathers, etc.), and then returning home to a celebratory tribe, is nowhere near the same thing as walking through an intersection and being hit by someone texting while they’re driving. Both can be initiatory experiences, but in radically different ways.
So urban shamans are left to transmute these initiations, doing the alchemical work to put them to use in service to others. For now, it is up to us individually to do this work, as we do often lack context and elders, and initiation isn’t held in the same ways for us.
But initiation is initiation is initiation. Living in the complex urban environment we're in, it just makes it more obvious that to get from initiation into a role of service, as urban shamans we have to also be alchemists. And in many ways, the alchemists of bygone may have been our ancestors, and this may actually be our shamanic lineage.