This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project. It’s the second one for the letter C, and it’s almost on time.
I’ve tried to tackle the subject of shamanic practice as a choice vs. shamanism as a calling for a while now, and I don’t think I’m done pondering it. Nevertheless, I figured I’d post this as a sort of random waypoint on my path of making up my mind about this. Maybe writing it “out loud” will help me clarify some of it. If this seems contradictory or unclear that’s because this is how my thoughts look right now. Please expect some detours and maybe a dead-end or two along the way.
When I first got in touch with shamanism as something Western people practiced, it was in the shape of someone close to me who attended several classes of the European branch of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS), whose work is based on Michael Harner’s understanding of “core shamanism.” As I understood it from that person’s explanations and my later reading of Harner’s book The Way of the Shaman (first published in 1980), this “core shamanism” was supposed to be a non-culture specific collection of shamanic techniques and a quasi-universal framework for using them. Harner apparently derived the basic contents of his “core shamanism” from his anthropological studies of shamanic cultures in various parts of the world, where he found many aspects that seemed similar across cultures and therefore suggested to him that there was some underlying common ground to all of them. His idea was to avoid appropriating any specific culture and instead take the bare bones of the methods and teach them to other Westeners as a basis from which to develop/discover their own specific shamanic worldview.
At first, that sounded pretty good to me. After all, I knew there had been way too many Westerners already who had taken elements of other cultures’ spiritualities and used them completely out of context. Not only was that a politically problematic thing to do (colonialist exploitation, anyone?), but I also couldn’t help doubting that methods appropriate for people living in a totally different environment really worked more or less the same for Westeners in a thoroughly urban setting. So taking nothing but the culture-free techniques seemed like a good alternative to that. And unlike a gazillion New-Age crackpots whose writings I had encountered already, Harner seemed at least to have some kind of understanding of the problems that come with the Western use of non-Western culture. That alone seemed a lot in comparison.
Nevertheless, I remained skeptical about the FSS workshops I heard and read about. If nothing else, they seemed way to large to me – how would any teacher be able to even notice every student’s needs (not to mention their hangups, issues, and possibly even characteristics that made them thoroughly unfit for that kind of work) in a weekend workshop with fifty participants? Or even twenty? I also didn’t like the idea that after the workshop people were basically left to their own devices. How would any teacher be able to remain available to their students should something come up when they usually didn’t even live in the same area, and were off to the next twenty-person workshop (or their own private practice or whatever else they did when they didn’t hold workshops) a month later? To be fair, I did hear of some FSS teachers who told their students that there might be unexpected aftereffects and to get in touch with them if they experienced any problems as a result of the workshop, but I have no idea how many students took them up on that offer and how they then dealt with that. But the more famous their name, the more in demand they were, the less individual attention they seemed to be able to offer their students. (Mind you, this is my very own outside perspective that doesn’t necessarily mirror how the students themselves experienced the workshops.)
I’m not sure where I initially got the idea that shamanic work wasn’t just something one could play around with, but apparently I had (and have) a strong belief that one should be properly informed and prepared before taking any steps in a shamanic direction. I suppose the idea must go back a long time because I’ve felt the same about drug use, tattoos, ouija boards, extreme sports, or BDSM practices going back to at least my teenage years: If it alters your state of consciousness or has the potential to permanently change your body, you better know very well what you’re doing. Maybe it’s just an expression of a desire to stay in control on my part, but I believe in taking calculated risks. (Which doesn’t mean I’ve never had any not-so-pretty experiences in any of these areas. It just means that I knew what to do if a heretofore unknown boundary had been crossed inadvertantly. And often it simply meant that I stayed away from something altogether because I wasn’t ready to risk the worst-case scenario of what might have happened as a consequence.)
Oh, and while I’m definitely able to suspend my disbelief about a whole bunch of strange things if I trust the person who is telling me about experiencing them (e.g. talking to the Dead, seeing illnesses, shamanic healing of conditions termed incurable by Western medicine), I usually reserve actual, true belief for things I’ve experienced myself (e.g. non-binary gender, pain as pleasure, energy body parts or energetic shapeshifting, divination). There’s a lot that I consider to be theoretically possible, but I also know that people sometimes make up stuff they haven’t actually experienced/witnessed for many reasons. All in all, this general skepticism means I often just file away reports of extraordinary experiences other people claim to have had into the huge “maybe” archive unless I have good reason to turn them over to the “no, I don’t believe this happened to this person in this way” folder or the “yes, I believe that” one.
