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Caduceus editor Sarida Brown interviews Jonathan


by Jonathan Horwitz ©

Anyone who is new to shamanism might be struck by your very ”normal” clear appearance. What is a shaman?
The stereotype of the shaman is very misleading. Most people think of shamans as being very intense and wild looking people, but in fact shamans are ordinary members of society – if there is such a thing! The way they differ from other members of society is that they have a direct access to the ”other world”, the spirit world or non-ordinary reality, and they know how to call the spirits to them or how to journey to spirits, and how to interact with the spirits and work together with them. 

In our conventional culture we are used to petitioning The Spirit in prayer, not ”The Spirits”. For many hundreds of years people have been excommunicated and persecuted for speaking about and working with spirits as opposed to ”The Spirit”. What is the relation between ”The Spirit”  and ”The Spirits” of the shaman?

I think that the reason why people were excommunicated was that at some point in its history the church demanded a monopoly of religious experience, and certain religious experiences were authorized and others were not. Then of course the authorized ones had to be experienced by authorized people. Joan of Arc was unauthorized, even though she had authorized experiences, and she ended up being burned at the stake, as did a lot of shamans and other people who worked directly with the spirit world. This was a political decision made by the Church Fathers. Up until that point other religions had been tolerated. I would say that religious experiences in Christianity and shamanism are basically the same, and although shamanism is not a religion in and of itself the practice leads very easily and quickly to deep and powerful religious experiences. This is probably one of the reasons why shamanism has always made missionaries very uncomfortable – very often the people they are going out to missionize have had much deeper religious experiences than they have themselves.

What is the shaman’s experience?

There can be so many different experiences. The shaman’s work is very goal-orientated; she always has a mission when she is making her contact with the spirit world, and the intensity of her experience relates to the seriousness of the mission. Shamans are primarily healers and very often their purpose in contacting the spirit world is to bring spirit power back to somebody who is in trouble in some way, with physical or psychological illness, or who needs some other help, and sometimes the shaman is contacting the spirit world for his own benefit or necessity. The shaman generally has spirit helpers of various sorts, among them animal spirit helpers – spirit helpers who appear in the form of guise of animals – as well as human spirit helpers, and spirit helpers from the plant kingdom. These different helpers have different ways of relating to the shaman.

The most dramatic experience of the shaman, and the one that we Westerners hear the most about, are the initiatory experiences where the shaman is first contacted by the spirits, and often at this point the spirits tell the person that she is going to be a shaman. In traditional cultures this is a very, very grave and great and wonderful and terrible responsibility, so not everybody wants to be a shaman and often people try to avoid it. If the spirits are firm enough they will proceed to initiate the person on the spot and the person won’t have any choice about it.

The experiences they have would be considered to be those of a madman by modern day terminology, for example, a psychotic or schizophrenic episode. The famous example that comes to my mind of a similar initiation is what happened to St Paul on the road to Damascus, which is why I say that the religious experiences are very similar in quality, although they might be different in detail.

What are The Spirits? What is the Spirit World? One significant contrast between shamanism and traditions such as Christianity seems to be that in the latter their mystical experiences are predominantly of light, and that is not the case in shamanism. You talk about animals and rocks, but I don’t know that these are ever part of numinous experience in Christianity.

I think of spirits as being bundles of the energy of the universe which present themselves to us in ways that we can understand if we try to. This is why we are often presented with creatures which we know, figures which will not alarm us too much.

One thing I do with people who come to learn shamanism is to send them to meet their spirit teacher. Often the person they meet glows, sometimes really radiates very powerfully, and also very often the first times they meet, their teacher will have a human form but they won’t be able to see her or his face – instead it is a glow or a radiation coming from where the face would ordinarily be. It is a very powerful experience to meet somebody like that, and just meeting the teacher can have a life-changing effect on someone. This is again why I come to think of St Paul on the road to Damascus because that is certainly what happened with him.

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Who is this ”teacher”?

When one goes out to contact the spirit world one has a mission, and this is a very active form of praying. You are actually sending a part of your soul out into the universe looking for someone who is going to help you. It is said ”Seek and ye shall find”, and the more actively you seek the more you find – some people find more than they bargained for – so I always want people to be very careful about what they ask for. It has been my experience that everybody wants to change so long as they don’t have to change. What happens is that the universe hears prayers and these are answered, and if you go out looking for somebody to teach you there is a chance that you are going to find that person, even if that person is in the spirit, not the physical, world. This teacher will be one of these bundles of energy given or loaned by the universe.

And these bundles of energy, are they beings who are dedicated to helping those of us on this plane who pray or are we in some way creators of these bundles of energy through our prayer?

