Ecstasy, Authenticity and Passion
An Infidel’s Adventures in Shamanism
Stalking Ecstasy, Losing Guides
I had been for the longest time an avowed agnostic on this shamanic power animal, spirit guide business. In fact I had never been all that enthusiastic about shamanism per se because the word carried this sweet aroma of tribalism with it wherever it went. I wasn’t tribal and I never wanted to be. Healing through Sorcery, however, was different matter, or at least the matter of a different noun. The fact that a healing worked on one particular night, however, forced me, although indirectly, to reevaluate my previous positions on shamanism’s details and undertake a drawn-out investigation into the source of one’s power in these healing and seeing and magical activities. The following is the meandering report on the findings from that pursuit.
It started out because the man who had the mushrooms, said to be wondrous mushrooms, was sick that day. Such was the dreary beginning to years of hacking back through superstitions, reverse racism, bad translations, desperate scientism, rumors of a something called spirit, the Mystique of the Other, and a variety of cheerfully compelling illusions about magic; all that in the darkness of uncommon experience. It was as if I was trying to find the ultimate headwater of some dim river that when not dry had too many tributaries to follow through the jungles, and I really don’t like jungles. It should be noted here, early on, that I rarely sought evidence in this probe from books, having written a couple I knew they are not to be trusted; events, though, rarely lie.
The scene: Roberto, a psychologist who was much better versed in shamanism than I was at the time, had these mushrooms said to be the best of the breed and he’d invited my partner and I to come out to his home in a canyon in the Sangre de Cristos, northern New Mexico, USA, for a ceremonial tasting, so to speak. Only when we got there, early afternoon, he was sick, depressed, distressed and he wanted to postpone the function until another night. But my partner and I were already prepared for a preeminent journey based on Roberto’s advance enthusiasm over this fungus. We countered with a proposal that rather than being disabused of our expectations, we’d just raise the intentions for the evening. In those days we never undertook an expedition without dedicating it in ritual to the loftiest intention. We would use the medicine to cure whatever had beset Roberto. He agreed and crawled back under his covers to sweat until the chills set in for another cycle through his dis-ease while we spent the afternoon in preparatory silence to focus the work. I cut a few runes and we meditated into a medical style of righteousness that we thought now fit the occasion. A journey to meet a crisis is always preferable to any other.
At sundown, in the light from a huge rock fireplace fueled with split ponderosa logs the size of watermelons, we made our declarations of intent, divided and chopped the mushrooms, blessed them and what was about to occur, ate the medicine and began to drum the life back into the waning energy of the evening. And straight away we realized our all too pessimistic underestimation of the quick and paralytic quality of this particular harvest. The three of us started losing track. We diverged and effortlessly wandered off on our own ways. All coherence of purpose and power was shouldered out of my mind and the intentions refined in the afternoon looked likely to be smothered by a thick, tiresome, throw-back DMT tapestry and the clatter of the synaptic loom that was weaving it. I wanted no part of this. Yet my focus seemed nailed to the illusion and I could not even remember to open my eyes. (1)
This story would be worthless had it not involved a rescue. From a substrate far more profound than any illusion emerged that element of my mind that remains casually aloof of all intoxicants. It rose like the voice of an oracle from a cave to advise me that there was nothing more essential in the known universe than the immediate healing of Roberto. It was a challenge to my self-image as a magician. The response was almost automatic; in something like an ego-driven act of passion my willful consciousness, without delay or consideration, folded this bright, patch-worked, calico, psychedelic, winding-sheet back into darkness, I rose, roused my partner and we began the healing. By early morning it had taken effect. She and I had levered into Roberto’s soul the fact that there was no reasonably objective purpose in him being sick…and so he wasn’t any more.
Reflecting on that evening, I devalued mushrooms or any other organic expedient as elements vital to healing talents. Their role was secondary to the work. It appeared the medicine did exactly what intoxicants have always done whether at healing rituals or cocktail parties: it broke up the inhibitions and superficial habits of the psyche. It gave the three of us uncommon masks to wear in the others’ presence. It helped close us out of the roles we had assumed for decades and distilled the connections down to healers/healee, all conveniently ripped into suspending our disbelief in this novel configuration. This would be invaluable in a small, close-knit tribal or clan community where histories are thoroughly known by all and roles and identities are set early and hard to shatter outside of divine intervention. But living as I did outside such a setting, I began to think of such medicine as that type of handy expedient that eventually helps atrophy the innate skills of the user. Mushrooms do not make up the nest from which the power is sourced.
Until that time I had read minimally about shamanism and was counted absent from every workshop. What I knew came from casual conversations, glimpses from my youth back on the rez, happenstance experience and extrapolations off related subjects like Nordic myth and entheogins and alchemy from Taoist and European sources. These were the foundation for my notions of healing; these and what I knew of Christian church going healers like the late Oral Roberts, or the Snake Handlers of East Tennessee. No one can deny the passion of these people and superficial appearances at least have them working in the same media as the shamans of other lands and cultures. I have found however that it is not p.c. to argue too vehemently a case to include crazy Christian fundamentalists into the shamanic fold, but one should not gainsay their successes either. I’ve lived in Tennessee, I’ve known ’em kinda good ol’ folks and concluded, with sufficient hubris, that if any “head of the holler” preacher can work an effective healing so could I. (Or, more accurately, the healee of that situation could with a little boost from whatever it was that I was trying to do.)
In this same light I have to admit that I had never been endowed with an anthropological curiosity and that was part of the reason that shamanism, an appurtenance of other cultures, did not provide much interest for me. My own culture is without a doubt weird enough to justify several lifetimes of exclusive study. Additionally, I doubted if I would ever aspire to be a shaman in the strict sense for there seems to be in that calling a supplicatory spiritual if not religious infrastructure that felt too much like a compelling illusion. Supplication grates on my nerves. I dislike asking for anything from anything that doesn’t have a form and a behavior that I can watch all the while that our dealings are moving toward conclusion.
