Nick Seneca Jankel, Guest
Exploding the myths of shamanism with the latest anthropological studies of ayahuasca… and instead turning to timeless wisdom that reminds us that the transformation always happens within.
Shamans are popping up everywhere. Forbes, the New Yorker and even the Daily Mail have all featured shamanism and medicine plants like ayahuasca (aya) and psychedelics like LSD in the last few months. Hardly a day goes by without a wrinkly-faced, feather-bedecked man popping up on my Facebook feed (with an invitation to sample his wares of course). Although shamans (or curanderos as they are sometimes called in South America) are often assumed to come from places like darkest Peru (see Paddington Bear), the historical records suggests that is is likely that something akin to a shaman has appeared in virtually every traditional culture on the planet.
The word itself is very hard to define categorically by scholars or lay people alike. It is though that it originated with shamans of the Tungus tribe in Siberia. Strictly speaking, calling the diverse array of shamanic-type folk – from medicine man to wise woman – ‘shamans’, is a Western conceit. However, an underlying archetype, the ur-shaman if you will, can be a useful distinction when understanding the essence of human transformation. What the ur-shaman does is ‘dialogue’ with something other – whether we call that nature, the universe, or the ‘spirit world’ – in order to help their community solve problems. In a nutshell, the ur-shaman brings vital information from the ‘other’ side and the Other in general to help the group stay fit and fitted. As such, they serve a clear evolutionary role to ensure the community survives and thrives.
Characteristic of much shamanism is some kind of out-of-mind experience that brings new insight and information into the mix. This can happen within minutes and hours as opposed to the weeks, months and years of a lot of therapy and meditation techniques. This experience has often been termed ‘ecstasy’. From my book, Switch On: Unleash Your Creativity & Thrive with the New Science & Spirit of Breakthrough:
The Greek word ekstasis, the root of the word ‘ecstasy,’ means entrancement or astonishment. It usually refers to an experience when we are totally out of our head (and often into our heart). In many cultures, this kind of ecstasy is a normal part of life. Sufis get into this place by whirling around as they pray to Allah (little kids like to get out of their heads by spinning, too). Shamans get there by drinking ayahuasca.
The massive uplift of interest in shamanic paths to ecstasy (and the substances that can get us there) speaks eloquently of our present-day search for rapid paths of transformation that can help us evolve at a speed that matches the insanely rapidly-changing world we live in. In fact, one could argue that the human race – and the planet we are devastating at speed – does not have time for a lengthy spiritually-inspired ‘conscious revolution'; if that means waiting for everyone to spend 20 or 30 years meditating before they can take part in the shift. The clock really is counting down. So although it might sound crazy, shamanic transformation might be the fastest way we have to get to the tipping point and change our consumer lifestyles before we reach irreversible planetary damage.
Yet the ‘Transcendental Tourism’ (the voyage to indigenous lands to find authentic experiences of shamanism) and ‘Shaman Tours’ (like DJ tours but with indigenous shamans) that have sprung up all over may not be the answer. In fact, they may be part of the problem, for a number of reasons. At the recent World Ayahuasca Conference that I attended in Ibiza in 2014, a book was launched called Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond. It fundamentally challenges many of our cherished notions of shamanism, including that aya itself has been the main tradition for centuries. Studies suggest that tobacco was the predominate medicine plant of South American shamans. And it had a role that was less about individual therapy and more about “promoting ecological harmony for the group”.
The role of ayahuasca in healing (as supposed to having other roles such as warrior rites of passage) seems to be as much a product of Western desire and projection as it is indigenous tradition. The use of aya as medicine and religious sacrament looks like it may have spread upriver, from the Westernised coast to the indigenous interior, and not vice versa. In addition, the practices that the curandero uses in ceremony have been invented through cross-fertilisation with Christian and other traditions over the last century or so and not passed down for millennia. One funny story illustrates what this means in every day life: A group of shamans sit around drinking aya in jeans; only putting on their feathers and outfits to fit the image that the Westerner wants when they come calling.
Perhaps more of concern, Western idolisation of ‘authentic’ Latin American shamans can not only alter the local culture and skew the fragile economy in damaging ways; but it also robs us of our own innate shamanic capacities to heal. The Zen master Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of Zen, tells us:
The fools of this world look for sages far away. They don’t believe that the wisdom in their own mind is the sage.
