“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” —Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha
Do Not Believe
“The Jewish Indiana Jones”
Note: I originally wrote this essay for the blog “BLT Is Not Just a Sandwich“—a place to discuss the Bible, other Literature, and its Translation—but I thought some Dreamtime readers might appreciate it as well.
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he New York Jewish Week posted a remarkable story this week. I wish I had heard the story earlier—before the rabbi’s claims had been exposed. It’s nearly as much fun as Morton Smith’s discovery (or, as his debunkers would say, his creation) of a lost fragment from Mark’s gospel buried in a previously unknown letter from Clement of Alexandria. But what I find most thrilling is that I used to shop in the rabbi’s store in Wheaton, Maryland, and spoke with him frequently. He was a really nice guy.
Rabbi Menachem Youlus, the self-styled “Jewish Indiana Jones” who turned out to be a Jewish Walter Mitty, has pleaded guilty to fraud.
Youlus’ accounts of remarkable tales of rescuing Holocaust-era Torah scrolls were contradicted by historical evidence, witness accounts, and records showing that he simply passed off used Torahs sold by local dealers who made no claims as to the scrolls’ provenance.
“I know what I did was wrong, and I deeply regret my conduct,” said Youlus, who pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court on Thursday.
In court, the 50-year-old Baltimore resident admitted to having defrauded more than 50 victims, misappropriating some of the donations and secretly depositing them into the bank account of his Wheaton store, called the Jewish Bookstore. Youlus defrauded his charity, Save A Torah, Inc. and its donors of $862,000, according to prosecutors.
“Menachem Youlus concocted an elaborate tale of dramatic Torah rescues undertaken by a latter day movie hero that exploited the profound emotions attached to one of the most painful chapters in world history — the Holocaust — in order to make a profit. Today’s guilty plea is a fitting conclusion to his story and he will now be punished for his brazen fraud,” Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said Thursday.
A January 31, 2010, Washington Post investigative report brought to light questions about Youlus’ claims.
Shortly after the Washington Post story ran, MenachemRosensaft wrote a fascinating commentary on the case. Rosensaft is adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He wrote:
Some years ago, there was Binjamin Wilkomirski, the author of a purportedly autobiographical account of his years as a Jewish orphan during the Holocaust but who actually is a Swiss-born Christian clarinetist. Then there was the case of Herman Rosenblat whose heartwarming tale of a little girl tossing him an apple every day for seven months across the electrified barbed wire fence of a Nazi concentration camp turned out to be a hoax….
In 2007, on the website of Save a Torah, his 501(c)3 tax exempt organization, Youlus claimed to have found and restored “Torah scrolls hidden, lost or stolen during the Holocaust” which he then “resettled” in more than 50 Jewish communities throughout the world. On a promotional video featured on the same website, he said that “we’ve done over 500 today.” And in a recent Washington Post interview, Youlus boasted of having rescued not 50 or 500 but 1,100 such Torah scrolls.
Youlus also gave his Torah scrolls dramatic histories. Two were allegedly found buried in a “Gestapo body bag” in a Ukrainian mass-grave of murdered Jews. He supposedly discovered one under the floorboards of a barrack in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany, a “rescue” that is described on his website’s video alongside photographs taken at the camp at the time of its liberation by British troops in April 1945. Youlus claims that he dug up yet another Torah scroll in what had been the cemetery of Oswiecim, the town adjacent to the Auschwitz death camp, and reunited it with four missing panels that Jews from Oswiecim had taken into the camp and had entrusted for safekeeping to a Jewish-born priest who eventually gave them to Youlus.
If even one of these stories seems fantastic, improbable, even incredible, the odds that any one person could have found all four of these Torah scrolls and brought them surreptitiously to the United States are, conservatively speaking, astronomical. As has been said repeatedly in connection with Bernard Madoff’s multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, if something sounds too good to be true, it most probably is….
It is bad enough when unscrupulous individuals rip off their marks, as it were, with variations of the proverbial Nigerian e-mail scam in which the recipient is promised part of a multi-million dollar fortune in exchange for a relatively minor up-front investment….A fake Holocaust memoir or a Torah scroll purportedly rescued from the ruins of World War II Europe is altogether different. Preying on the emotions of people overwhelmed by the memory of tragedy in order to make a buck is contemptible.
Rosensaft’s entire column is worth reading, but of note is his conclusion:
One of Youlus’s defenders argues that exposing his deception “may very well be in service of the truth but in disservice of a greater truth.” That is utter bunk.
