Saturday, May 19, 2007

Core vs Classic vs Ethnic Shamanism

There are three main categories of shamanism: core, classic, and ethnic. (No, "Make believe" doesn't count. )

Michael Harner did a great thing, in a way, by popularizing "core shamanism." It's a great concept: Teach the techniques that all or most shamans use, without the ethnic content. However, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, or maybe just some of the instructors, seem to me to carry that too far. Shamanism really can't be empty, generic, and value free.

In the basic shamanism class I took from them in 1992, the instructor said that shamanism is compatible with all religions. Living in the Bible Belt, I know that's untrue, but they probably feel they must say it.

Nowadays all over the web you find people saying that shamanism appears in every culture worldwide. That is really not true. Shamanism seems to have developed in most parts of the world in gathering-hunting cultures and lingered in some cultures for much longer. Once cultures turn to farming (rather than just gardening), shamanism disappears.

The problem, of course, is many people are calling just about everything shamanism. Shamanism is a very specific belief system and set of practices. The basic, core practices are recognizable in many gathering-hunting cultures, but not just every indigenous healer is a shaman.

Shamanism depends on the animist world view, the belief that all things have spirit. It depends on belief in the spirit world. Journeying involves interacting with spirits in a setting of rich imagery. For ethnic shamans that imagery is provided by the teaching stories and belief system of the culture, and also by the reality of the local and ancestral spirits themselves.

Lots of teachers seem to be telling people that a shamanic journey is a light trance, a form of meditation. That is also untrue. According to recent medical research the EEG readings of meditators show them to be in alpha state, while the those of indigenous shamans are in theta.

In hypnosis, theta state is where the most powerful work is done. From what I've experienced in mediation, in hypnosis, in guided meditation (a form of hypnosis), and in shamanic journeying, in order to get to theta state, where real changes happen, there must be content. There must be imagery more profound than just going into a light trance and letting your imagination run wild.

We can all learn to journey in some sense of the word, but if we stop at the light trance level (alpha state), we aren't really doing shamanism. Yet most of us in modern, industrialized countries not only didn't grow up in animist/shamanist cultures but also don't really have access to them.

Not only is adopting indigenous spiritual practices from books or hearsay stealing, it's also pretty useless. So what are we to do?

I think we have to learn from whoever wiil teach us. And we can learn from books some clues to how to interact with the land spirits where we live. Some indigenous peoples have explained how they contact the land spirits, and we can glean clues from that. But we need to go outside onto the land and experience the spirits on our own.

Go camping. Find some undeveloped land. Even near, sometimes in, large cities in the US like Houston and Chicago, there are parks that are mostly wild, with picnic tables along the edges. Go into the forest or desert. Walk out in the prairie. Sit by a stream.

To practice shamanism we have to construct our own mythology, so to speak. Each of us, from our own reading and experience, can develop our own system that works where we live. Eventually we can reach the theta state and go into the real spirit world in our journeys.

For several years I've been calling that "classic shamanism" to distinguish it from the emptiness of "core shamanism." To me it's a middle ground between "core shamanism" and the powerful practices of indigenous, ethnic shamanism.

Raven Kaldera eloquently compares core shamanism with ethnic shamanism (which he calls "classic shamanism") in a table that makes it very easy to see the differences:

My only quibble is that I think there is something between the two. That middle ground is what I call "classic shamanism." It can be powerful, and we can use it to be of service to our community, to the spirit world, to the environment where we live, and to the Earth.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Shamanism in Tibetan Buddhism and Bon

I have studied and practiced eclectic spiritual healing and Tibetan Bon and Buddhism since 1990. I don't really mix those things with shamanism, but I find them to be complementary.

Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion, actually has a shamanic component. Although it has become more and more like Buddhism, Bon was originally an animist belief system that included shamanism. There are still shamans and sorcerers in Nepal and possibly (despite persecution under Chinese rule) in Tibet.

