The History and Work of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies
By Michael Harner
© Shamanism, 25th Anniversary Issue 2005, Vol. 18, Nos. 1 & 2

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Looking over the above statement from almost one and a half decades ago, I was struck by how it accurately foreshadowed what the Foundation has consistently done since then. The exception was that the Foundation had to drop the SHE (Shamanism for Healing the Earth) project for lack of interest at that time, although it has continued in the workshop, “Shamanism and the Spirits of Nature.” Now there is much more awareness of the problem it attempted to address and, I am glad to say, many other individuals and organizations have since taken over active involvement on a larger scale than our limited resources could permit.

Now I would like to share with you a little more of the history and mission of the Foundation and a look into its future. Before doing that, however, I wish to mention my own personal mission, which foreshadowed that of the Foundation, and has remained to this day inextricably intertwined with it.

As I imagine you know, I began active participation in shamanism during 1961 in the Amazon and on subsequent return trips. The consciousness-changing substance used there in shamanism was, of course, ayahuasca. Initially I assumed that consciousness-changing plants of one sort or another were probably essential in the “trance” or “ecstasy” associated with shamanic journeying and practice. But after doing much cross-cultural research, I reluctantly concluded by the late 1960’s that shamans in most indigenous cultures altered their state of consciousness without the use of biochemical substances. My research also led me to conclude that percussion sound was far more widely used than plant “medicines” to achieve what I later called the Shamanic State of Consciousness. So I began to experiment with drumming for my personal shamanic journeying and discovered that, with the proper discipline, I could achieve basically the same shamanic results as with consciousness-changing substances.

This was a major personal discovery, for it meant that the shamans’ spiritual experiences could no longer be dismissed as simply due to the effects of biochemical agents. The implications were, and are, enormous for they indicated that drums and drugs were simply different doorways to another reality. With this realization, I was able to pursue my personal shamanic practice without the benefit of ayahuasca, using what we now call “sonic driving.” At the same time, acquaintances were asking me to introduce them to shamanism. As a result, in the 1970’s I was invited to teach journeying and other aspects of experiential shamanism within a workshop context both in the United States and Europe. It soon became clear that I also needed to share some of my knowledge in printed form in order to make it more accessible to the public.

The result was the publication in 1980 of The Way of the Shaman, where the methods of shamanic journeying were introduced in print for the first time. I simultaneously created the first shamanic journey drumming tape so that readers could work without the need for live drumming. Wider interest in shamanism and shamanic journeying required that I start providing more frequent teaching. To this end, the “Center for Shamanic Studies” had been set up at our home in Norwalk, Connecticut, with the aid of Sandra Harner. In 1980, with the help of some part-time high school students, as well as others, including David Corbin, the Center became full blown.

Teaching, however, was only part of the mission that I had set for myself. I also wished to help rescue, preserve, and study shamanic knowledge wherever it existed. This was important not only to the indigenous peoples but to the return of sacred shamanic knowledge to all of humankind. To this end, in 1985 I founded our non-profit organization, The Foundation for Shamanic Studies, especially for the purpose of engaging in field research and encouraging the survival of indigenous shamanism. As it also had education as a purpose, in 1987 Sandra Harner and I donated the assets of the pre-existing Center for Shamanic Studies, with its workshops, books, and shamanic journey drumming tapes, to the new non-profit organization.

At the same time, my heightened commitment to shamanism led me to decide to leave the academic world, and I resigned my tenured professorship at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Research in New York early in 1987. From then on, the Foundation’s activities rapidly accelerated, helped by the generous donations made by members of the new Board of Trustees and others, such as the late Laurance Rockefeller. In all these efforts to study, preserve, and teach shamanism and shamanic healing, no one has been more important than Dr. Sandra Harner, my steadfast partner and advisor, who has played many important roles in the Foundation and remains on its Board of Trustees. In 1994, together we moved the headquarters of the Foundation to its present location in Mill Valley, California, and have continued the maintenance and development of its activities with the aid of a new office staff.

At first, in the 1970’s, my workshops were not really standardized, but most depended heavily on shamanic journeying aided by drumming, which I adapted to core principles and introduced to the West. Shamanic journeying remains one of the important focal points of my teaching and that of the faculty members I have trained over the years. It is perhaps one of the contributions of which I am most pleased, a contribution that I believe can eventually help revolutionize human spirituality.

This revival of shamanic journeying and drumming was part of my development of “core shamanism” which, as in the case of shamanic journeying, focused upon the most essential and near-universal elements of worldwide indigenous shamanic practice and knowledge. My many years of research and experimentation resulted in teaching not only shamanic journeying, but also many other important aspects of practical shamanism. These core teachings became the present-day workshops and courses of the Foundation. In this, the intention was to maintain and transmit a high quality of thoroughly researched, authentic and fundamental shamanic training. This was particularly important because I wanted to have a “gold standard” of accurate teaching upon which people everywhere could rely. Thus, persons seriously interested in shamanism could always confidently return to the Foundation for trustworthy core shamanic knowledge discerned from cross-cultural consistencies, rather than from culture-specific or personal revelations of individuals.

In 1980, with the publication of The Way of the Shaman, I began to expand my workshops in response to the growing demand. I have always seen the book simply as the door to first-hand oral teaching and demonstration, analogous to passing on such knowledge in indigenous shamanic situations. For this reason I have not placed as high a priority on publication after that door was opened. All these programs were the result of my decades of research and experimentation to make shamanism, shamanic journeying, and shamanic healing accessible to the West.

Gradually, as indicated in the excerpt from 1991 above, with increased demand I invited various persons who had studied under me to become faculty members of the Foundation. I trained them to give a series of workshops and courses which were standardized to assure authentic content and to permit a consistent system of progress by students regardless of the faculty members with whom they worked. As the years went by, the numbers of faculty greatly expanded, especially in North America and Europe, so that today there are 18 in North America and 20 in Europe. Eventually these teachers and I were training thousands of persons a year. Almost all of the North American and Latin American faculty members trained directly with me, as well as some of the European faculty, such as Paul Uccusic and Michael Hassingler.

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