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.
What conclusions have you arrived at about different kinds of spirits? You mentioned the Middle World vis-a-vis the Upper and Lower Worlds. And there are spirits of animals, spirits of plants, spirits of ancestors, other deceased humans. Are there others that are neither human nor animal? Are there extraterrestrial spirits?
I’ll start with ancestors, as they are very important. Compassionate spirits—whatever species we’re talking about—are especially found in the Upper and Lower Worlds, and these spirits have compassion for suffering beings in general. But ancestors tend to focus on compassion for their descendants. That’s one of the reasons that many shamans use ancestral spirits so much for help.
You wouldn’t say that extraterrestrials could be Upper World spirits?
No. From our point of view all the galaxies in the astronomers’ universe are still Middle World. Extraterrestrials, as much as we’ve tried to look for them, seem like an uninspiring search. If there are extraterrestrials, which I assume there are, that’s fine. To me, that’s not a spiritual matter. They’re just people making a living somewhere on another rock. [laughs]
The Upper World extends beyond the material world. Consider the Tuvan shamans in Central Asia. When they go past the stars, they get to the nine heavens, and then there’s the white heaven above. The Upper World is beyond ordinary reality, beyond the astronomer’s universe. And the center of the universe for any shaman is right where the shaman is located in ordinary reality. You are the center of the universe.
Are there other spirits that one encounters, neither animal nor plant nor human? Or spirits of a particular place?
Yes. You can encounter the spirits of the elements, for example. They are very powerful, but they don’t have compassion. You can also have spirits of place, but it’s typically a constellation of the spirits of that place, including local ancestor spirits.
Are you saying that the three worlds are located inside? That they are internal constructs?
No, I am not. The shaman is an empirical pragmatist. The worlds are wherever the shaman sees them. The idea that all this is happening inside us is, in contrast, a theory.
How would you compare your shamanic cosmology to that of the Perennial Philosophy?
What shamans discover is consistent with much of the Perennial Philosophy. I think there’s an unfortunate tendency among some scholars and writers to consider shamanism as primitive. But the hypothesis of a kind of evolutionary hierarchy in which the caste-based societies of the Indian subcontinent house the highest and most developed spirituality is somewhat naive. Once the spirits get their hands on you, it doesn’t matter what your original intention was—whether you were going to follow the Buddhist path, Christianity, or whatever. Once you give the spirits an opportunity to teach you, they’re going to give you what you need, not what you planned according to your culture’s program.
Do you feel the spirits are always around everybody, every being?
Yes, the Middle World spirits are, but usually not the Upper and Lower World spirits. And this is part of the problem. There’s a lot of spiritually caused illness in the world, because people are not aware of what’s around them. Take “possession,” for example. In my opinion, it’s fine to do ordinary psychotherapies and chemical therapies and so on with people who are deemed to be psychotic or schizophrenic. That’s great. But Western treatment typically ignores the possibility there may be spiritual forces involved in the illness. In the contemporary world we’ve rejected the possession model and substituted something which is more acceptable to Age of Enlightenment science. We’re bogged down in eighteenth century science.
Have you seen cases of psychosis that were cured by shamanism?
I am of the opinion that I have. However, it’s very difficult to isolate the operative healing variables in any individual case, and also I’m not qualified to evaluate clinically what constitutes a case of psychotic behavior. Our Foundation for Shamanic Studies is a kind of university of shamanism. We train people who are already psychotherapists, physicians, and psychiatrists, and they can take home what they learn and experiment with cases of clinically defined psychosis. Certainly I’ve seen people exhibiting extreme behaviors, including alcoholics and drug addicts, who were then radically changed through depossession work.
The Spiritist church in Brazil, which has at least thirteen million members, embodies African, South American Indian, and some European elements in its depossession work. The president of the Spiritist church some years ago told me that a friendly Brazilian government turned over a mental institution to them for a year as an experiment. According to him, at the end of the year there were no more patients in the institution. Now, that’s probably an exaggerated account. But it reminds us that one of our missions is to bring depossession work into mainstream Western Life as a serious practice, in conjunction with other therapeutic practices. To make it work, however, you can’t deal with people who are on moodchanging drugs. They have to be consciously present for the work to succeed. Meanwhile, one of the tragedies in our culture is the medical establishment’s rejection of the possibility that there may be spiritual factors at work in these cases.
