In the Valley of the Soul


What is the connection between shamanism and love? Why do we Westerners tend to guru-ize the shaman, often identifying them with saints? How do we reconcile our fantasies of what the shaman is or should be with what is often a very different reality? In this excerpted conversation, researcher-authors Stephan Beyer, Stanley Krippner, and Hillary S. Webb discuss some of the ramifications of the Western world's intellectual and spiritual fascination with shamanic practices.


Hillary S. Webb: Once, during an interview in which I was being asked about various aspects of shamanic practice, the interviewer said, "Well, isn't shamanism all about love?" My response to that was that, no, it's not always about love. Often that may be so, and certainly that's the ideal, but there are plenty of occasions in which the shaman is working as both healer and sorcerer -- working both sides of the coin, so-to-speak. Working the light side and the dark side; sometimes even cursing the same people that they are trying to heal. There is ego and jealousy and all kinds of other emotions playing a part that seem to me to be very far from "pure" or "loving."

It seems to me that the "shamanism is all about love" mantra is a Western projection, perhaps because here in the West we tend to not to want to acknowledge the shadow side of these things. On some level we want and expect the shaman to be a model of moral perfection. I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but, in my experience, that is rarely the case. As my husband says, "I've met a lot of shamans but not too many saints."

Stan, what's your take on that?


Stanley Krippner: The interviewer who made that statement was using the definition of love from the Western point of view. Each indigenous group has its own way of using terms like "love," "compassion," "affection," "bonding," etcetera. I would expand the point that you just made. I would say there are times when the shaman works in ways that resemble those practices of a sorcerer, but the shaman is not a sorcerer because the sorcerer is not committed to the community. The shaman may commit malevolent acts in the name of shamanism, but it's almost always in service of the community or for some form of healing. Yes, a shaman might put a hex on somebody in order to heal them as part of the shamanic procedure, or the shaman might put a hex on enemies of the community. But the would not do something that would divide the community against itself.

Also remember that shamans, like members of other professions, do not always live up to their highest standards. There are shamanic wars where shamans from one tribe cast hexes at the shamans on another side -- out of jealousy, out of egotism, or out of other human fragilities. That work does not reflect love, and it's not something that is a common shamanic practice -- although you do see it in the accounts of shamanism and you hear about it from people who have known some of the cases where it is being played out, especially in areas of South America that are still quite indigenous. When you take a look at a shaman's personal life, when the shaman is offline or off duty, you often notice that he or she can engage in acts of rivalry and jealousy. Male shamans can covet somebody else's woman and initiate some manipulation or bargaining to obtain the favors of that woman temporarily or permanently. Female shamans can take great egotistical pride in their craft, and do some boasting and bragging. So off duty, shamans are human beings just like everybody else, with all of the vices and foibles that we associate with humanity.

What Westerners would call "love" is evident in the practice of shamanism, because the shaman does demonstrate positive feelings of regard for the community or the people that he or she is helping, either individually or as a group.  Each shamanic group would describe it in the language that it may use. But I think that the stereotype of the shaman that we get from films -- or used to get from films -- is that they are horrible, wicked people. Most of them are depicted as sorcerers not shamans in terms of the character they portray in the film. And not only do you see a lack of love, but you see a lack of sense of humor. But humor is very important in shamanism because the shaman is frequently called upon to be a trickster. So humor and love are present in shamanism, even though the words reflect a particular society.


HSW: What thoughts, Steve?


Stephan Beyer: My first reaction to your interviewer's question is to transpose it into another context -- to ask, for example, "Well, isn't cardiothoracic surgery all about love?" 

The answer to such a question is, clearly, no. While it is true that many cardiothoracic surgeons are motivated by a compassionate desire to make sick people better, their motivations are undoubtedly more complex. Cardiothoracic surgeons, like everybody else, are motivated by a mix of ambition, competitiveness, curiosity, desire for recognition, resentment, bravado, fear of failure, pleasure in the exercise of a difficult skill, and delight in the effusive thanks of the healed. In addition, I presume, cardiothoracic surgeons have their own messy private lives to deal with -- divorce, rebellious children, cheating spouses, debt, difficult patients, the angry gossip of the unhealed, and unpaid accounts receivable. 

Why would anyone assume that shamans are any different? I think that assumptions about the benevolence and spirituality of shamans have little to do with the real world of shamanic practice, a world filled -- like real human life -- with danger, uncertainty, envy, betrayal, and loss. Why would we want to reduce the rich and complex lives of individual shamans -- or cardiothoracic surgeons -- to a mere romantic stereotype? 

Here is a good way of looking at this. Psychologist James Hillman distinguishes between two basic orientations to the world, which he calls spirit and soul. Spirit, he says, is detached, objective, intense, absolute, abstract, pure, unitary, eternal. Soul, on the other hand, is mortal, earthly, low, troubled, sorrowful, melancholy, and profound. Spirit, he says, "seeks to escape or transcend the pleasures and demands of ordinary earthly life." But soul "is always in the thick of things: in the repressed, in the shadow, in the messes of life, in illness, and in the pain and confusion of love."

