Shamanism

Cobwebs

ou would think, after so long a silence, that I would have something more profound to say. I fear I must disappoint you. There are many reasons I have not been blogging, some of them trivial, some of them more compelling, but I don’t think any of them have produced in me any new wisdom or wit.

My job has me writing a lot each week: weekly newsletters, press releases, editorials, forwards and introductions to books—that sort of thing. I’ve also been participating in a weekly short fiction writing group (500 words max, on an assigned topic, in a very short time limit); a couple of the pieces have been recorded and aired on a public radio station in Kentucky, though I feel shy about posting any of them here. I’m not entirely sure why.

However, all this writing, coupled with an over-eager participation on Facebook, means my urge to simply write found other outlets; and as I was not moved by any great need to expound at length on any subject, the blog languished. Since May of 2010, I have written only five blog posts.

The big event last year was of course the illness and death of my friend Lee, my dear friend Adam’s wife. I am not sure what to say about it just now—a few sentences couldn’t begin to express how it affected me; I doubt that a few hundred pages could do much better. What shocked me, though, was the depth of the grief I experienced. Even though I could understand and rationally explain what her death was touching in me, on an emotional and spiritual level I found myself quite unable to cope with the intensity of the pain and loss I was experiencing. And it set off a recurrence of the terrible depression that nearly took my life a decade ago; the only difference is that now it is more dangerous, since I am far less willing, or perhaps able, to tolerate it: It must stop, I told myself, and stop soon, one way or another. There is no longer any thought of living with it chronically.

In the 1920s, Carl Jung coined the word synchronicity, which he described as “meaningful coincidences” and as the “acausal connecting principle.” In rapid succession I had my spiritual worldview rocked, ran painfully into walls where I had previously experienced open vistas, discovered some remarkable Chinese herbs that work far better than any antidepressant I have ever encountered, began questioning my purpose in life, and found myself in the office of an astonishingly gifted psychotherapist pouring as much of my life’s story as I could into a fifty-minute session. Meaningful coincidences indeed! In the space of two months it feels as if much has changed in me forever.

I am eager to see what this next phase of my life brings. And I thought it might be useful to start blogging again, not only to keep you all in the loop, as it were, but also to help me clarify my ideas. As E.M. Forster put it so succinctly, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?”

You may have noticed that the blog has a new design. From the first I’ve called it “Notes from the Dreamtime,” but I’ve never really talked about where the name came from.

The term “Dreamtime” is a translation of Altjeringa or Altcheringa (it may also be translated “the Dreaming”). Altjeringa is a word in the Arrente language spoken by aboriginal Australian tribes living in the Northern Territory, around Alice Springs. The traditions and lore of Australia’s indigenous peoples belong to what may be the oldest continuous culture on Earth—around 50,000 years.

The Altjeringa is both a sacred “once upon a time,” a time out of time when ancestral totemic spirit beings formed all of creation, and the spiritual realm itself. Anthropologist and historian W.E. H. Stanner rather saliently called it “the Everywhen,” since it is experienced as a confluence of past, present, and future. Indigenous Australians consider the Everywhen of the Dreaming to be objective, while linear time was considered a subjective construction of waking consciousness of one’s own lifetime—the precise opposite of our usual way of looking at things. The Dreaming is the sacred, timeless, creative ground of being—and the continual source of all things that are manifest in our world.

So that’s what I hope to write about. There are great cobwebs in my brain, and heart, and I hope to use these pages to help sweep them away and create room for new things to come forth. My great error has been in thinking that I needed to have Something Important to Say; the truth is, all I need is to tap into the Dreamtime, and talk about what I find there.

Categories: Depression, Dreams, Earth-based Religions, First Nations, Shamanism, Writing | 3 Comments

Bird Hauntings

Decorated initial The Northern Mockingbird who sings every morning just after dawn has, I think, found a mate. Yesterday his song changed dramatically, at least to my terrestrial ears. Before it had been hopeful, excited, lyrical, yearning. Yesterday and today it was nothing short of triumphant, a confident joy.

Two nights running I had a strong dream of me carrying a hawk in my arms. I’m not sure what kind of hawk it is; when I look down, it’s usually huddling in the crook of my left arm, as if it is a little cold or a little afraid. It relaxes when I stroke it.

Then on Facebook, a friend posted a photo of a man cradling a rooster a little too lovingly. Wanted to know if it was me. For several years now, some Internet pals have called me Chicken Boy because the first wedding at which I officiated, I was photographed (in full ministerial garb) standing next to a giant wooden cut-out of a hen in a field. Somehow they leapt from a whimsical wedding on a Vermont mountaintop to a decidedly venal projection of zoophilic desires.

