I've just watched a great documentary series on netflix: Wild, Wild Country. It is the story of Rajneesh and his followers in Oregon in the 80s. A cult that went wrong, bigtime. They created a city in the wilderness, took over the local town, and ended up with a huge arsenal of weaponry; there were also incidents of poisoning and attempted murder against their enemies. Of which there were plenty. They attracted huge national opposition.
Fundamental to this story is the propensity that I think we all have, or have had, to idealise teachers. There is plenty of it in the shamanic world. And I think it is normal to do so. We come staggering along, maybe confident and competent in a worldly sense, but with little idea of who we are on a deeper level. That is not something we are taught :) And so we project all that good stuff onto a teacher. I think it is a natural process. A good teacher does not need those projections, and does not create a 2-way street, a kind of love-in if you like, with the pupil. All teachers will claim they don't want followers, but it can be hard to resist the flattery of people thinking you have the answers. I think it's very difficult for a teacher not to slide into this one, at least some of the time.
And I think a crucial point is finding that guide within ourselves. As I say, it is natural and necessary to seek it outside ourselves to start with. But then we have "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!" A friend was telling me how at a certain point in his life his spirit guides, who had always been there for him, refused to help, that there was an important decision he had to make on his own.
In my 20s and 30s I was around a Buddhist set-up, and all it was about fundamentally was me finding what I call my 'metaphysical autonomy'. Once that happened - and it was like a deep eruption after many years preparation - it was all over, and I was on my shamanic way :)
One of the main people they interviewed for the Rajneesh series was the guy who had been their lawyer. He must be about 70, and 'the Bhagwan' is long dead. But this guy is still under the spell. He still describes 'the Bhagwan' as 'the master of masters' - like, how can you know that? Another person they interviewed, who went to jail for attempted murder, has broken the spell, but it took many years. This process can take a long time, and it may never happen in someone's lifetime. And it may be incremental. Few people can admit to giving power away to a teacher; we think we are autonomous when we are not. It is seen as 'faith' to put the teacher's judgement before one's own, and arrogance to do otherwise.
And it is about knowing that we have all the guidance we need within. It is not something we can will into being, and it is easy to kid ourselves. It is a profound psycho-spiritual event that is like finding gold. And even then we can dip in and out of it. The path then becomes about allowing the gold to take root, to permeate our being.
It also then becomes possible to know the shadow. With the Rajneeshis, all goodness was projected onto 'the Bhagwan', and all evil was projected onto those who opposed them. This is no different to Nazi Germany, where Hitler carried the ideals, and the Jews carried the shadow. And the Bhagwan was also divided in this way: when his senior disciple left, he publicly rounded on her and denounced her. She was now the enemy. It was immediate.
|From The English Magic Tarot Deck|
And I think it works something like this: when you live from your inner sense of guidance, you have all you need. You're not needing to prove anything to the world or to other people. Or at least, not to the same degree. So we become able to admit to our own weaknesses and vulnerabilities, because doing so does not take anything away from who we are. In fact, there is a sense of it adding to who we are, but not in an ego sense.
The worldly path involves building a sense of ego, and this is seen as normal. It is why we admire people who are rich or famous or royal. Admit it: if a celebrity walked into the room, you'd feel differently to if a regular guy walked in. I know I would. And this way of seeing the world is often carried over into the 'spiritual' world, where people want to become a 'name'. It is certainly true of the shamanic world, where it has in places become normalised.
But it's all just vanity, and misses the point. When a Chippewa Cree teacher used to come and stay with me and run events, he refused this sort of self-promotion. He would limit himself to a factual description of his background and training, and didn't want himself put out on the internet. I can go with that. And the people still came.
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I have a strong interest in both astrology and shamanism. And at the moment it's the latter that I'm writing more about. And I have a shamanic blog that's been on a bit of a backburner, but now I've started putting a lot more on it and building a (free) subscriber list. So if you are interested, go to www.shamanicfreestate.blogspot.com and you can sign up at the top right of the page. Meanwhile, here is one of the articles from that blog:
In 1997, I was organising some shamanic journeying at a small festival in the UK, and the space was packed for each session, like 70-80 people. The word shamanism had a buzz to it, and I think it still does, even though it can also be a cliché.
But the buzz was genuine, and I think it was about people wanting a taste of the Otherworld, something which has almost become a race memory, because it has been so squeezed out by religion and then science. But it is still there in us, this desire for an untrammelled experience of Spirit, that feels ancient, and that is not hedged around by dogmas of what is and is not possible.
It is Spirit that ultimately teaches us about Reality, not humans and their books. Shamanism – a recent, western phenomenon – is about that return to a direct experience of Spirit, that connects us to a universe that is so much more than the literal, material universe of modern science.
That taste of the Otherworld is, for some, enough as an accompaniment to their regular existence. For others, it is not enough. Or we may think it is enough, but the spirits have other ideas!
And this is where the idea of the 'shaman' comes in. A slightly problematic word, as it carries connotations of spiritual stature, which ain't a good thing to claim. And a shaman is technically also a healer and diviner, a spirit consultant.