Spirit, Hillman says -- and I really like this way of putting it -- seeks "an imageless white liberation," which is more important than the world and the beauty of the world. In fact, if I can digress for a minute, the transcendent orientation of spirit can be a way of escaping from the messy demands of soul -- a process that psychotherapist John Welwood has called spiritual bypass. Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield put the idea this way: "Many students have used meditation not only to discover inner realms and find inner balance but also to escape. Because we are afraid of the world, afraid of living fully, afraid of relationships, afraid of work, or afraid of some aspect of what it means to be alive in the physical body, we run to meditation."

I believe it is soul, not spirit, that is the true landscape of shamanism -- the landscape of suffering, passion, mess, and unpaid accounts receivable. Shamans deal with sickness, envy, malice, conflict, bad luck, hatred, despair, and death. Indeed, the purpose of the shaman is to dwell in the valley of the soul -- to heal what has been broken in the body and the community. Shamans live with betrayal, loss, confusion, need, and failure -- including their own. The Amazonian shamans I have known have not had easy lives; think of the struggles and sufferings of the great Mazatec shaman María Sabina. That is the true landscape of shamanism -- the landscape of suffering, passion, and mess.

Your interviewer made what I think is a common mistake -- thinking of shamans as something like spiritual gurus, people who dwell in the bright light and on the mountaintop of enlightenment. And shamans, in all of their individual complexity, are really nothing like that. 


Hillary S. Webb: You both bring up some really important distinctions. First of all, how is "Love" being defined? Well ... maybe as it relates to shamanism it is not meant in the pure, ego-less, mystical sense that we usually equate with the word, but rather, as you suggest, Stan, as implying "positive feelings of regard" like "compassion" and "bonding" -- sensations that come with the mutual interdependence between the shaman and his/her community. That state of communitas in which the One and the Many cannot be separated. In that sense, the word can be equated with "service" and can take forms that Western culture might not identify with "Love." I'm thinking of the tinkuy battles that take place in some of the mountain communities of Peru. These are yearly, week-long rituals in which opposing groups engage in brutal combat with one another. While bloody -- and even sometimes deadly -- they are viewed by the participants as a means of releasing tension between community members, and through this release of tension, harmony is achieved. From a Western perspective it's hard to equate violence with "Love," but for them it's a way of moving heavy energy out of the community system and reaffirming the feelings of positive regard that are essential to their survival.

The distinction you make between "spirit" and "soul" is also a very good one, Steve. It reminds me a bit of the distinction that Evelyn Underhill makes between the "magician" and the "mystic"; that while the mystic's desire is to transcend the sense-world and dissolve into the realm of Spirit, the magician, or in this case the shaman, performs an act of will in order to attain a certain outcome within the here-and-now. According to Hillman's definition, "Will" and "Soul" arguably exist on the same plane. Perhaps part of the "guru-ization" of the shaman comes from a tendency to forget that the shaman is not afraid of getting down deep into the messiness of human existence, the realm of the soul. That, in fact, that messiness is the sine qua non of shamanism -- or as you say, is "the true landscape of shamanism" -- for his or her professional obligation is to navigate the mixed-bag that is the human condition; to open up to both the dark and light aspects of existence and exert "power" in order to transform the sense-world in a way that benefits the community. 


Stephan Beyer, PhD, JD, has doctoral degrees in both religious studies and psychology, and has taught as an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, the University of California - Berkeley, and Graduate Theological Union. Expert in both jungle survival and plant hallucinogens, he lived for a year and a half in a Tibetan monastery in the Himalayas, and has undertaken and helped to lead numerous four-day and four-night solo vision fasts in the desert wildernesses of New Mexico. He has studied the use of sacred and medicinal plants with traditional North America herbalists, in ceremonies of the Native American Church, in Peruvian mesa rituals, and with mestizo shamans in the Upper Amazon, where he received coronación by banco ayahuasquero don Roberto Acho Jurama. Steve has served on the editorial board of the Journal of Shamanic Practice, and currently serves on the advisory board of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service. His most recent book is Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. The Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions at the Smithsonian Institution has praised his "unparalleled knowledge of sacred plants."


Stanley Krippner, PhD, professor of psychology at Saybrook University, San Francisco, is a Fellow in four American Psychological Association divisions, and past-president of two divisions (30 and 32). Formerly, he was director of the Kent State University Child Study Center, Kent OH, and the Maimonides Medical Center Dream Research Laboratory, in Brooklyn NY. He is co-author of Extraordinary Dreams (SUNY, 2002), Personal Mythology (Energy Psychology Press, 2008), and Demystifying Shamans and Their World (Imprint Academic 2011), The Voice of Rolling Thunder (Inner Traditions, 2013), and co-editor of Mysterious Minds (ABC-CLIO, 2010), The Psychological Impact of War on Civilians (Greenwood, 2003), Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence (APA, 2000), and many other books.


Hillary S. Webb, PhD, is the former Managing Editor of Anthropology of Consciousness, the peer-reviewed journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness. She received MA in Consciousness Studies from Goddard College in 2006 and a PhD in Psychology from Saybrook University in 2009. She is the author of numerous articles and three books exploring shamanic philosophy and practice, including Yanantin and Masintin in the Andean World: Complementary Dualism in Modern Peru (University of New Mexico Press, 2012), Traveling Between the Worlds: Conversations with Contemporary Shamans (Hampton Roads, 2004), and Exploring Shamanism (New Page Books, 2003).