Hardcore Shamanism Pt. 2
Please read Pt. 1 first
As normal life regained its focus, more doubts began to trickle, then flood in, culminating in one big what the fuck am I doing here? The following Saturday Beth Murray called. Beth is a homeopath and a poet—one of those rare people I feel I could tell anything to—so I confessed I’d gone to the shamanism workshop. It turns out Beth studied shamanism with a woman in Berkeley! Beth’s journeys had also been dramatic, but she’d had enough misgivings to withdraw from the path. She suggested I read Michael Harner’s Way of the Shaman, the book that started the neoshamanism movement. I looked up the book on Amazon. Most customer reviews were by blissed out white people, but a handful of whites and all the native Indians were livid. One sour reader wrote: If lying on your bed listening to a drumming tape or shelling out several hundred bucks to attend a workshop makes you a shaman, then watching Yentl makes you a rabbi. I find Harner’s website. His organization, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, shares not only the same initials as the Foundation of the Sacred Stream (FSS), it offers a comparable range of workshops and training programs. I learned that Harner has been “recognized as the pioneer in the revival of shamanism since 1961 when he chose to immerse himself in tribal spiritual traditions and accept initiation in Upper Amazonian shamanism rather than restrict his study to more traditional academic techniques.” After a few more minutes of trolling around on Harner’s site, it finally sunk in that Harner, not Gucciardi, invented core shamanism. What other faulty assumptions had I made?
I learn that the word “shaman” is a touchy subject. Originally referring to traditional healers from Northern Asia, “shaman” has been generalized to include unrelated healers from all over the place. American-Indian activist groups such as Our Red Earth go ballistic over the label. Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade (1907–1986) is often blamed for popularizing the bastardization. Thus most neoshamans avoid using “shaman” to refer to themselves, preferring gentler terms such as shamanic practitioner, counselor, or teacher. Shamanic businesses are booming. The Society for Shamanic Practitioners boasts 550 members and posts contact info for shamanic practitioners across the US. The SSP also offers links to sites where shamanistic-ers can buy drums, rattles, medicine bags, and beaded sand buffalo moccasins. A more global list of practitioners can be found at shamanicteachers.com. Gucciardi’s organization was only a drop in the neoshamanism bucket. I felt that sense of dread you get when you realize you have behaved or desired in an unwittingly clichéd way. It’s like having your indie favorite go Hollywood and start dating Meg Ryan. You’re like “Eew! How could’ve I ever have been so lame as to be into him.”
On Deadly Ground: “In you I’ve seen a great spirit,” says the medicine man to Steven Seagal. “Are you willing to discover the nature of that spirit?” Seagal grunts approval. “You have died twice,” says the medicine man. “Now sleep and be reborn.” He hits Seagal on the forehead with a feather. Seagal closes his eyes and collapses into another world where Indians pound drums and shake rattles and beautiful bare-chested Chinese Eskimo maidens dance. Seagal kills a brown bear (played by Bart the Bear) in order to fulfill his destiny and become a white bear. An old woman dressed all in white tells him that in order to save Mother Earth he must teach “them” to fear the bear. Seagal sees an eagle reflected in a pool of water. He dips in his hand, but when he pulls it out it is covered with oil. He understands his mission: blow up the oil rig.
Our Red Earth: Native beliefs are TRIBAL-SPECIFIC. There is NO “generic Indian” form of spirituality. There are as many differences from tribe-to-tribe as there are between Hinduism and the Church of England. No one would think of teaching those two as the same and calling them “Indo-European.”
More Googling. I read about the shamanic workshops of Hank Wesselman, who journeys to the Earth five thousand years in the future. I watch a video interview of Stanislas Groff, early LSD promoter, founder of Transpersonal Psychology, and developer of Holographic Breathing, a method of attaining altered states without the DEA breathing down one’s back. I consider how all altered states are pathologized by Western medicine, how something as seemingly benign as meditation has been called “induced catatonia.” I read Lisa Aldred’s “Plastic Shamans and Astroturf Sun Dances: New Age Commercialization of Native American Spirituality,” an analysis of how late capitalism’s frenzy of image consumption ultimately alienates consumers, leaving them with a longing for the “real,” the “authentic.” In the Romantic fantasy of the noble savage, Aldred writes, Westerners “simulate the original ‘authentic Native American spirituality’ and consume it.” So what, I wonder, if a bunch of entitled white people want to expend their expendable income? That core shamanism was so denatured is partially what drew me to it—like the homeopathic snake venom Beth prescribes me, core shamanism is so far removed from its origin, it’s not going to hurt anybody, right? Aldred sets me straight: “There is something grossly insulting about advertising copy that lures the consumer into buying ‘Your Own Personal Native American Spiritual Experience’ in the same fashion that it promotes the latest food dehydrator. Native American spirituality becomes another fad to be sampled (and ultimately discarded) among a smorgasbord of entertainment options for consumers in a culture that cultivates an insatiable appetite.” After Aldred’s article, I am so grossed out by my own excessive consumption of both images and products I decide to go on a week-long Firefox and spending fast. I last two days.
