Shadow of the Shaman
by Gary Z. McGee
“It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide; but to climb back again, to retrace one’s steps to the upper air — there’s the rub, the task.” –Virgil
Ghost talker? Vision poet? Soothsayer? Oracle? Bridge between worlds?
There are many ways to describe shamans and the shamanism they practice, but basically shamanism is the most ancient spirituality, and for the most part you don’t choose it –it chooses you.
Shamanism is mankind’s primordial soul-signature, tapping the cornerstone of the human leitmotif. Shamans are psycho-ecological vehicles for spiritual entanglement, and they realize that we are all unique expressions of the same ubiquitous energy. But they also realize that very few of us are actually aware of that fact. And even fewer are able to do something about it. As such, shamans are unique expressions of the human condition who are aware of their connection to all things, and who have acquired mysterious methods for doing something about it.
Although it’s a deeply powerful form of spirituality, it should not be taken lightly; or if it is taken lightly, it should be taken with a wholesome helping of “humble pie” along with a healthy side of “a humor of the most high.” This is because shamanism is a lopsided double-edged sword. The ecstasy on the one side cuts deep and can be genuinely ecstatic, but the agony on the other side cuts to the soul and can be devastatingly dismal.
The pain that comes from such knowledge can be a crippling thing, especially coming from a culture that’s hung-up on the bliss of its own ignorance. Like Wei Wu Wei said, “In order to be effective truth must penetrate like an arrow — and that is likely to hurt.” The truth hurts, but cosmic truth hurts most of all. Shamans are the one’s becoming intimate with such pain.
Here are five ways being a shaman totally sucks but is also secretly awesome.
1.) You will be shunned by friends and family:
“What is it we are questing for? It is the fulfillment of that which is potential in each of us. Questing for it is not an ego trip; it is an adventure to bring into fulfillment your gift to the world, which is yourself. There is nothing you can do that’s more important than being fulfilled. You become a sign, you become a signal, transparent to transcendence; in this way you will find, live, become a realization of your own personal myth.” –Joseph Campbell
Shamanism grabs your Destiny by the throat and does not let go. Once it clamps on with its death-grip hold, there is no going back. The shamanic initiation can appear spontaneously, as a blunder, or as an unlucky (lucky) break. It can arrive through super-serendipity, as a chance occurrence, or a cruel twist of fate. It can come through new life, or through unexpected death, or both. It can come from another shaman, or even a raging thunderstorm. There’s no telling when or where it will happen, but when it happens you know it. The universe lines up like a divine fisherman, and you are the magical fish caught on the hook of primordial Time.
The kind of knowledge gained is a bone-knowledge, a marrow-deep wisdom, a soul-caliber comprehension. This will, in small and large ways, cause complete havoc in the hyperreal world of the average person. Such havoc is scary for most people, and since your friends and your family include most people, they will more than likely be scared of your newfound unorthodox spirituality.
Their shunning is a double-edged sword: you will be dubbed crazy, insane, and eccentric on the one side, and arrogant, conceited, and even selfish on the other side. But they don’t even understand the nature of selfishness; as Oscar Wilde wrote, “Selfishness is not living your life as you wish. It is asking others to live their life as you wish.”
You understand that it’s society itself that’s being selfish for asking you to live the way it wishes. Your refusal to be pigeonholed by the status quo is why they despise you. Anybody who takes up the lifestyle or attitude of artificiality will not be able to stand you, because you have become a natural being. You are now of the earth. You have re-discovered your roots, through soulful self-interrogation and self-rewilding.
By your very presence you catalyze. You are a great fermentation. The unconscious of anyone living in an artificial manner will sense you as doubly dangerous. Everything about you will irritate them, especially your sense of humor. They sense nature in you, and they are scared shitless of it. But don’t lose heart. You are vitally necessary to tonalize this otherwise atonal world.
2.) Love itself becomes a painful ability:
“If you love and have desires, let these be your desires: To know the pain of too much tenderness; to be wounded by your own understanding of love; and to bleed willingly and joyfully.” –Khalil Gibran
Here’s the thing: we live in a world filled with victims who have been victimized by a victimizing culture. Victims are victims precisely because they are afraid. Once they cease being afraid, once they quit allowing their fears to control them and become intimate with Fear instead, they cease being victims and become warriors.
Shamans are spiritual warriors par excellence precisely because they are healers of fear. They help people move from a state of fear and expectation to a higher state of awareness where imagination is free to reimagine itself. Like Stephen Levine said, “To heal is to touch with love that which was previously touched by fear.” They realize that fearlessness is not the rejection of fear, it is intimacy with fear. It’s in the intimacy where the healing takes place. That’s where the ashes can be transformed into a Phoenix. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Love itself is the seer’s tool, the shaman’s soulcraft. Just as only love can drive out hate, only love can drive out fear. Only intimacy with fear can transform fear into courage. The catch: this particular flavor of intimacy is excruciatingly painful.
It tears apart the soul with its counterintuitive energy, but then it puts it back together again with the unconditional glue that maintains the unity of opposites. It’s a deep, cosmic love, an absolute love that subsumes the slings and arrows of vicissitude, but also leaves its practitioner in a constant state of existential pain that he/she must be able to resolve in the hear-and-now while also understanding that it will ultimately never really be resolved. Almost like the joy of the journey is always now, whether or not the goal of the journey is ever achieved. Only the “joy” is no joy at all but rather an intimacy with pain, a primordial jouissance.
As Joseph Campbell said, “The schizophrenic is drowning in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.”
