Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Towards A Neo-Animist Manifesto

Like anything else, words can be worn down with time and overuse. "Shaman" is certainly showing its age. Once used to describe the priest/spirit-workers of an obscure Siberian tribe, "shaman" now describes African witch doctors, Lakota medicine men, Mexican curanderas and Silicon Valley software engineers on a weekend retreat. The word has been stretched far beyond its original capacity: scholars and practitioners alike have noted dangerous structural flaws in its edifice. The shaman's communal role as a priest and intercessor is minimized while the individual spirit-journey is emphasized. The methods by which the shaman alters consciousness - drugs, drumming, ordeals and the like - receive a lion's share of attention: the spiritual and physical perils of that voyage are often ignored altogether.

As Mircea Eliade noted, and many after him have confirmed, shamanic techniques work well for entering altered states. Today many people experiment with various substances and plant allies, with varying degrees of reverence and seriousness. Ordeal workers have incorporated safety and efficiency tips from BDSM in their own versions of Sun Dances and vision quests. Self-help gurus have turned firewalking into an affirmation of self-worth. At worst, "shaman" evokes Edward Said's Orientalism on an equal opportunity plan, with widely variant cultural and religious groups pureed into a spicy exotic mush.

Learning a few rhythms or swallowing a psychoactive tea is not the same thing as becoming a member of a culture. Many - arguably all - so-called "Shamanic" traditions are based on cultural morés and upon an individual's place in that culture. This poses a conundrum for one who sincerely seeks to engage with said traditions. Many have tried to approach these cultures with an attitude of respect and reverence: many others have seen them as an opportunity for spiritual tourism or as unclaimed magical power objects ripe for exploitation. (Like most foreign devotees, I have played both roles in my spiritual search: I've also spent a fair deal of time in grey and uncertain ethical territory. This is a complex issue. If it weren't people wouldn't have written so many damn books on the subject).
 
Many who experiment with chemical and plant allies have taken to calling themselves "psychonauts." This label might well be applied to most modern-day "shamans." Psychonauts are concerned primarily with their own psyches. They do not take ayahusaca to divine their clan's future or drum to ensure good hunting for their tribe: rather, they hope to gain personal power and wisdom through consciousness expansion. This is not intended as a condemnation or a moral judgment: self-improvement is certainly a worthwhile use of one's time. But let us call it what it is rather than using a term best reserved for a specific tribal office.

But what of those modern "shamans" who believe that the spirit world exists outside their heads and who consider themselves in service to a community? I wonder if we aren't guilty of false advertising when we use the "shaman" label. My practices could easily be placed under the rubric of "shamanism." I have used drums and dancing to induce altered states and even full-on possessions; I have worked with plant and chemical allies; I have helped clients with problems by calling on the intercession of my spiritual companions; I have had the unpleasant meltdown which has come to be called "Shaman sickness." My primary path, Haitian Vodou, incorporates many techniques which are today called shamanic. But how does my role relate to a Tungus shaman -- or, for that matter, a healer/spirit-worker in any other indigenous culture? My interactions within my community, my cultural and financial capital, the prides and prejudices gained in my childhood and sustained throughout my adult life - these are all very different.

Perhaps the label "animist" carries less baggage than "shaman." Animists believe the spirit world is immanent within the material: they believe that trees, animals and even "inanimate" objects can hold the sparks of sentience and even of divinity. (Some of us might go so far as to follow the Neoplatonists - or the Chaotes - and say that concepts and mental constructions can take on lives of their own).  Animism is a blanket term, and one which few Animist cultures would use to describe their own practices. We step on no toes by calling ourselves Animists.  We also avoid many of the misunderstandings associated with "Shamanism." Animism is not about practices but about belief. It is a way of seeing and understanding the world, one which has inspired many ways of engaging with said world. 

I certainly cannot stop people from applying the word "Shamanism" to their practices. I'm not arrogant enough to believe I can stop linguistic drift. But I can say what I mean and mean what I say.  And while I may do things which have become identified with Shamanism, I am at heart and deed an Animist. I am not a Siberian healer, but I am a living and thinking entity in a universe full of living and thinking entities. How I communicate with them is less important, to me, than the fact that we can and do communicate.