This is a matter of great debate and sometimes people are incredibly surprised about who it is who comes to meet them to be their teacher. I remember some years ago I was working with a Danish man who was sick and tired of the fact that a lot of people were importing North American spirituality to Denmark. He rightly pointed out that we have our own spiritual tradition which goes way back before Christianity, even before the Vikings, and that when he went on his journey he wanted to have somebody who is definitely Scandinavian, and certainly did not want a buffalo as his power animal. The spirits like to have a little joke sometimes, and he got this elderly native North American with a beautiful feathered head-dress walking beside a buffalo. The man was furious: he was not going to continue with shamanism! A few weeks later he couldn’t help but laugh at himself, but at that moment he was doing a very good job of taking himself very seriously.
Is the appearance that we perceive something of our creation, while the essence of the spirit is somehow independent of the appearance?

I would say that it has nothing to do with our creation. Often the spirits present themselves to us in a way that will be a teaching in itself. I was once teaching in Finland and a young woman on the course was an active feminist, a wonderful person who has written several books and done a lot of really good work. During the course I sent everybody to meet their teacher, and when she came back from her journey she was moved to tears and eventually told us the story of her journey: she had a very deep personal question and when she was brought to her teacher she saw an elderly man, slightly bald with long white beard, wearing white robes and sitting on a marble throne. She was absolutely incensed and said: ”What are you doing on my journey? I am not going to ask him my question!” Then there was a powerful explosion and when the smoke cleared there was a bent old hag cackling at her and saying, ”Does this suit you better deary?” At that point she just broke down and asked her question saying ”Please forgive me”. It made a very deep impression on her and I don’t think that was part of her creation. 

Often on their early journeys people do get very wonderful, majestic, powerful ”power animals” like bears, lions and eagles as spirit helpers, but if the person continues with the shamanic work they often start getting other animal helpers who are less obviously awe-inspiring. I think this is because before people start this work they have often been disempowered, and in the beginning they need to have power through these very huge, powerful creatures. Then as time goes on they find themselves riding on the back of a swallow and feeling just as exhilarated and ecstatic with that as they did when they were riding on the back of an eagle.
What is it that the power animal brings to this shamanic journey? Why an animal, why not a teacher in human form?

One aspect is the connection to nature: especially in hunting and gathering societies, people were very aware of how dependant they were on the animal world, but since they started domesticating plants and animals humans have felt themselves apart and different from the rest of the animal world, and the fact that animals come to them on their shamanic journeys brings them closer. Another aspect is that humans have always recognized that animals have a certain power that they have lost through their humanity, what I would call a raw energy, a nature energy, and the more civilized we become, the further away we get from it until for some people today just the idea of dirtying their hands is repulsive to them.

An essential aspect of Shamanism is that we are all connected. When I say ”we”, I am not just including human beings, but human beings being connected to ants, to creatures at the bottom of the sea, to the stars, to dirt – to everything. This is an essential concept in shamanism, as it is in Buddhism, and this connection is cemented when people become interdependent with members of the animal kingdom, albeit in the spirit world.

I also think that in almost all traditions there are folk stories about times when animals and people could talk together. I think of several amusing Sufi stories, and stories from North America, Siberia and Africa also, animals taking off their animal costume or skin and being human underneath. This is also a very interesting concept which makes us closer and more interactive with the animal kingdom.

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This contrasts with the sentence in the Bible about man having dominion over animals.

This is probably one of the most unfortunate quotations from the Bible because this attitude has led us directly to the brink of the ecological disaster where we stand now, if we haven’t already fallen over it. This idea that human beings are the crown of creation, instead of that the whole creation is the crown, is indeed very unfortunate. On the other hand there is a very nice animistic quote from the book of Job:

But ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee:
and the fowls of the air and they shall tell thee:
Or speak with the earth and it shall teach thee:
and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. 

In fact also in Christianity the concept of power animals is not unknown: the evangelical apostles have their own animal spirit-helpers, for example, Saint Mark had a wingéd Lion. 

We have institutionalized the divide between human and animal to such an extent that claims of communication between people and animals is scientifically regarded as a delusion, even a sign of the degradation of the rational human mind. So shamanism is retrieving something very important for humanity.   

I feel so. However I think that what you describe is only a veneer. Most people have a very close and loving relationship with their animals; they talk to their dogs. I think that animism, the belief that all things have a soul, is just under the surface for many people. I remember when I was in school somebody said that they loved their dog, and the teacher gave us an eight minute lecture on how it was not possible to love a dog, not to love anything else, such as food or trees; we could only love another human being. This is a very limited point of view. But when you get away from the organization of religion, into the mysticism of any religion then it is clear that once you know what love is, it is possible to love anything – and it becomes more and more necessary, and more natural. 

Many people today, including philosophers, are recognizing the fallacies of the so-called ”logic” of western philosophy. Now there is the development of the science of consciousness in which scientists from many different branches, including mathematicians and neurologists, are examining consciousness to see if science can come to grips with it, because consciousness is at the centre of humanity and yet science has a very difficult time saying anything about it because it cannot really be measured. 