Truth is absolute. The Holocaust was a tragedy of unfathomable proportions. Its victims, including the hundreds of thousands of destroyed and desecrated Torah scrolls and other Jewish religious artifacts, deserve nothing less than the dignity of authentic memory.
While I certainly don’t disagree, I wonder about the whole question of religious myths that are believed as being literal. While the mythic stories have great power and truth, they are rarely if ever true in an historic sense. Yet millions of believers of all faiths cling to them as if they were facts. It gives them comfort and meaning. Many times I’ve heard people say that if it were proven that Mary was not a literal virgin, or that Jesus did not literally rise from the dead corporeally, or that Moses did not receive the stone tablets and the Book of the Covenant from God on Sinai in the way Exodus recounts it, that their faith would not be able to stand.
Shmuel Herzfeld, a rabbi at Ohev Sholom in Washington, DC, was shopping at Youlus’s store when he saw a Torah scroll. Youlus told him that the Torah scroll had survived Auschwitz. Herzfeld asked Youlus if he could borrow the Torah scroll for use in his congregation one Shabbat, and Youlus agreed. When news of Youlus’s arrest broke, Herzfeld wrote, “That Shabbat in the presence of this Torah scroll I prayed with more intensity than ever before and I connected to the chanting of the Torah as I had never before connected. The very possibility that those emotional and intense feelings that I experienced can now be the result of manipulation and dishonesty overwhelms me with sadness.”
It was his faith, his emotional and spiritual attachment to a belief, that added such intensity to his prayers. Jesus frequently said, “It is your faith that has made you whole”—implying that the individual’s belief was the operative factor in the equation. So the question is, if what we believe is proven to be a lie, where does that leave whatever we have built on that faith?
A saying attributed to the Buddha may apply here: “All instruction is but a finger pointing at the moon. Those whose gaze is fixed upon the finger will never see beyond.” It doesn’t matter if the story is real or imagined; what matters is that we look not at the story, but at its meaning in our lives.
Unless, of course, you’re bilking people out of their money when you sell them the story!
The Case of the Disappearing Neighbors
First my next-door neighbor, Bill, disappears. His health has been precarious for some time, but one could generally catch him early in the morning, picking up his newspaper at the bottom of his driveway, or checking his mail that he knows darn well never arrives before 3 p.m. After Mom’s death I canceled my newspaper delivery and found I could sleep in a bit longer each day, so I would generally miss Bill’s walks down the driveway, which was fine by me because he was a garrulous, well-meaning, but exceedingly tedious fellow who never understood the immense value of a brief “good morning” (with no follow-up conversation) between neighbors.
He put his house on the market about two months after the housing bubble burst. And he had priced it too high even for a strong market. Needless to say, the house was taken off the market six months later. Bill had hoped to move to a nursing home, but decided to stay around for a while longer. He’d have weekly doctor visits and occasional hospital visits, and not-infrequent falls. Tony, the neighbor directly across from him, tended his lawn and looked in on him daily.
First I see that Bill’s mailbox is taped up. The outside lights come on with a timer, so they gave no indication of Bill’s presence or absence. Then Bill’s lawn starts looking shaggy. The Florida growing season begins sometime in April, but weekly cuttings aren’t generally needed until May, especially since it’s been a dry year. Why isn’t Tony cutting his lawn? Wait a minute, where is Tony, anyway?
You may remember my telling you about Tony some time ago. His blue diesel pick-up is still in the driveway. I’m sure I heard him start it up and let it idle for a half-hour sometime last week, didn’t I? But then I notice that I never see him around. His garage door, usually open and the scene of activity, is always closed. Tony has likewise disappeared. His wife hasn’t been around for a couple of years now; I wonder, briefly, if she made one final appearance and, in a fit of rage, killed him.
Did Bill die? Did he go into a nursing home? If so, why isn’t his house on the market again, and why has he left no provision for cutting his lawn? When the weeds became chest-high, I paid my lawn guy $40 to bring Bill’s yard back into the land of respectability.
Then there’s the Corner House I told you about. The place has gone into foreclosure, and its crazy and/or criminal residents have relocated, thank goodness. That’s three houses shuttered and vacant in the same month.
The folks across the street, the ones who plowed down my mailbox, have been extremely quiet. Maybe absent, I don’t know. I never see them. And my next-door neighbor, Felix, is disappearing in a different way: he’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He and his wife went up to Long Island for a family reunion last month, and I fed their cat in exchange for swimming in their pool. Good people. Felix is at the stage when he’s really upset at how his faculties are slipping away, and he’s becoming increasingly frustrated and bad-tempered. He mentions that he thinks Tony must be in prison, though he has no basis for his opinion. His wife is the personification of patience and long-suffering, but I can see the strain it’s putting on her.