By the same token, I believe that there is a shaman within each of us. It can tell us everything we need to know… once we learn to listen to it. It too can dialogue with nature / the universe / the spirit world and come back with the information we need to become whole. The Native American shaman Black Elk says ‘this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.’ Contemporary studies on resilience state that we all have this force within that compels us to become more generous, compassionate, wise, and whole. Our inner shaman is a messenger that talks to us to through all dreams, insights and ideas.
Your inner shaman has a vital role to play in your life: To help you move forward, heal, and grow. In fact, it can be though of as your healing intelligence itself. Your defence mechanisms, which I call the drive to survive, defends against what you don’t want. Your inner shaman – a metaphor for your drive to thrive – works tirelessly to help you create what you do want: What is good, noble, and true. And it appears to have the right amount of strength, and the right kinds of skills, to take on the problems you face. Your inner shaman is waiting for you right now to support you to find peace with any problem. You can access it’s wisdom through the phenomenon known as intuition.
As I detail in Switch On, I believe that inside us all are two strong sources of guidance. One is powered by the drive to survive. This is instinct. The other is powered by your drive to thrive. This is intuition. Knowing which is guiding you is crucial. Each emanates from a different drive. Your instincts, will usually get louder, more pressing, more ‘shouty.’ Instinct is very useful to deal with real threats, but it massively limits creativity, openness, and flexibility. Intuition, the voice of the inner shaman, will stay clear, certain, and resonant, but it won’t get jumpy. It is a ‘still small voice of calm.’ It emerges when you consciously turn down the chattering and nattering of the ego to hear it.
Intuition is a powerful force. In my book, I tell of the legendary runaway slave Harriet Tubman. She relied on her intuition to guide her to freedom in the northern states of the USA during the time of slavery. She called intuition the ‘voice of God.’ She evaded capture for weeks by following it. After securing her own freedom, she went back to the slave-owning South on at least 19 separate occasions, risking torture, and re-enslavement, to help hundreds of others slaves make it to freedom too. Using only her intuition to guide her, she hid her people in riverbeds, fields, and woods to avoid the slave-catchers and their dogs that were always hunting them down. Against the unlikeliest of odds, she was never caught, which allowed her to become a leader of the Underground Railroad and a guerrilla agent for the Union Army. She was the first recorded African-American woman to serve in the US military.
Many wisdom traditions have a name for this intuitive wisdom, which is both totally mystifying yet utterly mundane because we all sense it every day. In the Chinese tradition it is called the Tao. In Greek it is called the Logos. In Jewish mysticism, this inner wisdom is called Chochma. Chochma means “the potential of what is”, “the potential to be” or, simply, pure potential. Chochma flashes within us when we allow it space. It cannot arise when we shut it out with stress and repetitive self-talk. Whatever we called this spark of other-worldliness entering our quotidien this-worldy reality, is it essentially intelligence bursting forth as a flash of intuition or insight. It is the inner shaman at work, ferrying information from the Other to the here-and-now.
What this suggests is that chochma / intuition / the inner shaman is evidence that there is an intrinsic intelligence in life itself. It is this intelligence that ensures nature is always in dynamic equilibrium, in harmony. According to this school of thought, which I equate with the Western philosophy of panentheism, this intelligence is in everything. It is therefore unsurprising that, according to the book Shamans: Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination, one of the few firm commonalities between all shamanic traditions is a belief that all objects are inhabited by spirit(s). Modern panentheists and ancient shamanic traditions agree: There is consciousness in everything. All is Mind and Matter.
Most wisdom traditions tell us that if we align ourselves with this natural intelligence, abide by it, we can find our way through challenging times with maximum ease and grace. When we follow the Tao or Logos – going with the flow of the inner shaman – we become what the Taoist tradition calls the zhenren, or Perfect Man; and what stoicism calls the Sage. Nature is always the alpha and omega of everything. Within Her we are born and into Her we die. As Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it:
Nature conspires with spirit to emancipate us.