Back to Googling. I read the entire “MySpace is For New Age Plastic Shaman” thread on Indianz.com. “The problem with these New Age Plastic Shamans is that they take the honor of the people and give nothing back to the people they are stealing from and are helping perpetuate our cultural genocide.” I click on a video of Graham Hancock describing his ayahuasca experiences. “If you imagine putting a toad in a blender, this is how it tastes.” I’ve heard of ayahuasca but know little about it. I pause Hancock and side-Google ayahuasca. I learn it’s an Amazonian hallucinogenic plant brew, sometimes called “yage,” that opens a portal to a spiritual realm. It was introduced to the north in the early ‘60s with the publication of The Yage Letters of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Since then ayahuasca ceremonies have become big business in South America. Hundreds of shamans serve the drink to thousands of tourists annually. Here’s part of the itinerary from the eBay listing, “Amazon Shaman Spiritual Tour”:
Preparations for Shamanic ceremony. Light lunch, visit indigenous families. Begin light fast for 1st ceremony with Master Shaman. Evening meal (not suggested if you wish to drink ceremonial drink of Ayahuasca called “Yage”; a light protein bar is usually what I do about 3 PM.) Then canoe excursion on river to the Shaman’s village and prepare for Ceremony. Sacred face painting; be presented with a Corona (Crown) for ceremony. Trek to Sacred ceremonial hut. Drink Ayahuasca as many times as you like, each last about 1-3 hours. 3-10 times, in one night, is awesome!
Ayahuasca causes vomiting and diarrhea, that’s why you don’t eat beforehand. Sting and Tori Amos have taken it. I download “Spirit Voices,” a really drippy Paul Simon song about his experiences with the brew. All the mystical claims for ayahuasca remind me of the spiritual woo woo around LSD back in my hippie days. I never bought into that, never believed that any drug could bring enlightenment. The reason I dropped acid, I’d say with proto-punk in-your-face banality, was that it was cheaper than a movie and lasted longer. Around $2.00 a hit in the early ‘70s. And then I remember that Gucciardi talked about ayahuasca. I brought it up during one of the Q&As. “Whenever I see shamans on TV,” I said, “they’re always taking drugs. Are any drugs involved in shamanism?” I was thinking of the episode of The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman I’d just watched, where Jackie and Tara are supposed to be making a documentary on a peyote ritual, but the Indians force them to drink from a steaming kettle. The two of them trip out and wake up the next morning lying in a bed of cactuses. Gucciardi said hallucinogens weren’t part of the Sacred Stream program, but they could be a powerful tool for opening one’s consciousness. She added carefully that she has led ayahuasca groups “for some people.” She made a face at ayahuasca tourism, said it could be dangerous to take the stuff out of context, without a seasoned guide, such as herself.
Back to the Hancock video. The vast majority who drink ayahuasca encounter huge serpents, beings with gigantic heads and bright intelligent eyes. On one journey Hancock found himself in a darkened room with a creature with the body of a human and the head of a crocodile who was sly and appraising but not threatening. He talks about the pervasiveness of altered states in the evolution of modern man and all major religions. I learn how Christ himself was a shamanic figure. Hancock, refreshingly, doesn’t seem to lead shamanic workshops, but focuses on taking hallucinogens and writing books. I follow a link on his site to photos of controversial underwater ruins of past civilizations.
“You ask questions and I ask questions too,” says Margo, who’s under the spell of evil psychic Bela Lugosi, a.k.a. Prince Scaliano. Boris Karloff lurks in the doorway staring at Margo’s tiara of stars and moons. Thunder crashes. Lightning flashes. “You ask them of the living, I ask them of the dead.”
I click back to Google then outward and onward. I read how if one follows the Mystic Rose path of Francesca De Grandis, “shaman in the Celtic or Faerie Tradition,” one can learn “gender healing.” De Grandis went to San Francisco’s New College—for five years I ran a nonprofit that was housed there. I imagine having sat next to her in a cafe on Valencia Street as she highlighted a textbook from Wicca 101. I find out about shamanistic sex cults, people dying in sweat lodges, I discover that Merlin was a shaman and so was Carl Jung, that reading literature, particularly fiction, is a form of journeying to the inner worlds. I order a half-dozen books. I become interested in the term “turn on, tune in, drop out.” I Google and Google, eventually downloading Freakpower’s “Turn On, Tune In, Cop Out, ” a 1993 minor hit in the UK.
I had to stop. I was foaming at the mouth with too much data. I didn’t take a shower for three days, my hair was greasy, I smelled like a bear. I didn’t get around to eating my oatmeal until late in the afternoon. In the evening when hunger pangs/spaciness got distracting, I’d run out for a quick taco, then race home to my computer. Googling became this great mind-altering vortex. I playfully imagined setting up my own site promoting shamanic Googling: “Follow the Thread—A Path to Higher Awareness for the Modern Age.” Shame-on: A term used to mock online "shamen." It of course means "shame on you." Newage rhymes with sewage. I had to stop.
Page 1 illustration by Robin Brasington. Other drawn illustrations by Casey McKinney.