It is not easy being a self aware animal in a universe seemingly unconcerned about one’s fate. The human struggle for survival is not just about the four Fs of food, fighting, fleeing and procreating. It also entails an irreducible psychological element as well, one that must deal with this existential situation. Shamanistic imagery speaks to our subjective experience of being an awareness in flesh. In the psychological realm adaptation and survival are translated into how well we are able to recognize what is real and what is a misperception or misunderstanding on our part. Earlier I mentioned that the shaman works to find the real by calling the unreal non-existent. The shaman has always understood a mystical monster is best beat with a magical stick. Many of our shaman stories concern themselves with how to separate the real from illusion, as best we might. These shamanistic teachings have been passed down from prehistory, conceivably from Neolithic times. For, you see, the most unique survival skill we homo sapiens bring to the table is our ability to adapt through the use of our understanding.
We have no fur, nor do we sport a fang, but we carry coats and knives. These coats and knives we have learned to make and use from long experiments with the real world. This molecular world we encounter within and without has strict rules, yet they allow for open ended exploration of evolutionary spaces. Our evolutionary space involves our understanding. Not yours. Not mine. Ours. This understanding of what’s what we learn and inhabit but also inherit and pass on.
Shamans are taught to use animal allies to defeat monstrous illusions, much as the Buddha defeated the illusions of Mara. Magicians, urban shamans with book knowledge, are taught to test the spirits and uncover the demons masquerading as angels. All these mythic ways of talking deal with this central epistemological point: how do we ultimately determine what is real about who and what we are in this life, on this earth, with these people we come to learn to love and hate? How do we know what we know? What separates justified belief from opinion?
I dare say it is almost as if the reality of the universe is basically good, just as the Buddha Nature and Garden of Eden teachings have it, so that when a child is abused (or otherwise encounters adult devastations) it is as if an unreality is created in the evil of the act. Of course nothing can really create an unreality so this sets the whole world askew, distorting the warp and woof of the universe. The wounded child becomes of necessity a shaman voyager of the deep physiological and emotional roots of their body and mind. What the wounded child discovers is that the whole universe seems primed to respond as if it was activated by the assault to restore wholeness and balance. Animals and angels seem to be there as allies. (Emergent phenomenon on many different scales often depend on homeostasis, we should not underestimate its power either in the individual psyche or in the collective psyche of a society.)
Less poetically, sometimes I wonder if all it takes to save a badly abused child from the suicide or debilitating drug abuse the percentages say lie in their future is just encountering one person who really sees them, really sees that they are precious, interesting individuals. Other people have dispensed with their existence by treating them as things to be used, instead of beings with legitimate subjectivity. The result is a gnawing sense of worthlessness burdening the victimized psyche.
We all struggle against the terrors of the unknown but for these young minds, and the minds still frozen young in previously abused adults, those terrors know no bounds. They lack the self correcting negative feedback that would allow the psyche to restore balance. Instead, these terrors tend to escalate with positive feedback into full blown panic attacks. Other parts of the psyche are frightened of this potential loss of control which places their survival in danger. They repress the terrified parts which in turn try to escape their prisons in binge behaviors and other out of control times. Childhood is a nightmare precisely because it lacks the touchstone of reason and reality where no real thing is without limits. Reality is merciful only in that no torture lasts forever. The traumatic events do not continue endlessly in time and space. They might seem to, however, in the mind. That is basically the definition of post traumatic stress syndrome.
This is going to sound funny, but it seems that becoming acquainted with the real terrors of life is the quickest way to defeat the burden of unreal terrors implanted in victims by their abusers. For the adept, the shaman who survives their ordeals, their personal death becomes an ally. That, as I understand it, is the shamans journey. Not quite as romantic as it has been made out to be but not as irrelevant to the crisis of our times as we might like to think either. After all, we have treated the psyche, the atmosphere of the mind, as we have treated the atmosphere of the planet; as an open sewer. The distortions of reality created by the evil that seeks to destroy earth for short term corporate profits are threatening all life forms with centuries of suffering. This is real. It is happening again today out here in the molecular world with its strict accounting of abuses and consequences. There is a bit of the shaman in all of us now.