I can’t reconstruct which queer-trans-BDSM-spiritual link exactly led me to Raven Kaldera, but I eventually found him and some of his books and his many web presences. I don’t remember what piece of his writing I read first (Hermaphrodeities maybe?), but ever since my first encounter with his stuff I’ve had a thoroughly ambivalent opinion of what he had to say and the way he said it. He certainly deserves credit for speaking about difficult topics that I don’t see mentioned anywhere else (or didn’t, back when I started reading him). More specifically in terms of shamanism, he also deserves credit for pointing out that things are often difficult, dangerous, and not necessarily even the completely free choice of the practitioner/shaman (let’s not get into linguistics here just yet). I truly cherish his voice as a welcome deviance from the mass of other voices who claim to be able to teach “shamanism” in just a short weekend seminar or three, that every single one of us is able to learn this kind of stuff, that becoming good at it is largely a matter of practice, and that there really isn’t anything to fear as long as you have your Animal Guide with you (which often you just “fetched” only a few short minutes or hours ago). With that kind of context, an emphasis on the dangers and difficulties of shamanic practices really is badly needed. I also like his general non-nonsense approach and his dedication to making information available, no matter how controversial it might be.
Among the many things written by Kaldera I read over the past ten (or so) years, some of his texts particularly stuck with me. One of them is his comparison of shamanic practitioners and shamans. The main difference for him doesn’t seem to be whether one practices shamanism in a Western or a tribal culture, but the amount of choice (or lack thereof) one has about practicing at all. I recommend reading his article in full, but I’ll give a brief summary here.
What Kaldera terms “classic shamanism” and “shaman” refers to people who were chosen by Spirits to do this kind of work. They always experience some kind of serious physical or psychological illness at the beginning (so serious that there is a true risk of them ending up mad, dead, or both). They can’t just refuse and walk away from shamanic work whenever they feel like it without suffering serious consequences (see above: mad, dead, or both). And finally, they predominantly act in a position of service to both the Spirits (of a specific cultural context) and some kind of community.
In comparison, what Kaldera terms “core shamanism” and “shamanic practitioners” refers to people who basically keep their ability to choose when, where, how often, for whom, and even if they want to do any kind of shamanic work. There may be some minor ill effects from breaking deals with specific Spirits or stopping the practice altogether, but nothing serious. Shamanic practice may be a path of service or mainly a source of income, it may serve a community or just the practitioner themselves, it may be culture-specific or not. Generally, it’s all a lot less binding.
It should be said, however, that he implies no value judgment of the general abilities of shamanic practitioners, although it is hard not to notice his own preference for “classic shamans.”
A few years after I read this article for the first time, I met Mi-Shell Jessen, the first (and so far only) person I personally know whom I would call a “classic shaman” by Kaldera’s definition. She has become one of my most important (if rather informal) spiritual teachers, and a cherished friend as well. After meeting her, I can’t pretend I don’t notice the difference between her as a shaman/Kham and other shamanic practitioners I’ve met. It’s not like she’s a perfect human being due to that, or that she never makes any mistakes – in fact, she’ll be the first to tell you about her imperfections. However, unlike Kaldera, who seems much interested in keeping the “wrong” people out from his corner of the world, she seems to be focused instead on finding common ground even with people unlike herself instead of drawing lines between most kinds of “us” and “them” (I won’t speculate about the reasons for that because I know neither of them well enough to do so – if these are indeed facts and not just subjective perceptions). If nothing else, that makes her more accessible to me, which I’ve benefitted greatly from. But, yeah, Kaldera still has a point with that distinction between shamanic practitioners and shamans he makes.
