A Shamanism Model

The model we have been exploring is how the western mythology of the Christ includes the shaman-like descent into hell and ascent into heaven. We are looking at shamanism because we are interested in what we can say about the extremes of conscious experience. The suggestion has been that at some point an individual’s capacity for conscious experience, rooted in the ego, is transcended and passes into or blends with the archetypal. Mythology and symbols carry information about themes that are larger than any one individual life. Making them meaningful for an individual is a process not of indoctrination, as many a missionary might suppose, but recognizing how they might relate to or explain the events and experiences within an individual’s own life.

The highs and lows of subjective consciousness are something each of has intimate familiarity with, yet, for the most part we do not discuss them in polite company. The modern world has seen fit to relegate in-depth conversations about in-depth experiences to the psychologist and psychiatrist’s office. Therapy is the one place still sanctioned by the society as a place where individuals might work with the images and urges of what earlier generations called the soul and what we have come to call the psyche.

We are a sick society, growing ever more mean-spirited, frightened and selfish. We are sick in the way we think about things, specifically how we have come to value things. Clean air, land and water do not rank higher than quarterly short term profits. This type of sickness, when seen in an individual, has traditionally been referred to as a loss of soul, a sickness of heart, or even simply as having emotional problems. It might help us members of these societies to deal with them more skillfully by studying how the sickness and healing of the psyche plays out within individuals. This can give us some indications of what type of things to expect might happen in a general way as our society makes its way through history and who knows, a healing of individuals just might reach a critical mass one day and turn the tide of destruction currently in the ascendancy.

Within the full scope of our cultural evolution as a species we find these human needs involved with the highs and lows of subjective consciousness were first attended to by a class of healers anthropologically known as shamans. My definition of the shaman: one who recognizes that, whatever else they might be, the gods and demons are found within the soul, the psyche. The shaman has taken that first and most fundamental step on the path by insisting on remaining honest with themselves about what is real and what is not within their own experiences. Critically, this includes those experiences that arises from altered states of consciousness; peak experiences, ego death and the like. Shamans map the extremes of what consciousness can experience.

The abuses of young people are nothing new. The scars those abuses leave on the adult mind, and all the evil they can cause, are nothing new either. Additionally, the difficult transition from childhood thought to reason is a psychic challenge every generation has had to deal with. The shaman’s journey is the healing journey through the intra-psychic components of our body-mind. It does not seem to make that much difference if the healing is sought under the guises of a tribal, religious or medical community – it always entails rediscovering the innocence we all had as children. This is the Christ child of the west, as it is discovered within. Different people need different things to provide the courage and encouragement needed to make this often painful and lonely journey to find that place of initial innocence. But everyone who persists comes, sooner or later, to the place in reviewing their own past where they must finally admit to themselves that they were innocent and undeserving of the harm and pain, abuse and misuse they were subjected to by other people and by the nature of life on earth itself. This is the point at which the Bodhisattva is born. This is the point at which grace overcomes sin. From the root of this insight the ego and self are reconciled. Or, as the Christmas carol has it, “god and sinner reconciled.” God forgives the sinner, as per orthodoxy but also, as per the wisdom of the world, the sinner forgives god. Seeing oneself with these eyes of compassion allows one to forgive oneself for one’s ignorance and forgive others for theirs. Forgiveness is not a magic trick that turns acts of abuse into anything other than what they are. Forgiveness is a fundamental wisdom that recognizes that all things are equally subject to karmic-like forces.

In the history of the Western world and its traditions we find that the role of the shaman was taken over by the priests of the Christian church before it evolved into the counseling sciences we have today. Confession and penance, joined with a ritualistically supported cosmology centered around an active participatory mysticism in the Eucharistic Mass allowed our Christian foremothers and forefathers a chance to heal themselves of their psychic wounds. The Church provided a rather sophisticated map of the territory a person finds when they turn their attention within.

Many of these teachings have stood for centuries. In itself this means nothing when we ask ourselves if any particular idea bears wisdom or folly, but when ideas last this long it is incumbent on us to at least query whether or not there might be something there we can still find helpful as we try to find our way in these dark and troubled times. History is filled with dark and troubled times yet here we are as a species, still plugging away. Something kept our ancestors capable of living through waking nightmares. Perhaps that something is still available for us, even though we can no longer naively accept many of the unquestioned premises on which they were justified. It is very likely the case, in my opinion, that many of the early religious and philosophical investigations of our ancestor’s best minds and hearts are still capable of throwing some light on our generation’s experiences. These old hoary teachings may not be as out of touch as they first seem. The problem, as I see it, is that many of these ideas have salesmen today that insist you need to buy them wholesale, that is, in the form they took in the Dark Ages or during the Renaissance or even just when Leave It To Beaver was entertainment’s hottest ticket.

