The Reawakening of Shamanism in the West1
By Bill Brunton
© Shamanism, Fall/Winter 2003, Vol. 16, No. 2
Page 5 (continued)
There is an interesting love/hate relationship Euro-Americans feel toward Native Americans. This may reflect a collective guilt over the genocide carried out by Europeans against the original inhabitants of the New World. On the hate side of this relationship is the discrimination Native Americans experience on a daily basis. On the love side is the romanticization of Native Americans as “noble savages,” a part of which is the assumption that they were careful stewards of the environment, were close to nature, and were happier as a result. There is also the knowledge in the public mind that the natural condition of the North American continent was pristine beauty, and that Europeans “raped” and in some cases made it squalid. Embracing shamanism, connected as it is in the minds of Euro-Americans to Native Americans and the beauty of Nature, may be resulting in a romantic interest in shamanism. It is certainly true that many Foundation workshop participants wrongly assume that what they will be taught is Native American based.
American culture23 is designed around a theme of rugged individualism. There are several facets to this theme. One is that individuals are supposed to be independent agents and be more or less self-sufficient problem solvers. The individual who is able to successfully problem-solve is judged by peers as competent, an extraordinarily valued attribute which is reflected in positive self-esteem. Shamanism can provide spiritual tools to aid an individual in realizing this theme. Power animals and spirit teachers are personal resources that can be used to augment ordinary reality resources for problem solving. An interesting aspect of this is that a major difference between American males and females, and one that spawned a series of self-help books,24 finds males as the primary problem-solvers who are driven to do so by the basic dynamics of their personality structures. This should result in males taking advantage of every opportunity to enhance their problem solving skills, including taking training in workshops in shamanism. Since the overwhelming majority of Foundation workshop participants are female, another factor must be operating. What may account for this is the discovery by Lewis25 that women are typically innovators in religion. When this is coupled with American feminists’ struggle to become more male-like in behavior, it may in part explain the larger numbers of women taking shamanic workshops.
An orientation toward high technology is also thematic in American culture. It is one of the cornerstones of American success in business, in extending life through medicine, in warfare, and in creating and maintaining a materialist lifestyle. However, technology is seen as cold and mechanical by many Americans. It is even intimidating for many. It is seen as lacking a soul (except for HAL in the movie 2001, who presents the audience with an ironic contrast). As technology has gained ever-increasing domination of day-to-day life in America, there has developed a sense of longing for a more soulful lifestyle, frequently expressed by people, and reflected in the media. Shamanism provides soulful, mystical life experience on a daily basis through journeying to connect with ancestors, teachers, power animals, and other beings, and by doing other shamanic work, such as healing. American interest in learning shamanic methods, and about shamanism in general, is a powerful way for them to fulfill this craving. Another benefit is that journeying provides a refuge from the isolation many Americans feel from living in a mass society with its many fleeting, impersonal social contacts. Nonordinary reality helpers allow individuals to know they are never alone.26
A major driving force in American society and culture is the bottom line, a business metaphor for profit, or what a person gets as a return for effort. There is some tantalizing evidence that shamanic healing is beginning to pay dividends in the sense that it is making cost differences in the delivery of health care.27 Americans and other Westerners are choosing shamanic treatments (as well as other, non-allopathic ones) at an increasing pace. This is a reflection of decreasing satisfaction with allopathic medicine’s dehumanizing objectification of illness and treatment modalities as well as an increasing interest in shamanism itself. It will also drive more interest in the future if data support a reduction in costs to providers such as insurance companies.
Courses covering shamanism are popular at universities. The one I taught at North Dakota State University (covering small-scale religions from an anthropological perspective) was offered at the senior/graduate level and consistently filled to capacity. The main reason students gave for taking the course was to learn about shamanism.
No cultural theme is more important to Americans than that of personal freedom– democracy at the level of the individual. Harner,28 while addressing participants at a recent workshop, described shamanism as a “democratic” spiritual approach. He specifically spoke to the point that shamans are significantly independent of each other, each following his or her own spiritual path without the oversight of a central authority. For Western shamans trained by the Foundation, a corollary of the journey technique is that each person’s journey experience is “perfect for the journeyer.” What this means is that shamans trained by the Foundation are encouraged to work in their own way with their own spiritual resources and to have the courage to make sense of their own shamanic experiences. This democratic aspect of Western shamanism is certainly contributing substantially to its popularity among Americans, specifically, and Westerners generally.
Another aspect of American culture is the implicit line, the favored metaphor for many aspects of human experience. For example, life is considered a line in this culture, as are time, cause and effect, reason, and many other things. The consequence of life being a line is that the individual gets little existential support. Death is a supreme challenge to life-as-line, for it breaks the line and thus the individual’s continuity in life. A circle, metaphor for the eternal and symbol of continuity and connection, is heavily utilized in Western shamanism. The emphasis on this metaphor provides a cognitively appealing alternative to the line and may explain some of the commitment to shamanism by Americans and other Westerners.
Finally, individuals in America and other Western societies with materialist cultures have the same life experiences as humans in other times and places. In addition to the near-death experience recognized by Harner (above) as a factor in the revival of shamanism in the West, other experiences are common which have no materialist explanation except for the unsatisfying one of “coincidence.” Dreams sometimes provide prescient information or are vivid and recurring (big dreams), prayers are sometimes answered, and individuals experience clairvoyance, clairaudience, and visions. While some easily dismiss these experiences (for example, astronomer Carl Sagan and engineer-science fiction writer Arthur Clark), many are not able to and even come to doubt their own sanity. They may live for years in fear as a consequence. These individuals, after taking the Basic workshop in core shamanism, are relieved to learn that their experiences are common and can be used beneficially. For these people, shamanism is a loving embrace that channels their natural abilities and spontaneous experiences into purposeful and powerful life skills and resources for others in their community. If they are able to deliver predictably the healing sought by their fellows and maintain their own balance and power, they are recognized as shamans as such individuals have been for millennia.
Please consider joining the Circle and receive the Foundation's journal, the Shamanism Annual as part of your benefits.