I have no faith in the invisible, or, to tell the full truth, a significant share of the visible either. I suspect I am a thoroughgoing infidel. Nonetheless, the more exotic habits of humanity have always posed as curiosities for me and shamanism was, from time to brief occasional time, a subject that I infrequently thought I would study…in the future.
Roberto, however, helped to make the future tense present because he asked my lover and me, the next morning, to review a selection of shamanic literature to help him find texts for an undergraduate course he was preparing to teach. He gave us nearly a dozen to sample. One particular evening we stopped our review just after reading Michael Harner’s chapter on how to find the power animal spirit guide. “Someday,” I thought and maybe even spoke it out loud, “I might give that another try.” My two previous ventures into the field of ethereal zoology had been failures, due no doubt to my infidelity to Spirit.
To be honest I was edging to the left of agnostic on this power animal question. Instead of just being short on fidelity, mine was a distinctly cynical doubt. I kept mostly silent about it, however, because numbered among my friends were some fairly serious believers. So, I had concocted a little parable based on an actual event to explain the lack of spirit animals in my practices. This legend had it that on a day in 1975 the animals had all gone away. And that my complicity in their departure was clear; it was as clear as the freezing sky above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Osha Peak east of Taos, NM, that afternoon. It was the day, I would tell the believers, I came to know too much; the day the animals reached similar conclusions. The event was real and steeped in ecstasy, but my spin on it was an indulgence. The story goes:
I found the track about sunrise. An elk or a deer had made it. There was no way to determine which because the thigh-deep snow was pure powder, frozen airy fluff, slick like old-time soap flakes that filled in all details and covered all the signs as soon as the animal had grooved through. But it didn’t matter. I would, promiscuously, stay with this trail until its superior showed up. All these trails are fundamentally the same: the prey is creating the front end of it and somewhere back is the predator. The two choreograph an energetic dance with one another that is synchronized by something other than sight or sound. Until that particular type of relational energy is isolated and a measuring gauge invented to make it secular, we can call it medicine or magic, predator medicine, prey magic, words that emphatically ring with more fascination than “predator non-ordinary reality,” a currently popular shamanic weasel-phrase that hopes to avoid attributions of schizophrenia.
I stepped into the trough of that track and the dance was joined. It lasted for hours. The sun rose high and crossed the zenith but the world remained frozen and the snow stayed deep and secretive. Nothing sounded but the critiques of gray jays and ravens. As the predator I had to concentrate on keeping as much of myself as possible behind me. Predators can’t advance their presence in time or geography; they can’t grow energy or pretend to be big. Predators can’t be anything except open. And if open enough they don’t even have to be fast. Good prey magic, on the other hand, is much more complex, variable and permitting of deception. Being fast is good, though faster is better. If predator and prey are well paired and practiced than it becomes an ecstatic dance worth the price of admission. Being predatorily open is real ecstasy for it is well outside the everyday state. It is a condition induced from severely limited dimensions since, ironically, it takes a tight little trance to be so open. In this state I find my body seems compact and dense with an electrified serenity that is difficult to contain but impossible to spill. A rhythm of some easy origin and cadence takes a position on the margin of consciousness. After a while thoughts stop and the senses become vacuums. And from holding myself behind me for a time all my progress seems to halt, but the landscape passes by as if the world were my treadmill.
And then suddenly it comes apart. That’s the point of it all.
Suddenly on the edge of a clearing I stopped, stilled without conscious reason. Nothing objectively had changed except I was instantly washed throughout with an adrenaline rapture that signaled I had found the prey. And by and by, or so it seemed, the largest buck mule deer I had ever seen rose from his noon nap concealed behind a huge downed ponderosa only 25 feet away. He paused to account for me then left on a slow, swaggering kind of bound, made slow motioned by the snow. He held his head gracefully aslant to keep me in view. I howled my thanksgiving toward heaven. The magic had worked again.
I had discovered predator magic when I was 11. It was of a slightly dissimilar nature at the time; the perceptions were styled differently. But the effect was the same because my intention was identical. I found it while hunting a man, a friend of mine through the thick brush along the river that cut through my family’s ranch in Wyoming. Time was running, but I was running faster in an intense hurry to see this man do his work. It was almost sundown, a January evening in the middle of the mid-’50s drought. The ground was frozen; there was no snow. The man left no discernable track for a mile. Yet I could tell exactly where he had walked. I could see his footprint on the moss of a rock, although on close examination that moss looked no different than that on the adjacent rock. And I could see that the willow and juniper branches he had brushed against had a just barely noticeable glow, an aura that faded on scrutiny. And the air through which he had walked felt different than the air I felt when off his trail. I was not astonished by any of this. I seemed to take it all for granted.
But I was not taking time to think about it. I wanted urgently to find this man before night fully fell. And I was not surprised when I did. I heard him first, crept up past a couple of willows and saw him, a little dimly in that dying light. He was squatting on the river’s edge washing his scent from the mink trap he had just set. But he was surprised when I casually walked up and said “hi.” He asked me how I had found him. I replied that I had followed his trail. He said impossible, he had left no tracks on the frozen ground, a least none that were visible in the gathering dark. But I told him where he had been, where he had set two other traps. He said that I must have better eyes than his and made me a partner in his trap line then and there.
I never thought the experience strange, or talked up its details. In the years that followed I thought that I had been running on instinct and that was not so out of the ordinary that it was worth examination. I just thought it was what every one would do, could do. No one had ever told me it was a possibility. Then again no one had ever told me that it wasn’t. It was outside all considerations for those in my community. Accidentally, I had stumbled across this medicine by myself, on my own, without a mentoring elder or a tutelary animal spirit. I had no one to teach anything of it to me, a willful, gangly country kid, blond of hair and white of culture.
