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
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
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.
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).