Shamanic Healing: We Are Not Alone

An Interview of Michael Harner by Bonnie Horrigan

© Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1997, Vol. 10, No. 1

Michael Harner, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving shamanic knowledge as it survives on the planet and to teaching the basic principles of that knowledge for practical applications in the contemporary world.

Harner, who has practiced shamanic healing since 1961, received his doctorate at the University of California-Berkeley. He is a former professor and chairperson of the department of anthropology at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York, and has taught at Columbia, Yale, and UC Berkeley. He also served as co-chair of the anthropology section of the New York Academy of Sciences. His books include The Jívaro, Hallucinogens and Shamanism, and the classic The Way of The Shaman.

In the course of his academic study of shamanism, Harner lived and worked with indigenous peoples in the Upper Amazon, Mexico, Peru, the Canadian Arctic, Samiland, and western North America.

Alternative Therapies interviewed Harner at his office in Mill Valley, California, during an intense storm. The following article is from the FSS journal, Shamanism, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring-Summer) 1997, and was originally published in 1996 in Vol. 2, No. 3 of Alternative Therapies.

What is Shamanism?

Michael Harner:

The word "shaman" in the original Tungus language refers to a person who makes journeys to nonordinary reality in an altered state of consciousness. Adopting the term in the West was useful because people didn't know what it meant. Terms like "wizard," "witch," "sorcerer," and "witch doctor" have their own connotations, ambiguities, and preconceptions associated with them. Although the term is from Siberia, the practice of shamanism existed on all inhabited continents.

After years of extensive research, Mircea Eliade, in his book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, concluded that shamanism underlays all the other spiritual traditions on the planet, and that the most distinctive feature of shamanism—but by no means the only one—was the journey to other worlds in an altered state of consciousness.

" our culture many consider it avant-garde if a person talks about the mind-body connection, but the fact that the brain is connected to the rest of the body is not the most exciting news. It's been known for hundreds and thousands of years. What's really important about shamanism, in my opinion, is that the shaman knows that we are not alone. By that I mean, when one human being compassionately works to relieve the suffering of another, the helping spirits are interested and become involved."

Shamans are often called "see-ers" (seers), or "people who know" in their tribal languages, because they are involved in a system of knowledge based on firsthand experience. Shamanism is not a belief system. It's based on personal experiments conducted to heal, to get information, or do other things. In fact, if shamans don't get results, they will no longer be used by people in their tribe. People ask me, "How do you know if somebody's a shaman?" I say, "It's simple. Do they journey to other worlds? And do they perform miracles?"

Is shamanism a religion?

The practice of shamanism is a method, not a religion. It coexists with established religions in many cultures. In Siberia, you'll find shamanism coexisting with Buddhism and Lamaism, and in Japan with Buddhism. It's true that shamans are often in animistic cultures. Animism means that people believe there are spirits. So in shamanic cultures, where shamans interact with spirits to get results such as healing, it's no surprise that people believe there are spirits. But the shamans don't believe in spirits. Shamans talk with them, interact with them. They no more "believe" there are spirits than they "believe" they have a house to live in, or have a family. This is a very important issue because shamanism is not a system of faith.

Shamanism is also not exclusionary. They don't say, "We have the only healing system." In a holistic approach to healing, the shaman uses the spiritual means at his or her disposal in cooperation with people in the community who have other techniques such as plant healing, massage, and bone setting. The shaman's purpose is to help the patient get well, not to prove that his or her system is the only one that works.

In many cultures, shamans are often given gifts for their work, but they will return all the gifts if the patient dies, which I think is a commendable innovation that might help us with the costs of health services today.

My understanding is that there are two aspects to shamanic healing: a medicinal one and a spiritual one.

Shamans talk with plants and animals, with all of nature. This is not just a metaphor. They do it in an altered state of consciousness. Our own students rapidly discover that by talking with plants, they can discover how to prepare those plants for remedies. Shamans have been doing this since ancient times. They typically know a great deal about plants, but it's not essential. For example, Eskimo shamans don't have access to a lot of plants, so they work with other things. But in the Amazon shamans know the various plants and the songs that go with the plants, which they commonly learn from the plants themselves.

One former student of mine in the United States developed a practice of discovering and using healing plants based on his learning directly from the plants. He found that the pharmacopoeia he developed was very close to the ancient, classic Chinese pharmacopoeia knowledge of how to prepare and use these plants for different ailments. Another former student in Germany worked with minerals and found how they could be used in healing. It turned out that her discoveries were very close to what has been known in India from ancient times.

Which brings us to a very important issue: everything that's ever been known, everything that can be known, is available to the shaman in the Dreamtime. That's why shamans can be prophets; that's why they can also go back and look at the past. With discipline, training, and the help of the spirits, this total source of knowledge is accessible.

What happens when a sick person asks a shaman for a healing?

For example, a shaman might make a journey for diagnostic purposes, to get information about the person's problems from a spiritual point of view. It doesn't necessarily matter what the diagnosis is from an ordinary reality point of view. There's no simple one-to-one concordance between spiritual illness and ordinary reality illness. You can't say, "This equals that." So the shaman will often make a journey to find out what the spiritual causality is and, according to that causality, decide on the treatment.

From the shamanic point of view, people who are not powerful—spiritually "power-filled," that is—are prone to illness, accidents, and bad luck. This goes beyond our normal definition of illness. The shaman restores a person's linkage to his or her spiritual power. This spiritual power is something analogous to a spiritual immune defense system, but I wouldn't make a one-to one equivalence. It's an analog. The power makes one resistant to illness. If somebody is repeatedly ill, then it's clear that they need a power connection. A healthy person who is not sick might go on a vision quest to get this power connection, but one of the shaman's jobs is to help people who are in no condition to do that for themselves.

