The Scientific & Medical Network
Our students want to know how to make a difference. They need hope. And it won't come if all we can offer is another scientific theory or technological fix. We must expand our vision to seek non-scientific alternatives. To make a difference, we must search for different understandings. Let us look to the wisdom of our ancestors.
They believed that intelligence is not
restricted to humans but is possessed by all creatures -
plants as well as animals - and by
Shamanism gives working access to an alternative technique of acquiring knowledge.
Although a pragmatic, time-tested system, it makes no claim to be science. Its strengths and limitations are different from those of the sciences and thus complement them.
Being affective and subjective, shamanism offers another way of knowing.
Of course science will offer some valuable new directions, but at the same time we must expand our vision to seek non-scientific alternatives.
To make a difference, we must search for different understandings. I am fortunate to live in a country, New Zealand, where many of my compatriots have an understanding of past and future that is fundamentally different from the prevailing 'Western' view.
Most in our civilization consider it
self-evident that we stand facing the future with the past behind
us, but traditionally for
New Zealand Maori it is the future
that is behind them.
It is the vision of the ancestors that guides the present generation into the unseen future, with one clear and overriding purpose:
"The days of the past to which we are coming."
No matter what our ethnic background, we will discover that our ancestors (except some of the most recent) believed, like Maori, in the existence of spirits.
They also stood in awe of the rich diversity of life forms, and they believed there is mutual interdependency between these forms, humans included, given that everything that exists is alive and conscious.
They were of the opinion that intelligence is not restricted to humans but is possessed by all creatures - plants as well as animals - and, for that matter, by the Earth itself.
Rock, soil, stream, ocean, wind, air,
sky, the stars -
all are imbued with consciousness.
They understood that there is deep wisdom in the rhythms of the Earth and an infinite variety of life experience stored by our fellow creatures and by spirits.
Human health and welfare were understood
to depend on tapping into this wellspring of wisdom. On a planet
that is everywhere alive, conscious and inspirited, humans were
believed to have many wise allies for counsel and aid.
If the 'star billing' given by us moderns to our species is unwarranted - if sapiens (wisdom) is not exclusive to homo (humanity) - then could it be that the fate of the Earth is not exclusively or even primarily in our hands?
By our ancestors' measure, we have grossly exaggerated our self-importance in the intricate web of life.
Is it not conceivable that among our intelligent companions on this whirling voyage through space are some who may be capable of restoring the balance we humans have disturbed, of undoing the damage we have wrought?
Possibly there are many more shoulders
sharing this burden than we think.
It took months before the flow was stopped, but in the meantime it was discovered that petroleum-eating bacteria had flourished in the oil plume and contained a vast amount of it. The micro-organisms had not only multiplied at an astounding rate, they also had ramped up their own internal metabolism to digest the oil efficiently.
They formed a natural clean-up crew
capable of reducing the amount of oil in the undersea plume by half
every three days.
These women and men were held in high regard, but they were approached with trepidation, because they were perceived to be communing with mysterious and awesome forces.
In Old French they were called "sorcier,"
those in touch with the "Source." The Anglo-Saxons spoke of the
"Ways of Wyrd" known to "wizards" and "witches."
Given the association in the popular
imagination of the term shamanism with 'native, tribal' cultures, it
will come as a surprise to many to learn that their own ancestors
practiced shamanism. We are all descendants of shamanic peoples.
The word shaman is borrowed from one of those contemporary indigenous societies, the Tungus of Siberia.
We are fortunate there are native shamans still at work, despite the sustained, and in many cases brutal, efforts of colonial governments, Christian churches, and medical authorities to suppress them.
In the past forty years there has also been a Western revival of shamanic practice inspired by indigenous teachers and reinforced by the recognition that these ancient spiritual traditions are our shared inheritance.
They work to maintain or restore
harmonious balance between humans and the rest of nature through
powerful connections with spirit helpers. This requires a mastery of
the techniques of journeying.
In their altered state of consciousness, using disciplined techniques, individuals can experience visions of flying or entering into the Earth.
On their journeys, participants ask animal or guardian spirits to appear and help in finding the answer to a question about their life or about someone else who has requested aid. Healing is the primary shamanic work.
This includes healing of the Earth and its plants and animals. It also includes human healing, both the healing of dissension in groups and of physical and emotional illness in individuals. In the shamanic worldview, dis-ease is understood to result from loss of connection to the spirits of nature and consequent loss of soul - individual or collective.
Shamanic journeys take us to places
where we can recover fragments of lost soul.
Buying property is tricky at the best of times, but when you have been living in America for 30 years and would like to find a place in your home country, New Zealand, it's a major challenge.
That's how it was for me in 1991, and I needed help. I received it from a guardian spirit, an eagle.
In a shamanic journey, the eagle took me flying over the Marlborough Sounds and showed me a remote property in such detail that I was able to draw a sketch map:
My wife Jo and I brought the map with us when we came to New Zealand three years later.
We found a place listed at the first
real estate office we visited, and when we were taken to the land,
we knew within ten minutes it was the place to which my eagle had
flown me. We had no need to look at other properties.
