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The Shamanic Response

An Editorial by K. Lauren de Boer

EarthLight Magazine #46, Summer 2002

Few things power the human imagination more than a sense of mystery. Mystery inspires reverence, and terror, bringing us to vitality and life through a feeling of utter awe at the forces of Earth and cosmos. The human mind–especially the western mind–has an insatiable drive to "know," to break the mysterious into manageable and predictable parcels. But mystery forces us into a state of not knowing, brings our arrogance down a notch, and reminds us that we are but humble passengers on Earth. This requires that we develop our atrophied capacities to trust forces beyond what our minds can understand.

This is true in our personal lives and in the area of cultural change. Those of us who would like to see this world a better place like to talk about paradigm shifts. But no paradigm has the ultimate corner on truth. As the late Donella Meadows wrote in "Places to Intervene in a System": [we have to realize that] "no paradigm is ‘true,’ that even the one that sweetly shape’s one’s comfortable worldview is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing Universe."

There is a way in which the shaman transcends the idea of paradigm to wrestle with uncertainty and chaos, accepting it, and at the same time bringing mystery into useable form for healing and guidance. I’m not a scholar of shamanism, nor do I have the experience of its practice as some do. But I have a hunch that the shamanic personality today is a creative response to the need for transition from a death-loving paradigm to one that affirms life. The contemporary emergence of this religious personality amounts to the human imagination at work building a communal response to the paradoxes of our time. One such paradox, as cosmologist Brian Swimme has written, is that we are a species that has attained "macrophase" power and yet is comporting itself with "microphase" wisdom.

There are a number of reasons why the figure of the shaman is applicable to our situation and why the shamanic response is particularly germaine to this magazine, EarthLight. Just as the shaman brings cosmic and primal Earth forces to bear for community healing and accentuates religious feeling in transitional times (see John Grim’s article, page 12), EarthLight represents a faithfulness and return to Spirit and to the primal powers of Earth as our chief source of healing. Spirit is ultimately the only path with heart, the only way to deep wisdom and peace for all beings. It is also Spirit which moves us to compassionate action.

As a marginal figure standing outside secular society, the shaman is in the position to question the predominant moral authority. This is required in this time of moral vacuum in the White House and rampant political and corporate greed. As editorial advisor John Grim, who is teaching a course on Shamanism this fall at Bucknell University, points out, giving our attention to the values of the shamanic worldview is an opportunity to ponder the relationship of those values to the values of contemporary global societies.

In some respects we are advocating, in this issue, for the shaman as a religious figure for our time. Most of our major religious traditions have become so attenuated in their ties to the mysteries of Earth and cosmos, that they no longer fulfill their function of binding us to the sacred. The shamanic personality is not only a practitioner of the sacred, but one whose central role is healing through contact with the forces of the natural world. The need for healing is something we all share today, whether we are an indigenous person, western industrialist, male, female, child, four-legged, winged, leafed, or finned.

Another reason why this personality is needed now is that we require strength in dark times. We are faced with monumental crises–political and corporate greed, mass species extinction, a full frontal assault on the environment, global warming, terrorism and warfare, the AIDS epidemic. On a more personal level, Martín Prechtel (page 24) relates the intense trauma he experienced in the Guatamalean village of Santiago Atitlán. The Mayan people who were his community were slaughtered by the hundreds at the hands of death sqauds and his village was destroyed. His shamanic initiation, he writes, allowed him to come through the experience with his spirituality intact, without bitterness, to actually live in, and offer healing to, the very culture that was in many respects responsible for that slaughter. Furthermore, the village shamanism survived intact. There is an indigenous soul, he writes, that is older and more durable than anything happening in our current situation, no matter how dire it seems (see back cover and pages 18-25).

The focus of shamanism for this issue of EarthLight is not to encourage the expropriation of indigenous ways, nor is it to suggest that we all run off to do sweat lodges, make sacred pipes, and do shamanic journeying. Each of us has our own path of Spirit in this life. These indigenous practices demand our respect. They require years, sometimes a lifetime, of preparation. Our choice for this issue’s focus is more about getting to the spirit of what shamans have to teach us about ourselves. What does it mean that we are so alienated from the awareness that Earth is primary? What depletion of soul are we experiencing? How do we find our way back to the healing powers of Earth and Spirit? There aren’t ready-made answers. We must each find our way, and reflect on what it means for ourselves, our families, our communities, and our culture.

In so doing, we need to remember that we are each of us indigenous to Earth, even though some of us have fallen into a profound amnesia about that reality. Shamanism is a worldwide practice and we each are descended from ancient peoples who practiced it in some form. The impulse behind shamanism is universal and ultimately, we are one people (including the non-human), and the healing and growth which come from a path of Spirit is the birthright of each of us. The Shaman is an archetypal presence in our cultural coding and our DNA. You might even say that when we are talking about the welfare of the planet and the unborn, it is our responsibility to find our way back to that path and to live it, not just talk about it. Understanding what the shaman is historically and what the emerging shamanic personality consists of may be profoundly helpful to our understanding of what is required of us in a time when the very future of Earth is at stake.

It all comes back to trust–knowing we live in a profound mystery, experiencing the reverence, having faith that the overarching unfolding of the Universe is benign and that we are fulfilling a unique and beautiful role in that process. This is the basis for a profound faith in ourselves and in powers we cannot understand with the rational mind. And a belief that our response, grounded in the true spirit of the shaman, will bring healing, beauty, and wisdom.

In kindred spirit,

K. Lauren de Boer


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