My Path in Shamanism
Interview with Michael Harner
From Higher Wisdom by Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob. Albany: State University of New York Press, ©2005.
Did the tobacco drink induce visionary experience?
It heightens your perceptions, at least with that particular kind of uncured tobacco. It’s very powerful. You’re taking it to feed your spirit helpers, who love tobacco. It is also used to increase alertness, so that if there’s a sorcerer who’s working against you, your spirit helpers will be alert and protect you. The Jívaro were very much involved in feuds and wars, in contrast to the Conibo.
Would the Jívaro use ayahuasca to determine whether or not to go on a raid or start a war? Would they use it to make a collective decision about their culture?
Well, first of all, we’d better all get in the habit, and I should lead the way, of calling them Shuar, because they want to be called Shuar.
No, the Shuar did not and do not use ayahuasca to make collective decisions. I know that’s been reported for the Jívaroan Achuar, but it is not true there either. The Jívaro proper—the Untsuri Shuar (also called Muraya Shuar, or Hill Shuar), the people I worked with—felt strongly that normally only one person at a time should take ayahuasca, otherwise the contact with the spirits would be diluted or altered. However, sometimes two shamans would take it together, such as for healing work.
The Achuar is a different tribe?
Yes. They are a closely related Jívaroan tribe, with a mutually intelligible dialect, but some important aspects of their culture are different. For example, unlike the Shuar, they did not take and shrink heads. But anyway, getting back to your earlier question, natemä, which is the Shuar name for ayahuasca, might be taken for divinatory purposes by a shaman prior to a war raid. However, he would take it just to get some idea of whether they should do the raid, whether there were bad or good omens—in other words, whether it was propitious. It was also taken to divine if someone, through sorcery, was responsible for an illness or death. In the latter case, such a divination could result in an assassination raid.
What about sorcery? Among some peoples sorcery seems to be associated with ayahuasca use.
Yes, that is true. Over my decades of work in shamanism I’ve come to certain conclusions that helped me understand the Shuar, including their preoccupation with sorcery, or bewitching. In other words, “sorcery” commonly implies hostile or amoral action, and it is typically contrasted with healing.
First, let me say a few words about what shamans have discovered worldwide about the shamanic cosmology of nonordinary reality: there are three Worlds: the Upper, Middle, and Lower. The Upper and Lower, above and below us, are completely in nonordinary reality, and beyond pain and suffering. In contrast, the Middle World, in which we live, has both its ordinary and nonordinary aspects. It is also the World in which pain and suffering can be found, occurring in both realities. Sorcerers specialize in doing their work in the Middle World. The Shuar are very much involved with Middle World spirits. There are Middle World spirits of all types, just as there are humans and species of all types here in the ordinary reality Middle World. Middle World spirits have not transcended Middle World consciousness. So the Shuar shamans can have at their disposal spirits who have a variety of personalities and behaviors, who have not emerged from the preoccupations of ordinary daily life. These can be spirits of any beings: animals, insects, or humans.
Working with Middle World spirits is both difficult and dangerous, and this is the world in which the Shuar shamans are enmeshed. They do not work in the Upper World, unlike a lot of other shamanic people. They also only go a little distance toward the Lower World—that is, only into the lakes and the rivers. A culture that is stuck with Middle World spirits is a culture that is going to have sorcery.
Sorcery is typically hostile action. In my ethnography on the Jívaro, I called it bewitching. There are terms in Shuar culture for someone who does this. One is wawek. A wawek is a shaman who’s gone bad. They are regarded as bad shamans, even if they are in one’s own family and are directing their efforts at dealing with common enemies, of whom they have many.
I can contrast that with the Conibo. They also have shamanism, but don’t have this kind of aggressive behavior, and they include much travel to the Upper and Lower Worlds in their shamanic journeys.
I take the reality of spirits very seriously. In fact, their reality provides a parsimonious explanation for otherwise inexplicable phenomena. This parsimonious explanation was unfortunately thrown out of Western science in the so-called Age of Enlightenment. I think shamanism will eventually lead to a reevaluation of this antispirit belief, which I think is an Achilles’ heel and missing link in science. So I work a lot, and very successfully, with the spirits.
How do you define a spirit?