I once participated with 30 others in a shamanic journey to look for a new campus for the California Institute of Integral Studies, the small San Francisco post-graduate school of which I was then president. Many participants found themselves led by their spirit guardians to one particular city neighborhood.
Three people in the journeying group described ornamentation on the outside of a building.
One went down a chimney and saw a room with a polished wooden floor and an oriental rug. Another person reported a delicious aroma of baking. Most amusingly, some in the journeying group remarked on a pervasive smell of marijuana in the area. Little wonder.
Three weeks later, we found an excellent property half a block from the corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets!
As we were to discover, the nearest
shop, just two hundred meters from our new campus, was a deli, whose
baked goods would become favorites of students and faculty, and the
journey details of the ornamentation on the building, the chimney,
and the room with the polished wooden floor and oriental rug all
proved equally accurate.
Shamans are theatrical. In order to rivet the attention of participants, shamans typically wear dramatic costumes and display colorful talismans as they burn herbs and rhythmically whirl, stamp, clap and drum loudly.
Almost all of the physical senses of the participants are engaged.
As teachers, we should acknowledge shamans as exemplars of excellent educational practice. People learn most forcefully from forms that engage more than their intellects. They remember best what they do, rather than what they read or are told.
Effective education must have a large
experiential component, and shamanic practice can be a totally
As with psychotherapy and similar practices that may bring to awareness deep subconscious memories arousing strong emotions, shamanism must be practiced with disciplined restraint and ethical integrity.
Also, with humility.
Given the current critical imbalance between humans and other species, nature should be a primary area of experiential education. We should balance the abstractions of our classrooms with experiences of the wholeness of living, growing wild things.
Following the centuries-old practice of shamans, students and their teachers should spend time in wilderness to restore direct awareness of the intricate interconnections that sustain life.
Quiet time spent away from the elaborate
constructions of our cities can help us gain the stillness in which
we may hear nature's voices.
In this mode of consciousness,
This can lead to profound new understandings.
Grof commented that to speak of plant consciousness might seem,
He was writing in the late 1980s when biology was dominated by molecular geneticists, who, at the time, were supremely confident that all biological function was programmed by DNA sequencing.
In the subsequent 20 years, however, there has been a conceptual revolution in genetics and cell biology, with the recognition that cellular networks in organisms are dynamic systems responding intelligently to changing external conditions, even modifying the structure of DNA where necessary.
In his 2005 book, The Biology of Belief, cell biologist Bruce Lipton writes:
On the basis of such path-breaking research, Fritjof Capra concludes:
By entering the eagle's keen eye, the bear's great strength, the herb's healing power, or the flame's searing heat, the shaman shows us passageways to the spirit wisdom of natural forms.
Shamans are shape-shifters, teaching that the boundaries between forms are not as impermeable as they may seem.
Dramatically, this ancient knowledge that "there is no wall between species," rejected for three centuries by reductionist Cartesian science, has been rediscovered in this decade by molecular biologists.
This observation by Stan Grof suggests an important reason for the inclusion of shamanic practice in the educational curriculum.
Shamanism gives working access to an alternative technique of acquiring knowledge. Although a pragmatic, time-tested system, it makes no claim to be science. Its strengths and limitations are different from those of the sciences and thus complement them.
Being affective and subjective, shamanism offers another way of knowing.
They have been taught that the scientific method is of a different order from all other human systems of understanding. The claim is that science, and only science, provides a clear window on reality and has the ultimate capacity to answer every question about nature.
These assertions are untenable. Modern Western civilization's representation of reality is limited like that of every other civilization.
The sciences are cultural constructions to help us get by in the world.
Science is a simplification of the universe, which in its unfathomable vastness is always threatening to overwhelm the limited capacity of the human organism to comprehend.
Nonetheless, science reigns supreme and blinds most of our students, like the vast majority of us, to the diverse and richly varied paths to knowledge offered by other civilizations, contemporary and historic.
The writer is Mara Freeman, whose field is Celtic and British folklore.
Traditionally, Freeman says, it was shamans who had the courage and skill to throw open the "flaming door."
Shamans are edge-walkers and shape-shifters, who dispel the illusion that all is fixed and orderly and controllable.
A stone's throw out on either hand
From the well-ordered road we tread,
And all the world is wild and strange;
Churl and ghoul and Djinn and sprite
Shall bear us company to-night,
For we have reached the Oldest Land
Wherein the powers of Darkness range.
Shamanism is an acknowledgment of the
awesome spiritual powers that shape the universe. It is an
acknowledgement that mystery will remain despite all our science and
Let us encourage them also to hear the message of the shamans that the moving force in the universe is spirit, which makes life possible and gives it meaning. The exhilarating news the shamans bring is that we are not alone.
On a planet that is everywhere alive, conscious and inspirited, humans have many wise allies for counsel and aid.
We should lay to rest our exaggerated fears that we do not have the resources to keep this show going. Equally, we must learn humility. The hubris of homo sapiens in claiming superiority over all other species has been the source of severe damage.
Humanity is merely one spirit form among countless billions.