The work is really done by the spirits?
Not alone. The shaman has to work with the spirits. You have to have both forces in operation. Depossession is one of the most exciting healing approaches that I know of. We introduce only our most advanced students to it, after they’ve done at least three, and usually many more, years of work. Then they get the depossession training.
An interesting thing about possession illness is that it’s relatively unknown in the New World native cultures. There is a little bit on the Northwest Coast, and some glimmers of it among the Inuit. It seems to be much more an illness associated with the Old World. There is some mystery here—why it’s such an Old World thing, and lately imported into the New World.
Maybe it has something to do with the influence of the Church, denying the reality of the traditional spirits. If you deny the reality of the spirits, it makes you more vulnerable to unconscious possession. Whereas if you’re working with the spirits directly, you would be protecting yourself more.
One typically gets possession illness when there has been significant soul loss through traumas, and loss of one’s spiritual powers. If there are no shamans around, little can be done, but if there are shamans around they can remedy soul loss. So I think you’re on the right track. When people are pretty empty spiritually, that’s when there’s room for involuntary possession.
On a personal level, how has the work with plants and shamanic drumming changed your own worldview about life, death, and spirituality?
Radically. I no longer view ordinary reality as the only reality. There’s a whole other reality, and that reality is the bigger one. This one is just a transitory experience; you’re only here for a certain number of years, but the other one is infinite. Whether you come back again, that’s another question. Personally, I am not interested in reincarnating, because once you’ve been out “there,” it’s ineffable ecstasy and union. I feel this material world is basically just a short pit stop. But we should do the best we can to help here, because, compared to the Upper and Lower Worlds, this is a reality of suffering and pain. This is a Darwinian reality.
In fact, I consider our definition of life to be a very biocentric view. We are biological entities, so we define life in our own terms. But to me the whole universe is living, and it doesn’t have to be only in biological form. Biological forms, by their very nature, go through the process of natural selection and evolve. Natural selection involves competition, and to survive competition requires that you have fear. Of course, you are also rewarded with the pleasure of the sexual act in order to create the next generation. We’re talking now about DNA wanting to persevere. So the Middle World that we live in is a world where, in order to survive, one must experience fear.
When somebody has a great shamanic journey, that person is sometimes reluctant to return from the ecstatic experience, far away from the fear and pain of the Middle World. So we have very definite safeguards to ensure that one comes back. It’s well known that some shamans can leave permanently, when they want to, but the trick is to come back here and do the healing work. We aren’t given ecstatic knowledge just so that we’ll look forward to our deaths. We are given this knowledge, and the spiritual empowerment that goes with it, so we can help to reduce suffering, pain, and spiritual ignorance here in the Middle World.
Death is no big deal. I’d like to stay around as long as possible to see how this life comes out, and to stay with my beloved wife, Sandra. But I certainly don’t fear death the way I once did.
I’m still very much an imperfect human being, and it’s never been my intention nor capability to be a perfect one. It’s not an intention of shamanism to teach people to lead inspiring model daily lives and to be gurus. Shamans are supposed to reduce suffering and pain through the hard work of healing others. That’s their job. They also help the dying and the dead, because shamans also heal the dead stuck in the Middle World, if they want help.
Shamanism is very emotionally rewarding, in both acquiring shamanic knowledge and helping other people. My students often say what a privilege it is to do this work. And what is the work? The work is helping others, but shamanic practitioners end up feeling better about themselves! What looks like a sacrifice to the outside world is really the high point of the person’s life. It changes your perspective. And of course you take less seriously things that should indeed be taken less seriously.
At the same time, a shaman is typically enmeshed in daily life, has a wife or a husband, has children, is a hunter, farmer, banker, computer operator, or whatever. Part of your daily routine is spent in ordinary reality, and that’s fine. It’s all the better that you be grounded in that, so you have sort of a microvacation. Then when you are called upon to do really serious spiritual work, you’ll be recharged and go back to it with full force.
The idea in shamanism is not to try to be a gentle exemplar for everybody else all the time, and not to be in a constant mystical state. That’s fine, but that’s a different tradition. So you’ll often find shamans engaged in joking and mildly outrageous behavior when they’re off duty, much like you might find emergency-room physicians and nurses having an “inappropriate” sense of humor about things. Nonshamans often can’t understand this. Then when you go back to work, boom! You’re back in the trenches.
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