3.) You will experience Soul-crushing loneliness:
“The distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” –Albert Einstein
Never underestimate the ignorant power of “the armor of the ‘I.’” It forms itself under the naïve assumption that things are separate. It is constructed under the desperate assertion of maintaining a separate identity. It closes you off until all of your powers of perception can only “see” through the narrow chinks of the all-too-human cavern of self-bias.
Most of us grow up in a world where this sort of armor is constantly being manufactured. We become attached to it. It becomes a kind of hyperreal skin. Shamans are the ones ripping that skin off, which is likely to hurt. But we have only to remember that it’s no skin at all –it’s metal, it’s machine-like. It is not you! It is a prison disguised as you.
A shaman can help you by opening the door to your prison, but only you can walk through it to taste the freedom on the other side. But, fair warning: it is going to hurt like hell. You will experience one of mankind’s most debilitating pains: loneliness.
Here’s the thing: you have to feel lost and lonely in order to feel the real You as you. You are a microcosm within a macrocosm, a desperate tiny thing in an otherwise calm universe, but you are also an aspect of the universe. You can no more separate the micro from the macro than you can the human from the natural; both are needed to put the whole into holistic.
This is the great lesson of loneliness: it’s only when you’re alone that you realize you’re never alone. Like Nietzsche said, “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Such privilege is a double-edged sword. It will liberate you on the one side, but it will crush you with loneliness on the other side. Do not balk. Self-pity is poison for a shaman. Like Rumi said, “Wherever you stand, be the soul of that place.” Seek the center of your loneliness and transform it into interdependence. Loneliness is merely the shadow of the self. Embrace the shadow, dance with it in the abyss, and you will never (always) be alone again.
4.) You will be destroyed over and over again between worlds:
“The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the profusion of matter and of the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness.” –Andre Malraux
Your soul will constantly be forced to eat itself. You will face death every day in the abyss. You have to constantly be able to “die” and rebirth your own energy. Like Henry Miller said, “We must die as egos and be born again in the swarm, not separated and self-hypnotized, but individual and related.”
You must be able to destroy yourself and then rebuild yourself. This is the shamanic dance on God’s forehead, the eternal dance on the Divine Third Eye: the uncanny ability to be born, to die, and to be reborn, repeatedly, and in each new life, to become a thing which is more capable of subsuming cosmos than in the life before. Where you are receptive to stimuli to which, in the time before, you were insensate.
This is done between worlds. It’s done in the shadowy unconscious of the soul. It’s done in the abyss of the human condition, where the You of you is the same thing as the They of them. In short, it’s the death of your ego. And perhaps nothing hurts more than ego-death.
The death of the ego is no easy task. Ego-death is identity-death is self-annihilation. It leads to a dark night of the soul. And if you are lucky (unlucky) enough to have multiple ego-deaths in your life you will reap the rewards (penalties) of having multiple dark nights of the soul as well. If all that weren’t enough, you will also experience the ego-death of other people, and the dark night of their soul will usually prove to be more excruciating than your own.
In fact, the more times your soul is forced to eat itself, the more times your ego dies and is reborn again, the more interdependently connected you will become with the experiences of others. This too is a double-edged sword, but the sharper the sword the smoother the ego-death; which basically just means it gets easier with practice. Indeed, existential masochism becomes an art form at this level, and provides the perfect platform for meta-empathy to emerge.
5.) You will experience soulbreaking meta-empathy:
“Undifferentiated consciousness, when differentiated, becomes the world.” –Vedanta
Shamans are neither scientists nor priests, but artists. They are Technicians of the Sacred, immersed in the numinous tapestry of the cosmos. A vital aspect of that tapestry is the human condition, and when it comes to the human condition, the artistry of the shaman shines like gold in dark times.
The secret of their art is both very simple and very difficult: healthy detachment. It’s simple because all you have to do is realize that everything is connected and all things are in a constantly changing dance of interdependence. It’s difficult because you imagine that you have a static sense of self (ego) which seems at odds with your dynamic sense of connection (soul). But it’s not at odds at all.
Your ego is just as much a tool as your soul is, you simply have to let go of what you think your ego wants in order to make possible what your soul intends. This requires heartbreak. It requires breaking your heart so wide open that the universe has no other choice but to fall in. Heartbreak equals soul-awake. And once your soul is awake, that’s when the real shamanic process begins: soulbreak.
Soulbreak, like heartbreak, opens us up to the vast knowledge hidden within the nature of pain, but it also teaches us detachment. Soulbreak is detachment in the moment. If you are truly detached, your mental-spirit-body becomes a mighty tool for clear seeing. Detachment is existential seeing. Existential seeing is meta-empathy.
You must be able to act with compassion, but without attachment. Most love is conditional, most compassion is indiscriminate. As a shaman you have to come from a place of unconditional love.
The shamanic experience involves tremendous self-discipline and the will to be focused even when such focus is painful. And it is painful. With this ability we move to the depths of another person’s emotional state and we can “see” from their worldview and understand what makes them healthy or not. When they are unhealthy, you feel it. And in a world where the majority of people are unhealthy, you become the walking personification of pain. Indeed, meta-empathy even becomes ecological. You feel deeply the unhealthiness of the broken system and the painful disconnect between Mother Nature and the human soul.
At the end of the day, it is the job of shamans to shake people out of ordinary, habitual states of mind and to reawaken latent faculties. This can be a soul-quaking experience of world-shattering pain. But there is a vast reservoir of knowledge in such pain, and shamans are the ones seeking it out and imaginatively and courageously transforming it into soul, into art, and into new knowledge.
Through daily acts of courage and a willingness to reveal symbolic ways to transcend the darkness of the human condition, shamans personify the change they wish to see in the world. They are free to triumph over terror. They are no longer interested in the petty pursuit of meaning. They would rather seize the power that comes from creating it.