So yesterday I’m getting acupuncture and discover that I’m missing my wallet. I hope it dropped out of my pocket in my car, but it’s not there. It’s possible I lost it on the brief walks to and from my car, and someone quickly grabbed it, but it’s more likely that I left it at home. I rarely do, since I tend to double- and triple-check my pockets before leaving, a habit I’ve had for decades. I was meeting a friend for dinner, and I’m grumbling because of how much more this is making me drive out of my way, and I’m hungry.
And there, in front of his house, is Tony. “Where have you been?!” I shout, gleefully. He’s happy to see me too. He explains that he’s getting married. (Apparently the bad-tempered woman is now his ex.) He and this woman dated some 30 years ago, and they’ve recently reconnected, and he’s been in Connecticut with her, and they’re getting married next month. He’ll go where the work is: Connecticut if it’s there, down here if the jobs are more plentiful here. She’ll stay in CT, where her comfortable career is. He says it’s an ideal arrangement for both of them.
Tony clears up the mystery: He too had been bothered by the denizens of the Corner House, especially the tall, bald, crazy-eyed fellow who kept asking for rides, and didn’t want anyone to know that he was leaving for fear they’d break into his house and become squatters. He was similarly afraid for Bill, so when Bill went into a home — an actual home owned by an LPN who takes care of a handful of seniors there, forming a pleasant little community — Tony didn’t think it would be good for the news to circulate through the neighborhood while the Corner House people were still there. Now they’re gone, so the news can spread freely. And Tony will make sure Bill’s lawn is tended, even if he’s living in Connecticut at the time. I mention, as a joke, that we wondered if he had been carted off to jail or something, and he replied, “No, those days are far behind me!” Another little surprise.
So all’s well with our neighborhood, except for Felix. I wish I had a magic wand. Or a miracle cure. For now, all I have is friendship and support. And the knowledge that we all disappear from time to time, sometimes forever, and always for good. Nothing is permanent, the Buddha tells us, except change.
Losing One’s (Original) Mind
Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his song night after night.
Learning to Swim
Disturbing dreams last night; in fact, they rattled me so much that I remember ordering the dream to stop at one point. Mom and Dad and I were all traveling, but they were going on ahead without me. We were able to keep in touch with each other from our various vehicles—they shifted from cars to motorcycles to planes—and I remember having “a few more things to do” before I could join them.
When they were on their plane, I could see it up in the sky, and its wings were suddenly ripped off, and the long cylinder started flipping and turning and swinging back and forth like some grotesque carnival ride. Then it stopped, clearly ready to plummet to earth, nose straight up in the air, and it started falling, heading right for me. I said, “Stop!” and made the plane freeze; it wasn’t that I was trying to change its (and my) fate, but I didn’t want to have to experience it in the dream. I wanted to go on to other dream-things.
And I did. There were several other sequences that I forget now, but there were also repeated images of me able to swim in what appeared to be puddles on the ground but which were surprisingly deep. They were the color of coffee with cream, and they were pleasantly warm but not at all hot. I swam bravely, boldly, with people looking at me, and I didn’t care, even though I’m pretty sure I was skinny-dipping.
When I got up this morning and looked at my Raven’s Brew coffee, I noticed the name of the variety: Resurrection Blend. Continue reading
The Gods of Jeopardy!
Playing Jeopardy! together is a nightly ritual for Mom and me. One of the categories on last night’s Jeopardy! (a repeat from last year, I believe) was on the Greek gods. And I wondered aloud if the Greek name Zeus was in any way related to the Latin word for God, Deus.
Mom just rolled her eyes at me and said, sardonically, “You know you’re just going to look it up on the Internet, so why ask me?”
So I looked it up on the Internet.
Homer’s Iliad calls him “Zeus who thunders on high” and Milton’s Paradise Lost, “the Thunderer,” so it is surprising to learn that the Indo-European ancestor of Zeus was a god of the bright daytime sky. Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, Adamus told me he had gotten a dog at the pound, a Lab mix named Dusty. He said I should definitely meet her. Cool with me, I adore dogs.
Yesterday he brought her over. I gasped when she walked through the front door. It was my Goldie (that’s her in the picture).
Yes, my dog who died last year.