This morning I was walking with some friends at a nature enclave and saw this screech owl, dozing at the door of an owl house.

During this afternoon’s nap I have the hawk dream again.

One of the animals in my shamanic pantheon is Golden Eagle. Of all the helping spirits, he’s the one I haven’t gotten to know very well. Then yesterday, viewing an audio slideshow of an astoundingly beautiful upcoming documentary series, I saw a few photos of men in the Tungus region of Siberia using golden eagles as hunting birds. And suddenly I remembered that the word shaman originated with these very people.

Honestly, I blame Indigo Bunting and her husband for all this. I was relatively blasé about birds until I met them and caught a touch of their birding fever. I’m really not a birder. But I now adore them, especially here in Florida, where on any given day I can see Sandhill Cranes, peacocks, ibises, egrets and herons galore, an anhinga or two, plus all the regular birds spread over a large portion of the eastern US.

And no, I don’t have any idea what this means. Speak to me, birds. I’ll listen to whatever you have to say.

Categories: Birds, Shamanism | 12 Comments

Down the Amazon in Search of Ayahuasca

People dance after drinking ayahuasca in Amazonas, Brazil

People dance after drinking ayahuasca in Amazonas, Brazil

By John Otis, Time Magazine

Although his parents urged him to study medicine, Jimmy Weiskopf dropped out of college and in the 1970s moved to Colombia, where he eventually began to focus on a different kind of elixir. The New York City native became an early advocate for the hallucinogenic plant mixture ayahuasca. For centuries, Amazonian Indians have been drinking ayahuasca, also known as yaje — a combination of the ayahuasca vine, tree bark and other plants — to achieve a trancelike state that they believe cleanses body and mind and enables communication with spirits. Weiskopf, who has published a 688-page tome about ayahuasca, was once among a tiny coterie of foreigners using the potion, but these days he has lots of company. (Read “Colombia’s Drug Extraditions: Are They Worth It?”)

Word of ayahuasca’s healing properties has brought a growing number of New Age tourists from the U.S. and Europe, some of whom pay thousands of dollars to stay at jungle lodges where Indian medicine men guide them through all-night ayahuasca rituals. Sting and Tori Amos have admitted sampling it in Latin America, where it is legal, as has Paul Simon, who chronicled the experience in his song “Spirit Voices.” “It heals the body and the spirit,” says Eustacio Payaguaje, 51, a Cofán Indian shaman who regularly treks to Bogotá to lead weekend ayahuasca ceremonies in the city. “It is medicine for the soul.” (Read “The Year in Medicine 2008: From A to Z.”) Continue reading

Categories: Shamanism | 3 Comments

Finding Directions

I have always been fascinated by maps. Not handsome, historical maps, but ones I might actually use. These days I spend an absurd amount of time on Google Maps or finding myself frustrated by various trip routing software. I’ve just bought a cheapo GPS for my car.

Part of it is that I get lost rather easily. For a while, when Indigo Bunting lived in Maryland and her husband lived in Vermont (both because of job demands), she was flying up to see him periodically and I would pick her up from the airport, one I have been to dozens and dozens of times. And every single time, on the trip back home, I would take a wrong turn somewhere and get us lost. Twice, maybe three times, I have picked up a friend at Orlando International and have gone west toward Tampa instead of east toward home. I think I make the mistake of thinking I can talk and drive at the same time, when I can barely manage to do even one of them adequately.

The deeper pull of maps seems to be tied to two things: a sense of being lost in the world, and needing some kind of spiritual cartography program that will help me navigate life a little better; and the notion that the inner landscape of the soul can be described, at least symbolically, in an image that is found in the iconography of countless cultures.

The indigenous peoples of this continent (though I prefer the Canadian term, “First Nations”) call this image the Medicine Wheel.

Continue reading

Categories: Earth-based Religions, First Nations, Shamanism, The Medicine Wheel | 5 Comments

Family Feast

My nephew makes a mean Bloody Mary. Everyone loved this year’s Craignog (which, after years of perfecting, I tweaked once again), but sometimes you want something less dreamy and pillowy, something to make your eyebrows stand up and take notice. Erik’s Bloody Mary, with the best swizzle stick (a skewer with small bites of celery alternating with stuffed green olives) and a boatload of ingredients, a couple of them secret, was amazing.

