Friday, September 24, 2010

What's in a Word? Still More Shamanic Linguistics

Lately I've seen a lot of conversations about the various meanings of the word "shamanism." (My earlier post didn't spark this so much as capture a zeitgeist). I've tried to distill down some of the salient points which have arisen in these discussions, in no particular order of importance. I am sure I will be returning to the topic in future posts: it definitely is worth of further research.

I do not want to get into a discussion of who does or does not have the right to use the word "shaman."  I don't have that kind of power over the language, nor do I hold a trademark on "shamanism." (What's more, I'd be very concerned about anyone who was able to get control over its usage! If you don't like Harner shamans, how would you feel about MPAA-authorized shamans?) There is little I - or anyone else - can do to stop anyone who wishes to claim a shamanic identity. What I would like to do instead is to study some of the ways in which this word is used.

Foul Bachelor Frog courtesy of Meme Generator

For many practitioners, "shamanic" evokes the primitive. It offers a Dionysian way out of the rigid confines of our society and our material existence. By stripping away cultural conditioning, these devotees hope to escape the mundane and experience ecstasy.  But traditional shamanism served as an adjunct to rather than an escape from society, and historical shamans lived in a rigidly structured world delineated by numerous taboos. At worst, this identification can also lead to exotification, objectification and the kind of misbehavior which has been mocked as "plastic shamanism."

I've also noticed several different axes upon which we could divide the different flavors of contemporary shamanism. One is between voluntary and involuntary. Some believe shamanism is an acquired skill, while others believe it can only be practiced by those who are marked by the spirits.  They believe there is a qualitative difference between one who is chosen and one who has learned a few of the consciousness-altering techniques.   

The former approach has often led us to issues of cultural appropriation:  do we have the right to co-opt elements of someone else's coming-of-age rituals or funeral ceremonies to our own ends? On a practical note, some of these techniques may not work as expected when taken out of their original context.  We may ape the motions, chemicals and rhythms used but miss the cultural safeguards and protections.  (James Arthur Ray's reinvention of the sweat lodge as an endurance test is probably the most notorious example of this). 

While the latter view seems to be most common historically, it also comes with some troubling baggage.  Being chosen as a prophet can be a great ego-crutch. Your sufferings can be transformed into martyrdoms while your triumphs become proof of your Mission.   Being the Voice of the Divine can provide an assumption of infallibility the Pope might envy.  And then we get to the age old question of who gets to decide who is Chosen by the Gods?

This post may appear long on questions and short on answers. That is because I think the most important thing here is that we ask those questions.  As a spiritual movement, contemporary shamanism is of very recent vintage. The Way of the Shaman first appeared in 1980, while The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge only arrived in 1968.  There are many sincere people working under this rubric, people who believe it adds something of value to their lives and the lives of others.  They should receive the same respect as any other believer. But they should also be subject to the same sincere but tough questioning - and even tougher self-questioning - that goes with holding any faith.