This is Goldie in a new body. Slightly smaller, but very similar build. Identical face and smile. Darker coat. Same tail.
OK, I can cope with outward similarities and chalk it up to the breed, though Lab-Whippet mixes are surely not too common.
But when she got in, she immediately jumped up and started kissing me insistently on the mouth. Then she stopped and rolled at my feet, the way Goldie did. Then, when I was sitting down, she stood and put her paws on my shoulders and kept staring into my eyes, then nuzzled me and kissed me more. As if to say, “You remember me, don’t you?” Continue reading
Quest for a Miracle Cure
These parents believe horses and shamans can unlock their son’s autistic mind. This is their journey of discovery
by Tim Rayment
The Sunday Times
September 9, 2007
A child is born, and the child seems blessed. He lives in the richest nation on Earth, at a time of greater wealth and understanding than any in history. The infant even has interesting parents: one British, one American, each a little famous in their own right.
But then something disquieting happens. Perhaps this was your child, too.
He starts to go backwards. First he loses his language, then he enters a solitary hell. He turns away when touched and arches his back when held. He lines up his toys in rows, and seems afraid of things that should hold no fear. He appears not to notice you, and his indifference makes you feel snubbed.
Soon the real heartache starts. You see other children play together in a sandpit while yours is to one side, obsessively pouring and repouring sand through his fingers. Sudden firestorms run through his nervous system, making him scream in panic and pain. Later, in the calmer years when he is four or five, other children’s attempts at friendship are rebuffed. This is not because your child wants no companions: the truth might be that he yearns for them. But he is mystified by social interaction, and conversation makes him nervous, as he has no idea how to respond. So he turns away with a distant expression, seeming cold and weird. This is autism. Your lovely offspring looks condemned to what, in 1943, Leo Kanner first described as “extreme autistic loneliness”, and many readers of this magazine will know a family that is affected. In the UK, 1 in 100 children is on the autistic spectrum.
It is a mystifying disorder. But on a farm in Texas, a British father thinks he has found a way into the mind of his autistic son. The boy has learnt to talk thanks to his relationship with a horse. He can quell his tantrums, express his feelings, even do maths and spelling — all because of a horse. He is the Horse Boy, and the loss of his symptoms is a challenge to conventional thought on how to handle his condition. Continue reading
Shamans and Buddhists in Russia
From the Russia Today website
(Russia Today is an English-language TV news channel broadcasting globally via satellite and cable that presents the Russian point of view on events happening in Russia and around the world)
Spirituality runs deep in the remote Russian Republic of Tyva. While Shamanism is the unofficial religion there, Lamaism, or Tibetan Buddhism, is the official one. But most people don’t have to choose between the two, since shamans and lamas don’t have a grudge against each other.
Tyva is located in Southern Siberia, in one of the most isolated regions of Russia. Its people’s native religion is Shamanism — a belief in spirits inhabiting everything around them.
Going to a shaman is as common for Tyvans as going to a doctor. But nowadays Tyvan shamans don’t live in woods. They drive cars, live in normal houses and even pay taxes as private entrepreneurs.
Shamans are said to have special powers, and are connected to the invisible world of spirits. They act as mediums between this world and ordinary people, and have healing powers. Continue reading
This Very World
Right meditation is not escapism; it is not meant to provide hiding-places for temporary oblivion. Realistic meditation has the purpose of training the mind to face, to understand, and to conquer this very world in which we live.
Nyanaponika Thera, Power of Mindfulness
Mountains of Magic and More
by Tirthankar Mukherjee, The UB Post (Ulaanbatar, Mongolia)
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Kalidasa, the Indian poet-dramatist whose Meghadutam was translated into Mongolian in the 17th century (and whose name, I dare say, is totally unknown to the young in the country today), saw hills and mountains as the breasts of the Earth-woman. The Mongolian would ignore the erotic aspect of the simile, but would have no quarrel with it if female breasts are taken as sources of sustenance, for venerating mountains has been part of the Mongolian life ever since the nomads began their exploration of the country and found they were everywhere under the watchful eyes of hills.
Indeed, in Mongolian mythology, the world is ruled by Heaven and Earth in conjunction, the former male and causing things to be born, and the latter female and ensuring their nourishment and survival. This gradually led to the demarcation of some 800 sites—mountains, hills, lakes, and rivers—as worthy of veneration.
