Shamanism is a dimension of human experience that can be found in every culture in any age. It can be observed in a variety of forms, ranging from a fundamental spontaneous experience, derivative culturally shared practices, or as veiled motifs of spiritual, medical, artistic, scientific, and psychotherapeutic interventions.

Paradoxically, as shamanism becomes more culturally shared, it may become less authentic—less culturally challenging—and degenerative. Provoked by an experience of everyday life as a sort of “half-truth,” shamanism is a method that focuses on the erroneous belief in a separation of human life from nature. Shamanism focuses specifically on remaining alert to the creatural dimensions of human life that can be overridden by cultural, socio-psychological dimensions of everyday life.

Shamanism is an expression of an enduring wild state to remain alert to the changing conditions of existence and integrate into the natural world that continues to design and express human life across the long run.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

An Enduring Ancient Way

Copyright Lance Kinseth, Shaman Prayers For The Earth, 36”x36, 2003

Shamanism may be the oldest human healing art.  This ancient way offers the modern “peopled” Earth a primary healing resource rather than a secondary archaic remnant.  Fundamental shamanism aspires to “heal” by integration with cosmic forces that continue to design human life rather than by manipulation.

1. Fundamental Shamanism

IN THE REAL WORK [p.10], Gary Snyder defines the “modern” timeframe as the last two thousand years rather than by time frames such as “20th Century” or by concepts tied to material development such as “post-industrial” or by ideological concepts such as “post-modern” or “civilized.”  In fact, this paper finds an eternal enduring continuity, and posits an enduring “wild state” that continues rather unchanging from ancient times into the post-modern era that offers a resource for self and society.  This wild state emerges spontaneously as a state of alertness to the conditions of existence so that human life can bring itself into harmony with those conditions.  The “wild state” recognizes that we continue to be designed by and continue to be an expression of the larger Earth ecosystem no matter how distant we feel.  This state recognizes that we are both very young in the history of the Earth and that we are lost deeply in stellar evolution rather than separate.  This wild state is essentially creatural rather than psychological or cultural and involves experiences of events in the landscape, such as water and wind and plants, as being within one’s identity.  The term, “beingness,” describes a larger dimension beyond personality and society that contains the creatural or totemic nature of human life.  

Searching for “shamanism” in both “developed” and indigenous contemporary societies, the visible shamanism is likely to be cultural rather than creatural, and more homocentric than cosmic.  In Shamanism, Mircea Eliade argues that shamanism may “degenerate” or weaken as it becomes more culturally elaborated to serve cultural rather than creatural or cosmic needs.  The practices tend to be shared throughout the culture or subculture when they begin to address personal needs more than when they challenge personal and cultural interests.  In societies where shamanism a visible practice, Eliade notes that the contemporary shamanism may be described by societal members as being less powerful than the original shamanism of that society.

“Shamanic societies” may be more nature-oriented than other societies, but not necessarily nature-sensitive, especially when faced with population pressures and now-global interpenetration by other societies.  Natural events such as forest ecosystems or specific biota take on meaning that is specific to the culture rather than universal, and it often begins to reinforce cultural actions that are anthropocentric, rather than Earth-centric and culturally-challenging.  The odds are strong that cultural support for shamanism in a society that one might describe as shamanic is a measure of cultural manipulation to serve orthodox cultural traditions and personal needs rather than serve the larger Earth ecosystem.  Often, practices that are identified as “shamanism” may describe shamanistic elements that are secondary “motifs” of religious practices and folk healing.  “Shamanic practices” may be reactionary movements that are religious in nature that incorporate shamanic motifs to challenge to the dominant social order within the culture more than they aspire to serve the larger Earth ecosystem.             

Western passion for shamanism due to a sense of something missing in post-modern life can unintentionally contribute to the degeneration of the fundamental shamanic experience by adopting non-Western practices.  Western “shamanism” does typically describe practices that derive from within Western culture, becaue it misses the presence of shamanic experience within Western culture.  Adoption of non-Western practices and Western “shamanic tourism” can be a form of cultural robbery as well as contribute to the degradation of shamanism into a “business.”

