Remember in the year 2012 when everyone thought the world was either ending or ascending to some type of higher human consciousness? The world turned, wars still rage, and my rent still needs paid.
That same year, author Jonathan Talat Philips wrote a blog for The Huffington Post called "The Rise of the New Spiritual Counterculture." In it, Philips describes a societal crowd of hipsters made up of "the Whole Foods sustainability crew, Yoga Journal aficionados or New Age healers" as a "rising planetary awareness with radically practical solutions to address global challenges." Philips is associated with the Evolver Social Movement, a movement that I have been involved with myself over the years. They have published many of my articles as well as my e-book about Terence McKenna, himself a "prophet" of the psychedelic/neo-shamanic/spiritual counterculture that seems to be growing exponentially on the fringes of ordinary society.
Whereas Philips dubs this movement as a collective of pioneers engaged in spiritual activism, I have, over the years, come to disagree. Although many good things have sprung out of this cultural meme—like environmental activism and promotion of sustainable practices—there is a danger in the spiritual component attached to it . . . particularly, the hype and popular promotion of shamanic trance states and shamanic plant medicines, otherwise known as psychedelics, as a modern panacea.
Interestingly enough I am a strong proponent of these particular spiritual traditions. However, I browse this “new spiritual counterculture” which claims to promote the concepts of shamanic practice and I see a great distortion of information.
We have turned the shamanic way of life into a fad. It’s fine that it is popular. There is, truthfully, a need for a reconnection with the natural powers of the world. But, what is being offered far differs from the philosophy and practice of an authentic shamanic life-walk. Take a look around at what the “new spiritual counterculture” has to offer: music festivals, ayahuasca retreats, and workshops promising to heal your wounds, expand your consciousness, and raise your kundalini. We have assumed that we are spurring a revival of archaic theosophy through our tribal tattoos and drum circles; we believe we are the next evolution of neo-shaman, using our technology and hip psychology to move humanity towards spiritual progress—one seminar at a time.
So, where is the futility in all this?
Shamanism comprises two intrinsic elements that make it, for lack of a better anthropological term, shamanic. What makes shamanism different than other spiritual paths? One of my favorite definitions of shamanism comes from Dr. Roger Walsh from the University of California: “Shamanism can be defined as a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s) interacting with other entities, often by traveling to other realms, in order to serve their community.”1
I have pared down this definition into two parts in order to pinpoint the integrity of what shamanism really is:
Communion – “interacting with other entities”
Healing – “in order to serve their community”
Communion consists of having a communication between Self and Other, the Other being the powers and entities that exist in Nature. Healing consists of using this communion on behalf of others, bettering the community’s way of life. Communion and healing must exist simultaneously in order for a person’s action to be termed shamanic.
The problem is healing has become separated from communion. Healing has become synonymous with alternative psychology; alternative psychology has been narrowed down the use of psychedelic/trance states. Workshops and healers are offering to send people into these states of mind for healing. And this is the problem.
A psychedelic/trance state without communion is an unproductive and incomplete experience.
When Michael Harner published The Way of the Shaman and established the Foundation of Shamanic Studies, it spawned a resurgence of shamanic practice within the New Age communities, who were thirsty for knowledge of indigenous healing and religion. The benefit of Harner’s work was providing a common terminology for shamanic methodologies, particularly the differentiation between ordinary and non-ordinary reality states.
This is important, as per Walsh’s definition, because in order to serve others with healing, a shaman must “travel to other realms” from ordinary reality to a non-ordinary reality. Harner designates these as an Ordinary State of Consciousness (OSC) and a Shamanic State of Consciousness (SSC). The OSC is the here and now, this world of the air we breathe, the floor we are standing on, the members of our family, etc. The SSC is the place a shaman goes to do their work, to implement healing: “The SSC not only involves a ‘trance’ or a transcendent state of awareness, but also a learned awareness of shamanic methods and assumptions while in such an altered state.”2
Having ‘learned awareness’ is a vital key: to venture into these states of consciousness carelessly can lead to an unsuccessful healing endeavor. “We have to become our own shamans,” proclaims Daniel Pinchbeck, co-founder of Evolver, “We need the courage to confront what lies behind the open doors of our own minds.”3 Pinchbeck encourages a society of free exploration into the psychedelic/SSC realms. What is alarming in his (and others’) neo-shamanic philosophy is the lack of information or promotion of the prime currency of the SSC: ritual.
Ritual, as explained by one of the foremost mystics of the 20th Century Dion Fortune, is “a technical method in the psychology of super-consciousness.”4 It is a coordinated way, through the use of specialized symbols and gesture, in which one is able to commune and interact with the natural powers of the world. Ritual establishes a rhythm of participation between Self and Other, so that relationship can ensue.