For better or worse, or for neutral more reasonably, I am selectively reconciled to my culture and its artifacts, one of which, I used to testify, was responsible for all the animals leaving the ethers of my magic that afternoon in the Sangre de Cristos near Osha Peak. It was what I held in my hands: a Remington 7-mm magnum rifle. By all standards, it was an awesome little machine of unspeakable speed and power. I had traded for that rifle out of the back of a van belonging to a radical Oneida Indian gunrunner in the days ago when that was a flourishing political occupation. And it has long since plunged back into the pool from which it rose. I had not used it that afternoon because the license in my pocket read “Elk” not “Deer.” But that is beside the point. So too was the fact that the medicine had brought me so close to the prey, and so disarmed the prey of fear, that a spear and atlatl would have worked better. The crux of it all was that rifle was a teacher to me and through it I came to know too much. I knew there wasn’t any better predator working on that mountain that day, or one who held as much physical power. What did any of the animals have that I might need? Why should I call on the power of an animal, or entrust some emissary of my soul to its guidance, when that animal requires for its survival rules and regulations promulgated by lawmakers to protect it from someone…well, like me? And hence they left. The animals vanished; I would tell that to my friends. It was true, the animals and their spirits had shown me no nests that could qualify to be the source of healing or divination or the source for any other power whatsoever.
Years progressed and accumulated events and the story became self-fulfilling. I found that I could not even depend on the animals with whom I lived, intimate companions, raised from infancy, to guide me in discarnate regions. The story builds:
As a result of long standing circumstances and connections, years ago, when that sort of craziness was my profession, I was hired to investigate the suspicious death of a Navajo man in Taos County, NM. He had been an activist and his family and friends did not trust the regulation non-Indian authorities to pursue the matter thoroughly or honestly. On the first foray about, I stopped where his body had been discovered, turned predator, but found no trace of anything residual, nothing energetic, or spiritual, nothing with a tinge of sadness or upset. And within days word reached me from the dead man’s home reservation in another state that several Indian priests working on the issue had all quickly lost his trail, post mortem, themselves. Apparently we had all thought it worth a try to see if the departed gentleman could pass us back a few leads from the other side, but no one was able to connect.
A couple of nights later, in a dream I glimpsed the man’s shrouded body laying a third submerged at the edge of a lake, but it disappeared the instant I called out to another man nearby. For 35 years dreams have been my drugs, journeys and workshops of choice when I am looking for an answer. They are effective. I trust them in the same way I trust the sun to rise because my conscious will, which tends to be impatient, rebellious and iconoclastic, is not on the field of their play. Only in a dream are the more footloose daemons of my soul free to slip the willful governance of my conscious senses that find this color bound and too, too solid earth so delicious that no other element, conscious or not, can quit the banquet in order to go Out.
A month of legwork and interviews had ambled past that dream when one night I had another:
I was in the yard of an ancient, stone walled monastery, digging a hole in the damp rocky ground. The dog I lived with in daylight reality was with me. His name was Stutz, a Chow crossed Malamute fellow, an inveterate explorer and a splendid point man on all our expeditions. But here he was going to bed. Night was falling, the monks were calling curfew and Stutz was going to bed. He was crumping out on my project. Dogs in dreams are supposed to be the paragons of psychopomps. But what did my friend do? Stutz circled three times in a hollow against a wall and went to sleep and I kept digging.
Suddenly I found myself walking alone up a trail through juniper, willow and aspen thickets like those that edge rivers in Wyoming. Then I saw a man my age with bright red hair coming toward me. He had just woken up; he was rubbing sleep from his eyes. I wondered if he wasn’t hung over. And then I realized I knew him. I had gone through secondary school with this man. He thought he recognized me too. He asked me to give him the name of a mutual friend to help him recall who I was. I did and he did. He told me where he was living and the name of the woman who was his lover and he even told me the name of their landlord. He gave the impression that his was a pleasant and surprisingly easy life. We then went our ways; glad we had met. The ultra-real details of the middle-aged creases on his freckled face glowed like a ghost image on the back of my eyelids as I awoke. Then I remembered his name: Norman Moore, one of the first young men from Wyoming killed in Viet Nam over 30 years before.
I recorded this in my journal and two weeks went by, maybe more. I studied police accounts and translated the autopsy report into penetrable English, more legwork, more interviews.
Then one night I was left by myself on the otherwise deserted set of an unremembered dream. Stutz wasn’t with me. It had been an insignificant dream and I questioned why I was still in it. Then a stranger stepped out of the wings, so to speak. He asked, “Are you Steven?”
I said I was.
“I’m supposed to give you a message from Norman,” he said. “He wants you to know that he’s been working up in Taos County, working around the clock since the last time he saw you. He says the man you’re looking for isn’t there. No one is ever going to find him anywhere. He’s gone away.”
“And Norman was wondering if it’s alright for him to go now. He’s spent a lot of time up there and he has other things to take care of at home.”
“Yeah, its alright,” I said. “Tell him ‘Thanks a lot.”
All of that had happened and Stutz had not been anywhere around. He had not helped at all. I wondered if he had made common cause with the other animals and had vanished from my ethers, or was it because he was a white man dog. He had lived all his life in a culture where these particular types of expeditions are simply beyond the possible. How would he know where I went or what his role should be when I had never talked to him about going anywhere except into the daylight barrancas beyond our house? Would it have been different if Stutz had been a dog from the rez? Had the help from Norman come because I was crossing over into a different culture; or because the man, whose abbreviated life had become the pool of my immersion, practiced himself what Mercia Eliade called an “archaic religion?
Stalking Authenticity, Culling the Cultures
There is that possibility that a certain type of culture is the sole, natural preserve of the shaman, a possibility that culture is the nest where power is found. I cannot think of any credible non-fiction on the subject that could do anything more than posit that conclusion by default if not by overt attribution. But where else can a writer in the field of shamanism go except into the “primitive,” indigenous cultures of Central Asia, or Greenland, or Indonesia, the South American jungles, North American Reservations? What else can they do except write up their findings in a Meet the Shaman format that is either an anthropological/psychological overview or features a quasi-journalistic specificity? The first are authored by academics who all seem to be using the same database. The second type tends toward the Seeker-written and is characterized by long passages of Socratic dialogue that causes one to speculate that the author/disciple is blessed with either a build-in tape recorder, or a superhuman memory, or, more likely, theirs’ is a mediocre creativity as seen in the fact that both master and student speak with the same unremarkable voice, accent, rhythm or lack thereof, and vocabulary. And this is not to leave out that genre of self-help offerings that utilize “ancient techniques” to keep us well adjusted, environmentally conscious, and open minded regarding the theistic ingestion of hallucinogens as long as it is done in a country where it is legal. These latter works, more often than not, constitute the curricula for workshops.
