Thursday, October 14, 2010

Yep, You Guessed It... More Shamanic Linguistics

On Mystic Wicks, a couple of people responded to my earlier post about the linguistic uses of "Shamanism."  (You can follow that discussion here).  Since they both raised great points for discussion, I thought I'd share my response on my blog.


There's definitely a tendency to lump indigenous religious practices together under the Shamanism banner. "Shamanism" can become a justification for all sorts of cultural mixing and matching. Holy symbols become consumer artifacts or aesthetic trappings, to be blended based on color schemes rather than religious significance. It's like our culture's version of the pwen achete, the "bought points" or purchased spirits of Haitian Vodou.

By declaring a culture "shamanic," we provide ourselves with a set of expectations. We focus on the things we consider shamanic - use of plants (especially if they are entheogenic or hallucinogenic), drumming, trance journeying or possession, spirit work, etc. - and ignore the finer points of their culture. For an example of what I'm talking about, look at the way indigenous American cultures from Algonquin to Zuma have become "Indian spirituality."

You both mention "bullshit detectors." I agree that a healthy sense of skepticism is invaluable when studying an unfamiliar spiritual path. But I think we also have to be careful not to overestimate their accuracy. Keep in mind that skilled con artists will look nothing like the stereotypical greasy used car salesman. They're going to be sweet and reassuring: they will meet all your suspicions with perfectly reasonable answers and play up to all your expectations. They will be the wise spiritual leader or the humble peasant as best suits their needs.

By contrast, genuinely spiritual people may appear awkward, alternating between overbearing forcefulness and meek confusion. They may have the common human flaws of arrogance and thin-skinned defensiveness. They may make statements that shock your sense of political correctness or display behaviors that make you uncomfortable. And your common sense might, with justifiable reason, tell you to go with the person who met your culturally and linguistically-determined preconceptions.

Now let's add to the mix the people who are simultaneously lauded as great spiritual leaders and scorned as dangerous cult-leading frauds. And keep in mind that spirituality can be a business like anything else. When working with indigenous cultures you are dealing with a tremendous disparity in economic power between students and prospective teachers. More often than not, you're also dealing with a culture wherein paying for services and religious instruction is an accepted practice.

And as Satori43 said, it's important that the shaman be trusted "within the group." Figuring out who is and is not trusted can be challenging for people coming to a culture as complete outsiders. Taking your time and getting to know your prospective teachers, and their students, is always useful. So is learning something about their peers and the community in which they operate as spiritual leaders. It requires more effort than buying an airplane ticket and writing a check, but the time spent will more than pay for itself in the short and long term.