Prologue, Part 1 — Taking my gloves off
In this memoir I am taking my gloves off. I didn’t know I was wearing gloves until very recently, when I started working with some extraordinary local college students who were interested in shamanism, who began asking questions about topics that I am not used to discussing in depth, or I guess I mean, explaining. Until these students entered my life, nobody ever expressed more than passing curiosity about shamanic experiences or, however we choose to refer to them — spiritual, or psychic, non-ordinary or visionary experiences – mine or theirs or somebody else’s. These students were pushing to know what I know, instead of just using me to help them fill in the gaps of what they need to know to pass or graduate. I am used to people touching on very profound questions and then casually changing the subject, as if all subjects of conversation are equal!
I am not a shaman. I am a shamanic practitioner and a veteran dream worker. I have worked with and studied under shamans and I have entered what I would identify as shamanic spaces on vision quests and in ritual and I will say this about the shamanic calling: It is difficult to sustain in a materialistic, money-based culture that treats land as a resource and real estate and suppresses and exploits nature. Anyone who pays taxes and lives a life of privilege is unlikely to be able to sustain a shamanic calling. Shamanism is not an avocation. It’s not part-time; you can’t turn it on and off. It is a time-honored way of life, and even in stable, healthy indigenous cultures where shamans are still the healers, being a shaman requires enormous personal sacrifice. It is much easier to be a dream worker than a shamanic practitioner. Thanks to Jung, who single-handedly restored soul to psychology, and painstakingly introduced archetypes and synchronicity to the Western world, dreams have opened many doors for me over the years, and have helped me stay in touch with my own soul. The kind of dream work I do is also a calling. I did not choose to work with dreams. I was a born dreamer, and I expect to die dreaming. Dreaming is very old, as old as the human race, as old as shamanism. But I am careful not to confuse dream work with shamanism.
I am not happy with my country to put it mildly. I have been critical of it for my entire adult life. If I don’t smile for the camera, which appears to be the case, if I tend to be serious a lot of time and not particularly fun to be around, it is because I am very worried about what the so called developed world is doing to the planet and to nature, on my watch. So, I would be remiss if I did not address some of my feelings about that in this writing, and unpack my own, admittedly skewed analysis, of what is causing such dysfunction in our corner of the human race. I think we all have a right to weigh in on that.
People wear (metaphorical) gloves for lots of reasons. I was wearing gloves because I didn’t want to get my hands dirty by writing about things that are not neat and clean and well-defined but kind of wild and not easy to pigeonhole, with barbs and prickers and sticky sap and maybe even a little poisonous to touch. In my defense, my gloves were skin-thin gloves, but gloves nonetheless. To be fair to myself, some of the poetry I was writing (over the last few years) was trying to tell me that I wasn’t being completely forthright or genuine, to myself or anyone else. I was holding back. I guess I thought that was OK. It turns out it isn’t.
Lack of complete honesty can easily become a life-long habit that some of us have to pass through if we intend to keep pace with the stages of life. There is a time of life, after middle age and before old age sets in, when, other factors allowing, life affords us the opportunity to down-size our psychic space and clean up our act. We can live this phase out by literally simplifying the space we are responsible for, but it’s really an inner process because it centers around listening to our soul.
What kind of truth am I talking about? The kind of truth that bubbles up when you visit an exhibit of “modern” art, that is, the art of the first half of the 20th century when artists were nothing less than the saviors, therapists and conscience of Western civilization during the darkest chapter of its history, that is, darkest until now. My son and I were in New Haven, Connecticut for a wedding and we decided to check out the Yale University Art Gallery. Together we wandered through giant rooms of Brancusi, Max Ernst, Juan Gris, Metzinger, Edward Munch, Picasso, De Chirico, Dali, Modigliani etc. Whenever I expose myself to those worthies it feels like a baptism by fire and ice followed by a warm Spring rain. Exposure to truth is like that. It burns and scalds and sears and cauterizes, ultimately cleansing and ultimately empowering and refreshing the soul. I once wrote in a poem, “The truth is this as I awaken: / In order to live, one must die, / In order to die one must live.” Take your choice, but I’m here to tell you, they are the same thing.