Most of the literature is similar in that the authors like to:
A. Beat up on anthropologists in general or other kinds of anthropologists in particular for sins of omission, commission or ethnocentrism.
B. Broadly condemn the planet plundering, industrialized, desensitized, mechanized, science-ridden western culture because it forcibly relocated our entire population so far outside The Garden and spoiled it for all of those who really, really, really want to believe in magic.
C. Sidestep any implication that they might believe in or have been witness to actual magic. They write as if they fear nothing more than to be thought of as crackpots by their all too often academic peers.
If one wants to read about magic stay out of the shelves marked “Shamanism.” Anything vaguely in the realm of the paranormal is euphemized away or analyzed beyond recognition. I believe it was Holgar Kalweit who once wrote that when a western observer is brought face to face with the paranormal their immediate response is to fall back into elaborate scientistic ratiocinations over the issue, probably in order to maintain credibility and to keep all eventualities sanely within the Weltanschauung our culture has condemned them to serve. Thus positivism makes cowards of them all.)
David Abram is an ecologist and a slight of hand artist who several years ago authored an addition to the “Shamanism” shelves that meets all the above criteria: The Spell of the Sensuous. It is a second-generation Shaman-shelf book that explores the calling not as an object of study for its own sake, but as an entré into another field altogether. Abram uses a 27-page first chapter of observations on shamanic magic as the fulcrum over which to lever a Deep Ecology agenda into a 326-page polemic. It is a splendid treatise on phenomenology that deftly explicates the writing of Heidegger among others. The book taught me everything I know today about linguistics and I am grateful for that. And while it gives the requisite horse whipping to the anthropologists and the Wannabees, it also, strangely enough, short changes the shamans whose culture, Abram seems to believe, is the cradle of power. We read:
“Psychotherapists and some physicians have begun to specialize in ‘shamanic healing techniques.’ ‘Shamanism’ has thus come to connote an alternative form of therapy; the emphasis, among these new practitioners of popular shamanism, in on personal insight and curing. These are noble aims, to be sure, yet they are secondary to, and derivative from, the primary role of the indigenous shaman, a role that cannot be fulfilled without long and sustained exposure to wild nature, to its patterns and vicissitudes. Mimicking the indigenous shaman’s curative methods without his intimate knowledge of the wider natural community cannot, if I am correct, do anything more than trade certain symptoms for others or shift the locus of dis-ease from place to place within the human community. For the source of stress lies in the relation between the human community and the natural landscape.”
If one wants to know what Eliade meant by the term “nostalgia for paradise” reread the foregoing paragraph. To learn more on the “primary role” of an indigenous shaman and the nature of magic please continue.
“Hence, the traditional magician or medicine person functions primarily as an intermediary between human and nonhuman worlds and only secondarily as a healer. Without a continually adjusted awareness of the relative balance or imbalance between human group and its nonhuman environ, along with the skills to modulate that primary relation, any ‘healer’ is worthless–indeed, not a healer at all. The medicine person’s primary allegiance, then, is not to the human community, but to the earthly web of relations in which that community is embedded…
“Magic, then, in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives…is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.”
Despite the emphatic quality of his declarations I doubt if Abram will soon find that he has written the last word on what constitutes the “primary role” of the shaman. There are probably as many diversified “Primary Roles” as there are shamans to fill them. And I am sure there are more than just one or two who would with somber faces and gleeful hearts gladly set the man straight on the matter. But that is a digression. The point is that Abram wrote a book, like almost all others, that defined shamanic power out of any other culture but the traditional indigenous. White people need not apply.
On the less theoretical and rhetorical end of the spectrum is an example of the same sort. It is found in Stephen Larsen’s The Shamans’ Doorway. Larsen writes of the curious experience of a young man known as J.B who found his way from New York City to The Great Slave Lake in the Canadian north. There J.B. convinced Adamie, a Dogrib Indian medicine man, to take him on as an apprentice. Partway through the training the young man bolted and fled back to Manhattan. He gave up the calling. Larsen asked why and J.B. replied that to become a shaman he would have had to become an Indian and he could never be more than a second-rate Indian. The calling seemed so inextricably bound to the culture that Larsen did not even ask if J.B. had considered the possibility he could take his training with him wherever he went. This was, I should point out, before the dawning of the New Age, a time when old Adamie could have become a favorite on the workshop circuit. It was before the time when seekers beyond numbering would have given their left ventricles for J.B.’s experiences. And they would have even known that it was safe, perhaps even profitable, to bring it all back home.
J.B.’s first trial toward his apprenticeship was the “extraction” of his soul that enabled Adamie to see if he was worthy of the training. (The story sounds like a deja vu of the legendary first encounter between the Taoist master, Lu-Tung-pin, and the wizard Zhong-li Quwan.) According to J.B.’s account, Adamie had put him into a trance with drumming and singing and he remained therein for a couple of days while the old man vetted his ethereal innards. Larsen was impressed that Adamie could extract the soul of a “rationally indoctrinated” westerner of European seed. (2) “…(I)f we are to believe the anthropologists,”Larsen continued, Adamie should only have been able to work this medicine on his own, more primitive, people. It occurs to me here that ethnocentrism is at its most virulent when we are analyzing the behavior of our own cultural colleagues. Larsen assumed that J.B. was as indoctrinated as he, himself, appears to be. Maybe J.B. had passed up the program his rationalizing culture was pushing; and so he was open to that much more experience. And J. B. had, admittedly, shown up at Adamie’s cabin with a gift in his hand and his soul on his sleeve. Nevertheless, Larsen helps make the conventional point: Shamanism is for primitive cultures; it is the curative nest egg for which that culture holds a monopoly.