So where does my own practice come into the picture here? Well. I asked a lot of questions about the FSS workshops and about other experiences of people I knew who said they used some kind of shamanic practices. I think I also eventually read The Way of the Shaman. The basic idea of journeying didn’t seem all too difficult to learn but I hesitated… for a long time. I fretted over the “right” starting place for journeying. I fretted over “what if it doesn’t work?,” and I fretted about “what if it does work?” Eventually, I used a CD that came with an introductory book on shamanism (inspired by Harner’s work but not directly authored by him or an FSS member). It seemed okay enough and incidentally also made a distinction between shamanic practitioners and shamans – which seems to be the norm with FSS-related material, by the way. I hated the extended narrative on the CD, and when the journeying part finally was supposed to begin, nothing much happened. I concluded I was a shamanic failure and left it at that for a long time.
A while later, I took a class on “chakra harmonization” because it was taught by a then-friend who seemed trustworthy enough for me to even venture into the territory of spirituality or energy work-related classes. Amongst some other things, we learned to do a certain kind of visualizations there, and during one of those an animal appeared rather unexpectedly for me. I was very moved and impressed by that but couldn’t find any useful guidance about what I had experienced in that workshop or from that person. That didn’t help with my perceived readiness to explore energy-work or spirituality much further, so I focused on reading tarot again and let everything else fall aside.
But I still felt drawn to shamanism, if only because I often react with “I’ll show you!” to an initial failure. So, after some more fretting, I asked someone close to me to journey to bring me a “Power Animal” like they had learned to do in the FSS seminars. I’m not sure what I was hoping for, but I didn’t get it. Instead, I got an animal that made sense on some level but that didn’t really stick around for long. I suppose I’m at least partly to blame for that because I never really believed it was truly “mine” to work with. Well, if nothing else, this experience taught me to do these kinds of things myself and not try and let someone else do the difficult work for me.
Eventually, I tried journeying on my own again. I had someone a little more experienced next to me (that close person I spoke of), but we each did our own thing. My stated intent was to take a first peek at the Lower World to get to know it a little (you may realize that I’m still using core shamanic terms here because I acted within that framework back then and still lack more accurate and more specific terms to describe what I experienced). Well, I ended up being beheaded, burnt and eaten by Spirits during that very first “real” journey I took (and that’s pretty much the kind of stuff that happened during every single journey I did since then – which weren’t all too many, mind you). So what do I do with that? Of course, being skeptical as I am, I immediately questioned this experience. Maybe I had just read too many accounts of the significance of dismemberment journeys and now my mind/unconsciousness made up variations of the theme over and over again… And, if it was actually for real, what did that mean about my shamanic abilities? And why on earth did I even worry about that since I was pretty clear that becoming a professional shamanic practitioner (let alone a shaman) wasn’t even something I secretly dreamed of?!
I think it was at that point that I started reading more. But most of the stuff I came across either just repeated Harner’s core shamanic beliefs (which offered nothing helpful to me) or was so “out there” that I couldn’t see a relation to my own life and experiences. Not to mention the endless parade of people tacking the “shamanic” label onto everything even remotely related to nature and spirituality. Which left me in a strange kind of territory: core shamanism didn’t seem to offer what I was looking for (or maybe I just didn’t find the right practitioners of it because those people were busy doing their work instead of posting stuff on the internet or writing books) and classic shamanism seemed completely out of my league.
I still eventually took a basic class with the European branch of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, taught by this guy. I told myself I would be then able to use it to take advanced classes with the FSS later, should I want to do so. After already resigning myself to not being able to participate due to signing up when the class was already full, I still managed to get into the class via the waiting list, so I figured it was indeed the right thing to do for me. I’m afraid I can’t say too many positive things about this particular class and teacher, though. While we were explicitly told that we wouldn’t learn how to be a shaman in that class (or any of the FSS), we were all too soon doing exercises where one of us was called the “shaman” and the other the “client” or “patient” and our work was referred to as “shamanizing.” This may have been sheer verbal laziness on the part of the teacher, but it did nothing to keep up any distinction between us and other shamanic practitioners or shamans. We were also taught that everyone was able to journey, although not everyone might be able to do so on their first try. Those that didn’t manage to journey were basically left alone and told they should try again later. At some point someone asked if we should always do what the Spirits told us, and we were told to please use our common sense. I tried to bring up the idea of serving the Spirits instead of the other way round (because I still don’t believe that any Spirit is just sitting around like a bored waiter waiting for us to show up so they can take our orders or that they work with us for completely selfless reasons), but that line of thought was first ridiculed (by making me appear as if I would stupidly follow any instructions by any Spirit no matter what) and then quickly ended (mostly because I decided it was pointless to further discuss this point in this context). And don’t get me started on one of the songs we learned there, which goes like this: “I have spirits, spirits have I (repeated 3x); I, I, I” – that’s way too much “I”/ego for my taste (and no, I don’t “have” Spirits, even though I may carelessly say so in some spoken discussion – but I certainly won’t sing it to them)!