What I have witnesses time and time again, in all areas of human endeavour, is that this wisdomalways brings more thriving into the space we are working in, whether in a relationship, business or community. Whether in corporate innovation or group healing, the insights that emerge fromchochma spark ideas that invariably empower, enlighten and enable more people. Increased emancipation from mental and economic slavery is always an outcome. The inner shaman never tries to blame or shame the Other. Instead, it is concerned with how our selves – as individuals that can heal and help the whole – can bring more love, truth and creativity into a situation. It is not interested in fury, fame and fortune. It wants us to flourish so we can help our world flourish. When we don’t listen to it – say by continuing to work in a business we know is unethical; or acting in a mean-spirited way out of fear – we cause suffering for ourself and suffering for our people. As Jewish teacher Rabbi Rami Shapiro says:
Chochma (wisdom) doesn’t serve anyone’s quest for power and control over others. Her gift is power and control over yourself. That is why She is so rarely taught, and that is why She is so desperately needed.
Over time, if you keep on seeking out chochma within – through processing and transforming your pain as it is triggered by life’s rich array of problems —you’ll learn to trust your inner shaman to help you find the right people, ideas and projects to nourish your drive to thrive. Things may get fierce for a bit but it won’t last long as you learn how to come back to love, truth, and creativity. Your inner shaman is in a world that serves as a refuge. It’s always there for you. The inner shaman, the wisdom of chochma, is always available to support, help and guide. All you have to do is stop listening to the voices of cynicism, control and fear which are all trying to protect you from pain, disappointment and upset yet rarely serve your growth and development.
When you have the wisdom of the universe at (or in) your fingertips, no pain is too much to feel and release through your own (inner) shamanic healing. This doesn’t mean that professional or indigenous help isn’t valuable, rewarding, and, sometimes, very important (especially if you are feeling like you are in distress for an extended period of time). However, never forget that this isyour life, your body.mind, and your pain. You have the potential within to transform. New frameworks and ancient medicine plants, whether wielded by professional therapists or curanderos, are fabulously helpful. But they are just tools. The inner shaman does the work, all ways.
The shamanic root to wisdom has been suppressed for thousands of years, through various witch hunts, literal or figurative. It is still seen today as the refuge of psychedelic scoundrels and lost hippies rather than a path to ecological harmony. This reactionary angst can be traced to the the Old Testament view that the snake that gave us the apple of knowledge (which could be a metaphor for mushrooms, peyote, iboga, aya etc) was evil incarnate for giving us direct experience of our reality as an intrinsic (and much loved) part of the Oneness or God – something that priests – whether in the form of scientist or theologian – like to mediate for us on our behalf.
As dogmatic religion, and then an equally dogmatic science, have both risen to prominence, local, folk and indigenous techniques for healing suffering souls and sick communities have been side-lined and perished. The result is that we have an impoverished access to relevant and responsive wisdom tools, that – free from dogma – have been designed over millennia to help us access our inner capacity for compassion, empathy, justice and the like.
Through opening the doors of perception by using Nature herself, we can truly connect with Her. We can all connect in like this whether through nature walks, inner refuge, mindfulness meditations, vision quests, or plant-based medicines. Through reconnecting our hearts we can awaken our inner shaman and dialogue with things that are ‘Other’ to our individual egos. We can use these simple techniques to expand the circle of things we think of as ‘friends’ and therefore include the whole world in the things we want to protect with passion. We move out of I consciousness and firmly into We.
This could not be more important. As we have seen, an indigenous shaman’s primary duty is to maintain the harmony of the community – as a kind of psychospiritual steward – not simply to help an individual feel good. Whilst ensuring our inner shaman helps us become whole, it is also vital to ensure that we move firmly through our own healing to that of our tribe’s. Connection to ourselves, our family, community, race, species, all species, rivers and oceans, rocks and mountains, stars and comets – is the only thing that can change the world into the one so many of us are aching to see, touch and feel. Repeated connection to our inner shaman results in a truly planet-ready consciousness that, for example, might find a plastic bag floating in the breeze agonising as we feel within the suffering of our planet as it labours for millennia to decompose it and bring it back into the circle of life.
You are the shaman you have been waiting for. All the insight and intuition you need are within, right now, ready to bring more love, truth and creativity into our shared space. And you don’t need feathers, medicine plants or plane tickets to Peru to enjoy Him / Her either!
About the Author
Nick Seneca Jankel is the author of Switch On: Unleash Your Creativity & Thrive With the New Science & Spirit of Breakthrough, the creator of Breakthrough Biodynamics and the co-founder of Ripe & Ready. Visit his website, here.
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