The true loss I find in this fascinating tale of J.B. and Adamie is that no one was able to discover what Adamie thought. He, after all, had seen J.B.’s soul. Did he suspect that J.B. could never be more than a second-rate shaman because he was white? There is a good chance Adamie might have held such a prejudice. I have a story on the point:
In the mid-70s I was on the administrative staff of a fairly radical national Indian organization, teaching techniques of investigation to young Indian journalists and setting up a political power structure and legal research division. One of the organization’s long-standing projects was assisting grass roots members of several Eastern Oklahoma tribes reestablish formal recognition of their traditional tribal governments. This eventually successful effort was in opposition to the system of the time whereby the U.S. President appointed a “Principle Chief” for each tribe from a pool of oil company executives who were genetically qualified by at least 1/16th blood quantum if nothing else. For about a week in 1976, three of us; the organization’s director who was a North Carolina Cherokee, a staff attorney who was a white woman, and I, were in and around Tulsa and Tahlequah meeting with organizers and members of the Traditional Creek faction. One night one of the organizers, our host for the week, drove us into the hills about 60 miles out of Tulsa to a neighborhood stomp dance that was a benefit for someone sick or with other troubles.
It was about 10 at night when we got to the stomp grounds, but the dance had not started because a couple of the men who were going to be making the medicine for the dance had yet to arrive. We waited. Then we heard they were all present. And we waited. Midnight, we waited. One o’clock, the host reported that the medicine was not working and the dance could not start until it did. The lawyer, who knew her way around traditions and taboos, asked if the problem might lie in the fact that she was in the middle of her period. If that were so she said she would be glad to leave. The host said it was quite likely and went to ask. But there was no problem. The medicine men told him that her menses had no effect on their medicine because she was a white woman. I thought it gave her a legitimate cause to be at least somewhat offended. An Indian woman would certainly have felt dishonored if white men had so easily dismissed her presence and power. But the lawyer took no exception. She must have thought that culture was the nest, as did, evidently, the medicine men.
I have cut by way of experience into that obscurant and I am not so sure.
Only recently did I do some long neglected research on this matter of soul fragments and the searches for the same. Eliade wrote that it came out of central Asia. Where is the surprise in that one? He takes care to delineate tribes and practices and frets a little over current (1951) trends towards “quasi-trances” and shortcuts. He didn’t call it “soul retrieval” but what he writes of has all the earmarks of that modality and pure shamanism (i.e. the Central Asian brand by Eliade’s standards) and the cultures that generate it. The first time I heard of soul retrieval was about 1991 when Sandra Ingerman published her volume by that name. There was talk of it all around in Santa Fe, but I never read the book. One fellow there in an advanced training program learned the technique and began to offer it among his other shamanic services. The first time I assisted on one of his ceremonies was in fall, 1996. It made sense though I had to wonder about how “quasi-“ might be the trance. Others had learned it by then from workshops and apprenticeships. It was but a few years ago, however, that a friend told me that when she was in the retrieval journey her spirit animal would show her the soul fragments as brightly colored geometric shapes. That was when I remembered. I remembered those, the puzzling little pieces, a triangular cartoon potsherd, bright orange, and one-half of a short piece of cherry red pipe that had been cut in two, lengthways. They looked like props from Disney animation, detritus of a dream. Then I knew what I had been doing.
It went back to the first week in December, ’89, when Michaela, a friend, was still in the wake of a sudden illness that had taken her right inside the gates of death and left her hanging there for at least a few hours. It gave her a rare view to an enduring peace and solace that were not ordinarily part of her existence. She came back with some ambivalence, but managed to keep captive the revelation of where she had been. A sort of bliss had governed her life for a week thereafter and then it had fallen apart. Michaela was in the deepest depression that she could recall. She found nothing positive in anything. All she could see was falsehood, debasement and mundanity. She felt sundered and knew she had not fully returned from that transit. Part of her was still hanging out near death. And it was getting worse. About four or five days into that furious depression I found her in a dissociated state. She was speaking with an accent that sounded as if English were her second language and then now and again she sounded as if she were four. She was hiding in bed, late at night, sliding away. I feared she might not come back, or come back even more badly fractured. I did not see any choices but to go into that darkness after her. Where? I had not a clue, new territory with no maps. I could only go on instinct–a lonely impulse of delight. I had always had a worshipful respect for instinct. Mine did not always go to all the right places by every consideration, but they never took me to a dull one. That night for the longest time I sat hunched in a half-lotus beside her, rocking up an urgent rhythm to guide me like the headlong footfall sounds of a dervish drum. I rocked there, forcing my awareness down and down and down, until exhausted, because this woman was in trouble and I was the willful founder and CEO and complete staff of Sterling Steven’s Rescue Rangers, and by god we could do it all.
Eventually I slept trusting that I would keep going in dream reality. There, I descended into blackness far more dense than that of the preceding trance. And finally I found Michaela in a sleek ceramic vessel like a contemporary seed pot, not too deep but round and wide with a short, belled neck and the narrowest passage to the inside. The interior was glazed cobalt. I knew that but I could not see it. I could not see Michaela or me; I just knew it was us. All I could see was dark to the power of 10 and a bright orange cartoon potsherd and half of a cherry red piece of pipe. Detritus.
The next morning, Michaela awoke as fully present as she had ever been, a little wiser and with no depression. I made note of it in my journal and drew pictures of the puzzling fragments. It had been a curious evening but nothing so out of the ordinary that it was worth a lot of examination. I just thought it was what every mystic would do, could do. No one had ever told me it was a possibility. Then again no one had ever told me that it wasn’t.
I think it had to do with passion. It didn’t have to do with culture. Mine was not a tribal culture at any time in the memorable past. And I have steered away from the influences of those that are. I spent nearly half my youth on a reservation and was for a year the only white boy in my junior high class. And later, for a decade, as a muck raking, trouble making journalist, and teacher, and author of laymen’s legal textbooks, and range detective and private investigator of trespasses and resource thefts from Indian Territory, I crusaded under the banners of liberation, Indian civil rights, territorial restoration, and full tribal sovereignty. But I kept my distance from that culture. It was for the following reasons: 1) I saw that the Wannabees, white for Indian, Indian for white, never wound up in the place they longed to be. They always fell well short. 2) I suspected from observation and had it confirmed by my radical and traditional Indian colleagues that tribal cultures, even the most functional ones, maybe especially the most functional ones, were too often more repressive to their individual members than the one I had lucked into. I found that women were greatly chaffed by this, far more so than most of the men. 3) I realized early on that I could spend a lifetime if not more digging out from under the impositions of my own culture and I had no desire to tunnel into another.