A word about the chronology of the story I am telling. It is not a linear story and if I told it that way, it would not be the real story but rather a narrative of convenience for easier consumption. It would be a fake story. If we are honest with ourselves we find that life is messy, and memory is fickle, and, just for example, I can easily imagine writing two memoirs, one told by my head and one by my heart. The one told by my conscience would be different from both. This memoir, as it purports to be, is about finding myself in time and what, after-all, is time? Is it a stream? A spiral? A loop? Is it illusion? Is it the dimension of our mortality? I choose to see it as all that, but it is also subjective, especially when we are using it as a medium for tracking our lives. As I say, it wouldn’t be fair to the reader if I stuck with a chronological time-frame. The image I have for what I am offering here, is the three-dimensional chessboard on Star Trek, the third dimension being time. There are still rules governing the movements of the pieces, (diagonal, rectilinear, step by step) but, all I am saying is, the possibilities, compared to the flat board, are as potent as they are self-evident.
Prologue, Part 2 — iPhones and can-phones
I sent this prologue to a friend and I read it to my wife, Shirley. Both of them questioned the validity of my claim that paying taxes and living a life of privilege would compromise one’s ability to stay true to a shamanic calling. Shirley was upset with me! She said I was being arrogant and painting with way too broad a stroke.
There is no easy black and white explanation for what I am feeling, but I think maybe the best way to explain what I mean is to sidestep attempting to respond directly to the objections of my wife and my friend.
When Alverto Taxo, Ecuadoran shaman, was about to leave his village to travel North for the first time, to the Land of the Eagle to teach his message, the women elders took him aside and cut his waist-long hair to within a half an inch of his scalp. They wanted him to leave his pride behind and maybe to stop taking himself so seriously. That’s a good example of what I mean by sacrifice. When I attended his workshop in Connecticut, there were three kinds of weather passing through — rain and sun and a strange combination of hot and cold. The weather spirits were throwing a party. Alberto was excited and summoned us all outside. He sat in the yard under a tree and we formed a semi-circle around him. (He had been telling us that the world will only heal when the eagle flies with the condor.) He took out his medicine objects, arranged them in front of us and invited us to place our iPhones beside his feathers and bones and rattles. He said we need to stop using technology as fancy toys, and start seeing them as powerful tools and medicine for healing, to broadcast our truth, bring each other together and change the world. Only then will the eagle fly with the condor. Right when he finished speaking it began to rain. Everyone grabbed their phone and ran under the porch. He sat there all by himself and laughed and laughed just like a child, with huge delight.
Maybe Alverto pays taxes in Ecuador, but his country isn’t destabilizing the Western world and selling weapons to countries that will use them to destabilize their own regions. We are living in a time when, because the United States happens to be the most powerful and the richest country on Earth, we could be heading off almost certain disaster, using our wealth to stabilize the world by fighting plagues like Tuberculosis and Malaria, by supporting true democracies, by wiping out starvation and helping third world countries help themselves, no strings attached.
I’m saying there is an ominous disconnect in the Land of the Eagle that reminds me of the 1956 film, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. I was only five years old when it came out but I remember the stir it created. Pods were being delivered to hometowns by the truckload, presumably all over America, by soldiers, whose human essence had already been “snatched”. The way it worked was, this alien filament would issue from a giant pod to infiltrate a person’s body through their nostrils the moment they fell asleep. When they woke they would be themselves in appearance only, but their affect would be flat, no life in their eyes; they would be a pod person.
Why wouldn’t we be investing in our own communities, our children, their education etc. If we stopped investing in war, but allocated our resources for the rehabilitation of our humanity, the war chest would pay for everything, with plenty left over for pick nicks and block parties. Instead, this country is a very sick addict sucking the life-blood from its own people to feed its habits. We have become a country of pod people. But seriously, this dysfunction has created a huge shadow and very bad karma that is virtually inescapable! To the extent that we finance this addiction with our taxes, allowing ourselves to be lulled by a privileged life-style, we are complicit in what many are calling the crime of the ages . . . the dismemberment of Mother Earth.