In this, something akin to the Japanese sangaku shinko (meaning “mountain creed”) can be said to have developed independently in Mongolia. Both Shamanism and the Shinto faith express reverence for mountains as sacred places. This is an integral part of a wider veneration of nature that is a feature of both, with both believing that natural features such as trees, lakes, streams, rocks and mountains are the dwelling places of spirits which hold influence over human affairs and respond to human prayer and ritual. Continue reading
A New Year’s Sneeze
In many countries, a sneeze that occurs after making a statement is often interpreted as a confirmation by God that the statement was true. No word on whether more truthtelling occurs during cold and flu season.
In 400 BCE, the Athenian general Xenophon gave a dramatic oration exhorting his fellow soldiers to follow him “to liberty or to death” against the Persians. He spoke for an hour, motivating his army and assuring them a safe return to Athens, until a soldier underscored his conclusion with a sneeze. Thinking this sneeze a favorable sign from the gods, the soldiers bowed before Xenophon and followed his command. Their battles were a resounding success. Xenophon’s record of the entire expedition against the Persians and the journey home was titled Anabasis (“The Expedition” or “The March Up Country”). It is worth noting that the Anabasis was used as a field guide by Alexander the Great during the early phases of his expedition into Persia.
Another divine moment of sneezing for the Greeks occurs in the story of Odysseus. Odysseus returns home disguised as a beggar and talks with his waiting lover Penelope. She tells him that Odysseus will return safely to challenge her suitors. At that moment their son sneezes loudly, and Penelope laughs with joy, reassured that it is a sign from the gods.
So here is a New Year’s sneeze for you, a sign from the gods that the year will be wondrous, healing, and prosperous for all of us:
That said, I still feel that starting a new year on January 1 is the height of artificial construct. Although most cultures saw the year as beginning at the spring equinox, January assumed its position as the first month in 153 BCE simply because Rome’s consuls, or constitutional heads of state, were elected on January 1. The reason for this shift of the new year into the dead of winter was to allow the new consuls to complete the elections and ceremonies upon becoming consuls, and still reach their respective consular armies by the start of the campaigning season.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, the new year began on Christmas Day, with January 1 being designated the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus (Jewish law mandated that boys be circumcised eight days after birth, and January 1 is eight days after Christmas). The adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 fixed the start of the new year as January 1, but the religious feast days stayed the same.
Circumcision predates recorded human history, with depictions found in stone-age cave drawings and ancient Egyptian tombs. Circumcision was variously seen as a form of ritual sacrifice or offering, a sign of submission to a deity, a rite of passage to adulthood, a mark of defeat or slavery, and an attempt to alter aesthetics or sexuality.
So why does the Torah require circumcision precisely on the eighth day—even if that day falls on the Sabbath? The number seven symbolizes that something is complete; eight, then, is the number of new beginnings: new not only in the sense of fresh or unspoiled, but new as in strange, unknown, revolutionary. Noah saved eight persons from the Flood to start rebuilding life on earth. The inauguration of the Tabernacle as the new dwelling place for the presence of God took place on the eighth day, after seven days of preparation. When Israelites were healed of leprosy, they were to present themselves in the Temple on the eighth day as the beginning of their new life.
The number eight is a potent symbol in many cultures and traditions. It’s the basis for much of Chinese yin-yang philosophy. Buddhism has its Noble Eightfold Path, its Eight Auspicious Symbols, and its Eight Worldly Dharmas. Hinduism has its eight-pointed Star of Lakshmi, representing the eight kinds of wealth that the goddess Lakshmi imparts. The planet Venus was also represented as an eight-pointed star (“the Star of Ishtar”), because it returns to the same position in the sky every eight years.
Every eight years, the winter solstice sun falls on the day of a new moon; this is the shortest amount of time that lunar and solar calendars were in approximate alignment. The eight years from one such “meeting of sun and moon” to the next were called a “Great Year” and measured the life span of the sun, because at each of these “meetings,” the old sun died and the new one was born for the next cycle. Consequently, in many ancient cultures (particularly Greece), kings, for whom the sun was an apt symbol, served only for eight years at a time, after which their kingship had to be renewed. (The Greek mathematician and astronomer Meton of Athens introduced a more accurate nineteen-year lunisolar calculation, now called a Metonic cycle; an even more accurate alignment occurs every 334 years.)
