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Science, Spirits and Shamanism

Science, Spirits and Core Shamanism
by Michael Harner

An earlier version of this article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the
American Anthropological Association, December 4, 1998, in Philadelphia.

Shamans have long acted on the principle that humans are part of the totality of nature, related to all other biological forms, and not superior to them. This "pagan" principle was one of the many reasons that European shamans were persecuted by the Inquisition and that indigenous shamans elsewhere were likewise condemned by Western missionaries who considered such a view as contrary to the Biblical account of the origin of man and woman. Indeed, it was not really until Darwin's The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man that Westerners began, often reluctantly, to return to a general recognition of humankind's kinship to all other life forms. In other words, the West, through science, finally adopted a position for which it had long persecuted and ridiculed shamans.

Another basic implicit principle in shamanism is that there are two realities and that the perception of each depends upon one's state of consciousness. Therefore, those in the "ordinary state of consciousness" (OSC) perceive only "ordinary reality" (OR). Those in the "shamanic state of consciousness" (SSC) are able to enter into and perceive "nonordinary reality" (NOR). These are both called realities because each is empirically encountered. Each is recognized to have its own forms of knowledge and relevance to human existence.

NOR is not a consensual reality, and indeed if it were, shamanic practitioners would have no function, for it is their responsibility to alter their state of consciousness and perceive successfully what others do not. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the shamanic practitioner is the ability to move back and forth at will between these realities with discipline and purpose in order to heal and help others.

A corollary principle is that the individual forms encountered in nonordinary reality are themselves real. These are called "spirits," and are considered real by shamanic practitioners because they interact with them first-hand. This interaction involves direct perception with all the senses. In other words, for the shamanic practitioner, the existence of spirits is not a belief or hypothesis, but an empirical fact (see also Turner. In NOR, shamanic practitioners routinely see, touch, smell, and hear spirits; for they find them as real as fellow humans they interact with in OR. As they work, individual practitioners discover which of the encountered entities are personal helping, or tutelary spirits, which often provide miraculous help in healing and divination.

Another characteristic shamanic principle is that living members of all species, including humans, have souls, or lifelong personal spirits. I am defining the soul as the spiritual essence of the individual required for that individual to be alive. Thus it is present from conception or birth until death, although the degree to which it is present may vary. Upon death, the soul continues to exist, as it did before birth, but the length of time it does so as an identifiable entity varies. For shamanic practitioners, souls are identifiable entities because they encounter them directly in nonordinary reality, as they do other spirits.

The shamanic position regarding the reality of spirits has long been unacceptable in Western science. Although one spirit, God, may be occasionally invoked, as Einstein often did, "spirits" or "souls" are otherwise anathema and not acceptable as part of the paradigm. This attitude has its historical origins in the attacks by the Church on such pioneering scientists as Galileo and Copernicus during the Renaissance and Reformation. In reaction, during the "Age of Enlightenment" Western science and medicine decreed that souls and spirits did not exist and were therefore not relevant to scientific study and medical practice. While this position is quite understandable historically, its perpetuation today limits the parameters of science by decreeing a priori that certain phenomena cannot have existence.

The result of this unfortunate situation is that advancement in Western knowledge is being limited by a truncated science whose Achilles heel is that it is partly founded upon an unproven belief: the belief that spirits, including souls, cannot exist. In actual fact, of course, science has never disproven the theory of the existence of spirits. And disproof of theory, or falsification, is a cornerstone of scientific method. As long as the theory of the existence of spirits is not falsified, it cannot logically be ignored by science. In other words, the position of science on this matter is quite unscientific and, ironically, a matter of faith.

By default, experimental research on the existence and properties of spirits has been largely left to shamans. Over many millennia in thousands of different cultures, independently on five: different continents, they conducted countless healing experiments with their clients, often in life and death situations, with results that have consistently supported the theory of the reality of spirits. For this reason, the fundamentals of indigenous shamanic practice are remarkably consistent throughout the world.

My own personal first-hand study of spirits began in 1961. Then, and subsequently in 1964 and 1973, I was trained by shamans in two different Upper Amazonian Indian tribes and also engaged in extensive research on shamanism worldwide in order to discover its underlying cross-cultural principles and practices. These fundamentals I named "core shamanism."

In addition to my own practice of shamanism and shamanic healing, in the early 1970s I began teaching other Westerners core shamanism for practical application in their lives and the lives of others. During approximately the last decade, I have been assisted in this educational endeavor by colleagues of the International Faculty of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, a nonprofit organization founded to study, restore, and teach shamanism and shamanic healing worldwide.

The teaching and use of the basic principles and practices of core shamanism have encouraged a rapid revival of shamanic healing practices in the West and elsewhere. By not imitating any specific cultural tradition, but" rather by training in underlying cross-cultural principles, core shamanism is especially suited for utilization by Westerner who desire a relatively culture-free system that they can adopt and integrate into their contemporary lives. Today core shamanism is the dominant mode of practice of shamanism in most of the West.

A small introduction to some of the principles and practices of core shamanism may be found in my book: The Way of the Shaman. However, the most important practical teaching in both core and indigenous shamanism is not to be found in published literature. Rather, it is the result of person- to- person experientially based instruction, by example, by direct communication from the spirits, and through personal experimentation and practice. Furthermore, much of this experiential learning is ineffable and thus has not been communicable to non-participating Western observers and interviewers.