A spirit could be considered to be an animate essence that has intelligence and different degrees of power. It is seen most easily in complete darkness and much less frequently in bright light, and in an altered state of consciousness better than in an ordinary state. In fact, there’s some question whether you can see it in an ordinary state of consciousness at all.
You’ve taken ayahuasca with both the Conibo and the Shuar. They sound like rather different contexts: different kinds of mental sets and perhaps different settings. Were your subjective experiences also different?
Yes, they were. I picked up on the local spirits and the activities in the area. What I would encounter would be not only cosmic knowledge, but knowledge of specific local spirits, the local peoples’ spirits, and specific matters involving patients. So the local spirits do impinge on the experiences.
Could you say more about the “cosmic knowledge?”
My views of the cosmos derive from more than ayahuasca experiences, which were my lead-in to a broader view. But subsequent experiences of altered states of consciousness and shamanic states of consciousness independent of ayahuasca also had an effect.
When I came back from my first ayahuasca experiences with the Conibo in 1961, I started going through the anthropological literature with great excitement and expectations. I was convinced, like R. Gordon Wasson and others at that time, that all religions had their origin in plant-induced experiences. We all went through this stage.
Some of us are still in it.
Yes. But when you experience other methods of access besides the plants, then you discover that it’s bigger than plants—that there’s a whole other reality, and that there are different entrances into it. That’s the really exciting thing, because you can no longer be a reductionist saying “the plants are doing it.” This is what excites me. I see general patterns, cosmological patterns, regardless of whether ayahuasca or sonic driving is being used. So I take the idea of another reality very seriously. I take very seriously the idea that death is not death, and life is not life. [Laughs] But they’re useful constructs.
Would you say that your thinking about the world evolved after you came back from your fieldwork with the Conibo and the Jívaro?
Yes. I published The Jívaro ethnography in 1972, and then my book Hallucinogens and Shamanism, based upon a symposium Claudio Naranjo and I organized at the American Anthropological Association meeting in 1965. The early 1960s were the critical period in our excitement about this field—wondering where we were going and what we were discovering. With regard to the evolution of my ideas, at first I thought it was all about the plants. I even got into the Haiti thing in those years and figured out there was a plant infusion being used to make zombies.
As an anthropologist I was interested in the role of these plants in human life and traditional knowledge. Although I tried some of the new chemicals that were becoming available at that time, they were generally not what I was interested in. I was, and still am, an anthropologist. I want to understand how things got to be the way they are and what the native peoples really know. I've never viewed natives as laboratories for our experiments in social science theory or psychological theory. I view them as teachers. The problem is that most Westerners are not ready for their teachings. I don’t have anything against Sasha Shulgin’s concoctions and so on, but they just don’t interest me. I have greater interest in time-tested things and their historical consequences for humanity.
Eventually, I came to many dead ends. For example, I was sure that pituri, Duboisia hopwoodii, used by the Australian aborigines, was going to turn out to have Datura-like effects, but it apparently did not. The Inuit shamans seemed like another dead end because I couldn’t find any psychotropic plant use among them, and they were certainly having strong spiritual experiences. The evidence was staring me in the face for a long time, but I didn’t see it; that in perhaps 90 percent of the world’s shamanic cultures they use a monotonous percussive sound to enter altered states of consciousness, rather than significant psychedelics.
Finally I got around to trying drumming. I had a bias against it being able to do anything, but lo and behold, after various experiments, it worked. Later I spent some time with Northwest Coast Indians who used drums in a very effective way for reaching the shamanic state of consciousness. I now have great respect for monotonous percussive sound—particularly at 4-7 hertz, in the theta range of EEG waves—for producing similar experiences and allowing one to get to the same altered states, if one has the proper training. Obviously there’s always a difference between a specific drug and some other technique. But those differences are not changes in the underlying cosmology or changes in the basic conclusions one arrives at.
So my path involves monotonous percussive sound or sonic driving. And that’s what has made it so easy for me to teach shamanism through the years, because it’s a legal, safe, effective, and ancient method. It teaches people that there’s more than one door to nonordinary reality, which is something that shamans in so many parts of the world already knew. Of course some silent meditators can get to similar places. You don’t have to have monotonous percussion sound; it just makes it a lot easier.
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