Today in our culture many consider it avant-garde if a person talks about the mind-body connection, but the fact that the brain is connected to the rest of the body is not the most exciting news. It's been known for hundreds and thousands of years. What's really important about shamanism, in my opinion, is that the shaman knows that we are not alone. By that I mean, when one human being compassionately works to relieve the suffering of another, the helping spirits are interested and become involved. When somebody who is disinterested, who is not an immediate family member, out of generosity and compassion helps somebody else to relieve illness or pain and suffering—and it works even better when there are two or more shamans involved—this is when miracles occur. So the big news shamanism offers is not that the head is connected to the rest of the body, but that we are not alone.

What is soul retrieval?

Anyone who's had a trauma, from a shamanic point of view, may have had some loss of their soul. By soul we mean the spiritual essence essential throughout one's life as we describe life in our culture, which is from conception or birth to the time of death. The techniques for healing soul loss are soul-retrieval techniques, and one of the classic shamanic methods is to go searching for that lost portion of the soul and restore it.

Until about 8 years ago, most people in the Western world felt that soul retrieval was a superstitious practice that had no validity, but things have turned. I must say that a major reason is the work of my colleague, Sandra Ingerman, the author of Soul Retrieval and Coming Home. During her shamanic practice in Santa Fe, NM, years ago, women who had had significant childhood abuse would mention in the course of the sessions that they had removed themselves psychically from the situation at the time of abuse. Sandra immediately recognized, as a practicing shaman, that the person's soul to some degree had left the body (if it had left completely, the person would have been dead), and therefore the logical thing was to retrieve the lost portion of the soul and bring it back. So she then started doing soul retrieval for these people who had had significant childhood traumas, and the results were astounding. Today, this work is an important part of shamanic healing practice in the West.

Indeed, if you ask a group of people, "How many of you feel you've lost part of your soul?" it's typical that everybody raises their hand. At some deep level, there is a natural awareness of this problem. By the way, even a minor trauma can result in some degree of soul loss and can be treated.

Another major technique in shamanic healing work is extraction. Extraction involves removing a spiritual intrusion. Just as there can be infections in ordinary reality, so there can be spiritual intrusions. We don't mean that "evil" spirits have entered. It's more like termites in a wooden house. If you've got termites in your house, you wouldn't say those termites are evil, you'd say, "I'd just like to get them out of the house." In this same way the shaman works to remove things that interfere with the health of the body, such as spiritual intrusions, and extract them. This is not done through journeying. It's done through working here in the Middle World in an altered state of consciousness.

How is an altered state of consciousness achieved in shamanism?

In about 90% of the world, the altered states of consciousness used in shamanism are attained through consciousness-changing techniques involving a monotonous percussion sound, most typically done with a drum, but also with sticks, rattles, and other instruments. In perhaps 10% of the cultures, shamans use psychedelic drugs to change their state of consciousness.

I was introduced to shamanic work in 1961 among the Conibo Indians in eastern Peru, with the aid of native psychedelics. When I came back to the United States and no longer had my supply of ayahuasca, I experimented with drumming. Much to my surprise, it really worked. It should not have surprised me, because drums were reportedly used by shamans almost worldwide. Virtually everything you find in shamanism is done because it works. Over tens of thousands of years, shamans developed the most time-tested system of using the spirit, mind, and heart for healing, along with plant remedies, and so on. Again, the system is time-tested. So if healers in 90% of the shamanic cultures are using the same methods, we pay attention to them. And, of course, we find they work.

To get back to the extraction technique: the technique involves an altered state of consciousness and seeing into the client's body. Much shamanic work, including journeying and extraction, is done in darkness for a very simple reason. The shaman wishes to cut out the stimuli of ordinary reality—light, sound, and so on—and move into unseen reality. The shaman learns to look in the body with "x-ray vision" and see the illness and its location, and then to extract that illness.

Is that like depossession?

Depossession is related to extraction but it's not the same thing. From a shamanic point of view, it's very important to get out of the Middle World when journeying for spiritual purposes. In the old days, shamans journeyed in the Middle World to see how relatives were doing at a distant place or to locate the herds of migratory animals. But most of our work today is in the Upper and Lower Worlds where shamans have voyaged since ancient times. Shamans often prefer not to draw on the spirits of the Middle World because many of them are confused and lacking in power. Going to the Upper or Lower Worlds, one reaches spiritual beings of compassion, power, and wisdom.

Shamans who do another type of healing help the dead as well as the living. These shamans are called "psychopomps," or conductors of souls. Remember, from a shamanic point of view, when you're comatose, you're dead. So the shaman, in the case of comatose persons, would seek them out and see if they wanted to come back. Shamanism is not a system that intends to keep people in this ordinary reality whether they like it or not, because the shaman knows that this is not necessarily the best reality. You make the journey for the person who is comatose to find out what they want. If they want to come back, then the job of the shaman is to bring them back. But if they want to go on—or, more commonly, if they're dying or already dead—then the job of the shaman is to get them to a place where they will be content and not have them stay here, adrift in the Middle World.

So now we come back to this business of depossession. Most cases of depossession of humans are by other humans who are dead, who are here in the Middle World and don't know they're dead. If people are disempowered, or have soul loss or power loss, they are like a vacuum into which these confused entities can come. This is involuntary possession.

Shamans will conduct the entity—with its permission once it realizes it's dead—to a place beyond the Middle World where it will be reunited with people who it loves. Once this is done, so that the clients are no longer possessed, shamans restore their full soul and lost power connections so they are again whole and not vulnerable to further possessions.

Depossession work has slightly different forms in different cultures, but the basic principles are the same. I hope that one day our culture will recognize the need to permit shamanic practitioners to work with the spiritual aspects of illness in cooperation with nonspiritual health professionals.

In your opinion, why don't we do that now?

