My Path in Shamanism

From Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob, eds. 2005.
© 1998, 2005 Michael Harner

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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 ( 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.

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.

Would you say that such sound allows one to reach realities similar to those produced by visionary plants or drugs?

Yes, I do feel very strongly that way. But the path is usually more subtle and takes longer. On the other hand, access is constantly available and permits doing shamanic healing.

In an article you wrote on the use of Datura-type plants in European witchcraft, you suggested that their effects are quite different from, for example, ayahuasca and the tryptamines, or peyote and the phenethylamines.

It’s virtually impossible to function under a strong dose of one of these tropane alkaloids. I had used Brugmansia-Datura-type solanaceous plants among the Shuar—and also had actually tried out the “witches” flying ointment back in the early 1960s in the United States. My conclusion, and the hypothesis I presented in that article, was that it was not possible to do shamanism using this very strong drug, which commonly made one unconscious for as long as thirty-six hours.

In my opinion, European shamanism had to give up the drum because of its noise, leading to persecution by the Church. An exception was in the remote north, in the Arctic, where its use was continued among the Sami—the Lapps—until the missionaries finally arrived there. In the more southerly European areas where the drum was given up, they shifted especially to mixtures involving the solanaceous plants, plants of the nightshade family. But these incapacitated you if you used enough, so you couldn’t perform acts of healing and divination, having very little control over your experiences in nonordinary reality.

In that sense, it wouldn’t really be very useful for shamanism.

This is why I think they distinguished the sabbat from the esbat, as I indicated in my book, Hallucinogens and Shamanism. The sabbat was probably the journey where all the nonordinary things happened to the “witches” in an altered state potentially produced by these plants with the spirits, and the esbat the formal meeting of these shamans together in ordinary reality. It’s just a theory, but it would explain why there is this peculiar dichotomy in European witchcraft, which was really a form of shamanism. This dichotomy wasn’t there among the Sami in northern­most Europe in the beginning of the twentieth century, because they were still using the drum.

Are you saying that the Central Europeans used drumming also, and they had to give it up?

I don’t have hard evidence to back up this theory, but I cannot conceive of them not having the drum. The drum was still being used in shamanism into the twentieth century in northernmost Scandinavia, the area where religious persecution occurred the latest in Europe. Teresa de Avilar was able to use the drum in her spiritual work in Spain, but she was a nun “in the service of Christ.”

There’s also Mediterranean art showing the drum.

Yes. I think what happened is that they couldn’t use drums if they wanted to avoid being discovered by the Inquisition, they had to have a silent way. The plant ointments were quiet and less discoverable. I’ve found the same thing in Inuit villages. They’re not about to do shamanic drumming within hearing of other people, because they’ll be singled out and reported to the Christian authorities. So the drum is really a liability in a situation of persecution.

Did you find any evidence of alternative plant use in Europe? Tryptamine-containing plants? Psilocybin-containing mushrooms?

I pursued that, of course. There’s no hard evidence I know of, but presumably berserkers were using the Amanita muscaria mushroom to get into that state. There’s some indirect supportive evidence proposed by R. Gordon Wasson.

Have you tried the Amanita mushrooms?

No, they are not in my experience. Among the Samoyed peoples—­one of the most Western of Siberian groups, not that far from the Sami of Scandinavia—shamans and nonshamans both sometimes ate or burned dried Amanita muscaria to help change consciousness for spiritual purposes. It’s not something I’ve published yet, but as far as I know, that’s the most westward evidence of psychotropic mushroom use in a native con­text in Eurasia. I think it’s probable that this kind of knowledge was known slightly farther to the south and west in Scandinavia in the old days, à la the berserkers. The berserkers were violent Norse warriors who were likely possessed by the power of the mushroom, much as nonshaman Siberians still can be when they wish to have extraordinary physical strength and endurance.

Did you eventually “graduate,” to use a Western term, as a shaman? Did your teachers tell you that you were ready to go out and practice?

You never graduate as a shaman. It just goes on and on. Your teachers almost never tell you you’re ready.

Just like psychoanalysis.

Ordinary teachers never know if you’re ready. There are two types of teachers. One is the ordinary teacher, which is what I think you were refer­ring to—somebody like myself or shaman teachers I worked with among indigenous peoples. Then there are the spirit teachers, who are the real teachers. The spirit teachers may tell you, and do tell you, what you can do, but all the ordinary living human teachers are just expediters. The ultimate authorities are the spirits you work with, and they tell you what to do and what you can’t do. That’s one of the reasons that I feel it’s usually a mistake for anybody to characterize themselves as a shaman, because the power can be taken away at any time. Anyone who claims to be a shaman starts getting focused on his or her ego. He or she, however, is almost nothing, for one is only a shaman when the spirits want that person to be a shaman.

Were you given any visions or insights by these plant spirits about the culture you come from? Its such a world-dominating culture. Are the spirits commenting on this?

Our culture is considered to be deformed and out of contact with these truths. I think that compassionate, healing spirits have a mission to try to communicate their existence to us so that they can get on with their work of trying to reduce suffering and pain in our reality. But they are not all-powerful. They can’t do it without the help of intermediaries, and shamans are especially strong intermediaries. And so, precisely because the spirits need help in this, they will teach you surprising things to encourage you to help them. But they are in one reality and we’re in another reality, and the only way they can penetrate this reality, except in very rare circumstances, is with help from our side. We have our power; they have their power. When we go into alliance with them, that’s when healing miracles and miracles of knowledge can come through.

So the main thrust that I had in the Amazon using plants continues in my present work using sonic driving. The main thrust was that they were attempting to alert me to the reality of the spirits, to get me involved, and to teach and involve others. But they never said explicitly why this was. Implicitly, however, it was to reduce spiritual ignorance and suffering in ordinary reality.

Can you can meet the same spirits, whether you access these worlds via plants or via drumming?

You can meet some of the same spirits, but not all the same spirits, because the spirits of specific plants can possess you to varying degrees. Much depends on what the spirits feel you are ready for and need to access at a particular time. Some of the spirits that I worked with as allies in the Amazon I still often work with, but there are now others in addition. Some are less dominant than they once were, and others are stronger.

In addition to the compassionate spirits, are there malevolent spirits?

Yes. Here in the Middle World the spirits have the whole range of personalities that also occur in ordinary reality. What is “malevolent” is an interesting thing. Other species may view us as malevolent, such as when we kill and enslave them. But we don’t view ourselves as malevolent, and we don’t see our whole species as malevolent. So a lot of the so-called “evil spirits” are often basically just trying to make a living and exist in their own way just as we are. More often than not, they don’t even know they’re dead. They’re just doing the same old thing, but they’re doing it in a Middle World of nonordinary reality. And this can include simple things like insect spirits who intrude into people.