First, I want to thank the Tuvan shamans here for blessing us and bringing their drums to our consciousness, for the drum is the ancient tool of the shaman, used throughout the world, even in Europe, many thousands of years ago. In fact the drum as a shaman’s tool did survive in Northern Europe among the Sami people up until the beginning of the present century as a tool for making the shaman’s journey. But there are many doors to this other reality of the shaman. The drum is a very important door. There are other doors, too.
I was introduced first to shamanism in the upper Amazon, where they do not use drums, but use strong native psychedelics or hallucinogens to enter that other reality, the reality that Carlos Castaneda called Non-Ordinary Reality. And shamans call it a reality, because they experience it first hand – it is not something they read about or hear about. They experience it first hand with all their senses. That is why shamans are known in the tribal cultures as persons who know, for shamanism is not a faith, it is a method of knowing.
The Shamanic State of Consciousness
The shamans know first-hand the reality that lies beyond the ordinary reality that we perceive in daily life. The shamans are often said by scholars to enter that reality by means of trance. But I do not use the word trance, because it applies to so many things in daily life. When you’re watching the computer, when you’re watching a football game , when you are driving on the highway, when you are listening to your spouse talk, all these are occasions for trance. The word has very little meaning. So, I prefer to use the term shamanic state of consciousness, which is not just a psychophysiological state, but a state where the shaman has discipline, and knowledge of how to work.
For shamanic work involves real knowledge, and for that reason the shamans are known as persons who know. But the shamans are also known in their cultures as seers or see-ers , because they see what other people do not. Unfortunately many scholars in the West for many years assumed that shamans were crazy, because they saw things that others did not. But by the same token Einstein was crazy, and Kekulé, the man who discovered the benzene ring was crazy. And so, in fact, it is the case that shamans have to see what others do not see. That is their job. It used to be said that shamans are crazy, but they were fortunate to live in crazy cultures, not sane cultures like New York City, but crazy cultures where people live with nature in harmony. Fortunately, this point of view is no longer prevalent in psychoanalysis, I believe. I certainly hope so.
Ancestral knowledge lost and found
Because now we are at a point in history, where at last we are ready to listen to our ancestors. You know it is a tragedy, that so much of the knowledge of our ancestors was lost. Here in Europe, and also in other major civilizations. And people may say, “Well, if shamanism is so valuable why was the knowledge lost?” It has to do with the rise of civilizations, of state authorities, with priesthoods, and centralized ecclesiastical hierarchies. Not just in Europe, but elsewhere too.
Let me tell you a little story: When I was with the Conibo Indians in the Upper Amazon in 1960-61, there used to come to our village a North American evangelist missionary. He spoke the Indians’ language and they liked to have him come, because nobody had ever read from books to them before. Of course, he always read from the same book, but they still liked it.
And so one evening he came to our village where I was living with the Indians, and he read about the miracles of Jesus. The Indians liked this man, and they wanted him to come back, to read some more. So when he was going down to his canoe, one of the old shamans of the village went down with him, and I went down, too. And the shaman said to the missionary: “You know, that was a good story you told us about this man Jesus bringing this man Lazarus back from the dead.” And the shaman then added: “And you know, you’re absolutely right. We did it here a few nights ago, and it works.” I do not think it takes much imagination to see the dangers of shamanism for organized religion.
The power of the drum
Divination – divine knowledge with the drum, with other percussion, with psychedelics in about ten percent of the shamanic cultures only. There are many doors through which the shamans went to get help from the spirits, but they all arrived at the same place and the same understanding. They are not just see-ers, seeing, but they enter another reality, here all their senses perceive what’s going on. They hear, they touch, they feel movement, they smell , every sense occurs.
That is why we can speak of another reality, or in Carlos Castaneda’s term Non-Ordinary Reality. But it is more than just another reality. It is a whole hidden universe of immense wisdom, immense power for healing. Shamans around the world recognize three worlds: this one, the middle world, the upper world, and the lower world. And in those worlds, the upper and lower, there are many levels. When shamans wish to get divine knowledge, to get healing help, they leave this middle world through the shamanic journey.
“The drum,” some shamans in Siberia say, “is our horse.” Others say, “it’s our reindeer”, because they ride reindeer. In the Amazon they sometimes say, “it’s our canoe”. The drum helps carry the person in an altered state of consciousness to other worlds. One only needs to try the methods to understand.