But the spirits can drag us kicking through that initiatory journey without the end result being a healer. You may end up as a counsellor, or an artist, or a stand-up comic - or as Mozart: what was it that spoke through him if it wasn't the Otherworld? Or you may be nothing in particular that you can put a name to! You just have that look in your eye that says I've been somewhere else.
As Leonardo da Vinci said: “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
Or as the Ancient Mariner said:
"I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach."
|The Ancient Mariner|
The archetypal event has become, for us, the shaman's illness, which will often bring him or her to the gates of death or madness, and once she has accepted the wishes of the spirits to be a vehicle for them, he recovers.
And I think this illness, this trial, this ordeal, needs to be interpreted broadly within our shamanism, even though the original definition was quite specific. And I think we need to be quite broad too about 'the spirits'. Yes, some of us will have guys upstairs that tell us stuff, or who work through us. For others, it may just be this other place in us, and when we speak or act from it, there is some kind of deeper wisdom or insight there, that may not even make sense to us at the time, but we learn to trust it. The so-called 'mid-life crisis' (which can go on and on - see The Middle Passage by James Hollis) has a resonance of this type of ordeal.
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As an astrologer, I encounter these trials in the form of Neptune and Pluto acting on people's charts. I had my own experience of Pluto for much of the 90s: after 10 years running Buddhist institutions, I was unable to do anything for several years. Anything I tried to do wouldn't work. And it was like the plug on my life-force had been pulled. I realised that it is not 'I' who lives, it is something from deeper within that calls the shots, and it was saying we're not going to let you carry on in that wilful way, we're going to fuck with you until you listen to us. And there was this deep, magical pull towards that other voice.
At the same time, I felt like I’d had major abdominal surgery, and that I’d been brought about as low as I could be, to this faraway place. And after a few years I had a dream telling me to pursue shamanism - as well as something else, which was a trick dream that catapulted me out of my old life.
And since then there has always been this place within me that is a kind of dark wisdom, that I can forget about sometimes, but when I'm coming from there I am aligned with my life. It is the glittering eye of the ancient mariner. And in the last few years it's been happening all over again, but under Neptune's rule, and I'm still in the thick of it, so I can't say too much. But it's been like this overwhelming call that I haven't quite known what to do with.
|Pluto with his hellhound|
The classic story behind Pluto, who is Lord of the Underworld, is that one day he abducted Persephone, daughter of the nature goddess Ceres, who went into mourning and the earth went into permanent winter. Eventually it got sorted, but Persephone was by now Pluto's wife, and spent half her time in the underworld.
So this is a good way of understanding the shaman's illness. There is another side to life, beyond what is presented to us by society, and you can be taken there forcibly by the demands of the spirit, which has no regard for conventional niceties and sanities. And in a deeper kind of way, you grow up, move on to the next stage - as did Persephone, in becoming Pluto's wife.
A traditional society understands this ruthless dimension to Spirit. As Holger Kalweit writes in Shamans, Healers and Medicine Men:
“The suffering and exhaustion that accompany a vision quest do not correspond to the mild and gentle style of modern psychotherapy. Westerners do not want to have to exert themselves to solve their problems.” (p102)
And Goethe understood what happens if you resist the call:
“And so long as you haven't experienced this: to die and so to grow, you are only a troubled guest on the dark earth.”
So this initiatory journey that the shaman undergoes isn't just about acquiring magical powers under duress. I don't think it is like that. The main emphasis is on the development of psychological depth, in the sense of moving beyond the narrow, conventional self that tells us how to live, and whose rules are shared by the other members of society. That kind of living is 'normal', it gives a kind of psychological security to many people, and it is necessary for the stability of society.
But that ain't what the shaman lives by. No, he/she has another loyalty, a deeper loyalty, that is not to the rules and 'shoulds' of the tribe, but to the spirits, to the daimon, to the Otherworld, to the Jungian Self. And that other place to which we have our loyalty is more real, for it recognises that the world isn't what it seems, it is not to be taken at face value, for it is only one pole of existence, the other being the spirit world, and these 2 poles are profoundly interconnected. The world is not an absolute, it is fluid.
So it is this loyalty to the Otherworld that is the real qualification to be a healer - or whatever. It is the shaman's wholehearted response to the imperatives of the Otherworld and its values that make him/her a shaman. Once you have that new basis to your life - that look in your eye - then the spirits will allow you to be a healer, or require you to be.
Of course, this is a kind of ideal scenario, because we are human, and we fuck up, and sometimes people have real healing abilities who seem in other respects to be such messes.
But the principle remains, and it is the 'depth psychology' of shamanism referred to in the title. It involves a radical turning about, so that the guiding principle of our lives becomes not what society expects, nor is it based on our personal desires, but on a commitment to something beyond us, that also is us, and that is more real than a purely conventional notion of existence ever can be.
It is a completely different basis for living, and that is why the shaman's illness can take him/her to death's door: the conventional, which is so deep-rooted, has to die. It can almost be like I cannot continue to live like I have been, so how can I live? And the answer is there within, and always has been.