The Shamanic Self
From a cross cultural perspective, Shamanism is rooted in a cosmology that seems to be strikingly similar in all indigenous populations. While these earth-based cultures can be quite diverse in terms of geography, custom, ceremony, and lifestyle, foundational to all of them is their deep reverence of Nature.
Original shamanic peoples hold Nature with a substantive respect, deference and veneration.
The reason why we would want to revere something is because we are inspired by it, because we want to align with it; to be more like it.
There is an inherent and unmistakable perfection in Nature. Nature exemplifies order and design. When we look at it, we see a system that is self-generating, self-healing, holistic, and deeply interconnected. There is an ‘is-ness’ to Nature that Chinese Taoists have called ‘tzu yan’ or ‘of itself so’ – there is nothing to add or leave out, nothing to improve upon or deny. It is a web of life that functions and exists effortlessly. In its spontaneous and unencumbered expression, we behold a majestic and awe-inspiring unity, that it is never contrary to itself.
In Shamanism, we use Nature’s example of un-conflicted wholeness as a template to guides us in our own lives. Nature teaches us how to be.
There is no such thing as an imperfect cloud, a neurotic ocean wave, a self-loathing giraffe, a guilt-ridden tree, a shameful thunder storm, a sexually repressed goat, a bulimic porcupine. As irreverent as these examples are, they show how far humans can disconnect from Nature’s glorious unitive example. Nature can’t be untrue to itself; but humans can, and they do.
Further, even when Nature is violent or unpleasant to us (great white sharks, tsunamis, tarantulas), we still see these things as somehow necessary, inevitable; a vital part of the whole. In this way, even the parts of us that we might not like, aspects of who we are that we wish weren’t there (jealousy, lust, anger etc.), these things, from a shamanic perspective, are vital parts of us – integral to our evolution and our soul’s journey. And, it is in the acceptance, allowance and honoring of our own true nature that we begin to move toward a deep inner congruency.
This is the opposite of spiritual bypass (seeking spiritual solutions for real-world problems) and it is in direct conflict with any religious system that even hints at the idea of ‘judgment’. Shamanism doesn’t deny our bodies, our emotions, our worldly experience, our egos even. Rather, it seeks to integrate it all. We develop (and remember) an inner nature that is as perfect and complete as the outward one that we look at in awe.
We all come into this world with all that we need to be whole. Woven deeply into our very being is a kind of inherent soul fabric that asks only for the permission of it’s free expression. This contains our true Nature, and so often, we have forgotten it or worse, turned our backs to it. There are so many reasons why we do this. Through childhood abuse and neglect, sexual wounding, traumas, bullying, societal or cultural expectations, addictions etc., we learn a kind of fundamental ‘wrongness’ about ourselves and the world. We lose our original innocence and the deep belongingness that is our birthright.
We, as humans, not only have a Nature, but we are Nature through and through – we are made of it’s very building materials – fire, water, earth, air. Each of these elements contains it’s own sentience, an animistic intelligence and quality that exemplify for us the beauty in the unspoiled simplicity of pure being.
And, we are also Spirit. Shamans believe that the spiritual realms are as real as the rain forests and spirit guides are as substantive in their reality as anything in the material world.
Buddhist thought speaks of human incarnation as ‘rare as a drop in the ocean’. In other words, in being born human, we are given the incredible karmic opportunity to possess a body and mind that are capable of connecting with Earth and Spirit, we are given hearts that can coalesce and hold these energies, and a consciousness that allows us to make choices based on their influence and guidance. We are vessels for the natural world to express itself through us.
Traditionally before ceremonial or sacred work, shamans call in the four directions (East, South, West and North) as well as Earth and Sky. Contained in these directions is that which makes up the entire universe – beginnings and endings, life and death, passion and nothingness, the natural world, the animal kingdom, the spiritual realms, the ancestors, the material and the invisible, and on and on.