Unfortunately, when science started, partially as a reaction to the church in Europe, it ordained that souls and spirits have no reality and therefore could not be considered in scientific theory. Now that's an a priori position; in other words, ironically, a statement of faith enunciated in the 18th century. In fact, science has never disproved the existence of spirits. I would submit that now, on the edge of the 21st century, it's time to stop having a science that's based on faith (the faith that there are no spirits) and make it real science, which means that it doesn't ordain a priori that certain types of causes cannot exist.

In regard to extraction healing, in the shamanic view, where does the illness to be extracted come from?

From a shamanic point of view, all people have a spiritual side, whether they recognize it or not. When people get angry, jealous, or have a hostile emotional attitude, they can vent not only verbal and physical abuse, but spiritual abuse without even knowing it. In other words, if somebody is ignorant of shamanic principles, they can do damage to other people on a spiritual level.

Among the Untsuri Shuar and Jívaro people of eastern Ecuador, with whom I lived for quite a while, they call these intrusions "magical darts." There were many feuds and wars, and sometimes healers would get angry and lose their discipline and use their powers to get even. But it is important to know that this is a big mistake, not just ethically, but in terms of self-preservation. No matter how justified a person feels emotionally at the time, those spiritual beings who are representative of the great, loving, hidden universe will disconnect. It's like we're rechargeable batteries. We still have some power, and we can do damage, but the power source is no longer charging us. I've seen this many times in the Amazon. The shamans, in their anger, do harm for awhile, but eventually everything they send out comes back in on them, and it often results not only in their own death or pain, but their immediate family gets affected disastrously by it.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't get angry at people. It just means that you should have discipline and know there are parameters. You can get angry with somebody and verbally let out steam and, at the same time, control your spiritual side. But for your own self-preservation, if you don't work to relieve pain and suffering—and especially if you work in a contrary way—you're soon out of business, and probably dead.

If I understand the concept, shamans restore wholeness and power to a human being, and then that wholeness and power heals whatever is wrong with that person. So in this framework a power-filled person has the ability to heal himself.

To an outsider, it would look like they're healing themselves. But the concept of self-healing excludes the spirits. From the shamanic point of view, nobody's lived into adult life without spiritual help, whether they know it or not. The self-healing concept is a secular concept, and that's fine as far as it goes. It teaches people to take some responsibility for their illness. But it also teaches them to take responsibility for their death. With that approach, everybody's a failure at the moment of death, because they are responsible for the whole thing. From a shamanic point of view we are not that important. We are not necessarily the biggest thing in the universe. The shaman has a more humble point of view, that there is what looks like self-healing but, in fact, we are getting help. And the shaman has the role, of course, of accelerating that possibility.

So the person is not healing himself?

They might be in a specific case. I don't want to rule that out. Self-healing is a very secular view of reality, but it's a step in consciousness. It's like recognizing the brain is connected to the body.

Can you talk about the difference between ordinary reality and nonordinary reality, especially regarding the implications for medicine?

The terms "ordinary reality" and "nonordinary reality" come from Carlos Casteneda. Ordinary reality is the reality that we all perceive together. It's the reality in which we can all agree that there is a clock on the wall. Nonordinary reality is the reality that is associated with the shamanic state of consciousness; that is, when the consciousness has been altered and you're able to see what you normally don't see in an ordinary state of consciousness.

Ordinary reality is something that virtually everybody agrees on. Nonordinary reality is very person-specific. The information obtained in nonordinary reality is tailor-made to the individual—other people may not perceive it at all, as opposed to the information obtained in ordinary reality, in which everybody gets the same thing.

Nonordinary reality is also an empirical reality; that is, the person interacts with it, sees it, touches it, hears it, feels it. And the shaman sees with the heart in that reality. In nonordinary reality, for something to be the same for different persons, it has to be the same in the heart. Here (in ordinary reality) for something to be the same it doesn't matter what your emotion is; you'll see it, for example, as a door in the room. If I showed you a picture of my mother, now deceased, you and I would not have the same emotional relationship with that picture. But if I said the word "mother," and everyone saw their own mother, the emotional feeling in the heart would be closer—not identical, but closer. So to see things exactly the same in the heart, they have to be a little different for each person, because each person has a different personality and a different life history.

The term "nonordinary reality" is useful because it permits one to be reminded that access to these worlds is related to the degree to which you have entered the shamanic state of consciousness. It clarifies our thinking. For years, many people were confused by what shamans said. "I made a journey and was away for 3 years, and such and such happened." Now that person in nonordinary reality had the experience of living somewhere else for 3 years, but might have been gone only a half-hour in ordinary reality.

What about divination?

Work in shamanism also involves divination. A person can journey for themselves or have somebody who's a shamanic practitioner journey for them to get an answer to a question. What's really interesting is when somebody who's a complete stranger—about whom the shaman knows nothing—asks for an answer to a question, and the shaman then journeys or uses other techniques and gets the exact information that's valid for that person's life. This can happen because these things are known by the spirits. The shaman doesn't need to know anything except the methods, and to have his or her own spirit helpers.

How can doctors and nurses use this knowledge?

Sometimes I informally call our foundation the "University of Shamanism." I bring that up because our primary purpose is to return shamanism to the planet by training people. Many of these people are doctors and other health professionals. It is they who must discover how to integrate what they are taught into their practices. We don't have a ready template for that. Within the next few years, we hope to have a large-scale conference of health practitioners who have studied with us, to exchange information about how they have used these methods in their practice.

I know the Foundation is conducting research regarding drumming and health. Can you talk about that?

Our research, thanks to a Canadian foundation, is investigating certain matters regarding shamanic journeying and drumming and health. My wife, Dr. Sandra Harner, is the director of the Shamanism and Health Project. Her research involves two major aspects, one of which is the effect of shamanic journeying and drumming on one measure of immune response and on emotions.

In connection with this work, she has gotten some hints that people with certain profiles of psychological descriptors respond much more effectively in terms of the immune response than others. This is a subject, obviously, of considerable interest. She has also found that there is a tremendous increase in the sense of well being as well as decreased mood disturbance and stress in people working with shamanic drumming and journeying. But to say more would be premature.