Oh well. I still learned a whole lot of things. Mostly that these kinds of classes are definitely not the right way for me to learn any of this (I’d rather muddle along on my own). And what aspects of Western teaching of shamanic practices I find highly problematic, especially now that I have experienced them myself. I’m just glad that I waited so long before I took that class and that I had already encountered some other perspectives on shamanism before I did. (To be fair, I’ve met other people who took FSS classes who were able to focus on the beneficial aspects of them much more than I was. Their accounts therefore are rather different from mine. So I don’t claim any objective truth here.)
So I come back to Kaldera (and by now also Galina Krasskova and some others who seem connected to them in some way) again and again, for reasons still not entirely clear to me. I often leave these pages (digital and printed) both impressed/delighted/inspired and alienated/furious/hurt (going by a quote Kaldera often uses – “‘Tis an ill wind that blows no minds” – I suppose he’d count that as a success). And I kept wondering: Could I even be a serious shamanic practitioner if I didn’t experience some kind of dramatic shamanic initiation similar to what Kaldera’s “classic shamans” experienced? Assuming I was given the choice, would I pay that kind of price? And then, again: Why was I even worrying about that when I had no desire whatsoever of becoming any kind of Spirit worker beyond my own personal practice?
Well. I do have very high standards for myself (which I often fail to meet), so I don’t usually measure myself against average people in any area – not even where it would be highly appropriate for me to do so. But being mediocre just won’t do. So I look towards the most serious practitioners/shamans I could find – and of course find myself lacking. I worry about a potential step #357 of a “shamanic path” when I haven’t even taken step #3 – which is probably not surprising given that I rarely learn things in their proper sequence and often jump in at around step #15 and pick up the basics I missed somewhere along the way, usually without anyone ever noticing my haphazard ways.
On some days I think I should just come to terms with the not unlikely possibility that I might indeed be spiritually/shamanically mediocre. Not completely head-blind (yes, I read a lot of Marion Zimmer Bradley as a young adult), not entirely useless in that area, but also, for once, most certainly not among the best in an area I’m actually interested in. That in itself would probably teach me a whole lot of valuable lessons.
I am certainly not ready to serve any community in any spiritual function (if you don’t count sharing my thoughts in online spaces, which for the purposes of this argument I indeed don’t count). From what I hear, I should be grateful for every day that the choice about my path remains firmly my own. As a result of what I’ve seen and read about the work and life of a “classic shaman” in the Western world (or elsewhere), I’m actually taking great care not to send out an accidental wish to the Universe to “make me a shaman.” At the same time, I still occasionally worry that I’ll never be good enough to do that kind of work – and I’m not even sure it’s only my ego that’s speaking there. And even while I worry I’m also sure that the worrying is pretty pointless: If I believe that the Spirits pick the shaman, and the shaman doesn’t have all too much to say in that deal, then it won’t be my choice anyway whether I am ever called for that job. Because that’s exactly the point about a calling, isn’t it: lack of choice.
So I keep reading/listening and struggling. And every time I find a little snippet of something that has some practical application in my own life as it currently is. And then there’s Mi-Shell Jessen again, who reminds me in a positive-sounding way that there is a lot of inhabitable space between not having a spiritual life at all (which is where I originally started at) and being a full-blown shaman. Not to mention that growing into a shamanic worldview as an adult may take some time, and that I’ve still just started out on my path. In other words, don’t obsess about where this is leading you but be present for the path as such.