As was his turkey. Erik has, in the past few years, been bitten by the gourmet bug. He runs a successful pawn shop, then goes home to make schnitzel with chanterelles in a cream sauce. We compared notes on braised short ribs and osso bucco, and discussed his plans for a turkey stock once the carcass had been stripped, more or less.

It was a huge turkey, which often isn’t advised because they tend to be dry. He brined it for a day, and then stuffed it with herbs and lemons and oranges and apples and . . . I lost track, it’s a long list. And it was perfect: juicy, tender, richly flavored. It was masterful. I carved. Continue reading

Categories: Family, Food and Diet, Holidays, Shamanism | 5 Comments

Day Two

Yesterday was Day One in several significant ways. The Great Funeral Trip is done, and Mom is resting with Dad in Maryland. Now I have an empty house with all the chaos from the previous weeks still in evidence, and little time to make any sense of it since I have a bunch of work deadlines this week, not to mention Mom’s famous rum cake and my infamous CraigNog to make for the family Thanksgiving gathering.

I’m still at that stage where everything reminds me of Mom, or I say, “Mom would really love that,” or I turn to talk to her but see only a vacant chair or bed. I’m not sad or lonely, exactly, but I’m keenly feeling the lack of her physical presence.

At the same time, I feel a sudden push forward, the motivation and power to make some changes in my life that I have wished for or even attempted (and failed at) in the past. One, as I mentioned recently, is my trying to excise bread and other things made with flour from my diet. It ain’t easy. Wheat has opioids — opium-like substances that influence the brain’s endorphin receptors. These opioid peptides are physically addictive and cause asthma, obesity, and (as might be expected from a substance chemically similar to morphine) apathy.

It turns out that plants use different tactics to scare off attackers. Some plants contain poison; others just anesthetize their attackers, as wheat does with opioid peptides. Continue reading

Categories: Animals, Body and Mind, Death, Food and Diet, Shamanism | 7 Comments

Gone

Today was the most horrific day I have ever lived through. Mom was more alert, but also more solidly in the throes of cyanosis, the buildup of CO2 in her blood that many people with COPD get toward the end. It made her delirious, and in pain, and unable to tell me what hurt — unable to say more than “Help me” or “Water” or “I love you so much.”

This morning a sweet CNA gave her a little bath, which Mom loved. Soon thereafter, about eight hours ago now, she started thrashing around, moaning, crying, in great distress. We had someone come out to put her on a machine that would help her breathe better, but it used a mask over her mouth and nose, and the forced air was intolerable, and she started clawing at the mask to get it off. Even her nasal canula, which she had worn for years now, became too much for her. As her anxiety and incoherence grew — she was like a wild thing, trapped in this bed — she at one point said, “I’m so tired, I’m so very tired,” and “I’m sorry” — sorry to be leaving me. I told her it was OK, that she just needed to relax and let go, that I loved her and everything was going to be all right.

But these things are rarely swift and tidy. Continue reading

Categories: Death, Shamanism | 23 Comments

A Power Cord to the Transcendant?

by Jeffrey Weiss, DallasNews.com

The psilocybin mushroom was a tripper’s choice back in the 1960s. Actually, it was the herbal head-trip drug used by millennia of shamans long before the psychedelic ’60s. It was supposed to help get the mystically inclined into the right frame of mind, to enhance feeling of spirituality. Does it? Researchers tested the drug on 36 subjects in 2006. Thirty of the 36 attended two separate 8-hour drug sessions, at two-month intervals. On one they received psilocybin, on another, methylphenidate (Ritalin), as a control since it’s well known that it’s not a drug that boosts spiritual feelings.

Then researchers talked to their subjects at two months. And again a year later.

Here’s a nugget of the results published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology : Continue reading

Categories: Body and Mind, Brain, Healing, Shamanism | Leave a comment

Urban Shaman to lead Greenwich Village Halloween Parade

By Wickham Boyle | The Villager

Urban Shaman is not an easy job title, or even a moniker that can be absorbed facilely at cocktail parties or class reunions. But after three decades of producing public artwork, this is how Donna Henes describes herself. “It’s been 33 years now and I see myself as a shaman… a person who intercedes between the community and the spirit world. The shaman goes back and forth to make sure that the community — in this case, NYC — is connected.”

Henes was trained as an artist and educator, but was always drawn by multi-cultural ceremonies, rituals and rites. So it is only natural that she would lead and bless the Annual Greenwich Village Halloween Parade.