It's ironic that a system of healing that—other than using plants—is the oldest known system of healing in the world, should have no research going on in it at all, other than what we are able to do with our meager resources. I look forward to the day when the possibility of spiritual causality is not ruled out of research, so that science, in fact, can be completely scientific.

We also have what the medical profession would call "anecdotal" accounts. People often come to the shamans when everybody else has failed. We have cases in which, once people start getting shamanic treatments and laboratory tests are continued, the tests turn out negative, whereas they previously were positive. The assumption from the medical profession is usually that the previous diagnoses were incorrect, because there's been a reversal. That's fine with us. After all, it's virtually impossible, on a case-by-case basis, to prove causality. People wonder, How do you know this works? Well, you just practice it for your life and it develops a track record for you.

What are you working on now?

My primary interest right now is in miracles. I've devoted some years now to finding out what principles are involved to have miracles happen. I think we're making significant progress. Almost everything that anybody's ever read about in the shamanic literature or the miracle literature is something that we have some knowledge of how to do now. And this includes miracles of healing.

Starting next year, we will be moving forward on this project with some of our most advanced students. I'm not in a position to comfortably start sharing this information publicly—it's too early—but it does involve a real awareness of the spirits.

I might say something about spirits, because it's a strange word to people. What is a spirit? In 1961, when I was with the Conibo Indians in eastern Peru in the Amazon, I was training using ayahuasca with a shaman, and we were working with the various nature spirits every night. I worked with the anaconda spirit, the black panther spirit, the fresh-water dolphin spirit, various tree spirits, and so on. They would come, we would see them, and so on. Then one night I got introduced to the outboard-motor spirit. And then the radio spirit and the airplane spirit. I came to realize that anything that you see in complete darkness or with your eyes closed is technically a spirit. That makes it sound like it's just an image in the air, but shamans find out which spirits have power and which don't. They discover what spirits can help in what ways. It's very important to recognize that whatever you contact in nonordinary reality is technically a spirit. It's a spiritual reality.

Once a shaman contacts the spirits, what happens?

There's a crossover of the power from nonordinary reality to ordinary reality. The two realities are conceptually discrete, but the shaman is able to move the power of one over to the other. When this is done successfully, that's how healings occur and how we have what is called miracles.

Your interest in miracles was obviously spurred by your experiencing or witnessing miracles. Would you be willing to tell us a miracle story?

This is a very simple one that can be seen to this day, empirically, in ordinary reality. One of our students, Carol Herkimer, was in what we call a "spirit boat," along with other members of a basic class. The spirit boat is a technique used in aboriginal Australia, on the northwest coast of North America, and in the upper Amazon. A group of shamans journey together to the Lower or Upper world to go outside of time. They may be going for healing or knowledge. When a whole group of people, trained properly and in contact with spirits, journey together to help one person, it's very powerful.

We were using a dance studio in lower Manhattan on Canal Street called "The Kiva." Like any other dance studio, it had highly polished floors, so we always had to be careful not to scuff them. Carol was recovering from a terrible traffic accident and she couldn't sit on the cushions on the floor with the other people. She had to sit in a chair with bent tubular metal legs. So we went off on the journey, and when we came back (to ordinary reality), people shared what they had encountered. When Carol went on the journey, she went through a sea of fire in nonordinary reality. When she came back, the floor was smoking under her chair, and the bent aluminum tubular leg on one side had burned a channel into the floor, but she hadn't gotten burned. The people who owned the studio were quite upset, and to this day the burned channel is still there.

This example alone doesn't prove anything, but it's these kinds of coincidences that build up in your own practice. In no single case can you be sure what actually happened, but if you find a high correlation between treatments by people who are well known as healing shamans and recoveries—when other things have failed—then you begin to pay attention.

When you start shamanic journeying, if you're the kind of person the spirits feel compassion for and want to help, you're going to get lots of teachings you never asked for and never expected. Because once you go through those doors—whatever those doors are—the spirits will teach you according to your preparation, and your life will change. Even one journey may start changing your life.

Read More by Shamanic Essays

[expand title="Click Here To Read Writing #2" swaptitle="Close Writing" tag="h4" trigpos="below"]

Edith Turner, a Field Associate of the Foundation, is a distinguished anthropologist who teaches at the University of Virginia. She is known for her fieldwork in Africa with her late husband, Victor Turner, and for her more recent work among the north Alaskan Eskimo (the Iñupiat), results of which are to be found in her book, The Hands Feel It: Healing and Spirit Presence among a Northern Alaskan People (Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb, Illinois. 1996.)

This article is from the FSS journal, Shamanism, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring-Summer) 1997.

"A keen and sympathetic researcher on indigenous peoples' spiritual and ritual life, she makes a courageous and eloquent stand in this article."

— Michael Harner

In the past in anthropology, if a researcher "went native," it doomed him academically. My husband, Victor Turner, and I had this dictum at the back of our minds when we spent two and a half years among the Ndembu of Zambia in the fifties.

All right, "our" people believed in spirits, but that was a matter of their different world, not ours. Their ideas were strange and a little disturbing. Yet somehow we were on the safe side of the White divide and were free merely to study the beliefs. This is how we thought. Little knowing it, we denied the people's equality with ours, their "coevalness," their common humanity as that humanity extended itself into the spirit world.

Try out that spirit world ourselves? No way!

But at intervals, that world insisted it was really there. For instance, in the Chihamba ritual at the end of a period of ordeal, a strong wave of curative energy hit us. We had been participating as fully as we knew how, thus opening ourselves to whatever entities that were about. In another ritual, for fertility, the delight of dancing in the moonlight hit me vividly, and I began to learn something about the hypnotic effect of singing and hearing the drums.

Much later, Vic and I witnessed a curious event in New York City in 1980, while running a workshop at the New York University Department of Performance Studies, which was attended by performance and anthropology students. With the help of the participants, we were trying out rituals as actual performances with the intention of creating a new educational technique.