Everybody can learn it – like automobile driving
One of the unfortunate things, one of our mistakes in western scholarship, was to assume that you had to be very, very unusual to begin to experience the world of the shaman. But in fact in our own experiments, we find that 90 percent of Westerners can easily have access to those worlds. That doesn’t mean that they are shamans, it means however they can start. It’s just like learning to drive an automobile.
In shamanism quite truly, as you enter through the journey these other realities, these other worlds, I should say, you start re-acquiring the memory of the hidden universe where you came from when you were born, and where you’ll go when you die. And that gradually replaces some of your ordinary reality memory. And I’m not just making an excuse for myself, it really happens. So the shaman, through the journeys, becomes more and more a part of the world of the helping spirits.
Now why does the shaman go up and why does the shaman go down? Why doesn’t the shaman just stay here in the middle world? The shaman can do that, the shaman can bring spirits down into the middle world, up into the middle world, but that does not distinguish the shaman. As Mircea Eliade pointed out in 1951 in his book, Shamanism, Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, the most obvious distinctive feature of shamanism is the journey to other worlds and what he called ecstasy, or what others called trance. That is what we now call the Shamanic State of Consciousness which has different degrees of depth. And the shaman goes there for clarity.
Here in the middle world, as I think you may have discovered, things are rather confused. If you don’t know that yet, I congratulate you. You do not need to study shamanism, you’re already beyond. And even in the spiritual world, things are confused here in the middle world. But going outside of time, as the Siberian shamans say, to the upper and lower worlds, the shaman moves into the round of the gods, the goddesses, the ancestors, the spirits that have gone beyond the confusion of the middle world. Spirits that have lived here in a living form at one time, that look back on our situation and see how difficult it is for us – more than we see it, because we are in it.
Knowledge from a first-hand basis
And looking back on us these spirits have compassion for our situation. They were recently here, they understand our situation. And so it is not only in shamanism, it is also in major religions, that people turn to intermediaries for help. Whether they are saints, whether they are the holy trinity, whether we’re talking about Hinduism or Christianity or some other religion, people turn to these intermediaries. And so, the shaman does so also.
But the shaman does not just pray, the shaman travels to visit and knows these beings on a first-hand basis. And goes to seek help with compassion for his or her community, for the shaman is a healer. The shaman often reluctantly enters this work. But knows that his or her people need help. And in this sense the shaman sacrifices himself or herself for the benefit of the people, for relations with the plants and the animals. But it is not a sad sacrifice, for these journeys are truly journeys of ecstasy. Not just ecstasy as another word for trance, but ecstasy in terms of the highest possible joy that humans can experience. A joy that is mixed with tears, a holy, sacred ecstasy.
So sometimes western scholars have been puzzled about why old men would jump around all night with their drums and suffer so much – they are not suffering. They are filled with power from the spirits. They are not doing the work. That is one of the big secrets of shamanism: the shamans are not doing the work; the spirits are doing the work. Now what are sprits? Well, often this causes a problem for educated westerners. Our ancestors knew there were spirits. They lived with them every day. And in fact, probably most Westerners believe there are spirits, too.
After all, if you assume that each one of us has a spirit then maybe there are four billion spirits or more in the world right now. If you believe in the holy trinity, you’ve got three, if you believe in the saints, you’ve got a lot. It’s a matter of qualitative analysis, it’s not so much a question of whether they are.
Tricky work with radio and motor spirits
When I was first training in the Upper Amazon among the Conibo Indians, taking ayahuasca, a strong shamanic psychedelic, I thought I understood about spirits, because we would work at night with the anaconda, a giant boa constrictor spirit, or we would work with the spirit of the black puma, we would work with the spirit of the freshwater dolphin and so on.
But one night we started with a new kind of spirit and it was a big teaching: we started with the radio spirit, and the outboard motor spirit, and the airplane spirit. It’s not simple. Anything the shaman sees in complete darkness or with the eyes closed, is a spirit. Now this does not mean it’s just simply an image, no. Because the shaman through study comes to know what spirits can help and for what purpose. So, through this kind of study the shaman knows especially to go to the upper and lower world to get help, because there are particularly powerful spirits.