Peruvian curandero don Oscar Miro-Quesada explains this natural system of the Universe clearly. “Ritual action begets relationship, and this right action heals even the deepest wounds.”5
In this world where one can attend a class on how to heal your trauma through expanding your consciousness, it is easily forgotten that healing does not work in a silo. Healing is a part of, and in fact, dependent upon, ritualized communion with the natural world. The Peruvian shamanic peoples call this ayni, sacred relationship. In every undertaking it is “the seminal operative principle of behavior and of being [which operates] within a moral and personal code of conduct.”6
To engage in a healing enterprise and not honor this sacred communion with the natural order is hubris. “Disintegration of the mind,” according to esoteric scholar W.E. Butler, “results from the habitual uncontrolled evocation of the subconscious.”7 The problem is there are many self-described shamanic healers out there offering service, but have little to no knowledge of the sacred reciprocity required in communion. Ritual, being the prime currency of the Shamanic State of Consciousness, controls the experience one encounters when engaging in healing work in non-ordinary reality. It allows context for a situation the waking consciousness of the mind is normally unable to process and account for. Ritual as communion ensures purpose and outcome, thus facilitates success.
Chippewa medicine man Sun Bear says: “Often, people who come to workshops looking for power are actually souvenir collectors. They say, ‘Well, this week I’m going to see Sun Bear, next week I’m going to see Guru Chi Chi.’ They get nothing from any workshop because they don’t know how to discriminate and find their own path.”8
We live in a culture fascinated with the prospect of instant enlightenment. The “new spiritual counterculture” is a marketplace of so-called healers and mediums promising to help you release pain, overcome obstacles, and manifest the life of your dreams. All you have to do is think positive, and you will get yourself out of life’s sham. In fact, some of the latest developments coming out onto the spiritually alternative scene is that you don’t have to do anything to better yourself at all (other than attend this seminar) . . . you are perfectly fine just as you are.
“Westerners,” Dion Fortune says, “often come seeking initiation at a stage of spiritual development which an Eastern guru would consider exceedingly immature.“9 Even though we may be able to watch any movie we want on our phones which can fit in our pockets, we are getting ahead of ourselves when it comes to knowing the Great Mystery of the Universe. Agreeing with a philosophy that you’ve read on a series of internet memes doesn’t make you spiritual.
Healing, according to the shamanic definition, happens through communion. This is a spiritual effort, not a fad or cultural meme. Spirituality is not a workshop series. It is not a class or a retreat to a far-off land. It is definitely not pill.
Spirituality is a way of life.
Like marriage, parenting, or any other relationship. These relationships are a communion that we do not get away with ignoring or slacking off. These relationships are a consistent, daily, hourly, meditation on self-improvement and humility. And that is what communion, in the shamanic sense, is. Whether we consider the Other to be God, the Divine, Nature, whatever . . . a spiritual life is a continual relationship between Self and Other which needs to be nurtured, developed, improved, and tended to always.
This relationship is what Western mystics have called The Great Work. It is a” twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week business, as it is for the Eastern guru.”10 They don’t call it The Great Retreat, or The Great Relief . . . it is called The Work, and it indeed takes great work to have an authentic communion with integrity. Again, Dion Fortune explains “the person who tries to dispense of the ceremonial [ritual/communion] is working at a great disadvantage. Development by meditation alone is a slow process in the West, because the mind-stuff upon which it has to work, and the mental atmosphere in which the work has to be done, are very resistant.”11
It is a wonderful thing to be called to the service of healing. There are many great hearts out there striving to support others in this Earth-walk. But, let’s not forget that healing is a process that cannot be isolated from the rituals which facilitate communion with the natural world. In this world where anti-religious sentiment is high with popular minds such as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, let’s not be too afraid of being so eager to rid ourselves of the religious aspect of spirituality. Religion has been corrupted by many over the centuries. However, true religion is nothing more than aligning the principles of the heart with right action on the material plane. Don’t be afraid to pray. Don’t be afraid to give offerings. A daily practice is just a practice, not a dogma.
While perusing the spiritual marketplace of methods and ideas, we need to be sure to acknowledge the integration of healing and communion to provide an effective context for the authentic experience of our own individual spiritual walk. As don Oscar reaffirms: “In all shamanic cultures, graceful rituals help us to remember our place in the sacred hoop of life.”12
This article was previously published in The Elephant Journal, New Age News Magazine, A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism, and New Age Spirituality. See Portfolio for links.
Walsh, Roger. The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition (Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2007), 15-16.
Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990), 21.
Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (New York: Broadway Books, 2002), 297.
Fortune, Dion & Gareth Knight. An Introduction to Ritual Magic (Loughborough, Leicestershire: Thoth Publications, 2006), 48.
Glass-Coffin, Ph.D., Bonnie & don Oscar Miro-Quesada. Lessons in Courage: Peruvian Shamanic Wisdom for Everyday Life (Faber, Virginia: Rainbow Ridge Books, 2013), 62.
Wilcox, Joan Parisi. Masters of the Living Energy: The Mystical World of the Q’ero of Peru (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2004), 26-27.
Butler, W.E. Magic: Its Ritual, Power and Purpose (Loughborough, Leicestershire: Thoth Publications, 2001), 46.
Sun Bear, Crysalis Mulligan, Peter Nufer, & Wabun. Walk in Balance: The Path to Healthy, Happy, Harmonious Living (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1989), 37.
Fortune, Dion. The Mystical Qabalah (York Beach, Minnesota: Weiser Books, 2000), 9.
Knight, Gareth. A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism (Boston, Massachusetts: Weiser Books, 2001), 17.
Fortune, Mystical Qabalah, 11.
Glass-Coffin, Lessons in Courage, 15.