...the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction; it is not a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology.

We enacted the Umbanda trance session, which we had observed and studied in one of the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The students duly followed our directions and also accompanied the rites with bongo drumming and songs addressed to the Yoruba gods. During the ritual, a female student actually went into a trance, right there in New York University. We brought her 'round with our African rattle, rather impressed with the way this ritual worked even out of context. The next day, the student told us that she had gone home that night and correctly predicted the score of a crucial football game, impressing us even further.

Since then, I have taken note of the effects of trance and discovered for myself the three now obvious regularities: frequent, nonempirical cures; clairvoyance, which includes finding lost people or objects, divination, prediction, or forms of wisdom speaking; and satisfaction or joy—these three effects repeating, almost like a covenant.

What spirit events took place in my own experience?

One of them happened like this. In 1985, I was due for a visit to Zambia. Before going, I decided to come closer than on previous occasions to the Africans' own experience, whatever that was—I did not know what they experienced. So it eventuated, I did come closer.

My research was developing into the study of a twice-repeated healing ritual. To my surprise, the healing of the second patient culminated in my sighting a spirit form. In a book entitled Experiencing Ritual1, I describe exactly how this curative ritual reached its climax, including how I myself was involved in it; how the traditional doctor bent down amid the singing and drumming to extract the harmful spirit; and how I saw with my own eyes a large, gray blob of something like plasma emerge from the sick woman's back.

Then I knew the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction; it is not a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology. And I began to see how anthropologists have perpetuated an endless series of put-downs about the many spirit events in which they participated—"participated" in a kindly pretense. They might have obtained valuable material, but they have been operating with the wrong paradigm, that of the positivists' denial.

To reach a peak experience in a ritual, sinking oneself fully in it really is necessary. Thus for me, "going native" achieved a breakthrough to an altogether different world view, foreign to academia, by means of which certain material was chronicled that could have been gathered in no other way.

On the subject of radical participation, Dan Rose predicted that:

...students will seek to place themselves in unfolding situations, to live through complex ongoing events...rather than looking alone for the meanings of gestures, the presentations of selves, class relations, the meaning of rituals, or other abstract, analytical category phenomena on which we historically have relied.

Jackson2 helps to make this point: "To break the habit of using a linear communicational model for understanding bodily praxis, it is necessary to adopt a methodological strategy of joining in without ulterior motive and literally putting oneself in the place of other persons: inhabiting their world [what was pejoratively labeled 'going native' in the early days of anthropology]."

Participation thus became an end in itself rather than a means of gathering closely observed data which will be subject to interpretation elsewhere after the event.3

Later, in 1987, when I went to northern Alaska to conduct research on the healing methods of Inupiat Eskimos, I similarly found myself swamped with stories of strange events, miracles, rescues, healings by telephone hundreds of miles away, visions of God, and many other manifestations. It was by these things that the people lived. Their ears were pricked up for them, as it were. I spent a year in the village acting as a kind of pseudo auntie, listening to, and believing, the stories. And naturally, those things happened to me about as frequently as they did to them.

For instance, it happened that in July 1987, before I went to Alaska or knew the ecology at first hand, I attended Michael Harner's shaman workshop in Virginia. He was teaching the workshop participants how to make a shamanic journey while lying down in darkness. We were to visualize a climb upward, up a tree, or mountain, or building, or the like. After a first stage of visualization, the experience itself was liable to take over, and we would meet a "teacher" of some kind.

We lay down and Michael beat his drum steadily. I visualized my ascent and found myself out on a bank of cloud. "How corny," I said. A figure appeared on my left, a monk in a cowl, and I again thought, "How corny, like a cartoon. " I went up a little more and came to an entire wall of electronic appliances, VCRs, CD sets, stereos, radios, and a large TV screen toward the right. Pictured in the screen was something dark red, filling the whole rectangle. It looked like a maze of internal organs sideways-on, elongated, and definitely unlike human internal organs. Why were they there? What was that all about?

But I must not criticize, and when the drumming changed I went down the way I had come and eventually remembered that I was lying on the floor. The other participants were sitting up around me. We told our experiences to Harner; he accepted them but did not analyze them psychologically.

Four months later in November, when I was settled among the Eskimos at Point Hope, Alaska, sitting in Ernest Frankson's house, Ernest pulled into the room the body of a ringed seal. His wife laid the seal on some cardboard and proceeded to take off the skin. She allowed me to help cut off the blubber. Then she made a slit down the stomach and displayed to view the internal organs. Wondering, I contemplated them carefully. It was striking to see the dark red parts, liver, spleen, intestines, lungs, heart, and so on, settled together, sliding together with such orderliness and easy movement.

Two days later I caught on, as my diary records. Those internal organs were the same organs that I had seen on the shaman TV screen in July.

Ernie caught himself a whale the following April. (I use the word "caught" in keeping with Eskimo etiquette toward the whale.) I was working for another whaling crew and was occupied with cooking for the men. We waited on the edge of the ice, but no whales came near. An English BBC man was staying in my house in the village, hoping to film the whale hunt. Ernie said, "The whales don't like filming." But what could I do, turn the BBC man out?

One day, while my crew and I were down on the ice, a dangerous wind came up, and we left in a hurry, observing widening cracks as we made for the beach. After that, no whaling was possible for two weeks. Finally, the BBC man was refused his request to film the whaling and left town. The minute he left, the wind changed back in our favor. All was well, and Ernie caught his whale, with our assistance.

Ernie simply said, "The whale can change the weather." The whole village, including me, understood the matter in the same way.

Ernie often accused me of not believing in these manifestations, but I protested that I did. How could I help it? Ernie usually had a bad time from Whites, who labeled his experiences "magical beliefs." But by then, I myself was within the circle of regular Eskimo society and experienced such events from time to time. I am now learning that studying such a mentality from inside is a legitimate and valuable kind of anthropology that is accessible if the anthropologist takes that "fatal" step toward "going native."

