Bringing Heaven to Earth
Zoë Brân describes the role of a shaman in contemporary Western society.
Shamans seem to be increasingly visible these days: in mainstream newspapers, on the shelves of conventional booksellers, in children’s TV shows, and even on Radio 4. Shortly before the recent royal wedding The Sun newspaper got in touch and asked me to perform a “Shamanic Sun Dance” to celebrate the event. I declined. However, despite, or maybe because of, increasing media attention it’s not always easy to discover what shamanism really is and what it can offer us in the 21st century.
Ask any passer-by on any street to describe shamanism, and the result will probably be a blank stare. Most people are surprised to learn that shamanism is not a religion but the oldest spiritual and problem-solving technology on the planet. Even more surprising is the discovery that it’s the precursor to most major world religions, including the Judaeo-Christian and Buddhist traditions, and that it has been practised on every inhabited continent on Earth for at least 40,000 years and possibly very much longer. Historically, shamanism was a significant survival tool of prehistoric humans. Our hunter-gatherer forebears decorated the stone walls of caves and cliffs around the world with carved and painted images drawn directly from shamanic experience. We no longer live in caves or in very small communities whose members are all known to us. Most of us live far longer, healthier lives than our ancient ancestors, but the part of us that is capable of fearing the dark and asking for help from things unseen hasn’t changed in almost a quarter of a million years. What made the uncertain lives of prehistoric people easier still works today because, although the world may have changed, fundamentally we have not.
Ask what a shaman is, and the question may evoke a few words about Native American ‘medicine men’ or perhaps the words ‘witch doctor’. In fact, what a shaman is and does is simply explained. In the Siberian Tungus language from which it originates, shaman means ‘the one who sees’ or ‘the one who knows’ and refers to a person capable of making a ‘journey’ to the world of spirit while in an altered state of consciousness in order to meet and work with personal spirit helpers and teachers. What the shaman ‘sees’ and what she or he ‘knows’ during this experience of meeting with spirit is that there is no separation between anything that is: no separation between me writing and you reading these words, between a dog and cat, between life and death, between this apparently material reality and the non-material realities of the spirit worlds. This idea of ‘oneness’ is common currency in contemporary culture and is increasingly given credence by certain quantum physicists working with sub-atomic theory, though of course it is a predominantly physical rather than spiritual oneness that such scientists are attempting to describe. However, where most of us can only think about the notion of ‘oneness’, shamans actually live it through the experience of the shamanic ‘journey’ and direct, personal interaction with spirit.
Described as a ‘breakthrough in plane’, in physiological terms the journey begins as the shaman redirects the primary cognitive process from the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain to the right, through the corpus callosum – that is, from the structuring, organising hemisphere to the visualising, sensing one. In the overwhelming majority of traditions around the world this ‘breakthrough’ will be assisted by the use of percussive sound, such as drumming, rattling or clapping. Although hallucinogens such as ayahuasca are widely advertised in the West as a means to help alter consciousness, in fact fewer than 15% of traditional shamans use plants in this way. Metaphysically, the journey begins when the shaman’s consciousness shifts from the here and now and enters worlds visible only to him or her. These worlds, which vary with each culture and tradition around the world, have many names, including ‘the realm of the spirits’ and ‘non-ordinary reality’. Some traditions call shamans ‘walkers between the worlds’ because they are the bridge between ‘here’ and ‘there’.
Although often considered primitive or seen as a ‘religion’ of less developed peoples and cultures, shamanism is both subtle and paradoxical. The ‘worlds’ of shamanic journeys are utterly real – they exist and can be felt, smelt and experienced as clearly as this ‘ordinary’ reality. At the same time they are qualitative spaces, states of being that reflect and support the reason for the shaman’s journey – to ask for help, healing or information from spirit. Unlike many esoteric practices and religions that aim to ‘raise the consciousness’ or elevate the spiritual above the physical, shamanism focuses on travelling to ‘heaven’ in order to return to ‘earth’ with the means to change material reality for the better, to increase the sum of human happiness and wellbeing.
Contemporary research by cognitive scientists such as David Lewis-Williams suggests that the modern human brain is hard-wired to see the ‘unseen’ and the mystical; even the Lower, Middle and Upper Worlds of the shaman – translated into Hell, Earth and Heaven in later tripartite cosmologies – are seemingly a natural part of human perception rather than cultural projections.
