The Way of A Shaman
In memoriam Michael Harner (1929–2018)
“Finally on an evening in 1982 I approached the entrance of the cave alone, silently calling upon the spirits to have compassion for me and to confer greater power for my work in healing others.”
Michael Harner, Cave and Cosmos, 2013
There are extraordinary individuals who are able and willing to venture far ahead into unknown territory, thus preparing the way for others. Michael Harner, born in 1929 in Washington, D.C., was such a person. Trained as an anthropologist with a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1961 he experienced his initiation into shamanism when studying the Conibo in Eastern Peru. By taking the step from scientific observer to shamanic practitioner, he crossed the Rubicon that separates science from what the scientific community considers to be superstition. Michael Harner found a way of walking on both banks of that river at the same time.
He understood that indigenous shamanic knowledge was rapidly vanishing and that the different shamanic cultures around the globe shared many common elements. Learning from different communities in the Upper Amazon and engaging in extensive research on shamanism worldwide, he distilled the underlying cross-cultural principles and practices into what he termed “core shamanism.” Not a system of belief, core shamanism is based on firsthand experience that “spirits are real.” With core shamanism, Michael Harner provided a language and structure for experiences with spirits in non-ordinary reality, thus making it possible to replicate and study such experiences, and to teach a shamanic methodology.
With the establishment of core shamanism, he encouraged a revival of shamanic knowledge and healing practices in the West. With his book “The Way of the Shaman”, first published in 1980, he created a seminal and classic resource for contemporary shamanism. Though he was a writer of captivating style and clarity, he refrained from publishing further books for more than three decades in order to allow the shamanic teachings he had initiated to grow and develop through the oral tradition of our ancestors. This was a bold and visionary approach for present-day cultures dominated by the written word as contained in religious doctrines, historical records, or scientific worldviews. But it worked out well, resulting in the renaissance of shamanism we currently see in the West.
He used the workshop format, the appropriate setting for learning in Western cultures, thus allowing participants to experience the power of a group devoted to shamanic healing, essentially providing the experience of the “tribe” to people from cultures who had lost their shamanic traditions. That aspect gained special importance for the spread of core shamanism throughout Europe, which had cut its ties with shamanic traditions long ago. Michael Harner’s encounter with Paul Uccusic at the Forum Alpbach in Austria in 1982 sparked not only a life-long friendship between the two men, but also the establishment and growth of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Europe, through the work of Paul and Roswitha Uccusic.
Together with his wife, psychologist Sandra Harner, in 1979 he founded the Center for Shamanic Studies, which in 1985 became the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, as an organizational framework for this new, fundamentally oral tradition. Having been a professor for several decades at universities including Columbia University, Yale University, and the Graduate Faculty of the New School in New York, in 1987 Michael Harner resigned his professorship in order to concentrate full-time on his work with the Foundation. His work with indigenous shamans was no one-way street, but a mutual exchange of knowledge based on respect and trust. He recognized that shamanic cultures had suffered centuries of religious and political persecution. Thus, through the Foundation, besides offering core shamanic training, he made the preservation and study of indigenous cultures an essential part of the Foundation´s mission, establishing a shamanic archive of books and materials and supporting indigenous master shamans as Living Treasures of Shamanism.
Highly respected, Michael Harner was widely recognized as the foremost authority on shamanism in the West. He was consulted by academics around the world, and even indigenous shamans with whom he had collegial relationships. He was a teacher who spoke with authority, but always left his students the freedom to travel their own paths. He unified scientific rigor and high ethics with spiritual profundity and a legendary sense of humour.
Over the last several years Michael Harner began to bring some cycles in his work to a close. In 2013 he published “Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality,” an account of the reality of the spirit world drawn from a lifetime of personal experience and research, as well as student reports from the Foundation’s workshops. In the same year, after a long period of preparation and training, he handed over the presidency of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies to Susan Mokelke.
The message of core shamanism is out. This new shamanic tradition has spread significantly over the last decades, across continents, languages and civilisations. At the same time, many traditional shamanic cultures have been revived and are honoured again. Michael Harner respectfully accepted his initiation so many decades ago, seized his life’s work with power and perseverance, and fulfilled his mission. On February 3rd 2018, only a few weeks before his 89th birthday, Michael Harner passed away close to his home in Mill Valley, California.
“If I were to die tomorrow, I’d feel that I’d done more than I had ever hoped. I feel very lucky that way. I never envisioned this path, and I never envisioned so many students wanting to seek it. Now there are so many people who are well-trained and prepared to work with and learn from the spirits. My legacy is my students as much as anything, because they will carry on, and some will go farther than I have ever gone.”
Michael Harner on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2009
Books: “The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls” (1972), “Hallucinogens and Shamanism” (1973), “The Way of the Shaman” (1980), „Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality“ (2013).