Members of many different societies, even our own, tell us they have had experience of seeing or hearing spirits. Let us recall how anthropology has dealt with the question in the past.

Mainline anthropologists have studiedly ignored the central matter of this kind of information—central in the people's own view—and only used the material as if it were metaphor or symbol, not reality, commenting that such and such "metaphor" is congruent with the function, structure, or psychological mind set of the society. Clearly, this is a laudable endeavor as far as it goes. But the neglect of the central material savors of our old bête noire, intellectual imperialism.

What is pitiful is the tendency of anthropologists from among the native peoples themselves to defer to the Western view and accordingly draw back from claiming the truth of their own religion. The mission of Western anthropologists to explain the system in positivist terms at all costs, which thereby influences a new elite, is oddly similar to the self-imposed task of the more hidebound religious missionaries who are also sworn to eliminate their hosts' religion.4

So one asks, what are the ethics of this kind of analysis, this dissection? May we continue in this age of multi power and multi cultures to enter a foreign society, however politely, measure it up according to our own standards, and then come back home and dissect it in a way entirely estranged from the ethos of the people concerned?

We can see three such methods of dissection.

The first is illustrated by the anthropologist who goes out to examine a certain feature of the society, such as Richard Nelsons did when he studied the hunters of the northern ice at Wainwright, Alaska. He contrived to write an entire book from a positivist, practical standpoint, stating that no mystery cults of occult beliefs existed at the time of writing among these Eskimos. Nevertheless, my friend, Enoch Oktollik from Wainwright, has told me how he, Enoch, resents the imputations of the Whites and the way they have eroded Eskimo culture. His own mother has seen visions and predicted the coming of a whale. Nelson, though, has now changed his tack; he no longer thinks the Natives' tales are magical rubbish.5

Then there are the anthropologists who say, "Wait a bit! We can see interesting structural regularities in this culture." Levi Strauss led this fashion by writing of Aborigine totemism—those traditional ideas involving awe and respect for certain animals: "Totemism pertains to the understanding, and the demands to which it responds and the way in which it tries to meet them are primarily of an intellectual kind.... Its image is projected, not received. "7 But the animal was sacred to the Aborigines, part of their visionary life. The Dreaming dominated their whole life—it was visionary, not intellectual.

The third stage consists of the more respectful anthropologists, who bend over backward to accord their people much fuller sympathy. They follow all the beliefs and see, for instance, how the tapir, among the Wayapi Amazonians, gives central meaning to the lives of the Natives, how the shamanic myth of the "spirit tapir" (meaning something like Joseph Campbell's use of the word "myth") has actual feedback into the social system.8 Now Alan Campbell is getting close to the Wayapi—except that the poor fellow has to cover himself regarding his English colleagues by retreating from the question and labeling the whole shamanic system "metaphoric." Even in spite of protecting himself in that way, he has been attacked by those colleagues for going too far.

Nevertheless, in this paper I really go over the edge. What will the English say to me?

But we eventually have to face the issue head on and ask, "What are spirits?" And I continue with the thorny question, "What of the great diversity of ideas about them throughout the world? How is a student of the anthropology of consciousness, who participates during fieldwork, expected to regard all the conflicting spirit systems in different cultures? Is there not a fatal lack of logic inherent in this diversity?"

The reply: "Is this kind of subject matter logical anyway?" We also need to ask, "Have we the right to force it into logical frameworks?"

Moreover, there is disagreement about terms. "Spirits" are recognized in most cultures. Native Americans refer to something in addition called "power." "Energy," Ki or C'hi, is known in Japan and China, and has been adopted by Western healers.

"Energy" was not the right word for the blob that I saw coming out the back of a Ndembu woman; it was a miserable object, purely bad, without any energy at all, and much more akin to a restless ghost. One thinks of energy as formless, but when I "saw" in the shamanic mode those internal organs, the organs were not "energy." They had form and definition. When I saw the face of my Eskimo friend Tigluk on a mask, as I saw it in a waking dream, and then saw Tigluk himself by luck a few minutes afterward, the mask face was not "energy," laughing there. It was not in the least abstract.

The old-fashioned term, "spirit manifestation," is much closer. These manifestations are the deliberate visitations of discernable forms that have the conscious intent to communicate, to claim importance in our lives. As for "energy" itself, I have indeed sensed something very much like electrical energy when submitting to the healing passes of women adepts in a mass meeting of Spiritists in Brazil.

I would presume that the question of the multiplicity of beliefs would not faze anthropologists, who are accustomed to a relativistic stance. This stance presupposes some distancing, and for this we have the prime example of Clifford Geertz, a relativist who was indeed a participant, a believer in thick description. Yet he claims it is false faith to think we can go the whole way with our field people. He says that we cannot really go native, that it is bad faith to try.9

According to him, the proper stance of anthropologists is to listen, interact, participate, write down what people say (the "text"), but distance themselves. (It is to be remembered that Geertz did not, in fact, distance himself.)

Others would have us remember that if our interlocutors experience trance or possession, it is a reactive unconscious attempt to remedy their subaltern ranking in sexual and social hierarchies. Our analysis must be on this level; if our participation goes too deep, it might be a sign of our own pathology, and furthermore, it will be of no assistance to the oppressed groups concerned. Such is often the teaching of anthropology.

Repeatedly, anthropologists witness spirit rituals, and often, some indigenous exegete tries to explain that the spirits are present and, furthermore, that rituals are the central events of their society. The anthropologist proceeds to interpret them differently.

There seems to be a kind of force field between the anthropologist and her or his subject matter, making it impossible for her or him to come close to it, a kind of religious frigidity.