No life is without pain. In the normal process of maturation the child psyche moves through the stages of development without encountering adult emotional trauma before they are adults. The mind has proven itself to be extremely resilient as it grows under the pain-filled experiences everyone encounters during childhood: embarrassment, shame, guilt, fear, betrayal, rage and all the rest. So many parts of ourselves need to be recognized and integrated, many of which come with very painful struggles. The work of integration can take months, even years. Somehow most of us grow through these learning experiences into caring, functioning adults. Living lives of quiet desperation perhaps, but finding our way through the many labyrinths of simply surviving in the molecular world.
Adults all encounter, sooner or later, the complete devastation of the ego that comes along with heartbreak. A child dies, a spouse is unfaithful, a parent wastes away in dementia, or some other arrow of poison is shot into the heart. There is no such thing as a life without pain. These are not the run of the mill sufferings and sorrows of the heart that I am talking about here, these are the life changing devastations that can cause a person to question everything they have ever believed about goodness and love. These dark nights of the soul deepen the character by etching lines deep within the perceptual and emotional make up of our nervous systems. They mature us and prepare us for death. That some kind of hope and love, light and life eventually return to most people’s lives is a profound witness to the resilience of the psyche and the intelligence by which it has been formed over evolutionary time.
I think we can safely say that when confronted with such top of the line pain-filled events in our lives, our first reactions are anything but healthy. We do the best we can and struggle along, day after day, by the best lights that are available to us at the time. This leaves people at all different stages along the maturation process. Adults who do not complete the journey, or at least have not yet, remain enslaved to cheap substitutes for the peace of mind they are finding so elusive. Sentimental movies and novels exploit these dangling needs and feed off the impulsiveness created by repressions that need to hide the pain from a psyche that is not yet ready to effectively deal with it. Many of our entertainment arts, though aiming to enlighten the human condition, can serve instead to distract the human psyche from that which it fears.
Over the centuries, as adults have all struggled with these things, they have been guided to come together around a variety of institutions and traditions by which persons can aid one another along the journey. The elders among us have been around the block: those left with wisdom as the end of their lives approach can help those they recognize as being involved in earlier stages along the way. They have experienced the psychological devastation of ego death and lived to tell the tale.
This is the normal course of events. What happens when one of those adult level devastating events comes crashing into the world of a child’s developing psyche? The child has a special kind of illness as a result, a loss of soul. Aspects of the human psyche, parts, step in to protect the self. This is recognized by the ego as out of body experiences and a set of accompanying ‘skills,’ namely, one pointed concentration (Samadhi) and dissolution (spacing out). These parts are not as mature as the elders, they too are but children at the time. Though they do the best they can, they are not capable of carrying the burden of the self into adulthood. In other words, such children will need to find a way to heal themselves if they are to have a functional, relatively happy life in the years to come. Those that manage to find the path of healing under these very adverse circumstances are given a type of preview into the type of psychological work required of all people sooner or later. Because they were broken early they are particularly skilled at helping those who break later. These people are what traditionally were recognized as shamans.
Shamans use ritual, meditation and entheogenic drugs along their healing journeys. These are able to re-imprint the nervous system, retrain it to feel being alive is worthwhile. Because these activities hold out the hope of healing a part of the psyche becomes enthusiastic about their use, obsessed even. This does not change the fact that these are like nuclear bomb level experiences for the self. The adult mind learns to fear losing its sanity, its grip on reason. The perceptual and emotional changes shamanistic technologies produce all shake these girders of the soul. They must to break the habitual ways of the character armor. A heroic quest is underway to find the way back to the time when their world seemed ok, before the disruption of the psyche’s continuity. These memories and parts need to be escorted across the abyss, as it were, into the full awareness of the mind as it is structured now in its post-traumatic form. Traumas such as I am discussing change the nervous system, in particular it seems the relation of the immune systems and parasympathetic nervous systems are effected. The “shaman” technologies are designed to address the wound at this level.
Are these techniques dangerous? Yes. I once was told of every 10,000 that even find their way to the abyss only 1,000 make it across. The rates of suicides, accidents with funny circumstances, homelessness and drug addictions both legal and otherwise, indicate that maybe that old saw carries some weight. It would be helpful if as a society we could come to understand that those on these kinds of paths are not choosing them due to their cussedness, they need them. They need the healing they potentially can bring to their wounded self.