In an email invitation to join her in her latest endeavor, Henes wrote: “I have been asked to lead the Village Halloween Parade with blessings. I will have a troupe of blessers, all wearing white. We will lead the parade the entire route and bless the streets of NYC and all of the participants and audience with blessings of connectivity, community and peace. Our ceremony will transform the secular city into sacred space. We will do the blessings with smudge (fire, earth, air) and bubbles (water) as well as glitter and bells. Sweepers who will literally sweep the streets clean of negativity will follow our blessing troupe. It should be wonderful.” Continue reading

Categories: Holidays, Humor, Shamanism | 4 Comments

Head to Head

Writers of art history have long kept different cultures on separate shelves, but the modern world has shown how they relate to one another. Julian Bell on why he has gone global with his Mirror of the World: A New History of Art

by Julian Bell | Saturday, October 20, 2007 | The Guardian

These two heads belong to traditions as far separated as any in world history. The stone carving is from ancient Mexico and the pen drawing from Renaissance Germany. Mexico was first peopled a good 15,000 years ago by migrations that entered the Americas from Siberia. There is scant evidence for any later contact between the civilisations that grew up there and those that grew up in Europe, Asia and Africa.

The stone head, carved by a Totonac living on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, draws on shamanic thinking. Shamans can transmute from human to animal because they can reach back and tap the primal stuff of which everything is composed. For other mortals, such categories are fixed: but to gain wisdom is to understand that all opposites derive from unity. As cities and priesthoods developed in Mexico, an emblem for these doctrines was developed. From around 650 BCE, we start to encounter the image of a fleshly face that morphs into a grinning bare skull: the right side and the left side of Ometeotl, the “lord of duality.” Continue reading

Categories: Art, Shamanism | 2 Comments

Pampering a Mysterious Deity with Presents and Rum

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 26, 2007; Page A14

SANTIAGO ATITLAN, Guatemala

The shaman looked annoyed. Slivers of light cut through cracks in the thin wooden walls of the house at the end of a slippery mud street, illuminating his glare of disapproval. The kids in the back of the tiny room were giggling, but for the shaman this was a solemn moment. The look he shot them shut them up.

It was 1:15 p.m., time to worship the statue of Maximón, a squat, roughly carved wooden deity beloved here by those who believe in his power to grant favors and feared for punishing those who do not pay him proper respect. Maximón, pronounced maw-she-MAWN, occupies a space between the polar tugs of Guatemalan spiritual life, Catholicism and evangelism, neither of which approves of him. His origins are a mystery. Some say he is a modern version of a long-forgotten Mayan god. Others say he represents a martyred holy man. Still others merely shrug their shoulders.

Great gusts of smoke rose out of the metal bucket the shaman filled with burning incense. The bucket swung back and forth, and the shaman began to pray in the Mayan Tzutujil dialect. Strands of Christmas tree lights, slung over a separate, glass-encased statue, twinkled. A pinwheel of flashing lights spun round and round. Incongruously, the notes of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” slipped tinnily out of a palm-size speaker dangling from the wall. Continue reading

Categories: Christianity, First Nations, Shamanism | Leave a comment

Jewish Shamanism . . . on TV?

by Abe Novick, special to the (Baltimore) Jewish Times

It was cable TV that came out of the gate early this summer. While the networks were gearing up for the fall, it launched a number of new shows. One of them was “Saving Grace.”

While the term grace is usually thought of in a Christian context, the word is actually derived from the Hebrew Bible as chesed. Though “Saving Chesed” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, according to the show’s creator, “Saving Grace” is a show about a woman who talks to an angel.

Creator Nancy Miller explains that the angel, Earl, is non-denominational. “He speaks to Grace in the language she grew up in. Grace came from a Catholic family, so he speaks in the language that she would understand,” Ms. Miller said. “As we go on, you’re going to find out that Earl is a last chance angel to a Jewish guy, and speaks from that culture to him. Later on, you’re going to find out that Earl is a last chance angel to someone who is Muslim. So he speaks that language to him.”

In addition to the cable stations, the networks also are channeling the spiritual and confronting the eschatological. Continue reading

Categories: Judaism, Shamanism, Spirituality | 4 Comments

Braving the Past

Shaman wisdom, psychology treat post-traumatic stress disorder

by ALEX deMARBAN
Anchorage Daily News | September 17, 2007

After a lifetime of losing friends and family members, including two cousins who killed themselves in a 12-month period, Roy Hancock went on a three-week drunk last year.