Robert Anton Wilson—essayist, philosopher, psychologist, futurologist, anarchist—wrote a marvelous piece called “The Octave of Energy” which looks at the repetition of the number eight throughout human history, arguing that it’s actually hardwired into our DNA. As Antero Alli put it,
A message is the ordering of a signal. This message is the framework of an alternative education system, one which arranges living planetary signals into meaningful messages. These signals come in octaves, or cycles of eight. Languages throughout history have translated these signals as: The Overtones of Music Theory, The DNA Code, The I Ching, Computer Binary Notation, The 8 Mayan Calenders, The Game of Chess and other interpretations of the universal law of octaves.
To that list I would add the Medicine Wheel as a map of the human psyche. Many of Wilson’s ideas are based on The 8-Circuit Model of Consciousness proposed by Dr. Timothy Leary. I’ll be returning to discussions of their work, and similar approaches by Alli, Gurdjieff, and even Gene Roddenberry, in future posts.
So we start January with nods to brain circuitry, genital modification, religious symbology, and sneezing pandas. Not a bad way to start.
The ancient Saxons called January wulf-monath, or Wolf Month. According to Verstegan’s 1605 book with the delicious title A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities concerning the most noble and renowned English Nation, Wolf Month was so named “because people were wont always in that month to be more in danger to be devoured of wolves than in any season else of the year, for that, through the extremity of cold and snow, those ravenous creatures could not find beasts sufficient to feed upon.”
May this year keep the wolf in your heart, but away from your door.
The Shaman’s Vision
by Jason Godesky, The Anthropik Network
I’m dazzled by so much that Jason Godesky has to say, but this article is, to my mind, one of his best. I hope you find it as intriguing and stimulating as I do.
Imagine, for a moment, what the world might be like if there was only one religion. Not a dogmatic creed you were forced to comply with, but a sort of “open source” interplay of visions and ideas that not only encouraged, but demanded your active participation in creating an organic, evolving vision of the world. Imagine what such a religion might be like, if you were forbidden to simply take another’s word for it, and you were required to experience the divine for yourself—a religion that required no faith in anything but your own experience of it. Imagine a religion based on dreams and visions, a religion that saw a world that was simultaneously sacred and profane but above all, alive. Imagine a world where you were not just an empty elite separated from your domain by the aloofness of power, but irrevocably enmeshed in a network screaming with life, a world where every stone and stick and blade of grass pulsed with a sacred spirit all its own. Imagine what such a religion might be like.
We don’t need to use too much imagination to conjure up such an image, because not only did it once exist, it is humanity’s natural state. That religion is today often called “shamanism,” for the Tungus word for their most religious individuals. It is the root of all our modern religions—all of them are the descendants of the shaman’s vision. It is the genesis of art, music, theater, philosophy, mathematics, science, and all those abstract things that we so often look to as the very best of our species’ achievements.
Defining “the Shaman”
In Shamanism: The Neural Ecology of Consciousness and Healing, Michael Winkelman puts forth a case so dense it is nigh unreadable, but if you can make it through such intense verbage, you will be rewarded with an incredibly unique point of view that is supported by an exhaustive set of evidence, pointing to the idea that shamanism had a role to play in human evolution. The reductionism of the scientific mindset is certainly bolstered by the nature of waking consciousness. The “shamanic state of consciousness” (often abbreviated “SSC”) is less a reductionist state, and more an integrative state. This boosts the mind’s integrative abilities, allowing it to make connections between various ideas on analytical, metaphorical and other levels simultaneously. The value of non-analytical thought to make intuitive leaps that may be impossible through analysis alone has been evidenced at several points in the history of science. One striking example might be Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, who added a new chapter to every high school chemistry textbook with his discovery of the benzene ring—a structure he discovered only thanks to the inspiration of a dream he had, wherein he encountered the ancient symbol of the snake eating is own tail, the ouroboros.
Winkelman shows that in the shamanic state of consciousness, the body’s natural healing processes are activated in a significant manner. This is related to the placebo effect, in that the body is, in general, very good at seeing to its own treatment. For example, both the placebo effect and the shamanic state of consciousness result in the release of opioids. The placebo effect is well-known, but rarely given its due. Too often, we refer to “just” a placebo effect. Approved drugs must do better than placebo, but even our very best drugs—such as aspirin—can only narrowly edge out the placebo effect. Very often, up to 75% of a drug’s effectiveness will be due to the placebo effect. The shamanic state of consciousness does not try to denigrate such a powerful healing function, but instead tries to use it to still greater effect. The SSC exacerbates the same self-healing processes as the placebo effect. When combined with the shaman’s traditional role as resident ethnobotanist, this makes the efficacy of most shamanic ethnomedicine roughly equal to our own biomedicine. Continue reading
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