When Buddhism was adopted in Tibet, so many shamanic practices were incorporated in it that Tibetan Buddhism is, to this day, very different from other forms of Buddhism. When you receive an empowerment or initiation from a reborn lama, a rimpoche (precious jewel), you can sometimes really feel the shamanic energy.

(Most lamas are not consciously reborn with memories of other lives as lamas. The ordinary lamas generally have a geshe (doctorate) degree in Tibetan religious studies, so their ceremonies are word perfect, but the energy is quite different.)

One of the most important practices in Tibetan Buddhism, Chod, came from one of the female founders of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a classic shamanic initiation of dismemberment by the spirits. Interestingly, Tibetan Buddhism coexists very well with shamanism in Siberia, Mongolia, and the countries of Greater Tibet, such as Nepal and Bhutan.

I haven't studied the shamanic practices of Bon yet. I have some books and CDs by Tenzin Wangyal Rimpoche, though, and I recommend (and will eventually review) them on my website on classic shamanism,

Rimpoche is a wonderful teacher, who lived in Houston and taught at Rice University in the early 1990s. He gave teachings in Houston even before he moved here, and I studied with him and later with his teacher, Tenzin Namdak Rimpoche, the Lopon (highest teacher) of Bon.

While living here, Tenzin Wangyal Rimpoche started a Houston branch of his Ligmincha Institute, and he returns at least once year to teach. His lectures are wonderful.

Like the Dalai Lama, the consciously reborn lamas (and perhaps the others, too) can transmit knowledge directly (psychically) while teaching. It's hard to describe, but it is real. (I've experienced it with Tibetan lamas and with a Mayan daykeeper, Hunbatz Men, who spoke only Spanish but was understood by listeners who knew no Spanish at all.)

Although Bon has grown closer and closer to Buddhism, its shamanic roots are much closer to the surface. Bon also has more female deities, making it more appealing to women than Buddhism.

Both Tibetan religions are almost the opposite (to me) of the emptiness of Zen. They are filled with sensory imagery (vision, sound, taste and touch), which is their legacy from Tibetan animism. Like shamanism they often deal directly with spirits.

Before Tibetan lamas do a ceremony, they check on the land spirits at that place. Then, if need be, they heal the land spirits before conducting their Bon or Buddhist ceremony.

[By the way, not all monks are lamas, only the senior teachers are called that. And not all lamas are monks, even in Buddhism; some of them are married and have families.]

Both the intricate, colorful imagery and the animistic practices of Tibetan Bon and Buddhism appeal to me. The energy feels familiar, attractive, and powerful.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Classic Shamanism and Why I'm Here

I'm new here. My interest is in classic shamanism (as practiced by indigenous peoples)--not to copy but to learn from.

I believe shamanism is rooted not just in the Earth in general but in working with the land spirits of a particular place. Generally the people who have lived in a place and worked with the land where they live for generations are the experts on the spirits of that place.

So I think we have to make our own shamanic practice, tailored to where we live. Spirit is our best teacher but it sure helps to be able to learn from others.

I read The Way of the Shaman when it first came out, and being by nature an animist, I was very interested, but I couldn't seem to get started. Later I studied with students of Leroy Anderson, and a little with Leroy himself. That's how I got started journeying.

In 1992 I co-taught a 10-week class on experiencing shamanic energy. Then I took a couple of FSS courses.

Now I lead a shamanism Meetup group that meets once a month to journey together and do shamanic work, such as guiding the spirits of the dead to the spirit world. We use ecstatic trance postures and experiment with other sounds for journeying, as well as drumming.

I've started a web site to answer questions asked by members of the group and to put the things we do into a framework, to give people some background.

There are a few dozen pages there now, but I expect the site to keep growing steadily. Please stop by if you are interested, and let me know what you think. There are a couple of buttons you can click to send me an email. I'm open to suggestions and very grateful when people tell me about typos!

Web sites are good for presenting a lot of information in an organized way, but lately I've felt the need for something more informal and interactive as well. I hope this blog will be it.