The development of core shamanism has been based on a combination of cross-cultural fieldwork and research, on continual experimentation with ancient shamanic techniques for healing, divination, and other practices, and the practice of those methods with clients. Time and time again, we have found that the existence of spirits is a consistent parsimonious explanation of our successes in the use of shamanic methods.

To assist others who may wish to pursue shamanic research, I now wish to outline briefly the research strategy that I have evolved over the last thirty-eight years of personal shamanic practice, research, and teaching. This strategy is not just mine personally, but that of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies as well.

Fundamental to this strategy is respect for the accumulated spiritual knowledge of shamanic cultures. Thus, indigenous people are viewed as teachers, not as objects. If what they teach seems strange or incomprehensible, we view that as our problem, not theirs, and as evidence of our need to learn more in their terms. No matter how impossible may seem their statements or claims at first glance, our starting presumption is that they know what they are talking about. Their views are not to be reduced by the premature application of existing Western explanatory paradigms. To put it baldly, they are innocent until proven guilty, and generally we have found that we are guilty if they are not proven innocent.

First-hand experiential knowledge is actively sought wherever and whenever in order to gain greater understanding of shamanism and shamanic healing. Thus, another basic aspect of my strategy is serious participant observation, or "radical participation" in contemporary anthropological terms, for it is not enough simply to be a spectator and interviewer. Early exemplars of radical participation, before that term was used, include ethnologists Frank Cushing (who participated in the spiritual practices of the Zuni) and James Mooney (who participated in the Plains Ghost Dance and also helped found the Native American Church). They went beyond the traditional bounds of participant observation as usually practiced in anthropological fieldwork, entering domains beyond the ordinary everyday tasks of the peoples with whom they studied.

Comparative study of ethnographic reports is also a very important part of the strategy to discover regularities of practice, which lead to outcomes, which, by prevailing Western scientific standards, would be considered impossible. These can involve shamanic journeying to other worlds, dismemberments, possession and de-possession, communication with the dead, mediumship, detailed successful divination work for total strangers, and miraculous healings.

Next in the strategy is the experimental employment of the practices to determine if they are replicable. The replication of results depends upon the discovery, through such experimentation, of the underlying principles in operation. One of these is that there are compassionate tutelary (helping) spirits available to assist the shamanic practitioner in relieving suffering, pain, and spiritual ignorance. Application of these principles makes possible the replication of results by others.

In this experimental strategy, both induction and deduction play an interdependent role, with induction particularly important in early stages of lines of research. As progress is made, deductive principles are discovered and subsequently employed to provide predictable results. When these principles, including that of the reality of spirits, are employed, the results are so replicable that it is possible to teach experimentally oriented experiential training courses to large numbers of students with predictably reliable outcomes for their own experiments. To say it another way, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies is a laboratory of shamanism pioneering a science of spirits, and its students learn to employ their knowledge of the spirits for successful results in their personal shamanic practice.

Using core shamanic principles, including the principle of the existence of spirits, advanced students, with the assistance of their helping spirits, are able to perform not only surprising acts of healing, but also to perform such classic public shamanic feats as the bound shaman or "shaking tent" ritual known in one form or another in such areas as native North America and the Arctic. If they had only been spectators, there would have remained in their minds the usual questions of possible fakery. But by actually participating as practitioners, they know first-hand that fakery is not involved, such as when they are tightly bound by ropes, and the ropes suddenly fall away.

Such phenomena can be explained according to the scientific principle of parsimony; and that parsimonious explanation is simply that the spirits are real. This is not to suggest that one should avoid seeking non-spiritual explanations of shamanic phenomena. So far, however, no non-spiritual explanations of genuinely puzzling shamanic phenomena have proven as effective as the principle of the reality of spirits, which is not surprising, since it has been tested and supported cross-culturally in shamanic contexts for thousands of years. That the people who tested it were typically non-literate and did not wear white laboratory smocks does not make their experiments with their patients and clients, often in life and death situations, any less deserving of respect.

It is not my purpose here to attempt to persuade anyone of these views simply through words; that is, to cause the reader to have faith that I am right. Such ordinary reality persuasion is not the strategy of shamanism and shamanic learning. Shamanism is a path of knowledge, not of faith; and that knowledge cannot come from me or anyone else in this reality. To acquire that knowledge, including the knowledge of the reality of the spirits, it is necessary to step through the shaman's doorway and acquire empirical evidence.

The way is open, and the first step through it only requires, as it would for a true scientist, honest curiosity, an open mind, and some courage. Once you pass through the doorway, preconceptions are replaced by first-hand experience, and you can test for your- self the validity of the principle of the reality of spirits. One small warning, however, to those who are new to the practice: you and your view of reality will never be the same again, for passing through that doorway will be the beginning of a major paradigm shift, not only for you, but eventually for the parameters of science, and science will no longer be truncated by a major ethnocentric and cognicentric a priori assumption of what is impossible.

Visit internationally renowned anthropologist Michael Harner's Foundation for Shamanic Studies at

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