It was and is about authenticity. And later that authenticity also had everything to do with staying out of the jungle.
That was the time when the man came around from Peru with the tea, and they told me that was where it would take me: to the jungle. That was all I knew about ayahuasca: it was an ecstatic journey to the jungle. My idea of an ecstatic journey would be to some 12,000 ft. gale scoured pass in the Wind River Range, for example, since the jungle holds no charms for the current author. I knew nothing about the jungle, or the cultures that lived there and worked with the tea and I saw no real need to learn except that I wanted, seriously, to try the brew. Given all that, I was willing to surrender to its flight plan. The first two ceremonies I attended left me bored, wide-awake and stationary. A few months later I decided to try again.
The shaman that night was young. He spoke no English, gave no guidance. We were working in a teepee owned by a mixed blood Russian fellow on the east slope of the Sangre de Cristos. The teepee was cold, the tea very powerful. The shaman started out kneeling beside the altar and singing his song. Soon he toppled over beside the altar but managed briefly to keep up with the song, though more and more he seemed to have his attention directed elsewhere and the song dwindled away in fits and starts and increasingly longer bursts of silence. It was apparently problematic medicine. I waited. The three others stuck it out for a while, sitting, laying, going out, getting sick, coming back, going to sleep. I sat there hunched in a half-lotus like a stone and waited. I saw nothing junglesque. It seemed more like sitting on a barren ledge far above a desert river. And I waited, cold and stiff and increasingly irritated. Just when I decided to lay down to sleep the impression of the river dissolved into a very visible entrance to an abandoned mining tunnel like something one could find at the end of a bad road out of Telluride, Colorado. And suddenly I was flashing down through this crooked tunnel like a bottle rocket. I was fast but the tunnel was almost endless. I slowed briefly to watch a boy swinging by his hands from a shoring timber like it was a jungle gym. Jungle gym? Was I getting near? (3)
Abruptly the tunnel ended and I dropped to my feet on the ground. I was still high in a North American mountain mining district. Abandoned machinery had been broadcast all over, ore cars and ore car rails and miles of rusty cable. (There are always miles of rusty cable around such digs, threatening tetanus at every step.) It was a dump. Then just as abruptly as I had hit the place, the cable and junk and a coil spring three feet across and 15 feet long, pulled itself together. Its face was a mask made from a badly mangled piece of 1/2″ steel plate and welded atop was a freight wig of razor ribbon. It rose above me like a puppet out of a Jack-In-The-Box. Of course it was nothing organic because all the animals had fled my places years before; nevertheless it was sentient enough to want me dead. Murder was its clear intention. It pulled itself to full stretch, and was poised to strike me dead. This was not what I had come for. I stepped up closer to it and said with contempt, “Fuck off. I’m a god.”
The robot liquefied into a slime that looked like rotten lettuce, wilted to the ground and soaked away through the fissures in the rocks at my feet. Fade to the black of the frigid teepee.
Sometime later, somewhere I read that in the jungle, ayahuasca bestows a similar initiatory feature on a person’s first journey. Apparently one is supposed to work things out with a giant, threatening serpent, and make it one’s immortal ally. So I imagine I handled the situation rather badly. But I also think the experience did not go wanting for authenticity; the formula for the work certainly was Peruvian; banisteriopsis and psychotria, but the props and script were Aryan; high carbon steel, Nietzsche and The Rg Veda. (4)
Stalking Power, Finding Guides
I no longer believe that the evening was a waste. The nature of the mine mouth gorgon helped inform some other journeys and dreams. I began to read more, study the calling more seriously. Because too much has fallen to me that has apparently also fallen to those of the shamanic calling, I wanted to discover the common roots. And so, among other inquiries I again struggled to work out the spirit guide and power animal problems. A number of writers like to quote Knud Rasmussen’s interviews with Aua, the Eskimo shaman. All the overview author’s pay Aua homage and weigh in with his story of how he learned his song. He seemed to have been in some sort of extremis one day when he saw a little shore bird called an aua, whereupon the man fell into an ecstatic rapture and spontaneously composed his power song. I could, as they say, relate to that.
Years ago as a teenage hobo I was hitchhiking west after visiting a friend on the Rosebud rez in South Dakota. The scene was a backwater cross roads in the middle of Nebraska, in the middle of October, in the middle of an afternoon when the heat was unseasonable but had no sharp summer edges and it eased the time by as if were wide and deep. It was a recently harvested landscape with stubbled ochre horizon hills and yellow cottonwoods mid-distance. There I pulled myself up into the cab of an 18-wheeler and settled in. I had just scored a ride almost all the way home. The driver waited for some traffic to pass, dropped in the gears and bore down on the fuel. The trailer was overloaded so the tractor dropped back hard on the rear axles, roared and quaked, hammered against the inertia and surged out onto the blacktop. All that power trying to propel all that steel vibrated up from the ground through me to the heavens and I went into an ecstatic trance. It was not the first time, mystic that I was even then. But it had a memorable feature, for rising with that power came a song that was being composed down around my root chakra. It had no words but it was full of words I had never heard. They sounded through my heart and I let them go silent just short of my tongue. I had just enough presence of mind to keep them to myself lest I raise some alarm in the driver. That song rolled along with me for 30 or 40 miles and then faded at about 4 o’clock.
Years went past, and then some more, 30 maybe, all in all.
We were reading one night at the behest of Roberto his sampling of shamanic literature. We had just finished Michael Harner’s recipe for locating a power animal spirit guide and I said to myself or perhaps even out loud that someday I might give that option another try. “Or maybe I’ll dream about it.”