So, I can picture Alverto fielding this question: Can there be real shamans (see footnote) in the Land of the Eagle when so much dysfunction, and I would even say evil, is being perpetrated on our watch, at our expense? I can picture him smiling sweetly while his eyes communicate both compassion and deep sadness, and he might hedge the answer with a halo of his innate optimism, so as not to discourage us, because I know that he sees our culture as adolescent. We have a lot of growing to do. The sweetness is his nature, the compassion comes from his all-embracing heart, and the sadness comes from his sense of the very real possibility that we might be out of time.
I admit, I am deeply troubled and I promise to address this in my memoir. The trouble is, I feel we are dealing with a real core problem or, something tells me, we wouldn’t be where we are now! But I’m not sure I am describing the problem accurately. It has to do with the question: How can contemporary shamans be effective at healing the kinds of existential crises that crop up in modern life if those shamans are living under the shadow of the dysfunction they are trying to heal one on one or in workshops, or by journeying. An analogous question might be: How can anyone within the Washington Beltway be expected to solve any of the problems that plague our government?
The most powerful forms of healing in the world are shamanic because they are deep. For the healing to be deep, effective and lasting we can’t leave nature and the spirit world out of our rituals. Shamanic rituals are not like a shot in the arm; they cannot be performed in a vacuum or by appointment or in the ER, but, especially here, we must foster the creation of communities that support healing rituals. I would even go so far as to say, communities are only as effective as the rituals they support. Every time I have worked with a shaman (one on one or in group) and participated in healing ritual, I have tasted the deep connection I have just described, but invariably, as I drive away through the Land of the Eagle, that feeling (or taste) begins to fade.
I use the Alverto story with the phones because I see him as someone who is “outside the Beltway”. We listened to his teaching but when it rained we responded in a knee-jerk way, reverting to our conditioning, and that is what he found so hilarious and even endearing. His and other spiritually older indigenous communities have many generations of experience and conditioning behind their shamanism. For the last hundred years or so those communities have been under siege by the so-called global economy, and global culture. They have been infiltrated by pod-people. Without those ritually-rich ancient communities with close ties to nature and place and ancestral land spirits, shamans and shamanism remain on the endangered list.
Malidoma Some’, in Of Spirit and Water, was abducted from his village, in West Africa, to be schooled at a French mission where he spent the next 16 years. He escaped, returning to his village and was eventually initiated but the elders told him he couldn’t remain in the village because basically he is two people in one; he has two purposes that meet in his name, which means friending the enemy. I can identify with his situation. All my life I have felt that I am living in two countries: my home, which has no name, and the land of the enemy, the United States. With Malidoma, the two sides of his nature are experienced as two places, two continents, two cultures. He finds balance by going back and forth between Africa and the West. I experience a similar division but rather than two continents, it is two awarenesses vying for one psyche and one body and the conflict is intensifying as I get older. I cannot ignore how I feel about my country (the Land of the Eagle), which seems to be intent on flying alone. It has created many of the epic problems we are facing now because of its addictions and has squandered numerous opportunities to transform.
This memoir follows some of the threads that have not snapped in my life. They are like strings that stretch from who I am right now, all the way back to my teenage years and childhood, like a tin can-phone. Remember those can-phones we made? They didn’t really work as phones but, in the metaphor I am using here, my can-phones work. My “grid” is very basic; it doesn’t need the power company. I am talking to myself from different stages of my life, pooling information and stories and dreams, consolidating my truth. And the strings that connect me to earlier versions of myself are party lines, with my present self operating the switchboard.
Footnote: I’m talking about the old indigenous, traditional forms of shamanism. Shamanism, as an age-old tradition is based on very solidly established communities comprised of huge intact extended families that have nurtured a long-standing relationship with a specific geographical place and the spirits that dwell there. For the last hundred or so years these communities have been unraveling. The third generation shaman I worked with in a remote rainforest in Peru, claimed that all the most powerful medicine came from, not him, or even through him, but from proximity to the river that ran past the maloka. (A boiling river.) You might have something that looks like shamanism but without a strong embeddedness in those four elements: old community (extended family), access to familiar sacred land, ancestral and land spirits and at least remnants of unmolested nature, the shamanism we find is apt to be undermined, compromised and infiltrated by the karma, the collective shadow and the various addictions of the dominant culture that surrounds it.