Monday, September 5, 2011

On Michael Harner I: Culture, Reductionism and Spirituality

In response to Galina Krasskova's recent interview of yrs. truly, a Core Shamanism student named Tim Flynn took issue with some of our critical comments about Michael Harner.  Since Mr. Flynn has been kind enough to speak at length on his understanding of Core Shamanism and the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, I wanted to return the favor.  Accordingly, I'd like to address a number of his points separately, so as to give them the attention they deserve.

From Mr. Flynn:
It is not Harners or the FSS intent to create a "culture - free shamanism". I think their "Living Treasures" program speaks to this, as well as trainings with indigenous shamans that are offered when possible. It is the intent of the FSS training to reawaken something authentic for westerners. Its impossible to do anything without culture, I think Michael understands this well.
While I hate to start our discussion with a disagreement, according to the FSS website:
Core shamanism consists of the universal, near-universal, and common practices of shamanism not bound to any specific cultural group or perspective, as originated, researched, and developed by Michael Harner. 
This approach to indigenous spiritual practices - and to spirituality in general - has a long tenure.  Helena Petrova Blavatsky sought the "Secret Doctrine" behind all modern religions. Aleister Crowley created tables of correspondence which mixed and matched deities on Qabalistic paths, stating "when a Japanese thinks of Hachiman, and a Boer of the Lord of Hosts, they are not two thoughts, but one."  It's part and parcel of the post-Newtonian world: the scientific wish to reduce a complex reality to its underlying equations.

There are many good reasons why scholars and practitioners alike might want to examine commonalities of religious practice among different cultures.  But I'm not sure it is entirely helpful when constructing or reconstructing an animist practice.  Scientific reductionism seeks to reduce the mysteries to recipes and rational explanations.  Animism, by contrast, seeks a direct and personal engagement with the material world. The botanist may know that tree's genus, species and approximate age: the shaman knows that it favors offerings of yellow ribbons, tells great dirty jokes, and readily shares gossip about the goings-on within this particular patch of land.

Many academic efforts to understand shamanism have fallen afoul of this.  The academic catalogues the  various substances used in a specific operation.  This is then used to "explain" what the shaman is actually doing. The ritual is recast as a psychosocial or medical operation.  Comments about "talking to the plant" are dismissed as superstition or metaphor: that which cannot be explained using contemporary scientific knowledge is ignored.  And because the spirit world has proven reluctant to jump through hoops and perform verifiable, repeatable experiments for scientists, the theological dimensions of this act are generally neglected in favor of the psychological.  Scholars who doubt the existence of their own souls can hardly be expected to find souls in trees, rocks and wildlife.  And what began as a spiritual quest becomes solipsism, with the voices of the Allies and Gods reduced to subconscious mutterings bouncing off the inside of the shaman's skull.

Having expressed my doubts, let me offer praise where it is due.  According to the Foundation for Shamanic Studies website,
Our Living Treasures designation provides an annual lifetime stipend to exceptionally distinguished indigenous shamans in less-developed countries where their age-old knowledge of shamanism and shamanic healing is in danger of extinction. Special care is given to providing the economic assistance necessary to allow these Living Treasures to pass on their knowledge to their people.
Whatever theological or philosophical differences I may have with Michael Harner or the FSS, I give them credit for giving something back to the community.  Today most indigenous shamans are living in conditions ranging from poverty to extreme poverty.   While I remain critical of the power dynamic between Core Shamans and indigenous shamans, I also recognize the value of this sort of financial assistance.  This is one place where I'd encourage non-Harner shamans to follow the FSS's lead.  Supporting indigenous cultures with positive thoughts and awareness-raising is good, but supporting them with a check is even better.


Anonymous said...

I think, theoretically, it might be possible to isolate certain *techniques* and teach them, but it would have to come with instruction on exactly how one applies them to working in a specific region with its spirits, what to do when the spirits show up, types of work you may have to do, etc. and then it's always going to fall apart at the detail level. On its own, the way it appears to be practiced, Core Shamanism seems only fit to open the way to the Disney ride - which, frankly, seems sufficient for most of the practitioners I've seen (they don't know about or desire anything more).

Btw, for those who want to send a check, I recommend the group Survival International ( They fight for rights of indigenous tribes all over the world, and therefore are helping to preserve a lot of specific animistic traditions.

Tim Flynn said...

Thanks so much for posting this. Delighted to see this conversation continue. I sincerely hope you some day have a chance to challenge Dr. Harner directly with your points. To be sure his perspective and that of the FSS has been controversial. I'll try to be brief -
Dr. Harners understanding comes not just as an academic, but also as an initiate. He has intimate personal knowledge of the failures of academia to respect cultures, and their various spiritual activities, as well as years of first hand experience with living indigenous shaman. Its this combination that makes him such an extraordinary teacher in my book. As I mentioned before, Dr. Harner is now spending much of his time writing, rather than teaching. I hope in the years to come we can all learn more about his direct experiences.
For my part I will say that these practices are not being constructed, so much as re-awakened. There are aspects of spiritual activity that can be considered generally "human". I like to use the metaphor of music. Its possible to be both a Reggae musician and study music theory. Investing energy in the common threads does not necessarily exclude or denigrate or devalue specific traditions. It encourages us to draw on ourselves in our spiritual practice as well as explore our ancestral traditions and for some of us the living indigenous traditions of other cultures where respectfully permitted.
As a side note, the Living Treasures program is only the public tip of the iceberg with respect to FSS involvement with indigenous traditions. Again, I won't speak for the FSS here but the risks and sacrifices have been many over many decades.
Again - perhaps you're judging Harner by his students and basic training. Perhaps thats fair. "Judge a teacher by their students" is not an invalid test. For my part I hope to continue working with the FSS and learning from indigenous teachers. Generations from now I think our grandchildren will care less about who we each trained with, but rather how well we were able to work together in bringing this sacred work back into our daily lives.
Thanks again for this post.

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