Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On Michael Harner II: Danger and Protection

In his original response to Galina's post, Tim Flynn said:
With respect to protection/defense. I think your misunderstanding here is reflective of the problem of sorcery and shamanism. Harners earliest reported initiatory work was with the Shuar/Jivaro, a culture rife with harmful sorcery practices and defenses. Harner has reported that this culture does not journey to the upper or lower worlds - where one might empower oneself as a form of protection. I believe he sees that as the most important work for many of his students. He does see certain kinds of protection work to be advanced, and has taught this to a much lesser degree. Perhaps its valid to critique that balance, but it does not come from ignorance or lack of knowledge on his or other faculties part. Concern with sorcery, and involvement with defense can often be a reflection of disempowerment, rather than advanced skill.
Tim makes a good point regarding disempowering concerns with sorcery and black magic.  We've all run into people who see the devil in every misfortune and fancy themselves the victims of all sorts of spiritual malfeasance.  Sometimes these fears are rooted in mental illness: at other times they stem from a deep existential ennui.  (There's nothing quite so interesting or ego-gratifying as being preyed upon by Eternal Cosmic Evil).   This sort of behavior needs to be discouraged, and its underlying causes addressed and treated.

But I am still left wondering if the FSS has not gone too far in the opposite direction.  The Shuar/Jivaro are hardly the only culture "rife with harmful sorcery practices and defenses."  In fact, I've yet to encounter any indigenous culture which did not have well-developed traditions of spiritual defense.  If we are going to talk about universal beliefs in shamanism, I'd be hard pressed to find one more widespread than "the spirit world can be a dangerous place."

This is not surprising, given that the material world which hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers inhabit is a dangerous place. Famine and disease are never far away: their everyday life puts them in constant contact with risky situations.  (And things generally don't get better for the poor and dispossessed when they move/are moved to more urban environments: those who doubt me need only look to Port-au-Prince, Havana, Lagos or similar cities).  Their mundane lives require vigilance, discretion and caution, and so they take similar care in their spiritual work.

By contrast, much modern American spirituality speaks of a Law of Abundance, a Prosperity Gospel, a heavenly cornucopia where divine game show hosts dispense blessings, wisdom and new cars to anybody who wishes to play.  Death is kept safely hidden away in hospices, funeral homes and slaughterhouses.  (When did you last see a dead body in the road, or watch your lunch being killed?)  Because we have little direct contact with danger,  we envision the spirit world to be as safe as our mundane existence.

Alas, our worlds - mundane and spiritual - are not safe places.  Good intentions are useless against predators and parasites in either realm. Malaria-carrying mosquitos need to be met with bug spray, not unconditional love.   Illusions about a nurturing, benevolent universe are harmless enough if you're properly sheltered: they are far less benign once you leave that warm cocoon.  And there really is no way to encounter the Divine without that exit: indeed, I'd say it's the first step on that journey.  Thus, I would much prefer that spiritual self-defense and shielding be taught not as an advanced technique but as a prerequisite to any further study.