The concept of spirit, you know, was destroyed during the so-called age of enlightenment. You remember that? Maybe you’re too young. 18th century. Well, before that the inquisition was busy destroying shamanism, because they had their own ideas of who the approved spirits were. But, after that, science finished the job. Because science, partially in reaction to the church, decided that there were no spirits – a priori. Therefore science is a system of faith, because they have excluded certain kinds of phenomena from existence without even studying them.
The Shaman as one of the first scientists
Things are changing. We are here to learn from our ancestors. It doesn’t matter what the skin color is. They are keeping the sacred knowledge alive and sharing it now again with the world. We are going to reach a period soon, I hope, where we will have a true science, not based on the faith that there are no spirits, but based on the idea, that any possible phenomenon may exist and should be studied.
The shaman has always been a scientist. One of the first scientists. The shaman experimented with the plants to find what was good for healing. The shaman can talk with the plants and learn what they are good for. We have modern students now in America and Europe, who in fact have written books on what they’ve learned directly talking to the plants and those books represent knowledge that was also known in ancient times in China and elsewhere, but they got it directly from the plants. This is the way shamans work. They are able to talk with everything. They heal the dead as well as the living, do the psychopomp work to get people who are dying and dead to the best places they can be. There is nothing that shamanism cannot assist in, but it never has been an exclusionary approach. It is to help in a holistic approach.
A new approach: Shamanic Counseling
Let us now talk about the title of this talk. The techniques of the shaman for divination are the subject here. Classically, professional shamans, when they are visited by a stranger who has a question about his or her life, do not go into a life history. They don’t need to go into a life history, the spirits know the life history, and all the shaman has to do is to consult the spirit. One of the ways to do this is to journey to them and ask them what the answer is to the problem of the person.
Shamans also can do that for themselves. And so, because of that, we of the FSS developed this system called Shamanic Counseling which you may find interesting.
Instead of live drum the client puts on earphones. The drumming is at 4 to 7 Hertz, which is very effective, very monotonous drumming. The client is taught to journey to the upper world and lower world, but he or she is not told what the upper world is like. That’s religion, not shamanism. Shamanism is a method, not a religion. And so they journey, and they find someone and they ask: Are you my teacher? And if the person agrees, then they ask a question. And if they’re learning the method, they will find the teacher can answer the question both directly and symbolically. And the answers are perfect for each person, and persons feel that in their heart.
We have people with independent practices called Shamanic Counselors. They are only counselors of method, not counselors of peoples’ lives. The real counselors of the client are in the non-ordinary reality, where the client goes for half an hour and gets perfect information. And only the client interprets the information, nobody else. The client has to discover the knowledge.
Sometimes the counselors have to sit still, keeping their mouth shut, because they might want to say “Oh, I must know what it is!“ Almost always the counselor is wrong. And anyway, even if the counselor is right, it doesn’t help the client, the client has to discover the knowledge. And people often say: “How do you know you can trust the knowledge?“ And I say: „How do you know you can trust your dentist, lawyer, this person etc.?“ It’s the same thing: you find out through practice. And people say: „Well, I don’t trust the answer. I say: ”Fine! You will learn to trust the answer by not paying attention to it.” And several months later you will learn that you should have trusted the answer. It’s simple.
Practical work, no mysteries
The shaman’s work is very practical, it’s not mysterious. What’s mysterious is our failure to take it seriously. People should have white coats and laboratories to give us truth. They should not be dressed with feathers. How can they know anything? How? They have the longest time-tested system of using the mind known to humanity. Psychotherapy is new age. Modern medicine is new age. This is stone age! This is not new, this is tested! And in all inhabited continents of the world the natives rediscovered the same principle over and over again. This is why we should pay attention. It works. It does not matter how you start doing this work, whether you do it with live drum, whether you do it with shamanic counseling, it does not matter if you say, “Oh, this must be my imagination.“ It doesn’t not matter! Keep practicing, and you know what you will discover?
Our brains are not the biggest things in the universe. I know this is a shock to some people, but actually there might be bigger things than the human race. And again it’s not faith, it’s discovery through first-hand experience. The shamans are people who know. And this is the trouble with someone like me talking. Because I’m trying to tell you something and persuade you. And that is really not the shamanic way, it is the western way. All I can do is to offer you the ice cream cone and suggest you take a lick of it and see how it is. And I think you’ll find your lives will never be the same again, they’ll be better.
Prof. Dr. Michael Harner was the founder and President of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.
Based on a lecture given in 1996 to a Congress of Psychotherapy including Shamanism in Vienna, Austria.