Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone, page 3
An Interview of Michael Harner by Bonnie Horrigan
© Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1997, Vol. 10, No. 1

How is an altered state of consciousness achieved in shamanism?

In about 90% of the world, the altered states of consciousness used in shamanism are attained through consciousness-changing techniques involving a monotonous percussion sound, most typically done with a drum, but also with sticks, rattles, and other instruments. In perhaps 10% of the cultures, shamans use psychedelic drugs to change their state of consciousness.

I was introduced to shamanic work in 1961 among the Conibo Indians in eastern Peru, with the aid of native psychedelics. When I came back to the United States and no longer had my supply of ayahuasca, I experimented with drumming. Much to my surprise, it really worked. It should not have surprised me, because drums were reportedly used by shamans almost worldwide. Virtually everything you find in shamanism is done because it works. Over tens of thousands of years, shamans developed the most time-tested system of using the spirit, mind, and heart for healing, along with plant remedies, and so on. Again, the system is time-tested. So if healers in 90% of the shamanic cultures are using the same methods, we pay attention to them. And, of course, we find they work.

To get back to the extraction technique: the technique involves an altered state of consciousness and seeing into the client's body. Much shamanic work, including journeying and extraction, is done in darkness for a very simple reason. The shaman wishes to cut out the stimuli of ordinary reality—light, sound, and so on—and move into unseen reality. The shaman learns to look in the body with "x-ray vision" and see the illness and its location, and then to extract that illness.

Is that like depossession?

Depossession is related to extraction but it's not the same thing. From a shamanic point of view, it's very important to get out of the Middle World when journeying for spiritual purposes. In the old days, shamans journeyed in the Middle World to see how relatives were doing at a distant place or to locate the herds of migratory animals. But most of our work today is in the Upper and Lower Worlds where shamans have voyaged since ancient times. Shamans often prefer not to draw on the spirits of the Middle World because many of them are confused and lacking in power. Going to the Upper or Lower Worlds, one reaches spiritual beings of compassion, power, and wisdom.

Shamans who do another type of healing help the dead as well as the living. These shamans are called "psychopomps," or conductors of souls. Remember, from a shamanic point of view, when you're comatose, you're dead. So the shaman, in the case of comatose persons, would seek them out and see if they wanted to come back. Shamanism is not a system that intends to keep people in this ordinary reality whether they like it or not, because the shaman knows that this is not necessarily the best reality. You make the journey for the person who is comatose to find out what they want. If they want to come back, then the job of the shaman is to bring them back. But if they want to go on—or, more commonly, if they're dying or already dead—then the job of the shaman is to get them to a place where they will be content and not have them stay here, adrift in the Middle World.

So now we come back to this business of depossession. Most cases of depossession of humans are by other humans who are dead, who are here in the Middle World and don't know they're dead. If people are disempowered, or have soul loss or power loss, they are like a vacuum into which these confused entities can come. This is involuntary possession.

Shamans will conduct the entity—with its permission once it realizes it's dead—to a place beyond the Middle World where it will be reunited with people who it loves. Once this is done, so that the clients are no longer possessed, shamans restore their full soul and lost power connections so they are again whole and not vulnerable to further possessions.

Depossession work has slightly different forms in different cultures, but the basic principles are the same. I hope that one day our culture will recognize the need to permit shamanic practitioners to work with the spiritual aspects of illness in cooperation with nonspiritual health professionals.

In your opinion, why don't we do that now?

Unfortunately, when science started, partially as a reaction to the church in Europe, it ordained that souls and spirits have no reality and therefore could not be considered in scientific theory. Now that's an a priori position; in other words, ironically, a statement of faith enunciated in the 18th century. In fact, science has never disproved the existence of spirits. I would submit that now, on the edge of the 21st century, it's time to stop having a science that's based on faith (the faith that there are no spirits) and make it real science, which means that it doesn't ordain a priori that certain types of causes cannot exist.

In regard to extraction healing, in the shamanic view, where does the illness to be extracted come from?