As he paced the floor of an abandoned house in Chistochina, he thought about grabbing a pistol and shooting himself. That’s when a friend showed up and invited him to an unusual therapy program in Anchorage.

Hancock, 45, agreed to go.

“It was that, or put a bullet in my head,” he said.

The program, called White Raven Center, treats clients who suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe and stubborn reaction to trauma that includes symptoms such as nightmares, emotional detachment or severe depression.

The disorder is often associated with returning combat soldiers or firefighters who searched the New York City rubble after Sept. 11, 2001.

But it’s common in rural Alaska too, where cultural upheaval mixed with alcoholism has pushed rates of suicide and family violence among the nation’s highest, psychologists say.

The White Raven Center, run by Floyd Guthrie, a Tlingit shaman, and his wife, Marianne Rolland, practices a cathartic therapy that allows clients to revisit memories and unleash feelings in a group setting, often with powerful results. Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Shamanism | Leave a comment

Of Shamans and Storms: A Shishmaref Story

by Marie Ryan McMillan
JuneauEmpire.com

On one of my last days in Shishmaref, I heard the story of the last shaman. In it, the village’s last shaman walked under a large whalebone arch and disappeared. Just like that. My students were unwilling to tell me more, and when they approached the remains of the arch (virtually next door to the island’s only church), they ran, ducking and giggling nervously.

This story has always dogged me. Why was he the last shaman? And why did he feel his only choice was to disappear from this barrier island in the Chuckchi Sea? It’s hard to imagine people like me weren’t one reason: schoolteachers, clergy and social workers, all white, all from somewhere else, all good intentioned. Did we make the shaman obsolete, like a laid off iron worker? Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Shamanism | 2 Comments

Jungle Fever

The chattering classes are heading to the Amazon in search of esoteric highs. Are shamans the new shrinks?

by Clover Stroud
The Sunday Times
September 9, 2007

At a dinner party in Gloucestershire, Lucy, a mother of three, is regaling her guests with details of her last trip abroad. She has honeyed limbs and high-maintenance hair, suggestive of regular villa breaks in Ibiza or Tuscany. But earlier this year, as a 40th-birthday present to herself, she went to Brazil for a 10-day guided retreat in the Amazon, where she underwent a series of plant rituals involving the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca. “It was as far removed from taking normal party drugs as you can imagine,” she says, eyes glittering. “It was frightening and extraordinary.”

Lucy’s experience is symptomatic of a collective search for a complete wilderness experience as a panacea for our troubled souls. “I went to the Amazon because I felt my whole life needed shaking up, and I just didn’t know how to do that in England. I had everything I wanted, in terms of a stable marriage, lovely kids and a nice home, and although I knew I shouldn’t feel dissatisfied, I did. I wanted to reconnect with myself and the way I live before I got much older.”

Deep immersion in a faraway jungle is the latest fix for those stuck in the cultural, spiritual or personal malaise that besets many in the 21st century. Having an extreme psychological experience such as ayahuasca at the same time makes it all the more desirable. The Brighton-based writer and therapist Ross Heaven, author of Plant Spirit Shamanism, has been leading trips into the Amazon for 10 years. “In the 1990s, only real new-age devotees had heard of ayahuasca, but the sort of person going on retreats has changed dramatically,” she says. “I’m taking a trip in October that will include account managers, business professionals, a media figure, a conventional doctor and a nurse. People are getting turned on to the fact that in the Amazon we can learn something about the wisdom of native culture and the psychological healing aspects of the plants there, while also gaining from personal exploration and creativity.”

It was inevitable that we would find a faster, harder, more esoteric replacement for yoga. As eastern mysticism starts to look a bit, well, passé, people are looking elsewhere for their spiritual kicks. They now have a desire to immerse themselves in an extreme environment, which is why the Amazon has never been as hot as it is now. Sting and Madonna first swung our global eyes to the rainforest in the 1980s. But then we forgot about it as we turned our gaze back to organic vegetable boxes and carbon footprints.

Now, once more, the Amazon is gripping our attention: the interest in ayahuasca is emblematic of a growing fascination with tribal life. A rumbling collective disquiet suggests that we’ve got it all wrong, and that it is those naked men in the jungle — whom we might once have dismissed as savages, or patronised by buying their handcrafted tables for our fashionable lofts — who have actually got it all right. Could it be that such tribes might hold a key to global salvation? Shamanism and ayahuasca are slipping into the spiritual dialogue of the chattering classes where once there was ashtanga and kabbalah. Continue reading

Categories: First Nations, Healing, Nature, Shamanism | 2 Comments

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