We anthropologists need training to see what the Natives see. This might best be done by following the method of a luminous, shaman-type lady, Mary Watkins, who in her book, Waking Dreams, leads us through practically all the ways of thinking of the Native religions with unerring skill. 10 The work develops practices that are not particularly doctrinaire because the author possesses a fine-drawn understanding that doctrinaire cults destroy sensitiveness.

Are spirits "out there?" In her book, Mary Watkins does not refer to "spirits," but to "dream figures," "images," or "imaginals." Yet she might as well have been describing spirits. She sees her "imaginals" as conscious beings with self-determination, with autonomy. I quote:

We tell the dream figures we know what they are saying.... We betray them with our sweet understandings.... [However] we could use interpretation almost like amplificatory material, helping us to maintain the imaginal's own directionality (from material to immaterial)....

The poetic image creates perceptions, modalities of is steadily creating the you who is endeavoring. It is drawing you into its landscape and adding not only to your experiences but to your ways of experiencing.... The poem and the dream lead us into the sites of revery....

Images demand that we develop the facility to inhabit new sites.... The different places of the imaginal begin to stand out. The possibility of an archetypal topography begins to emerge.... Each image teaches one to lose the ego fantasy of permanence and continuity.... It pulls things from us that show our participation in it, though often largely unconscious.... We learn...a consciousness with a polymorphous nature.... The past has been created by...the possession of us by various images....

We try to note where and how it lives. How does it spend a day? What is its sense of time? (Some say that the imagination is "timeless".... [Rather] it contains many different senses of time).... The seemingly random nature of images dissolves with time....

The unspoken metaphors are revealed-not for just their material aspect, not just their symbolic, but rather as the co-creation of the physical and imaginal qualities of our lives.11

Watkins recognized the autonomy of something that she defines as deriving from inside a person—"an imaginal."

An almost identical recognition runs through many cultures, but it is of spirits "out there." The initiative is theirs, not ours.

Who is right, the dream analyst or the traditional seer? A symbologist might recognize Watkins's statements as concerned with shamanic awareness. Should we begin quite seriously to experience and recognize this entity—this "X," whether "spirit" or "imaginal?" What Dan Rose12 and Michael Jackson13 are urging on us is to do something very like that, to "literally put ourselves in the place of other persons; inhabiting their world."


[expand title="Click Here To Read Writing #3" swaptitle="Close Writing" tag="h4" trigpos="below"]

By Michael Harner

Dear Friend of Shamanic Healing,

Hope for humanity in the new century was abruptly shaken on September 11, 2001, by the horrific attacks that brought tragedy, pain, and suffering to thousands. With the end to such crimes and their aftermaths not soon in sight, the need for a spirituality focused on healing and free of politics has never been more relevant.

We all have work to do, and I am gratified to report that many persons trained in our programs have been active in working shamanically to alleviate the suffering and pain of those who have been injured emotionally, spiritually, and physically, as well as to help the spirits of victims who have traumatically left this life.

Shamanic healing is not a panacea for the world's ills, but it provides a way of spiritually helping others that was almost eradicated in much of the world. The suppression of shamanism, including by the Inquisition, is only one of many examples through the ages of religious extremists in major civilizations killing innocents on the alleged behalf of their major spiritual deity.

That kind of consciousness, which many of us had hoped was becoming a thing of the past, has intruded again into human life, literally with a vengeance assisted by modern technology. It is a product of faith which is truly blind, for its fanatics depend upon the words of others rather than the sight that could be provided by their own direct spiritual experience. If they had relied upon first-hand knowledge instead of faith, they would have discovered their god's truly compassionate nature, as have all of us who have visited deities in shamanic journeys and successfully enlisted their help in healing.

What then, can we do beyond the healing work in which we are already engaged?

We can help others learn that they do not need to depend upon theocracies of any tradition to give us our spiritual worldviews. Such views cannot really be dispensed wholesale; they must be individually earned. The classic shamanic way is to accept one's own responsibility and potentiality to achieve first-hand knowledge by personally entering the spiritual realms.

This is the spiritual democracy of our ancient ancestors, before state religions arose and attempted to destroy individual spiritual independence. The recent attacks by terrorists have not only been on political democracy, as is often noted, but on spiritual democracy as well, for underlying their ideology is a belief in theological authoritarianism. Their stance is the opposite of that of the shaman.

Helping persons acquire their own spiritual empowerment through shamanic training continues to be a major focus of the Foundation's work worldwide. Increasing numbers of people around the world seek this training, for there is a growing desire for spiritual democracy. Regularly, I receive e-mails from individuals in totalitarian states, both theocratic and secular, who wish more information on the way of the shaman. An evolution of spiritual consciousness is underway. There is a race against time, however, and the Foundation, with your support, is doing its best to hasten this evolution throughout the Planet.

The Foundation's programs are all intended to help return spiritual authority to the individual. As part of this effort, the research programs provide cross-cultural resource material from hundreds of societies for the discovery of underlying shamanic principles and practices which then inspire the origination of exercises in core shamanism. The exercises, in turn, furnish openings for each person to accumulate first-hand experiential evidence of a nonordinary reality that is deeper than any specific culture. Each year the resultant educational programs provide thousands of persons with tools for the revival of shamanism and shamanic healing in the West.

Outside of the West, the Foundation's Urgent Indigenous Assistance and Living Treasures of Shamanism programs help preserve and revive shamanism where it has been threatened, or even virtually eradicated, by political, theological, and other external forces. Our members journal, Shamanism, and its directory of individuals and drumming circles, helps develop a worldwide community for healing and mutual help that can interact democratically without any central authority.

At the Foundation, we want to continue to contribute to the evolution of a democratic spirituality dedicated to healing in alliance with compassionate spirits. I invite you to be part of this effort by joining us or, if you are already part of our circle, by renewing or even upgrading your membership. Donations are also highly important.

With hope for humankind and all our relations,


Michael Harner

P.S. On behalf of the Foundation, I honor all of you who have been working to help and to heal. Let's see what more we can do!


