My Path in Shamanism
Interview with Michael Harner
Copyright © Michael Harner, 1998, 2005
Published in Higher Wisdom by Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob. Albany: State University of New York Press, ©2005.
Introduction by Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob
Born in 1929, Michael Harner is widely acknowledged as the world’s foremost authority on shamanism and has had an enormous influence on both the academic and lay worlds.
Within academia, he conducted extensive fieldwork in the Upper Amazon, western North America, the Canadian Arctic, and Samiland ( Lapland). He did pioneering studies of the Jívaro Indians of the Amazon (now known as the Shuar), and wide ranging studies of shamanism.
He also played a major part in alerting academics to the central role of psychedelics in shamanic practices and many tribal cultures. Harner’s description of his own initiatory ayahuasca experience in the Amazon jungle, which is described in his book The Way of the Shaman, has become a classic example of the power of these substances. It provides a superb account of their importance to some shamanic traditions, their ability to introduce new world-views and effect personal transformation, and their capacity to render researchers more sensitive to, and comprehending of, the cultures and practices in which they are used.
After this experience, Harner went on to undertake extensive shamanic training, first with Shuar teachers, and then throughout many areas of the world. His combination of anthropological training, academic expertise, studies of shamanism in multiple cultures, and personal shamanic training, has produced a rare, perhaps unique, breadth and depth of expertise and influence.
In 1987, he left academia to devote himself to full-time work with shamanism, and created the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (www.shamanism.org). The foundation funds research and publications, offers worldwide trainings in shamanic practices, has an international membership, and – in an intriguing cultural reversal – has reintroduced shamanic practices to parts of the world where the tradition was lost or suppressed.
His many publications include the books: The Way of the Shaman, Hallucinogens and Shamanism, The Jívaro, and a coauthored novel, Cannibal. What Yogananda did for Hinduism and D. T. Suzuki did for Zen, Michael Harner has done for shamanism, namely bring the tradition and its richness to Western awareness.
- Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob
I came to the University of California at Berkeley in 1950, expecting to become an archaeologist. But then in the course of my archeological fieldwork, I found that the Indians living nearby were like encyclopedias that nobody was opening, and this alerted me to the incredible amount of knowledge that was available just by asking the tribal elders.In 1956-1957, I did my doctoral dissertation research in eastern Ecuador among the Jívaro people, who are now generally called the Shuar. I returned to the Amazon in 1960-1961 to study the culture of the Conibo in eastern Peru, and I returned to the Shuar in 1964 and 1973. Around 1966, I went to Columbia and Yale Universities as a visiting professor, and then accepted a professorship at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York. I stayed there from 1970 on, sometimes also teaching at Berkeley. During my later years at the New School, I increasingly took academic leave to focus on shamanic work and teaching, and then in 1987, I pulled out of academia entirely in order to devote myself to shamanism.
How did you initially hear about the use of psychoactive plants?
I was aware of peyote and had read of ayahuasca use, but I had no comprehension of their importance. Then in 1956-1957 among the Jívaro, I suddenly found myself in a society of shamans. About one out of every four adult males and a much smaller proportion of females were shamans. In the course of my fieldwork, I interviewed them, and they said that I really should go on a vision quest at a sacred waterfall and take this drink of theirs. I realized that this was important, and I was just about to do it when the rainy season came and logs started dropping over the waterfall. So it was too dangerous—because if we bathed in the waterfall, we could get fatally clobbered. Some years later, I did do it with them, but not until after being with the Conibo of the Peruvian Amazon in 1960-1961.
I first took ayahuasca at that time, with the Conibo. My fieldwork was in its later stages at that point, and I was attempting to get information on their spiritual system. The Conibo said there’s only one way to learn about it—you’ve got to take the drink. So I took the drink.
I really didn’t have much in the way of expectations. They had said you could see frightening things. They said it was known sometimes as the “little death;” that it could induce an experience like dying, and that some people in rare cases actually did die. But in the villages where I lived, the vast majority of the shamans were using it almost every night, so it was not that big a deal. My book, The Way of the Shaman, has a detailed description of that first experience of mine.
When you came down from it, what was different in terms of your own sense of yourself and what you were doing there?
At first, it wasn’t so much the sense of myself that was different. But I was completely in awe of the fact that a whole other reality had opened up. This was a reality that could not be fantasy, because the experiences that I had were also experiences that the Conibo who took ayahuasca were having independently, down to concrete details, without us ever having talked about them with me beforehand. A shaman said afterwards that I really could become a master shaman—that I had gotten so much from my first experience that this was what I should do. Since it was a rare opportunity, I decided to avail myself of it, and that’s when I actually got involved in shamanic training.
Ayahuasca was taken in every session; they didn’t do much shamanism without it. At one time historically, the Conibo had the muraya—shamans who worked only with tobacco—and they were very respected. But by the time I was in the Amazon, there were no muraya around. However, I did use tobacco water with the Jívaro, which was a shaman’s drink. You soak green tobacco leaves in cold water and drink the water or inhale it through the nose.
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