Science, Spirits, and Core Shamanism, Page 2
By Michael Harner
© Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1999, Vol. 12, No. 1

A small introduction to some of the principles and practices of core shamanism may be found in my book "The Way of the Shaman."6 However, the most important practical teaching in both core and indigenous shamanism is not to be found in published literature. Rather, it is the result of person-to-person experientially based instruction, by example, by direct communication from the spirits, and through personal experimentation and practice. Furthermore, much of this experiential learning is ineffable and thus has not been communicable to non-participating Western observers and interviewers.

The development of core shamanism has been based on a combination of cross-cultural fieldwork and research, on continual experimentation with ancient shamanic techniques for healing, divination, and other practices, and the practice of those methods with clients. Time and time again, we have found that the existence of spirits is a consistent parsimonious explanation of our successes in the use of shamanic methods.

To assist others who may wish to pursue shamanic research, I now wish to outline briefly the research strategy that I have evolved over the last thirty-eight years of personal shamanic practice, research, and teaching. This strategy is not just mine personally, but that of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies as well.

To say it another way, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies is a laboratory of shamanism pioneering a science of spirits, and its students learn to employ their knowledge of the spirits for successful results in their personal shamanic practice.

Fundamental to this strategy is respect for the accumulated spiritual knowledge of shamanic cultures. Thus, indigenous people are viewed as teachers, not as objects. If what they teach seems strange or incomprehensible, we view that as our problem, not theirs, and as evidence of our need to learn more in their terms. No matter how impossible may seem their statements or claims at first glance, our starting presumption is that they know what they are talking about. Their views are not to be reduced by the premature application of existing Western explanatory paradigms. To put it baldly, they are innocent until proven guilty, and generally we have found that we are guilty if they are not proven innocent.

First- hand experiential knowledge is actively sought wherever and whenever in order to gain greater understanding of shamanism and shamanic healing. Thus, another basic aspect of my strategy is serious participant observation, or "radical participation" in contemporary anthropological terms, for it is not enough simply to be a spectator and interviewer. Early exemplars of radical participation, before that term was used, include ethnologists Frank Cushing (who participated in the spiritual practices of the Zuni) and James Mooney (who participated in the Plains Ghost Dance and also helped found the Native American Church). They went beyond the traditional bounds of participant observation as usually practiced in anthropological fieldwork, entering domains beyond the ordinary everyday tasks of the peoples with whom they studied.

Comparative study of ethnographic reports is also a very important part of the strategy to discover regularities of practice, which lead to outcomes, which, by prevailing Western scientific standards, would be considered impossible. These can involve shamanic journeying to other worlds, dismemberments, possession and de-possession, communication with the dead, mediumship, detailed successful divination work for total strangers, and miraculous healings.

Next in the strategy is the experimental employment of the practices to determine if they are replicable. The replication of results depends upon the discovery, through such experimentation, of the underlying principles in operation. One of these is that there are compassionate tutelary (helping) spirits available to assist the shamanic practitioner in relieving suffering, pain, and spiritual ignorance. Application of these principles makes possible the replication of results by others.

In this experimental strategy, both induction and deduction play an interdependent role, with induction particularly important in early stages of lines of research. As progress is made, deductive principles are discovered and subsequently employed to provide predictable results. When these principles, including that of the reality of spirits, are employed, the results are so replicable that it is possible to teach experimentally oriented experiential training courses to large numbers of students with predictably reliable outcomes for their own experiments. To say it another way, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies is a laboratory of shamanism pioneering a science of spirits, and its students learn to employ their knowledge of the spirits for successful results in their personal shamanic practice.

Using core shamanic principles, including the principle of the existence of spirits, advanced students, with the assistance of their helping spirits, are able to perform not only surprising acts of healing, but also to perform such classic public shamanic feats as the bound shaman or "shaking tent" ritual known in one form or another in such areas as native North America and the Arctic. If they had only been spectators, there would have remained in their minds the usual questions of possible fakery. But by actually participating as practitioners, they know first-hand that fakery is not involved, such as when they are tightly bound by ropes, and the ropes suddenly fall away.7

Such phenomena can be explained according to the scientific principle of parsimony; and that parsimonious explanation is simply that the spirits are real. This is not to suggest that one should avoid seeking non-spiritual explanations of shamanic phenomena. So far, however, no non-spiritual explanations of genuinely puzzling shamanic phenomena have proven as effective as the principle of the reality of spirits, which is not surprising, since it has been tested and supported cross-culturally in shamanic contexts for thousands of years. That the people who tested it were typically non-literate and did not wear white laboratory smocks does not make their experiments with their patients and clients, often in life and death situations, any less deserving of respect.

It is not my purpose here to attempt to persuade anyone of these views simply through words; that is, to cause the reader to have faith that I am right. Such ordinary reality persuasion is not the strategy of shamanism and shamanic learning. Shamanism is a path of knowledge, not of faith; and that knowledge cannot come from me or anyone else in this reality. To acquire that knowledge, including the knowledge of the reality of the spirits, it is necessary to step through the shaman's doorway and acquire empirical evidence.

The way is open, and the first step through it only requires, as it would for a true scientist, honest curiosity, an open mind, and some courage. Once you pass through the doorway, preconceptions are replaced by first-hand experience, and you can test for yourself the validity of the principle of the reality of spirits. One small warning, however, to those who are new to the practice: you and your view of reality will never be the same again, for passing through that doorway will be the beginning of a major paradigm shift, not only for you, but eventually for the parameters of science, and science will no longer be truncated by a major ethnocentric and cognicentric a priori assumption of what is impossible.

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