Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ways of Doing, Ways of Seeing: For Brother Christopher

I was unsure of what I was going to post today, until Brother Christopher's comment on my earlier post provided me with inspiration.
that's a delightful pastoral fantasy to which I call bullshit. All of the items of "personal gain" that you have pointed to a Neoshaman are also things that a tribal shaman would also need to produce for himself and his tribe, otherwise I don't think the tribal shaman would be tolerated and the tribe would displace him and look for something else to meet those needs
Obviously, I should have been more clear: I can definitely see where you might read my original post as you did.  Let me add a few points that I missed, as I suspect we agree more than disagree on most issues.

The lives of nomadic, hunter-gatherer or subsistence agriculture societies are anything but delightful and idyllic. They do not live in a happy world where cherubic animals perform Busby Berkley routines and dispense homespun wisdom. They recognize their surroundings as animate and sentient, yes - but they are also well aware that those surroundings can turn on them with little notice.   In their capacity as intercessors and messengers, they deal with enemies as often as friends, and the stakes are frequently life and death for shaman and tribe alike.  And of course shamans can be held accountable for bad things that   happen to the tribe, including things which would seem to us to be far beyond their control.

Nor is there any particular distinction in virtue between the Priest and the Shaman. Both offices give their holders power, and with power comes temptation. So long as we are competitive pack primates, we will scramble for social position and use that position to our personal advantage.  Devout and sincere worshippers can be found among Shamans and Priests alike. So too can cynical schemers, power-tripping abusers, and combinations of the above in every shade of human ambivalence.  No spiritual practice has yet attained a monopoly on good or evil.

The distinctions between Shaman and Priest, or between Shaman and Neoshaman, are useful abstractions.  They are not Platonic ideals, nor are they written in stone.  My thoughts here are intended as springboards for further discussion, not final answers.  I'm trying to do here what Martin Heidegger did with Dasein, or Being. I am less interested in what and why they are doing than in how and what they are seeing. How do they perceive the world in which they were thrown, and how does that perception and that world differ from our own?  I want to move closer toward their state of Being - not the altered state which comes from their ceremonies but the framework which inspires and constrains their actions and upon which they organize their existence.

This is, of course, a voyage toward an unreachable end.  Many divides separate me and a Siberian shaman, Diné Medicine Man, Tibetan Buddhist Priest, or Artibonné Vodouisant. We have available more data than ever before  on these peoples and their practices, and yet we are further than ever from the worlds they live in. Language, economic status, culture, life experience all mark us as products of different worlds. Our attempts at understanding have often been marred by all the excesses of colonialism and missionary hostility. Many explorers who have avoided these pitfalls have often fallen instead into the slough of starry-eyed anthropomorphism and romanticism. This is no easy task: we will only be able to draw our map in broad strokes and await the corrections of those who come after us.  Yet this knowledge is vital if we are to understand their ways and access their much-needed power for healing.