Justin's Reviews > The Way of the Shaman

The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner
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Jun 15, 2009

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Read in June, 2009

My first true contact with shamanism and its values came through a print version of the trialogues between Terrence McKenna, Ralph Abraham and Rupert Sheldrake that I picked up four years ago (when I was 18). Fascinated by similarities between the validity of the experiences these ancient practices revealed and what I experienced while meditating prompted me to explore them further a few years later through podcasts like the Psychedelic Salon and the C-Realm. Reading Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods many years before helped me to accept that ancient civilizations understood far more than our society accredits them for but with the revelations of shamanism I could directly confirm that our ancestors had a wiser grasp of reality and the human mind than any other source currently available. Interestingly, when I started on Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman in the preface to this edition Harner states that, “Shamanism has subtly returned to the world, even in urban cetners…” (I can easily verify this statement having encountered a store called the Urban Shaman in Vancouver, BC)

Harner suggests that this modern resurgence in shamanic practice is due to many becoming disenchanted with the past age of faith. Seeking to distance themselves from the earthly authority of the spirit world as exemplified through churches, this generation has yet to find an adequate substitute in any other religion. Because we’ve been raised in a culture of empiricism, valuing experimental results, when this same process is applied to the spiritual world we find the attraction to shamanism. As explained in the book, “Shamanism is a methodology not a religion.”

The past centuries of deterministic Newtonian viewpoints have ironically caused a resurgence in spiritual interests. Harner argues that advances in the medical field have spurred near-death experiences which provide a window into another reality. I would add that Albert Hoffman’s synthesis of lysergic acid diethylamide in the late 1930s sparked an interest in other worlds, the notorious chemical had been used for thousands of years in visionary ceremonies of indigenous tribes (usually in the form of lysergic acid amine, present in morning glory seeds) but was re-introduced by science. Shamanic work is attractive to moderns because these practices can be carried out in spite of our busy lives. Additionally, shamanic work provides an ecological framework in the time of a renewed distress over our disconnection from nature, a shaman does not distinguish between the environment and family.

The most important aspects of this book are the discussions of cognicentrism, how the people most prejudiced against a concept of non-ordinary reality are those who have never experienced it, a point I can confirm with gusto. Distinguishing between the shamanic states of consciousness (SSC) and the ordinary states of consciousness (OSC) provides a framework that can allow even the most skeptical western minds to accept shamanism as a reality for many people, even if it doesn’t apply to his or her own experiences. Interpretations of ethnographic studies have been muddled because of misunderstanding these two states of experience. When a shaman speaks of talking with animals and healing ceremonies to retrieve souls, we know those things can’t happen in ordinary reality so we dismiss them immediately. But the developed indigenous mind has a built-in understanding of the difference between the two types of experience and needs no preface to extraordinary claims, something our society lacks and the key component that leads to cognicentrism. Native peoples are sharp and accomplished hunters who have tremendous knowledge of their local environments so they are far from being naive or stupid.

Harner defines a shaman as, “a man or woman who enters an altered state of consciousness at will to contact and utilize an ordinarily hidden reality in order to acquire knowledge, power and to help other persons” and the Way of The Shaman provides a solid introduction to the concepts and practices of a shaman that are nearly universal, taking special care to demonstrate how they can fit into the modern lifestyle. Harner’s approach to drumming induced trance states is particularly acceptable to the suburban white spiritual seeker, shying away from entheogenic substances. However, I could easily see how a practicing shaman would have problems with the methods or suggestions in this book. The specifics about what to expect in the lower world or other details could easily condition someone away from trusting direct experience. Additionally, the focus on healing shamanism is an appropriate topic but neglects to fully recognize the prevalence of shamanic wars which are outside of the noble savage archetype that Harner bolsters.

Yet despite these shortcomings, Harner’s approach to shamanic work is particularly resonant for the archetypes and minds of our modern society. I would suggest The Way of the Shaman as a guidebook to gain an initial understanding of other realities and as a spark to begin a few initial adventures into them through the drumming practices detailed within. After a read through this book I’m interested in exploring details behind Harner’s earlier work with the Jîvaro tribes.

Life in an indigenous society is painted as quite idyllic in The Way of the Shaman, for example the Macaebos drank guayasa instead of coffee all day. The tea creates a perception of euphoria and builds a happy community. Sounds like a great society. But I don’t think I can conclude anything about the noble savage as perception vs. reality and their shamanic practices until reading Eliade’s Shamanism.

After participating in a sweat lodge ceremony and receiving powerful visions, I’m completely sold on the idea that there is a non-ordinary reality. I’m just not entirely confident of the framework that Harner provides. I can understand why the Hopi consider that all life is one. The Hopi believe that all life, animals birds, insects, trees an plants appear only in masquerade during ordinary experience, that they surely have a human-like experience in another world. Perhaps this perception sounds a little too non-rational for most people but after a shamanic experience these truisms become more and more real. In a time where we face unprecedented shifts in our way of life, a new respect for our surroundings are far from an unwelcome suggestion.

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