From a shamanic point of view, all people have a spiritual side, whether they recognize it or not. When people get angry, jealous, or have a hostile emotional attitude, they can vent not only verbal and physical abuse, but spiritual abuse without even knowing it. In other words, if somebody is ignorant of shamanic principles, they can do damage to other people on a spiritual level.

Among the Untsuri Shuar and Jívaro people of eastern Ecuador, with whom I lived for quite a while, they call these intrusions "magical darts." There were many feuds and wars, and sometimes healers would get angry and lose their discipline and use their powers to get even. But it is important to know that this is a big mistake, not just ethically, but in terms of self-preservation. No matter how justified a person feels emotionally at the time, those spiritual beings who are representative of the great, loving, hidden universe will disconnect. It's like we're rechargeable batteries. We still have some power, and we can do damage, but the power source is no longer charging us. I've seen this many times in the Amazon. The shamans, in their anger, do harm for awhile, but eventually everything they send out comes back in on them, and it often results not only in their own death or pain, but their immediate family gets affected disastrously by it.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't get angry at people. It just means that you should have discipline and know there are parameters. You can get angry with somebody and verbally let out steam and, at the same time, control your spiritual side. But for your own self-preservation, if you don't work to relieve pain and suffering—and especially if you work in a contrary way—you're soon out of business, and probably dead.

If I understand the concept, shamans restore wholeness and power to a human being, and then that wholeness and power heals whatever is wrong with that person. So in this framework a power-filled person has the ability to heal himself.

To an outsider, it would look like they're healing themselves. But the concept of self-healing excludes the spirits. From the shamanic point of view, nobody's lived into adult life without spiritual help, whether they know it or not. The self-healing concept is a secular concept, and that's fine as far as it goes. It teaches people to take some responsibility for their illness. But it also teaches them to take responsibility for their death. With that approach, everybody's a failure at the moment of death, because they are responsible for the whole thing. From a shamanic point of view we are not that important. We are not necessarily the biggest thing in the universe. The shaman has a more humble point of view, that there is what looks like self-healing but, in fact, we are getting help. And the shaman has the role, of course, of accelerating that possibility.

So the person is not healing himself?

They might be in a specific case. I don't want to rule that out. Self-healing is a very secular view of reality, but it's a step in consciousness. It's like recognizing the brain is connected to the body.

Can you talk about the difference between ordinary reality and nonordinary reality, especially regarding the implications for medicine?

The terms "ordinary reality" and "nonordinary reality" come from Carlos Casteneda. Ordinary reality is the reality that we all perceive together. It's the reality in which we can all agree that there is a clock on the wall. Nonordinary reality is the reality that is associated with the shamanic state of consciousness; that is, when the consciousness has been altered and you're able to see what you normally don't see in an ordinary state of consciousness.

Ordinary reality is something that virtually everybody agrees on. Nonordinary reality is very person-specific. The information obtained in nonordinary reality is tailor-made to the individual—other people may not perceive it at all, as opposed to the information obtained in ordinary reality, in which everybody gets the same thing.

Nonordinary reality is also an empirical reality; that is, the person interacts with it, sees it, touches it, hears it, feels it. And the shaman sees with the heart in that reality. In nonordinary reality, for something to be the same for different persons, it has to be the same in the heart. Here (in ordinary reality) for something to be the same it doesn't matter what your emotion is; you'll see it, for example, as a door in the room. If I showed you a picture of my mother, now deceased, you and I would not have the same emotional relationship with that picture. But if I said the word "mother," and everyone saw their own mother, the emotional feeling in the heart would be closer—not identical, but closer. So to see things exactly the same in the heart, they have to be a little different for each person, because each person has a different personality and a different life history.

The term "nonordinary reality" is useful because it permits one to be reminded that access to these worlds is related to the degree to which you have entered the shamanic state of consciousness. It clarifies our thinking. For years, many people were confused by what shamans said. "I made a journey and was away for 3 years, and such and such happened." Now that person in nonordinary reality had the experience of living somewhere else for 3 years, but might have been gone only a half-hour in ordinary reality.

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