Not surprisingly, one of the questions most frequently asked by students being introduced to shamanism is, “What are spirits?” Perhaps because Western society has mostly avoided thinking about spirituality for many generations, we lack a clear, objective understanding of such things as spirits. These days it’s a one-size-fits-all word encompassing entities, energies, ghosts, angels, ancestors, the undead, elves, fairies; the list is seemingly endless. Personally, I have two understandings of the concept of spirit, and though the two coincide they are not the same and yet they work for me. The Core Shamanic or Western tradition, which underpins my own practice and teaching, describes spirit as part of all that exists. I am a spirit currently inhabiting a physical body in order to have a human experience. The spirits I meet on my ‘journeys’ are disembodied and therefore have an existential overview unavailable to me, but we are essentially the same: particles of infinite universal energy, fragments of all that is. We all come from this energy, exist within it and return to it. It is actually living this perspective that allows a shaman to experience the absence of separation between things that ordinary reality considers very separate indeed, such as life and death, or health and disease.
My second understanding of spirit is more psychological and archetypal and was described with great clarity and simplicity by C.G. Jung in his autobiographical book, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Referring to personal experience of his spirit teacher, Jung wrote, “Philemon … brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force which was not myself.” This is a beautifully lucid explanation of how it can feel to interact with spirit during a shamanic journey. More prosaically, I describe to my students the process of journeying as having one’s imagination harnessed and directed by something external or as attaching to a larger, impersonal consciousness, which can then be accessed.
So what is the purpose of all of this, and how can shamanism help us, here and now? What can it contribute to the sum of human happiness? What is the shaman’s intention when he or she sets out to make a journey for man with cancer, for a young woman needing to make changes in her life, for a river whose spirit is dying because of pollution, or for an animal grieving the loss of its mate? For the shaman, all disease and distress is caused by dis-harmony and dis-order and all physical and mental ill-health is caused by one of two things: something being present that should not be, such as a spirit of depression, or something that should be present being absent, such as part of the person’s own soul or energy. Virtually everyone I work with has some kind of power loss, most as a result of simply living their lives. A large part of any shaman’s work will be Extraction, the removal of intruding spirits, or Retrieval (such as Soul Retrieval or Power Retrieval) – finding or replacing missing parts of the sick person’s own soul or power. Soul Loss, described by Jung as “the scattered self”, can be experienced by anyone or anything, including animals and the natural environment.
Relationship with Nature is a vital aspect of all shamanism. Hundreds, even thousands, of years of Western thought has placed humans ‘outside’ and ‘beyond’ Nature. This perilous illusion underpins all that is done in the name of ‘progress’, from the destruction of forests to the use of animals in experimentation. Nature is not something separate, not something that we can stand back from and damage without thought, or even something external we can work to nurture. Nature is us and we are it, and this very different way of seeing the world and all it contains is, I believe, key to a new relationship between humanity and the rest of the planet. Of course, for most Indigenous peoples who have always understood their place in Nature this is not a new idea at all. Tragically many of these same peoples are now as threatened as the land on which they live. But it is this deep ‘knowing’, this way of ‘seeing’ who and what we are in relation to what is around us, that is most needed at this time if the sum of human happiness is to increase rather than shrink, along with the resources on which we all depend.
When I started on the shamanic path 13 years ago I enjoyed Nature greatly but felt little personal connection to it. Now, as a result of journeying and knowing my own spirit helpers, many of whom are animals and plants, that perspective has completely changed; even a walk in a London park can be a magical experience. Finding the magic in what we once thought was ordinary is a gift that the practice of shamanism offers the planet at a time when it is sorely needed. It would be a difficult thing to poison a lake or cut down a forest if you felt that in doing so you would be directly damaging yourself. Fortunately there are still shamans walking between the worlds as they have done since the earliest days of our species, and every day more of us are rediscovering how shamanism can positively affect our own lives and the world around us through its unique blend of practical support and true enchantment.
For information on upcoming courses and one-to-one sessions with Zoë Brân, visit www.shaman.uk.com. For more information on Core Shamanism and various aspects of traditional and contemporary shamanism see www.shaman.uk.net