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.

No comments: