The Hidden Universe of Wisdom

Paper presented by Michael Harner at the World Congress of Psychotherapy, Vienna, July 3, 1996.

Before I start with my lecture, I would like to draw your attention to a special feature. We have a group of shamans from Tuva in Central Asia here with us in Vienna. They will attend this conference to share their knowledge and skills with us. And they have agreed, before we start with the lecture, to bless and welcome our work by their drumming.

(The five shamans drum).

I would like to thank the Tuvan shamans for drumming and thus once again drawing our attention to the importance of this ancient shamanic tool.
The drum has been used for thousands of years, here in Europe as well as around the world. Especially in the north of Europe, among the Sámi (formerly Lapps), the drum has survived until the beginning of this century as the shaman's most important tool for his journey. Of course, there are many other ways to enter this other reality of the shamans, but the drum is one of the most important.

Research on Shamanism in the Upper Amazon

I first became acquainted with shamanism in the Upper Amazon. There, no drums are used, but strong psychedelic drugs or hallucinogens, as they are found throughout the country. With their help, the shamans succeed in entering this other reality, which Carlos Castaneda called non-ordinary reality. And for shamans, this is a real reality, because they experience it directly with their senses, firsthand, so to speak; it is not something they could read about or know only from hearsay.

This is the reason why shamans are regarded as knowledgeable in tribal cultures, because shamanism does not mean believing, but knowing. Shamans know firsthand about the reality that lies beyond this mundane reality that we know from our daily lives. Scholars often say that shamans enter this reality in a trance, but I do not use this term because it can mean very different states, including those of everyday life.

Staring at the computer screen, following a soccer game on TV, chasing your car down the highway, or listening to your partner talk - these are all opportunities to enter a trance. So it turns out that "trance" has a limited word meaning, at least in English, and I prefer the term "shamanic state of consciousness." It denotes not only a mental or physiological state, but one in which shamans work in a disciplined, conscious, and knowing way. Shamanic work means real knowledge, and therefore shamans are considered knowledgeable.

Shamans see what others do not see

But shamans are also known in their cultures as seers, because they see what other people do not see. Unfortunately, many Western scholars have assumed for years that shamans are crazy precisely because they see things that others cannot. Under this premise, of course, Einstein would also be crazy and Friedrich August Kekule, who saw the benzene ring in a vision. That's just the way it is: Shamans have to see things that others can't see, that's their job. It is said that shamans are crazy, but they were happy to live in crazy cultures and not in such healthy ones as New York; in such crazy ones, that is, where people lived in harmony with nature. Fortunately, this is no longer true in psychoanalysis - at least I believe and hope so.

It is wonderful that shamans have been invited to this congress and that here, within the framework of modern psychotherapy, there is a separate shamanic sub-symposium. Because now the point has come when we are ready to listen to the voice of our ancestors. You know, it is a tragedy that so much of the knowledge of our ancestors has been lost - both in Europe and in the other high civilizations.

The Miracles of Jesus in the Amazon Jungle

Now, one might say: If shamanism is so valuable, why was the knowledge lost? This question is closely related to the rise of these civilizations, with the state authorities, with the priests and the centralized ecclesiastical hierarchies. Not only in Europe, but everywhere.

I would like to tell you a little story. When I lived with the Conibo people in the upper Amazon in 1960 and 1961, a missionary from North America used to come to our village. He spoke the Indians' idiom well, and they liked him because he was the first to read to them from books. It was always the same book, but it didn't matter, the Indians liked it anyway.

One evening he came back and read about the miracles of Jesus. The Indians were particularly fond of hearing this. At the farewell, when they accompanied him to the river to his canoe, an old shaman went with him, and I also went. The shaman said to the missionary, "That was an excellent story you read to us, about Jesus and that dead Lazarus he brought back to life." And the shaman added, "You know, you're absolutely right. We had this a few nights before, and it worked." I don't think it takes much imagination to see the dangers of shamanism to organized religions.

The Power of the Drum

In ancient times, our ancestors had their own spiritual access to the universe. They used this to heal members of their community or for divinatory purposes, that is, for those of divination, and to get answers to questions. Divination was the fetching of sacred knowledge using the drum, other percussion instruments, and in about ten percent of shamanic cultures, drugs.

There are many doors through which shamans can go to receive help from the spirits, but they all came to the same place and received the same knowledge. They are not only seers in the sense that they see, but they go into another reality where they perceive with all their senses what is going on. They hear, touch, smell, feel movements - every sense communicates something. This is the main reason why we call this "reality", with Castaneda just "non-ordinary reality".

A Universe full of Power and Wisdom

Admittedly, it is considerably more. It is a complete, albeit hidden, universe full of wisdom and full of strength. Shamans all over the world know three worlds: Ours, the Middle World, then the Upper World and the Lower World. In the Lower World and the Upper World, there are many levels. When shamans want to acquire sacred knowledge or have help with healing work, they leave this world on a shamanic journey. The shamans from Tuva here, for example, know this journey well; they use the drum for this purpose.

The drum, say shamans in Siberia, is our "horse". Others call it "my reindeer," depending on which animal they use for riding. In the Amazon, they often say, "The drum is our boat." The drum helps people to reach an altered state of consciousness in which they can enter other worlds. To understand this, it is simply enough to apply the methods.

One misconception that arose from our Western scholarship was that it was initially assumed that one had to be an extraordinary person to be able to experience the world of the shamans. In fact, our own research found that 90 percent of people in the Western world have easy access to these worlds. Of course, this does not mean that they are shamans, it just means that they can begin. Much like learning to drive a car.

The memories return

When you come to these other worlds, you will regain the memory of this hidden universe - the universe from which you came when you were born and to which you will return when you die. And that gradually replaces parts of your memory of everyday reality. Not only do I want to justify myself, but I believe that this is actually happening. Through their journeys, shamans are becoming more and more a part of the world of helping spirits.

Why does the shaman do this? Why does he go up and down and not stay here, in the Middle World?

The shaman can do that, he can also bring spirits into this Middle World, down or up, but that does not distinguish him from others. As Mircea Eliade showed in his standard work "Shamanism and Archaic Ecstasy Technique" in 1951, the simplest characteristic of a shaman is the ability to make a shamanic journey. Eliade called this "ecstasy," others called it "trance." Today we say "shamanic state of consciousness" to it, which knows different depths.

Shamans travel to other worlds to get clarity

Here, in the Middle World, things are rather convoluted, and I assume you have figured that out as well (if not - congratulations). In that case, you don't need to learn more shamanism for that, then you are already further along. There is also a lot of confusion in the spiritual aspect of the Middle World. But if you go, as the Siberian shamans say, out of time, into the Upper World or into the Lower World, you come into the round of gods, goddesses and ancestors - into the world of spirits who are beyond the confusions of the Middle World. They are spirits, living entities who once lived here, who know us and our situation and see how hard we have it - and they see it better than we do, because they are not directly inside. They have compassion for us, and since they have been here recently, they understand our situation well.
Not only in shamanism, but in every major religion, people turn to mediators for help - whether we are talking about saints or the Holy Trinity, whether we are looking at Hinduism, Christianity, or any other religion.

First hand knowledge

Shamans do the same, but not only pray, but they travel to their helpers because they know these helpers first hand, from their own experience. And with empathy they seek help for their community, because shamans are healers. Often shamans do this reluctantly, but they know that people need help. In this sense, shamans offer themselves as sacrifices - for the benefit of people, but also for the benefit of plants and animals. But it is not a sad sacrifice, because these journeys are ecstatic experiences. Not ecstasy in the sense of trance, but ecstasy as the greatest possible joy a human being can have. A joy that is mixed with tears, a holy ecstasy.

Sometimes Western scholars wonder why old men bounce around all night with their drums and take on so much and suffer - but in truth they do not suffer. They are full of strength, and the strength comes from their spirits. And: it is not the shamans who do the work.

This is one of the great secrets of shamanism: it is not the shamans who do the work, but their spirits. But what are the spirits? I ask this question here provocatively because I know that this is often a problem for Western science. Our ancestors knew perfectly well that spirits existed, and they lived with them every day, always and everywhere. In fact, most Westerners also believe that ghosts exist. Now, assuming that each of us has a spirit, there are now five billion spirits in the world, or even more. If you believe in the Holy Trinity, you have three; if you believe in the saints, there are many. It is a question of qualitative analysis rather than their existence and whereabouts.

The spirit of the outboard motor

When I received my first teachings in the upper Amazon, staying with the Conibo and taking ayahuasca (mind-altering shamanic potion made from the drug Banisteriopsis caapii from the liana ayahuasca, t. t.), a strong psychedelic substance, I thought I understood something about spirits. Because at night we would work with the spirit of the anaconda, a giant snake, the spirit of the black puma, or that of the freshwater dolphin. But instead, one night we started working with the spirit of the radio, the spirit of the outboard motor, and the spirit of the airplane. This was very impressive, but not easy.

Everything that shamans see in the dark or with their eyes closed is a spirit. But this does not mean that it is simply an image. In the course of his contact with spirits - and shamans study them systematically - they also come to know that they help. And from this experience they know to whom they must go, for example, to the Upper or Lower World, so that they are helped.

As you know, the concept of ghosts was destroyed during the Enlightenment period. Do you remember? Maybe you are too young for that... it was already in the 18th century. And before that, the Inquisition had made it its business to kill shamanism, because the Inquisitors had their own ideas about permitted spirits. But after the Inquisitors, partly in reaction to the Church, science carried out the eradication by establishing a priori that there are no spirits. Therefore, science is purely a matter of faith, since it excluded certain phenomena from the outset - and without the matter ever having been tested.

(Frenetic applause)

A Science - that of Spirits

Fortunately, things are changing. We are here, and the Tuvan people are here. We are here to learn from our ancestors, and it doesn't matter what color their skin is. They keep the sacred knowledge alive and let us living people share in it. I hope that we are not too far from a time when true science will not be based on the belief that there are no spirits, but on the belief that every conceivable phenomenon could exist and should be investigated.

Shamans were always scientists; they were among the first scholars of mankind. They experimented with the plants to find out what was suitable as medicine. Shamans can talk to the plants and find out what they help against. In the USA and Europe we now have very modern students who have actually written books about what they have learned by talking directly to plants. These books contain ancient knowledge that was known in China and elsewhere in ancient times. But the authors got everything directly from the plants. This is how shamans work, they can talk to anything. They heal the dead as well as the living, acting as psychopompos (soul guides, t.t.), taking the souls of the dead to the best places. There is practically nothing that shamanism cannot help with, and it has never been an elitist system. Shamanism is for everyone who needs help, and shamanism is also holistic.

Back to the title of the lecture. We are dealing here with the divinatory techniques of the shamans. When a stranger came to the shaman for help, the shamans never delved into the life story of the questioner. They didn't need to, because the spirits know them anyway, and the shamans only need to ask the spirits. One of the ways to do this is the shamanic journey: Shamans ask the spirits for the answer. Of course, they can do that for themselves as well.

Headphones and CD instead of the drum

On this basis, we at the Foundation for Shamanic Studies have created the system of Shamanic Counseling, which you may find interesting. Instead of a drum, the client uses headphones; the drumbeat frequency is between 4 and 7 hertz (beats per second). This monotonous drumming is very effective. The client is told how he/she can travel to the lower and upper worlds, but what is found there is not told. Otherwise it would be religion and not shamanism. Shamanism is a method and not a religion. So they travel, find someone, ask something like "Are you my teacher?" - and if he agrees, then they ask him their question. Those who have learned this and can handle it will find that the answer comes either directly or symbolically-metaphorically. And the answers fit exactly. Everyone gets them in such a way that they understand them - and everyone feels this coherence.

We have people who use this method independently. They are called Shamanic Counselor. They counsel their clients in terms of the method, but not in the matter, not in the question that the client has. Because the real counselors for their life problems the clients find in the non-ordinary reality. Half an hour is usually enough to get this perfect information. And only the clients interpret their journey, no one else.

Sometimes the counselor has to sit quietly and keep his mouth shut, because he might want to say something like, "Oh, I'd love to know what that means." But the counselor is always wrong. And if he were right, it would also be wrong, because it doesn't help the clients - they have to figure it out for themselves. I'm often asked, "Can you trust this knowledge, can you trust these answers?" And then I ask the counter question, "How do you know you can trust your dentist, your lawyer, or this person or that person?" And I get in response, "No, I don't trust that answer." Then I say again, "Well, you will learn to trust the answer by not paying attention to it. And a few months later you will see that you could have trusted the answer after all. It's very simple."

A system for practical use

The work of shamans is practical and not mysterious. What is mysterious is our inability to take the work seriously. In order for us to believe in something, people have to wear white coats and stay in laboratories. Feathers - no, so they can't wear feathers. How can those with feathers know anything at all? They only have the longest proven and best tested system known to mankind at their disposal. Psychotherapy - modern times. Modern medicine - modern times. But shamanism is stone age! This is not new, but it is verified. On all inhabited continents the natives discover the same thing again and again!
And this is the point we should pay attention to: It works.

It doesn't matter how you start, with the drum or with counseling. It also doesn't matter if you say, "Oh, that must be my imagination." Stick with it, keep going, and you'll see what you discover. Our brain is not the biggest thing in the universe. I know that comes as a shock to many, but there may actually be more significant things in the universe than humans. And, again, it's not blind faith that teaches us this, but we discover this through first-hand experience.

Shamans are knowledgeable. And that is the problem with people like I am: I talk and try to convince you - that's our Western way and totally un-shamanic. All I can do is hold out the ice cream to you and encourage you to take a lick. Taste it and see how it tastes. Your life will never be what it was before.
Thank you.


Prof. Dr. Michael Harner was the founder and President of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.