The Seven Deadly Sins were once known by most every school boy and girl. Since most of us no longer have this set of ideas on our cognitive tool belts here is the full list: Lust, Gluttony, Wrath, Sloth, Covetousness, Envy and Pride. They are called the deadly, or mortal, sins because these are the ones which can lead to a fall from grace and loss of soul. As E.F. Schumacher explained in his masterful essay The Roots of Violence, they are naturally divided between ‘warm’ sins of the body and ‘cold’ sins of the mind. (The majority of this essay has been added to this site as an adjunct to the model I am presenting). The body is subject to lust, gluttony and wrath whereas the mind is subject to covetousness, envy and pride; sloth is neither warm nor cold:

“The warm sins arise primarily from the body, the ‘heart’ if you like, and there violence tends to be counterbalanced or checked by strong emotional forces like pity, mercy, and a liability to get tiered and disgusted… It is different with the ‘cold’ sins. The roots of violence grow in all three, and there is little, if anything, in the natural dispositions of the mind to counteract or check their force… The old teaching of the Deadly Sins recognizes that the violence that stems from the heart tends quickly to find its limits: it is checked by other powerful emotions; while the violence that stems from the mind is capable of becoming unlimited and transgressing all bounds.”

It is not hard to see how these two families of failings correspond to the two types of abuse people can be subjected to; the hot sins of physical abuse and the cold sins of spiritual or psychological abuse.

We have examined the biological basis of abuse and healing in past posts. The shamanistic descent into hell goes into the psychoid realm of the body. This is the theoretically postulated place Carl Jung suggested exists where consciousness ends and matter begins (see section on later development here). It is as if the psyche of the broken young person is destined to have it out with the creator of the elements.

The lower centers of the body are where the fires rage. They are the evolutionary fires of hunger, lust, and anger but they are also the fires that maintain our warm blooded metabolism. Further in our descent we encounter our bones which is that part of our body that will have the longest molecular effect in time and in space on the earth, assuming they are not cremated. The shaman’s journey with dismemberment experiences and animal guides points to a place on the journey within the body where consciousness can go no further. Here the ego ends. The point is that consciousness can penetrate the glandular, molecular, and atomic nature of our own bodies to an astonishing degree given the right visionary states (or spiritual crisis) but at some point that which is human and real for the ego ceases to penetrate the darkness of the ultimate mystery of our being any further. At exactly that point myth takes over. Here the divine mingles with the human and only the one born of a virgin (aka not of the body but of the mind or soul) reconciles ourselves with god in his impenetrable darkness.

Speaking of the virgin birth symbolism, it is worth noting that in the Nativity story it is the shepherds, those that spend time attending animals, that are first called to see the Christ child laid in the manger, the home for animals. It brings to mind the fact that there is a stage universally found in human childhood in which all of the child’s favorite stories involve animals. Through animals we come to perceive and appreciate our embodied nature most immediately and directly. We share with them breath, senses and sensations but most strikingly we share with them expressions of self through purposeful actions (not to mention what we now know of DNA). According to the Nativity story it is only many weeks later that the wise men of the east, representing the ego mind, come to the manger of the Christ child bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the course of psychological development the infant mind becomes aware of its body and its extensions before it becomes aware of itself as a self.

Instead of penetrating the energy of the body with the heightened awareness of shamanistic states, the attention can be turned to the mind. Instead of a descent into the body’s hot fires of hell, there can be an ascent into the cold silence of the starry night found in the mind. Cognitive abstractions seem to carry an element of transcendence: they do not suffer from friction and entropy. This places them into a type of eternity compared to all things experienced outside the realm of thought. Instead of dealing with issues around flesh and the death of love or what we refer to as compassion as we find during the descent into the body, the ascension into the realm of the mind deals with issues related to understanding and reason or what we refer to as wisdom.

In the Jesus story the ascent is a return to the father, the all intelligent creator of these vast cosmological times and spaces which seem to dwarf our individual existence at every turn. We have spoken previously of the cosmological terror the Hubble telescope reveals and Lovecraft wrote about. Just as the descent into the body and all that is earthly uncovers not only hell fires but also the fire of love’s sacred heart, so the ascent into the mind encounters not only the heaven of Platonic ideals but also the cold hells of objectivity divorced from subjectivity.

During the ascent the ego can go to heights of penetrating insight that correspond to the penetrative emotions encountered during the descent. In one direction thought guides, in the other, feeling. The ascent up the ladder of thought, as it were, is where Jacob laid his head and angles were seen coming and going between heaven and earth in his dreams (Gen. 28). (It is true that the mind is the ultimate sexual organ and also, after the fashion of the DNA wisdom, the sexual organ is the ultimate mind. It is true that these opposites of flesh and spirit are harmonized along the middle way. Nonetheless, forces exist to tear that harmony to shreds within the psyche of the abused. This is what we are dealing with when we are discussing shamanism; the psyche that has yet to find its own way to that reconciliation with its own nature.)

The pain that needs healing in this ascending direction are all our attempts to capture the living word in a written system. We are always working to increase our understanding with the light of intuition’s insight to guide us. All this is great when it entails reasoning about that which concerns mankind: getting along harmoniously with the earth, animals and each other. But, the old Tower of Babylon temptation to build our cognitive castles all the way to heaven and claim we have captured in our dogmas the will of the living god remains. In our hubris we claim to have captured the meaning of it all, once and for all, and for all time.