The “ancient” shamanism that endures in any age and in any culture is a fundamental, acultural, personal experience that tends to be eventually limited rather than strengthen by cultural elaboration and support.  The enduring shamanism aspires to remain a method of access rather than a belief system, and so it continually critiques itself in order to remain fresh an alert. 

Fundamental shamanism is an action-state, that of shamanizing, and resists becoming a derivative cultural “ism.”   Fundamental shamanism attends to the non-cultural, creatural dimensions of human life–seasons and weathers, the waters, flora and fauna, the landform and stars.  Fundamental shamanism serves the larger Earth ecosystem rather than a personal quest or societal goal.  Fundamental shamanism does aspire to optimize human life by aspiring to inform human life of the primary impact of these dimensions on human life.  Fundamental shamanism experiences [rather than believes in] human health as continuing to be primarily a creatural rather than a cultural process.  From this perspective, optimal human health requires attentiveness to the large conditions of existence both on a personal and societal level.  When this attentiveness is lessened, the quality of human life is degraded.

2. Toward a Strategy of Residency

TWO THOUSAND years of modernity and tens of thousands of years of cultural emergence do not override hundreds of thousands of years of emergence as species sapiens.  While contemporary urban life may seem nearly separate and above nature, human life is still young in the life of the Earth, and perhaps even neonatal and far from mature.   Instead of being distinct from nature, our most rational measures reveal that human life remains deeply inside nature so that there is, remarkably, less of a distinction between culture and nature.

This is not to say that modern human life is much the same as ancestral human life.  The contemporary condition of existence might be said to be a “post-natural” one in which human life now modifies all landscapes, and landscapes, in turn, feedback degrading environmental quality on a global scale.  Now, having peopled the Earth with no remaining physical frontiers, our longstanding strategy of pioneering appears to be in need of transformation to a strategy of residency.  The stored capital of vast physical frontiers has allowed us to delude ourselves with as sense of dominion over nature as our way forward.  Now we are beginning to understand that human life remains significantly creatural and requires attention to events beyond culture to meet our most practical interests and not simply our aesthetic interests if we are to optimize the quality of human life for the short run and perhaps to sustain for the long run as a species.  As wild creatures, modern human life needs methods to continue to remain wildly alert to the conditions of existence.

3.   Shamanism as a Method for Accessing a Wild State

FROM A SHAMANIC perspective, there is no distinction between nature and culture.  Like a flower, human life is experienced to be inseparable from wind and water and mineral.  And so, in any age, it is essential to access events beyond culture both for optimal health and basic survival.

In contemporary life, science is very effective at attending to or measuring many aspects of natural phenomena that impact upon everyday life.  Still, a dimension of human experience that comes to be termed shamanism spontaneously arises.  This experience is two-fold.  First, there is an experience of one’s everyday life as an incomplete experience of reality at best.  This experience is explored by many practices other than shamanism, including formal religion, varieties of spiritual expression, psychic and metaphysics, and even our most rational measures of scientific inquiry.  However, shamanism is differentiated by its emphasis upon the experience of being a “creature” or a human “wild state” that attends to acultural events such as trees and wind as primary reaches of self that design human life.  In the experience of shamanizing, the voice of landscape is experienced as inside one’s personal identity.

The self or personality that can emerge from shamanic methods is a “wild” or, more accurately, totemic identity.  That is to say, a person’s working/conscious identity includes elemental events beyond culture as primary facets to be attended to if health is to be optimal.
From a shamanic perspective, the exclusion of acultural events from identity limits rather than optimizes the quality of human life and places long-run sustainability at risk.

In shamanic experiences, human life derives from landscape—from beyond self and culture.   The living, vital shamanism inescapably is a fundamental, uncompromising method that challenges culture.   For example, an early shamanism of a coastal society might challenge the community to reexamine its exploitation of the nearby sea and impose self-limits as a solution to the reduced quality of a fishery.  The “ancient” shamanic way authentically endures as beyond culture, fundamental more than derivative, and creatural.  At its most authentic, shamanic method aspires to bring human life into harmony with its larger, inescapable, inseparable creatural dimensions that are present in any era. 

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