Probably a little before sun rise the next morning I found myself at the wheel of a great blue, road machine. It looked like a state of the art, 62′ Kenworth. The engine was revving only a little higher than idle but we were passing everything on the road. We stopped on the top of a hill to help out some folks who were broken down or lost. Then we roared on toward Ethete (e-thu-tee), Wyo., a settlement only 16 miles away that was by all reasonable means of calculation the Center of the Universe.
I never saw that truck again in a dream or journey or vision. I do not think I ever needed to. It dropped its one-time word, hopefully on a wise mind and went away. In brief that dream told me what a power animal was about. That Kenworth did not expect me to cultivate a relationship with it and I felt likewise. (I did however paint a stylized KW grill emblem on the head of a hand drum)
It has been an awfully long time since I found a Kenworth rig to be compelling. I drove one for a while. It was boring work; it made my haunches ache, pushed out too much noise and it smelled badly. But I know from a truly visceral apprehension all the power of that truck. I have felt it in my hands, perceived it through the soles of my feet. It is not a matter of theory or suggestion or a notion of which I had merely read. It was power that I was able to contain and direct, no mystery about it. It was a fact out of the everyday.
There are, no doubt, people who have seen more serpents in the daylight jungle than they have seen Kenworth trucks. They might have dealt directly with those serpents, held them in their hands and felt those vitalized wires of muscle working just below the patterned skin. To them the serpent has no mystique. They know that power because they have held it. This is a part of those people’s life, the same old same old of every day. For these people the serpent holds no mystery.
But I have known people who have only seen a serpent in the jungle when that jungle was a journey and their ticket there was a drug or a drum. And they found it such a powerful and compelling illusion they made it their tutor and a guide to which they were willing to subordinate themselves. They are drawn to this numen like Rumi was compelled to tumble for Shams of Tabriz, or like soul mated lovers bonded by MDMA. I think the seduction lies in The Mystique of the Other that compelling deceptive mind obscurant of pure power, love, enlightenment, instinct, godliness–pick your value–that one believes that one has not but the Other does. Being held in the magical thrall of the Other is rich with the irony of being trapped in the thick brilliant dazzle of a bank of backlit fog; everything is light, nothing can be seen. There is a quality about mystique that can defraud the faithful into believing they are well versed on something about which they know progressively less and less, thus the entire relationship derives more from suggestion, projection and self-fulfilling expectation than the natural experience that falls out from all that is in a day’s work.
The last story is about the Other. It is a cautionary tale concerning a crocodile I once knew despite my contrary instincts in the Out There.
Stalked by Other, Proving a Rule
Another end of another inconsequential dream: The action has played out and I was walking away down a suburban street. That was when I encountered the crocodile. It raised its head and shoulders tall and said hello. I returned the greeting and we sidled around one another like any other pair of strangers who meet in narrow straits. It was a curious sequence and went largely forgotten.
A couple of years later I was invited by an artist-shaman Ross LewAllen, to help him and a handful of others undertake a set of vision journeys done to drums. A friend and client of his was prospecting to open some socially responsible enterprises and needed additional visions, inspirations and advice to round out the business plan. It was an all day situation. There was a canoe journey on the agenda early in the afternoon. Because of where I was sitting in the circle vis-a-vis the shape of the room I was made the prow of the canoe. The others lined themselves out in an ellipse, the client lay amidships and if memory serves, Sandra Ingerman drummed.
We left the embarcadero in darkness but soon we were gliding down this too wide and too deep slow moving river. It was muddy. We passed a wooded island 25 yards to lee. A man ambled from the trees, down the mud flat to the water where he turned into a crocodile and swam out. It was the crocodile I knew from before, the one I’d last seen in the suburbs. If this was a crocodile swimming out to see me, I suspected I was close to the jungle. Was I in the wrong place? Would there be crow to eat?
He slipped along side and drifted with us. We exchanged greetings and he said it was good to see me again. I had to agree. If I was going to be stuck in a jungle journey it was better to be with someone I knew, even if it was an animal. I wondered if he had turned traitor to the others, or was this a trick.
“What are you doing around here?” the crocodile asked.
“We’re just working on this shaman’s canoe thing for the guy back in the boat,” I told him.
The crocodile lifted up out of the water and studied the client. He must have noticed the man had not missed a meal any time in the long-term memory.
“Hey, why put yourself out for him? Why don’t you let me have him for lunch and then you can go on home.” The crocodile was about half serious.
“That would not be courteous,” I said. “He is our host today after all.”
We glided in silence for a while. And then we heard the roar of a waterfall, a mammoth waterfall.
“I think we’re coming to the edge of the world,” I said, “its part of the routine.”
“Oh. You going to go on over?
“I don’t know. It’s all up to that woman with the drum.” I told him. “If she starts going fast we turn around. If not, we’ll get really wet.”
We glided again in silence. Then I said, “This isn’t your show, you know. You don’t have to come along.”
“Yeah. But it’s something to do.”
“It is at that.” I was beginning to like this crocodile a lot.
We didn’t say anything after that because we were both psyching up for the ride. But then the drum sounded fast, and we turned and booked it back up stream. When we passed the island the crocodile cut away from the canoe.
He clambered up onto shore, changed into a man and ambled into the trees.
All together it was a decent enough standard kind of journey, though it wasn’t much help to the client and I had to wonder: how quasi could have been the trance? On what level could it have been contrived? I never saw the crocodile again, but read up on his power in the ethereal zoology texts. Crocodile: little more than instincts bundled in fashionable skin; the epitome of the reptilian brain; does all the heavy lifting as regards its food supply underwater. Myth crocodiles are to rivers what myth snakes are to dry land. Fine, but I never saw him again.