These teachings concerning the shamanistic descent and ascent are intimately connected to those around the solstices. In the winter solstice with its Nativity story the darkest, longest night of the year is seen to be the point at which a growing light is first born. In the same way in the summer solstice the longest day of the year is found to be the point at which the growing darkness begins. There is no name for this day on the Christian calendar. Here, in the summer solstice, the ego falls at high noon. Just when we seem to be on the verge of leaping from human-hood to godhood, the whole project is revealed to be one of mistaken hubris. Panic surprises the hero on the cusp of victory as lightning hits the tower. Here again the poetic myth takes over to carry the Christ light into truth that is real (remember, reality is our touchstone) but beyond what the ego can know in words. Instead of a truth in words, it is the truth of the word; voice, labels, cognition. As the Native American prayer said so well, “I am humbled before that standing within me which speaks with me.”

On the body the chakra system maps fairly obviously to these things. The hot sins are related to the anus, sex organs and stomach regions. The cold sins are related to the brain, throat and heart. Separating these is the abdomen, the place associated with the will. There is a phrase circulating around the media just now as the Obama presidency comes to a close that can be applied to this shaman work: “when they take the low road, we take the high road.” That is, when people (within or without) try to manipulate you emotionally through violence, sex, and fear, the wise will respond with compassion, honesty and reason. This same message can be read into the traditional Christian practice of crossing oneself by touching the head and saying ‘father,’ the abdomen and saying ‘son,’ and the shoulders and saying ‘holy spirit.’ The will of the father is to be executed by the son. It is also a message that can be read into the traditional Buddhist practice of holding one’s hands in anjali and touching them to the head, throat and heart. The dignity of our human life is strengthened and affirmed thereby.

Paraphrasing Pascal we can agree that ‘the heart has reasons reason knows not of.’ The key here is that these things beyond what the ego can know directly, these things remain reasons: reasonable reflections of the truth and falsehood, good and evil, compassion and cruelty we have come to know through our own experience of an incarnate life. As above, so below. The human maps onto the cosmological, they are not two wholly separate things associated coincidentally through meaningless happenstance. When I am using the term ‘reason,’ it is this larger view of its power I have in mind. It is not limited to mathematics or the laboratory but also guides the farmer planting seed, sure of a likely harvest and a suitor seeking out his beloved’s hand with a plan, at least somewhat reasonable, for their future together so that it might include some version of ‘they lived happily ever after.’ Earlier posts examined how reason is born in the adult psyche as it sees through childhood’s gullibility. The work of the shaman is another view into the same process.

The purpose of the shaman bringing healing to body and mind is to liberate the heart so compassion and wisdom increase naturally. Our shaman is the king whose kingdom is the heart. Touched by the shaman, our loves and losses comingle with those of our forefathers and foremothers, as well as with our children’s and their children’s, world without end, amen. It reveals what we are. That which has been sweetest in our own lives, that which has been most profound and meaningful, and all the love that we have ever given and received – all of these things were never ours alone. Though we cannot claim them for our own, we need not fear losing them on our own either.

The shaman comes to liberate the body from enduring crushingly painful emotions and the mind from enduring terrifyingly horrific thoughts alone. But it is not like someone else shows up in your head. By the touch of the shaman your suffering is made one with the universal experience of consciousness wed to limitation. The shaman comes to liberate the body from its isolation from the rest of the living world. We share flesh with our animal brothers and sisters and find we are home here. The shaman comes to liberate the mind from enchantments to numinous bewitchments. By the touch of the shaman the mind can act from its center, instead of remaining condemned to only react in fear and longing to events, as if it were an un-nourished orphan all alone in an uncaring universe. Both of these are healings our modern societies desperately need. We fear we are alone in a meaningless universe, for our technological arts have enchanted us and we have lost our communion with the earth’s many non-human life forms. We are caught up, gazing into ¬†mirrors of our own making and listening only to ourselves in our mass media echo chambers. Our societies could not continue to destroy so many of the earth’s ecosystems, day in and day out, without radical worldwide protest otherwise. We honestly do not sense the value of what we are losing. It is in this sense that a mindful ecology seeks to help us wake up in the age of limits.

I am not using the term waking up as, for example, Gurdjieff once did. It is not an encouragement to capital E enlightenment, to immanentize the eschaton or to obtain any other imagined great New Age spiritual accomplishment. What it means to wake up in the age of limits is much more pedestrian – but also much, much more real. To be awake means, literally, to have the courage to look upon the world’s current ecological crisis with the eyes of an emotionally informed reasoning. To be awake is simply to not allow the will-o-wisp of unemotional objectivity, nor foolish faiths rooted in imaginative dreaminess, nor our emotional cravings which often wish what cannot be, to cloud the best thinking, feeling and action we are capable of. That alone seems worthy of the kingly sovereignty of subjectivity we find within every sentient being.

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