This non-dualistic framework is the shamanic conception of reality and self – all things indistinguishable from all other things. The quantum sciences have now proven what shamans have known all along, total inter-connectivity of all things at the sub-atomic level.
We exist, therefore, in a vast and infinite field of love and we are made of that love through and through. What else but love itself could have dreamed such perfection into being? This is our true Nature. This unitive vision of ourselves and the cosmos can be difficult for many of us to hold. In the excavation and honoring of our true nature, we are faced with sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles, contrary inner forces that are in direct opposition to our greatest good; voices from within that tell us that we simply don’t deserve or will never achieve the kind of self-acceptance that is necessary to love ourselves fully. And without this love of self, ownership of our true nature remains frustratingly illusive.
Every spiritual tradition speaks of the ‘divine spark’ within (Buddha nature, Christ consciousness, etc). Contained in every one of us is that which we need to find our way to our soul’s journey. This ‘inner nature’ is wired into our biology, we can literally feel its knowing-ness by acknowledging and honoring what it is that truly animates us – ‘this feels good, this feels exciting, this feels dangerous, this feels draining’ etc.
We are actually brimming over with spiritual and earthly guidance that tells us where we need to go and what we need to do in order to align with our deepest purpose and heart’s desire. Our bodies and minds are perfect instruments, designed to tune into this guidance. But we are so habituated to not listen. And for good reason. For often, we are being directed to move towards that which we fear the most.
Shamanism is the path of the initiate. Cross-culturally, shamanic peoples ask those on its path to sometimes endure almost unspeakably fearful circumstances – solitary vision quests alone in nature, battling or confrontation of dark forces, even physical illness. In contemporary terms, these initiations may be things like making a major career change, leaving a relationship, moving to new city, or confronting an addiction. These are personal paradigm shifts of the first order. They are seldom comfortable and they can only be traversed with bravery and faith.
There is a wonderful shamanic teaching tale that comes from the Lions in Africa*.
Lions live and hunt in prides, and each member of the pride have specific roles. There are the fierce hunters, the nurturing mothers, the young dependent lions, and the often broken-toothed elders who are no longer fast and agile and can do little more than roar ferociously.
Lions are opportunistic, and when they hunt they are often on the look out for large herds of prey, this increases the lion’s chances for a successful kill. Their hunting strategy is simple – the strong and fast ones move to one side of the herd and wait. The older lions move to the opposite side. The herd is surrounded. At just the right moment, the older lions unleash their one and only skill still left to them at their advanced age – a terrifying roar. The herd panics and runs away from the sound and directly into the clutches of the dangerous hunters.
But over time, the herd of prey have learned a way of adapting that has proven integral to their evolution – when they hear the terrifying roar, they run directly to it. They run towards the roar, towards that which seems most scary, and in this way, they save themselves.
This is the paradox of spiritual law – what seems big is small, what seems strong is weak, and what seems most scary is the direction toward growth and life.
Our chief karma in this lifetime is with ourselves, and a prerequisite to embarking on the hero’s journey, the journey back to our true nature, is a vision of ourselves and our lives that is steeped in the natural flow of our belongingness; the inevitability and certainty that what we seek is already within us, awaiting our affirmation, love and acceptance.
The intelligent forces of the universe want this for us, and they will work wonders on our behalf (spiritual support, synchronicity etc.) when we begin the process of fully aligning with our true nature. In facing our fears, in the confrontation of all the ways that we deny ourselves our true nature, we send an energetic vibration out to the entire world that reverberates to all living beings. In healing ourselves, we heal the world.
The development of the shamanic self, therefore, is a more potent undertaking than just an individual experience. Rather, it follows a call to a larger purpose – the presupposition that we are all an irreplaceable and precious part of the whole. In this way, we reclaim our nature as a deep honoring to all people, animals, rivers, mountains, oceans, forests, stars and galaxies.
*Michael Meade – GOT TO THE ROAR – Huffington Post Oct 19, 2011