Two years later I was working up to send out some exorcising energies to someone over quite a lengthy distance. It was not a spontaneous exercise. I had planned this one though I felt a little instinctual resistance to making art in this manner from a cookbook. It was almost nightfall on the mountain where I’d gone to first begin gathering at a rock outcrop alter. It was a good crew I managed to recruit, some of the wild hunt and some mountain spirits and local gods. (5) But there was some gender imbalance; it was too weighty on testosterone. I needed indefatigable female madness. One of the more raging phases of Kali would fit in well. So when I headed back down the mountain I kept shouting for her. And then I came to one of those strange places in the forest where, one theorizes, the force of a thunder storm had whipped up a short lived funnel cloud that had torn out all the trees in an acre or two. Big ponderosas and spruce and aspen, three feet, four feet in diameter were uprooted and scattered and twisted together. If Kali, in the aspect I’d like to see, could be found it would be in this patch of utter destruction. I stopped where the branches of an aspen were so ensnared in the roots of a pine I could barely tell one from another. Into that tangle I yelled “Kali!” There was no sundown wind, no motion of anything anywhere except back in the darkness of those roots and limbs one of them broke and dropped to the ground. Like years before, I howled raving thanks. One must never forget passion in the presence of Kali.
Then I strode on down the mountain with the idea I had done as well as I ever could have that evening. Near the end of this trail I was following, just before it reaches the road, there is a sharp bend. And just before that bend I suddenly felt like I was someone’s prey. Into the bend I turned quickly around to see who was behind me. A man was walking down the trail, about 25 yards back. He grinned and disappeared, but I knew him. It was the second open-eyed hallucination I’ve experienced in my life, something I have never even had with the use of entheogins. The last time I had seen that guy he was ambling up the mud flats from the river toward the trees. That evening on the mountain I urged him to go on with the rest of that desperado band I’d conjured. He could class up their act and it was after all, something to do.
I have never seen him again, but then I have never seen anything in that strata of reality happen twice the same way. However, I have reason to believe that he stayed behind and in fact the whole wild bunch never traveled far if it managed to make any distance at all. The entire attempt of that evening was a failure. Nothing happened, nothing was exorcised. There is often in these practices a sense that can distinguish a hit or a miss at the instant of action, before the objective results are in, like a good basketball player will often know as the ball leaves the fingertips whether or not they have scored. I felt nothing either way; it was all a profound misfire. When that was apparent I realized I had subverted the essential authenticity because everything I sent out that night had the image of an Other. And with every such contrivance there was a resultant dilution of the passion and the will. Just as in the suspicious canoe journey, that crocodile and his two-legged manifestation had images of Other; something they were not.
Finally, perhaps 18 months later, it came circling around again in a dream of a river, again wide, deep and warm. I slipped down off the bank and dove with no snorkel, no tanks. There was the dream outline of a supermarket on the bottom, no walls, no windows, just a steel stud framework. I needed to stop by for some groceries so I slid in through the transom over the doors.
Notes for Infidels:
–Add “Integration” to the list.
–Idea for a tee shirt:
BE THE NEST
THERE IS NO OTHER
* * * * * *
(1) Later all three of us noted the heavy imposition of flash-backed DMT visuals. This was no surprise because each of us had, months before, been selected, based on histories and the apparent strength of our psyches, to be part of the 11-member vanguard test pilot cadre on which was standardized the dosages and protocols for Dr. Rick Strassmanâ€™s pioneering and now famous DMT studies.
(2) I find the writers who bemoan the mechanized cultural influences that keep us exiles from Eden tend to make everyone a victim of equal degree. When they write something like “We of the rationally indoctrinated West…” they mean WE! This is I believe in error and suggest that those who are less likely to be gulled by their culture do not advance nearly as far as the softer marks through the cultures indoctrination centers and are thus more likely to be flying casually disaffected under the cultural radar and less likely than the softer marks to end up writing cranky, scholarly works indicting the culture that defrauded them.
(3) Early the next morning I saw exactly the same sight; our host’s young son, a boy of the same size and hair color, swinging at the same cadence and at the same height from the branch of a tree. What I had learned from many precognitive dreams was that such a brief, incongruous glimpse of a small attraction to come in the daylight quite often was a signal to pay extra attention to the significance of the dream, or in this case, journey.
(4) Long before my introduction to ayahuasca we had an occasion to consume a substantial amount of what the mycologist R. Gordon Wasson theorized to be the Soma of Rg Veda note. As a result my partner and I, being totally naive as to the nature of the stuff which had come to us with few instructions as a gift, were in a deadly serious, semi-ambulatory coma and near death state for the next 12 hours, a state that came complete with the requisite NDE vision. (Mine was of a modern Vahlhalla, into which the Lord of Death said that I, having passed a couple of killer ordeals, could now come and go as I pleased.) After this experience we got around to finding out what we had done and read where Wasson wrote that Soma was highly prized by shamans in Central Asia. He quoted one as testifying a shaman only had to do it once. Another said that if a person survived the initial meal of Soma it meant that person was a born shaman. I took all of that to be legend at best. But what I found to be worth a great good laugh was when I read the line that was the first mention of (the god) Soma in the Rg Veda:
“We have drunk the Soma and we are gods.”
Ayahuasca just can’t stand up to that kind of rhetoric.
(5) Those who are unfamiliar with the latter two are referred to Journey to the West by Wu Cheng-en. After finishing all four volumes one will never have to read another book.
Abram, David; The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage Books, NY, 1997.
Eliade, Mercia; Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, Translated by Philip Mairet, Harper Torchbooks, NY, 1975
Shamanism, Archair Tecnhiques of Ecstasy, Translated by Willard Trask, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ, 1976.
Kalweit, Holgar; Dreamtime and Inner Space, Translated by Werner Winche, Shambala Publications, Boston, 1988.
Shamans, Healers and Medicine Men, Translated by Michael H. Kohn, Shambala Publications, Boston, 1992.
Larsen, Stephen; The Shaman’s Doorway, Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT.
Wasson, R. Gordon, Soma, Harcourt Brace Javonovich, Inc. NY, (1971)
Wu Cheng-en; Journey to the West, (Vols. I – IV), Translated and Edited by Anthony C. Yu, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1977-1983
Steven Nickeson lives with his wife in Los Teques, Miranda, Venezuela, where he works as an artist-blacksmith and writer and practices a reasonable amount of sorcery. Like all other common human beings in the world he can be found on Face Book.