The Reality of Spirits, Page 4
By Edith Turner
© Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1997, Vol. 10, No. 1

But we eventually have to face the issue head on and ask, "What are spirits?" And I continue with the thorny question, "What of the great diversity of ideas about them throughout the world? How is a student of the anthropology of consciousness, who participates during fieldwork, expected to regard all the conflicting spirit systems in different cultures? Is there not a fatal lack of logic inherent in this diversity?"

The reply: "Is this kind of subject matter logical anyway?" We also need to ask, "Have we the right to force it into logical frameworks?"

Moreover, there is disagreement about terms. "Spirits" are recognized in most cultures. Native Americans refer to something in addition called "power." "Energy," Ki or C'hi, is known in Japan and China, and has been adopted by Western healers.

"Energy" was not the right word for the blob that I saw coming out the back of a Ndembu woman; it was a miserable object, purely bad, without any energy at all, and much more akin to a restless ghost. One thinks of energy as formless, but when I "saw" in the shamanic mode those internal organs, the organs were not "energy." They had form and definition. When I saw the face of my Eskimo friend Tigluk on a mask, as I saw it in a waking dream, and then saw Tigluk himself by luck a few minutes afterward, the mask face was not "energy," laughing there. It was not in the least abstract.

The old-fashioned term, "spirit manifestation," is much closer. These manifestations are the deliberate visitations of discernable forms that have the conscious intent to communicate, to claim importance in our lives. As for "energy" itself, I have indeed sensed something very much like electrical energy when submitting to the healing passes of women adepts in a mass meeting of Spiritists in Brazil.

I would presume that the question of the multiplicity of beliefs would not faze anthropologists, who are accustomed to a relativistic stance. This stance presupposes some distancing, and for this we have the prime example of Clifford Geertz, a relativist who was indeed a participant, a believer in thick description. Yet he claims it is false faith to think we can go the whole way with our field people. He says that we cannot really go native, that it is bad faith to try.9

According to him, the proper stance of anthropologists is to listen, interact, participate, write down what people say (the "text"), but distance themselves. (It is to be remembered that Geertz did not, in fact, distance himself.)

Others would have us remember that if our interlocutors experience trance or possession, it is a reactive unconscious attempt to remedy their subaltern ranking in sexual and social hierarchies. Our analysis must be on this level; if our participation goes too deep, it might be a sign of our own pathology, and furthermore, it will be of no assistance to the oppressed groups concerned. Such is often the teaching of anthropology.

Repeatedly, anthropologists witness spirit rituals, and often, some indigenous exegete tries to explain that the spirits are present and, furthermore, that rituals are the central events of their society. The anthropologist proceeds to interpret them differently.

There seems to be a kind of force field between the anthropologist and her or his subject matter, making it impossible for her or him to come close to it, a kind of religious frigidity.

We anthropologists need training to see what the Natives see. This might best be done by following the method of a luminous, shaman-type lady, Mary Watkins, who in her book, Waking Dreams, leads us through practically all the ways of thinking of the Native religions with unerring skill. 10 The work develops practices that are not particularly doctrinaire because the author possesses a fine-drawn understanding that doctrinaire cults destroy sensitiveness.

Are spirits "out there?" In her book, Mary Watkins does not refer to "spirits," but to "dream figures," "images," or "imaginals." Yet she might as well have been describing spirits. She sees her "imaginals" as conscious beings with self-determination, with autonomy. I quote:

We tell the dream figures we know what they are saying.... We betray them with our sweet understandings.... [However] we could use interpretation almost like amplificatory material, helping us to maintain the imaginal's own directionality (from material to immaterial)....
The poetic image creates perceptions, modalities of is steadily creating the you who is endeavoring. It is drawing you into its landscape and adding not only to your experiences but to your ways of experiencing.... The poem and the dream lead us into the sites of revery....
Images demand that we develop the facility to inhabit new sites.... The different places of the imaginal begin to stand out. The possibility of an archetypal topography begins to emerge.... Each image teaches one to lose the ego fantasy of permanence and continuity.... It pulls things from us that show our participation in it, though often largely unconscious.... We learn...a consciousness with a polymorphous nature.... The past has been created by...the possession of us by various images....
We try to note where and how it lives. How does it spend a day? What is its sense of time? (Some say that the imagination is "timeless".... [Rather] it contains many different senses of time).... The seemingly random nature of images dissolves with time....

The unspoken metaphors are revealed-not for just their material aspect, not just their symbolic, but rather as the co-creation of the physical and imaginal qualities of our lives.11

Watkins recognized the autonomy of something that she defines as deriving from inside a person—"an imaginal."

An almost identical recognition runs through many cultures, but it is of spirits "out there." The initiative is theirs, not ours.

Who is right, the dream analyst or the traditional seer? A symbologist might recognize Watkins's statements as concerned with shamanic awareness. Should we begin quite seriously to experience and recognize this entity—this "X," whether "spirit" or "imaginal?" What Dan Rose12 and Michael Jackson13 are urging on us is to do something very like that, to "literally put ourselves in the place of other persons; inhabiting their world."

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