Shamanism is a very direct way of getting into consciousness because consciousness is not just something that we are carrying around in our head; it has to do with this fact that we are all connected, and perhaps this thing that we call consciousness is one of the ways in which we all are connected. The way the shaman works, the way the shaman gets to the spirit world, is by changing the state of consciousness: the shaman enters another awareness, is able to make a shift – it is not that the shaman goes into a trance, or looses consciousness – but she makes a shift in her consciousness and by doing this she is able to come in contact with the spirit world.

And in coming in contact with the spirit world, as you said, it is part of the soul of the shaman connecting with the soul of all other beings; in the shamanic view all beings are animate - even a toaster.
By doing this the shaman can come in contact with the anima of whatever she chooses, with the spirit of all things. One way in which the shaman works in healing is by trying to get in contact with the spirit of the illness. If a person is ill because of an unwanted spirit intrusion then the shaman will try to get in contact with the spirit of that illness and try to get it to leave.

This shamanic way of working with the interrelationship of the whole universe has tremendous implications for everything in our life.

When you start to think in an animistic way, you begin to have a much deeper respect for everything. In the beginning it can be very difficult because the secret is that there is no life without death. Human beings cannot find anything to eat unless they are willing to kill something. This can seem overwhelming. You might feel very bad about pulling a carrot up out of the ground and eating it, or even killing an animal and eating it. But if these acts are done with respect and recognition of the fact that some day you are going to be feeding plants and animals with your own body, this puts a different perspective on it. The alternative, which we usually do, is to put ourselves in the centre of the universe and take ourselves out of the cycle of creation. 

Traditional peoples, and even our own grandparents, had ceremonies thanking the universe for the food they were getting. Today many people say grace at table, but I don’t know how much they really put into it; when I was a kid it always seemed rather automatic. But I have experienced people giving thanks for the food in such a way that it was a deeply moving experience. Hunting societies people would thank the animals after they had killed them and very often there was a mystical relationship between the hunter and the hunted. In many different cultures there were special people who could call the game so that it would be killed, and powerful hunters were recognized as being also very spiritual people.

After they had killed the animal there were certain rituals they had to go through to thank it and in many different societies there were special ways of taking care of the bones of the animal afterwards. When I was living in Greenland it was out of the question to wash a fish at the place where you had caught it. In other cultures one would take the bones of an animal and put them up in trees so that they would not be disturbed by other carnivorous animals. This brings to mind the story of the Nordic god Thor who would eat his goats every night but very carefully not break any of the bones, and the goats were there again the next morning. This is the remnant of the hunting traditions of Scandinavia and shows the respect that we can start to have for everything. If people start practising shamanism it makes it very difficult to accept the throw-away aspect of culture which we live in seriously. The implications are very far-reaching.

I feel that animism is the spiritual base of the ecological movement. It is the recognition that the rain forests have as much right to exist as we do, not only from our point of view but from the point of view of the entire planet – the rain forests are trying to exist just as we are – and also from the point of view of the individual trees in the rain forest. But when you start pulling things out of the Great Cycle then you start to get imbalance.
It is a view which embraces the beingness of all beings, a shift from the human-centred view.

It certainly is but again coming back to what we were talking about in the very beginning I think that the essence of any religious experience is a shift from the anthropocentric point of view, the human-centred point of view, to a universal point of view. We are interdependent, all of us, and when I say ”us”, I am talking about the trees and the rocks and the seas as well as the two-legged people.
You have been speaking about ”power animals”. I’d like to ask about power. We use external power so much on each other, but generally we seem frightened of the word ”power”, frightened of inner power, and the word has many negative connotations. It seems that shamanism is really honouring the nature of power.

It does. The concept of power is very central to shamanism. I spend a lot of time thinking about this one word ”power”. A lot of people are afraid of this word because their power has been taken away from them, and they experience themselves as powerless. When they think of power, people tend to think of armies, of strong men who beat up women and children who are physically weaker; they think of the power of money which they may not have. On the other hand there are other kinds of power: in Danish and German there are two words for power. One is Macht which closely translates to ”might”, and the other is Kraft which translates more as ”energy”.

I think this distinction is very important. ”Might” is used to control, whereas energy is used to lift up or to illuminate. Only this morning I realized that the spiritual root of ”might” is fear. When people are afraid, they need to control; the best way to control is to take away other people’s power, and the power that they often take away is people’s energy, be it their physical or their spiritual energy. The spiritual root of ”energy” however is probably love. When you look at the entire universe it is filled with power, but for me this power, way out to the very edges of the universe, if there are any edges, is energy.
There is great hope in this, that human beings may become able to distinguish between ”power” and ”might”.

I think one of the most wonderful things about it is that when you see people who find it necessary to exert power over other people, it is much easier to have compassion for them, because you know where the root of their power is.

This interview, re-published here with the kind permission of Sarida Brown, originally appeared in Caduceus Issue 37  Autumn 1997. Caduceus is a British journal exploring alternative spirituality, healing, and life-ways.

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