A response to some provocative questions about ‘contemporary shamanism’

Jennifer Armstrong: I derived the idea of contemporary shamanism as a solution to bourgeois modes of consciousness; especially within Western culture (I’m not sure if there is a non-Western mode of consciousness that is properly bourgeois. The French revolution and its anti-aristocratic concept of progressivism is properly European, rather than deriving from other continents. The ‘bourgeois revolution’ per se engendered a particular psychological disposition and mode of consciousness that splits the mind and creates internal self-alienation.) But, let me go through and see if I can draw any relationships between the other spiritual traditions you have mentioned. I confess that I was not familiar with Malidoma Some or Fela Kuti before now – they are both very interesting.

>Contemporary Shamanic death – like “being hit by the 20th century train” or “coming home with a knife in your back” (Marechera-style) is an intriguing term. I would like to understand what you mean by it in reference to five other integrating experiences. How are they different/similar?

>1. Traditional Shamanic death (Malidoma Some – for instance)

My research has led me to suppose that shamanistic “death” is in fact a condition of shamanistic rebirth – and actually in terms of the innate psychological mechanisms that are activated, they are the same. I think, therefore, that traditional shamanism tapped into the knowledge that ego death was a process that invited (laid the ground for) spiritual rebirth. Perhaps not all experiences of ego death are productive. Some experiences may be so devastating that one does not recover from them – but in the case where one does, the condition that is bestowed is that of shamanistic initiation. One has learned a thing or two from the experience and has become wiser – although not in any tangible or intellectually obvious sense. It’s more of an ontological shift – as subtle (but decisive) difference in one’s sense of personality and identity.

>2. The hesychast’s “dark night of the soul” (Saint John of the Cross – for instance)

Christian mysticism does have some shamanistic elements, as with certain aspects of the character of Jesus. If one were to be left alone to find one’s own way out of the “dark night of the soul”, without any formal religious doctrine to direct one towards a pre-existing conclusion, I would equate that roughly with shamanism. Religious doctrines and dogmas, however, remove a fundamental dimension of shamanistic experience, which is that the initiate must find his or her way alone. One doesn’t discover the true nature of life – that it is a thin membrane of consciousness stretched over an abyss – if one constructs a doctrine of salvation. Shamanism is, rather, a religion of the damned – more precisely, it is a religion FOR the damned. It is the eschewal of easy doctrines of hope and salvation, since by sacrificing hope one obtains one’s shamanistic death – and rebirth.

>3. Traditional Buddhism’s (non-dualistic meditations of death and impermanence)

Yes, I think shamanism is very close to some aspects of Buddhism, especially those you mention. Of course, once again, it is not the same as Buddhism to the degree that Buddhism becomes doctrinaire or offers a way to salvation, for instance through reincarnation or moral perfection.

>4. The angst and ecstasy of Fela Kuti’s music

From the very little I read, I would say there could be a strong link. Music itself is very much linked to shamanism. The beat of the drum is supposed to regulate the shaman’s soul journey.

>5. The authenticity of Che Gevara’s life?

I don’t want to make too much of this link, because Guevara has been so obviously coopted by Western culture as representative of a kind of pop psychology revolutionary ideal. Also, the tendency to elevate one person above another as a prime example of a particular condition goes against the grain of shamanism, which is an equal-opportunity pathway. To put it another way, it is everybody’s birthright to return to the womb and to be reborn. The results of such shamanic initiation will vary widely. For some, perhaps it will make of them revolutionaries. Others will becomes something entirely different. Death and rebirth leads to a certain fearlessness and contempt for conformity – but there are different levels of this experience and different outcomes from tapping into the deeper parts of one’s psyche. The process of death and rebirth taps into pre-existing innate propensities. If those propensities are healthy, one can become a much better person. It is not beyond reason to think that some people might become worse as a result of initiation – they might tap into previously hidden qualities of hatred or resentment. In general, I think the process of death and rebirth makes one more aware of what one is – and therefore enhances authenticity.

>As far as “Body self-awareness” and “corporate-existence awareness” – both the inter-layering of existential/psychological and social/political seem to exist in all of these above mentioned experiences once high levels of integration are achieved.

Yes, in general, although doctrinaire elements can interfere with this.

>The apparent contradiction in the personalities and views of characters in Marechera’s writings – I agree that this is not likely a post-modern inclusivism? Could it also be explained by an Asian view of existence that accepts two apparently conflicting views as “truth” (both – and) rather than the classical occidental view of (either – or)? Could all existence be a form of layered consciousness that is continually emerging and once confined by words, can never really be captured in its fullness? Thus Marechera’s apparent contradictory affects; is it possible that he is not pointing to political “rights” and “wrongs” as much as an “emergence” of what best serves us as a global community? A “praxis”, wherein we begin with a conscious path, find sticking points, evaluate the consequential effects, and navigate again with our new learning (A Hegelian dialectic, if you will).

I’m not quite sure where you are going with this, but I do think that ideological filters of consciousness make us see personalities and behaviour as more consistent than they are. It is to Marechera’s credit that he saw more of the inconsistencies. I have noticed, for instance, that Western psychology, in particular, deems that we are all “identities” with particular categorical definitions. Consequently, if I act outside of the expectations regarding my particular identity, many people in Western society are quick to offer ad hoc explanations as to why my behaviour, whilst seeming not to conform to the definition I am supposed to be, nonetheless approximates a certain kind of conformity. To be able to understand that identity is merely a subjective, ideological construct is perhaps the quintessential shamanistic insight. The ad hoc explanations are supposed to save us from stress, by making the world seem more logical and predictable than it is. Therefore, one must face one’s own fears and a lot of stress, to realise that reality has a form that goes beyond our expectations of it. In an existential sense, this is really the substance of shamanistic death and rebirth.

>What is it like for you to experience your own shamanism via program of “scholastic-speak”? Do you experience any colonization because of the paradigm you have chosen t express your experience?

Scholastic speak doesn’t lend itself very well to communicating the shamanistic experience, but then very little of ordinary communication is capable of communicating such a thing. Georges Bataille makes much of the fact that non-ordinary forms of communication are required.