One problem is none of this fits into the capitalist culture. By pretending competition is the main social force in a world of social Darwinism the whole emotional system related to the parasympathetic nervous system is denied, denigrated, and dishonored. Safety, satisfaction, comfort, compassion and caring are not highly regarded. Recall the ongoing creation of a lack of satisfaction in mass media saturated cultures is how our extremely high levels of consumerism are maintained. It is not true that our non-indigenous consumer cultures do not have shamanistic traditions, for Christ is the heart’s shaman for western European history. What has happened, far as I can tell, is that our non-indigenous consumer cultures have unwisely allowed unregulated exploitation of these psychological wounds by anyone who can use them to turn a profit. There is big money in broken children. The rock star junkies, the prostitutes, the frail bulimics, and on and on – they all make good add copy.
Another problem is that none of this shamanistic subject is well understood in the modern western world. For example, according to the federal government there is no difference between pot and heroin. It is hard to imagine being more wrong. The healing lesson of the real shaman always includes a type of humility of the human being before the great forces of the cosmos. This humility arises naturally in the process of accepting the personal pain involved in the death of love. This type of humility is distinctly out of style in the youth worshipping culture designed by Madison Avenue and funded by Wall Street. By the time the whole subject of shamanism is piled high with cosmic foo foo by their manipulations of its image into something “cool” there is very little skin left on the bone.
I mentioned in one of the first posts that I had thought long and hard about including the term ‘mindful’ for the moniker of my work. So much crap had accumulated around the term I feared using it could distance myself from the very audience I am hoping to reach. In the same way I considered not using the term ‘shaman’ at all. In both cases I decided that there is something important enough for the healing and well being of people in these troubled times that it was worth the risk of being so completely misunderstood. Besides, I think that what these terms really refer to might play an important role in helping us through the long descent of our ecologically ignorant and dangerously unbalanced culture.
What shamans learn, those that survive, is to pick their battles carefully. The parts of the psyche that usurps the role of the self in this type of spiritual emergency include an inherent ignorance that is dangerous. Generally these parts are acting with stellar motives. They are just not well equipped to do what they are trying to do – keep the traumatized psyche alive – so they do not do it all that skillfully. The healing comes as the shaman learns to reclaim the wisdom of the self: rational and balanced without cognitive and emotional extremes. Part of that healing process includes learning to defend the self from the ignorance inherent in the parts of the psyche trying to upsurge its role. One learns to fight back. Doing so well is harder than it might seem. One must learn to attack and to dress wounds without causing more harm in the process. So many self-help attempts just make everything worse. Lead by the compassionate self, the shaman in training learns to use a dart instead of a sledgehammer.
Like the contemplative, the shaman needs to discover how to extend a place of grounded safety to the hurt and abused people-like parts found within, just as surely as they work to extend a hand of compassion to those parts of people they meet out in the world. Over time the parts can learn to trust that the self really does have their best interests at heart and lay down the burdens they had acquired. They truly let go of the memories and feelings frozen in time, re-stitching the traumatic events back into the proper chronology of the mind’s autobiographical story. These traumatically frozen knots are what make up the character armor we have discussed. These knots require constant energy to maintain; just look how quickly our minds are able to leave the reality of the present and find themselves caught up in other times and other places. The teachings are that the path of healing is aided by mindfulness, that is, by the ability of awareness to return to a focus on the safety and security of the present moment in all its perceptual, cognitive and emotional reality. The frozen parts seem to be ignorant of this, as if they were not included in the on-going maturation of the psyche.
When dealing with the most difficult psychological material, that related to abuses of persons and earth, we are not seeking to obliterate ourselves or others. We are seeking to integrate the hurt parts of both ourselves and our societies. We can do so by remaining centered in our self. One way to regain or remain centered is to maintain an awareness of the body, for the body is always and only in the present moment. Bringing oneself back to the present, by becoming aware of the breath or tapping a finger, is a fairly common teaching among those who spend hours meditating. It is a major turning point in a person’s life when they discover and learn to honor the healing power of the self and take their seat. They are no longer being led around by the nose in desperate attempts to redeem themselves in the eyes of their abusers, no longer looking for a better mom or dad, no longer expecting to find the holy man with all the answers or the sacred prostitute with ultimate sexual encounters. They have recognized the inner guru, done what needed to be done.
With these few introductory remarks about what shamanism actually entails I would like to take a look next at what it is these psychological voyagers encounter. In speaking of the Christ as the western shaman mention was made of his ascent to heaven and descent to hell. I want to take this as a framework to share some speculative ideas next week.