Shamanism & Creativity by Sandra Harner

[expand title="Click Here To Read Writing #4" swaptitle="Close Writing" tag="h4" trigpos="below"]

One of the great surprises that shamanism affords is the joy of the unknown and that the unknown is joyous. There is a sense of wholeness that proceeds from the creativity that is inherent in the shamanic journey. Although shamanism and creativity are not commonly thought of together, a relatively superficial survey of studies of creativity reveals that the shamanic journey speaks to two of the most unknown, mysterious, and abstract elements of the creative process, as frequently defined. Further, recent research focusing on the relationship between structure and creativity1 can be directly applied to the experiences of shamanic journeying. Not only does the shamanic journey have elements of the creative process in it as a creative act, it can also be exercised in the service of productive creativity. Journeying increases access to creativity and stimulates its cultivation. By viewing creativity through the experience of the shamanic journey, we begin to see that creativity is not a special domain limited to the gifted few, nor can it be reduced to a rote algorithm. Instead, dormant potential can be enlivened and unleashed across multiple disciplines.

From a number of perspectives, researchers have attempted to define creativity and describe the creative personality. An early elaboration by Wallas2 defined four stages of the creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Since that time, others have developed schema for understanding the elements of creativity.3 Attempts to examine the creative personality have been remarkably heterogeneous, with no clear findings of both necessary and sufficient qualities of creativity. Some descriptors emerged from research on the thought processes of creative persons. They include flexibility, originality, and fluency.4 Characteristic of exceptionally creative people are a variety of qualities such as persistence, independence, unconventionality, 5 and others which, in themselves, may or may not determine creativity. Much remains to be learned about the process and personality aspects of creative expression.

Fortunately, however, the creative experience does not have to wait for scientific explanation to validate it. We can learn from what we experience and test the hypotheses proposed by scholars in the field. As we learn about the process and from the experience of creativity, we lay the groundwork for consciously cultivating creativity. Examining the shamanic journey experience may help clarify the mechanisms of the creative process.

Although many address creativity with more or fewer than the four stages proposed above, the elements Wallas proposed form a useful framework for considering how the shamanic journey supports creativity and where it may fit into Western psychology's understanding of the creative process. Something is a problem because it cannot be resolved in the usual ways, implying that some active attempt has been unsuccessful, requiring further preparation. The altered state of consciousness in the shamanicjourney provides an opportunity for planned incubation, set apart from a direct attack on the problem. It is common that within the shamanic divination journey, thejourneyer receives a revelation of quite unexpected content-an inspiration. Then, that inspiration must be put into practice and verified, thus completing the process with the creative act. Most recently, research has focused on just this issue of learned creative thinking.6

The shamanic journey itself becomes the active vehicle for two aspects of the process: the incubation by way of the changed state of consciousness and the inspiration by way of the content of the experience. Framing the divinatory question or problem and interpreting the journey are skills which can be learned and enhanced by repeated use of the method and consequent mapping of the individual's cosmology. The integration and application of the inspiration in the material world builds trust in the process as a result of experience. What may have been an act of courage becomes one of deeply mindful integrity. One enters the experience at will and immerses oneself in it while it is happening. Then one translates the experience and applies it in a conscious, reasoned manner, after an ordinary reality evaluation.

The core shamanic journey methods distilled in the 1970s by Michael Harner7 through worldwide cross-cultural study constitute one path by which we can creatively integrate spiritual, cultural, emotional, and physical elements. Although its origins have not been precisely determined, shamanism may be at least as ancient as 30,000 or more years, as evidence from Paleolithic cave paintings indicates.8,9; Moreover, historical and ethnographic evidence reveals its independent practice by indigenous peoples throughout the world, widely separated both geographically and culturally, up to and including the present day. Not unexpectedly, specific cultural practices may differ. The core methods, however, are remarkably similar and suggest repeated discovery of some pan-human, mind-body aspects of spirituality.

The most distinctive characteristic of the shaman is the journey or "soul flight."10 The journey is begun from a place one knows first-hand and is undertaken for a specific purpose to a source of information or healing power. Traditionally, members of the community request help from the shaman for problemsolving, diagnosis and treatment of illness, divination or prophecy, acquisition of power, and psychopomp work. As the journey unfolds, profound experiences, often extending significantly beyond visual imagery, arise spontaneously, and the shaman must remember the details. The return from the journey is accomplished by retracing the sequence of events until arriving where the journey began. Concentration and memory are therefore critical aspects of successful shamanic work. With respect to creativity, it is the problem-solving function which is most pertinent.

The shaman then Interprets the information imparted in the journey. It demands discipline and experience to develop the question and to interpret and integrate the answer. While most people, even today in the United States and Europe, can learn to journey in a few hours, some are more adept than others. Most who learn choose not to pursue it seriously, for it requires discipline and continuous learning. The shaman typically does this work parttime and primarily in service to the community.

Ancient and enduring, yet threatened, shamanism is founded in basic human capabilities and potentialities. It is as relevant in today's world as it has been for millennia. Through research and experience, we are gradually learning how we might benefit from its lessons. Shamanic practice is a creative act which relies on the ability to transcend the bounds of ordinary reality and enter the shaman's world with trust based on direct firsthand experience. In that sense it is thoroughly pragmatic and empirical, not relying on faith. Traditionally, it has been a method for problem-solving. While the specific nature of the problems may have changed over time, the need to solve problems has not.

As a creative psychospiritual process, shamanic journeying is a method known through the ages all over the Planet. By reviving shamanic journeying, contemporary Westerners have adopted a methodology for discovering and rediscovering shamanic experience and content directly, and for tapping into their inherent creative potential. As relevant today as it was in the past, shamanism is our legacy and our responsibility is to pass it on. The knowledge so long acquired, and so generously shared by all our relations, may be spared extinction by our respectful attention.



Writings about shamanic living