Either way it can’t hurt to learn more, just in case someone else needs this or that skill at some point. And really, truly studying something is also a skill I never acquired. It just wasn’t necessary. I usally pick up more than enough by passing through, by skimming, by transferring knowledge from other areas, by thumbing through, by looking over people’s shoulders, and occasionally by asking a few questions and experimenting a bit on my own. And I’m not saying that to brag, I’m just neutrally describing my usual mode of operation. And this is exactly why I’m so proud that I’ve actually developed a nearly-daily spiritual practice (even though I regularly doubt that I’m doing it “right”). To pick up my drum every morning and do at least a short round of prayer(?) to the directions/elements, my Ancestors, and the main Animal Guides I have encountered so far, even if I can’t really focus, even when I’m already late, even when I have to skip breakfast to still be able to leave the house on time, even when I’m sure no one is really listening is a huge accomplishment for me.
Believe me, I’ve questioned the way I’m doing it countless times. Is it appropriate to use a melody from a song of an unremembered source (possibly Native American)? Is it appropriate to use English words even though my first language is German, I live in Germany, and my Ancestors are at least predominantly German as well? Am I using the right elemental and other associations for the directions? Which Spirit Animals do I include in my song (all of them that ever appeared to me on a journey or otherwise? only the main two ones? the main two plus any recent appearances?)? Etc. But for now I’ve decided that it is better to go ahead with something unfinished and thoroughly imperfect (another lesson for me!) than to pause everything until I have figured out what spiritual tradition I actually belong to.
And this is something I am grateful for when it comes to the Harner kind of “core shamanism” I encountered: it enabled me to learn a basic method for journeying into the Spirit World without having to pick/find the right specific culture/tradition first. One may of course question the value and realness of the experiences I’ve made so far (in fact, I’ve done that myself countless times!), and I’m probably still guilty of lacking basic protection skills when it comes to journeying. But still I feel I have something to start with. Because apparently spiritual learning and explorations don’t always follow the ideal path of learning each step after another, at least not for me.
That said, I haven’t journeyed for months now, ever since I took that FSS workshop. In fact, that’s been nearly a year now. I keep wondering about that tradition thing and I’ve come to the conclusion that I need some kind of framework/cosmology that I can use without feeling that I’m just borrowing someone else’s stuff because I don’t have any of my own. So maybe it makes sense for me not to journey at all right now (although it’s not a conscious choice, it just “doesn’t happen”). Maybe it makes sense that I’m pondering my Ancestors so much lately. After all, that’s the one starting point that Galina Krasskova recommends strongly in her own blog (I’m still reading my way through her archive, which is definitely worth it, and I’m still slowly taking a small step or two towards following some of her advice), and it does make sense to me. I’m still not sure how to get in touch with my Ancestors (or, somewhat relatedly, the Spirits of the Land I’m living on) without outright journeying but I hope I’ll find a suitable way. I’ve also decided that it won’t hurt if I learn a little bit about Germanic/Norse mythology because it does seem wrong to just give up this territory to the Nazis (old and new). I have no idea if I will eventually find my spiritual home in that area but if nothing else I will learn interesting new things.
So I guess my main question at this time is this: What do you do as someone interested in an animistic/shamanic worldview and practice who does seem to have a choice about things and still doesn’t want to be an idiot about it? After all, having a choice doesn’t necessarily make things easier in terms of making good choices – and especially because I have a choice I’d rather not exploit people or other living beings (including Spirits), act stupidly and/or disrespectfully, and generally do things “wrong”… Your thoughts and ideas are – as always – welcome!
For further insight into the debate about “core/Western shamanism” and “classic/indigenous shamanism” see these articles. I’m sure there are many more but these are the ones I came across recently, so these are the ones you get.
- Galina Krasskova: “My interview with Kenaz Filan, author of ‘The Power of the Poppy'” (see especially the comments section)
- Kenaz Filan: “On Michael Harner I: Culture, Reductionism and Spirituality” (spin-off from the debate on Krasskova’s blog)
Kenaz Filan: “On Michael Harner II: Danger and Protection”
- Sarenth: “On Michael Harner’s Core Shamanism” (part 1) (guest contribution on Galina Krasskova’s blog)
Sarenth: “On Michael Harner’s Core Shamanism” (part 2)
- Kristin: “PBP 04: Core Shamanism, Callings, and Community” (an article for the Pagan Blog Project)
[Edited to add (17 February 2012): Corrected some grammar mistakes today.]