Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on February 2, 2015

[Medical update: My fall on the ice last Thursday turned worse yesterday and severe pain ensued, sending me to the hospital and X-rays. It turns out that I have two fractured ribs high up on my ribcage. The prognosis is six weeks of pain of some kind or another. I don't know why, after three days, sudden pain would happen. It is like being stabbed with, sorry to say this, an ice pick. It definitely has my attentoin.]

Meanwhile, I want to talk a bit about shamanism, because there seems to be considerable misunderstanding about what shamans actually are and do, so let me know if this makes sense to you. And I am not making this up out of whole cloth either, but simply following the general lead of Mircea Eliade, an expert in comparative religions, in general, and shamanism in particular.

It is important to grasp that shamanism differs from established religion in that it is not passed on or inherited. Neither is it some kind of evangelical airborne religious virus. Shamans by definition are one-offs, one-of-a-kind. They fly solo and don't run in packs. This is not to say that there are no so-called shamanic groups out there who claim to teach shamanism; the very concept to me is pretty much an oxymoron. Shamanism cannot be taught. It is basically an accident of nature, and is more in line with natural law than with organized religion or anything close.

As pointed out, there is no seed or germ that causes one to become a shaman. Instead, every conventional society since the world began has had shamans, and this by definition. Here is how I understand this works.

The societal conventions we live within (and are obliged by) are more arbitrary than we might imagine. Society defines a body of un-natural law (a state of mind) that, nevertheless, is quite rigorous and binding. Just as cities have limits, every society has its boundaries, but wandering beyond society's limits has more consequences than wandering beyond our local city limits sign and out into the countryside.

Because every society has conventions and limits, by that same token society has those who somehow don't fit, who wander or find themselves (often without knowing it) beyond the prescribed limits. And I don't mean breaking rules or civil law. I am talking about our inner psychology and alternative states of mind. Through one kind of intense psychological experience or another, be it drug or naturally induced, an individual can find him or herself thrust beyond the conventional edge of the unknown into the unknown itself.

Perhaps you can begin to see why what I am describing here is not any kind of organized religious experience, but rather something that is bound to occur anywhere society establishes itself with its mores and conventions. Some few persons in any society will, no doubt, fall through the cracks and be immersed in an experience that society knows nothing of. This quite naturally occurs wherever we have conventional borders or limits. Like anything else, a society is defined by what is beyond its limits, where we "don't go there."

That this happens cannot be argued. It is what happens next that is important, i.e. what can be done for those who find themselves thrust beyond conventional experience and struggling with alternative realities. Society does not know or understand what the persons who wander beyond its limits are experiencing, and for the most part does not want to know. Literally speaking, society has not experienced these alternative mental states themselves, or else they would not be alternative, but normal.

This leaves the straggler to figure all this out on their own and to somehow find a way back into normal society or be condemned to wander in society's twilight zone perpetually. Society tends to paint these individuals as "crazy" in small or greater ways and it is hard for the victim to refute these allegations because they in fact are wandering in the wilderness of the mind. They know that what they see and experience is not "normal."

In other words, if those who fall through the cracks of normality cannot stabilize and find their way back within the limits of society, they are doomed to remain outsiders. And here is the point:

Those who do manage to stabilize and re-enter society, more or less, retain the knowledge and experience from their journey beyond the pale, and theirs is a rare experience and understanding indeed. They can rightly be call "shamans," the ones who can stabilize their minds within these alternative states of mind and return to normal or to a "new" normal.

Moreover, their experience and expanded awareness of these alternative states of reality allows them to spot others around them who have fallen (or are falling) through the cracks. In many cases the shaman can guide those lost back onto the track of a normal life. This becomes their main function.

Once a shaman is stabilized and confirmed in their experience of alternative realities, they can assist others destined to follow the same route, but the idea of organizing shamanism just does not compute. Again, shamanism is a natural result of any organized society. Any time we have a clear definition of normality, we will have those who fall outside that, for one reason or another.

I know of this because for many decades, aside from experiencing alternate realities myself, I became someone who counseled those who had taken drugs (usually acid) which had imprinted them deeply, but whose effects the person was unable to stabilize and recover from. I served (as best I could) as a guide back to a more normal life.

In summary, shamans have no lineage. Shaminism is not an avocation, but more an accident of nature, a singularity. A convocation or convention of shamans is a contradiction in terms. The shaman's knowledge of alternative states of mind has some overlap with the results of Tibetan mind training. Both have developed greater awareness. The experience of the shaman of alternate states of reality tends to be in relation to society's norm, while the realization of the yogi through mind training has to do with the nature of the mind. They both are spiritual or psychological disciplines, but the shaman is for the most part concerned with relative truths, while the meditator's goal is the realization of the absolute nature of the mind itself.

As for Don Juan and the worlds of Carlos Castenada, sure, there are probably shamans in the deserts of the southwest (or wherever) that employ all kinds of totems, hallucinogenic herbs, and what-not. In my experience the true shaman is not attempting to invoke altered states of mind, but just the reverse, trying to balance and stabilize these states. Their wish is not to get outside society's conventional time, but rather to rejoin society and share their rather unique perspectives.