Shaman and Scholar

Defining the Conundrum of Academic Research Into Spirit-Work

Recently, I was interviewed by a college student about being a modern shaman, or at least a semi-traditional shaman in the modern era. As she sat across from me and asked her careful questions, I realized that in some way, we were repeating once more the now-archetypal wary dance between the scholar of anthropology and the indigenous tribal spirit-worker. Being a modern Western individual myself, I'd read countless accounts like these, starting with stuffy and offensively ethnocentric 19th century writings of scholars who hunted down "witch doctors" out of fascination. When bizarre things started happening to me many years ago - things that would eventually culminate in an actual shamanic death - my first thought was to turn to academic anthropology in order to understand what was going on. It helped, in that I discovered through garbled accounts of long-dead tribal spirit-workers that this sort of thing had happened to other people throughout history, and that they survived it. On the other hand, it was disconcerting to realize that I was quickly becoming the guy on the other end of that conversation, the more highly scrutinized but definitely less respected end.

I'd actually just finished reading a long tome by the early 20th century scholar Czaplicka, translated from Russian into English, about interviews with northern Eurasian spirit-workers whose traditions were, in many cases, strongly similar to my own. I admit that I was rather sensitized by that recent absorption, and I commented to her on how we were sitting here, facing each other, and repeating the pattern of clashing worldviews: secular academic intellectual versus "primitive" religious. Granted, we were sitting in comfortable chairs in a modern building, not facing each other across a fire in a dark, smoky hut, but I recognized our interaction as clearly as if labels had been pasted on our foreheads, and it came home to me, hard, why despite my modern Western upbringing, I would never be on the other side of that interaction again.

In some of those actual encounters, the scholar never actually got to talk to the shaman, especially in previous centuries when the word "ethnocentrism" hadn't been invented and too many Westerners could not have conceived of the idea that their superior attitudes would get in the way of talking to these benighted primitive tribal peoples. Far too many encounters started with the scholar holding out some token sum of money and saying the equivalent of, "So tell me about these alleged spirits," and the shaman flies into a rage and shakes his rattle or whatever at the scholar, and maybe even flings some dung at him to drive him off. In return, the scholar writes about how this witch doctor is obviously a hysterical loony, and the people of his tribe must be incredibly gullible and superstitious to give any credence to the word of someone who is so clearly cracked.

What the scholar means, but isn't saying, is: "What I really want is to watch you attempt to convince me through the wall of my intellectual disbelief. I want you to value me and my skeptical worldview enough to try with all your might to convince me, and I want to be able to watch your attempts bounce off, so that I can comfort myself that I'm an intelligent, rational human being who is immune to your superstition. Maybe some secret, hidden, desperate part of me really wants you to be able to convince me, but of course I can't let that happen, because it would shatter my worldview and I'd have to rethink my entire life. So I'll settle for feeling valued by your vain attempts to convince me, and superior to you for my obviously more sensible attitude."

What the shaman means, but isn't saying, as he shakes his rattle and shouts and throws dung at the retreating scholar, is: "You are so not worth my meager spare time. There's a little girl with a fever that won't abate three tents down, and a spring in the woods that has made five people sick, and a woman who has managed to anger some spirit by not following through on a deal that I brokered for her and is now nearly catatonic, and all these things are far, far higher on my list of priorities than you and your notebook and your exaggeratedly polite attitude, behind which you judge me as a nutball. I know that there's no way I can make you understand what this is like. I doubt I could even make my tribespeople understand, but at least they know better than to ask me. Besides, the spirits say that you're wasting my time, and I trust them more than you."

The depth of difference in these clashing views is emphasized the most, of course, by that final sentence. The scholar who writes about primitive religion - and especially the one who has taken on the task of interpreting the tribal spirit-worker in a positive light to other scholars - walks a fine line between insulting their subjects and alienating their audience. Unfortunately, sometimes it is impossible to accomplish both ends at once, and they end up leaning towards the former error, or at least the ones who actually manage to get published by definition end up falling on that side of the line. Even the most well-intentioned academics end up inadvertently insulting their subjects when they consistently fail to grasp a point which cannot be grasped without some measure of belief in the subject's world view.... and then consistently fail to realize that this is what they have done.

As an example, in her book "Shamanism", Merete Demant Jakobsen compares the spirit-work of the Inuit angakok with the modern $100-a-class neo-shamanism currently so prevalent on the market. Her aim seems to be to discredit the latter as any form of "real" shamanism by comparing it to the cultural behaviors of angakoks. While I happen to agree with her on many points - including, to the dismay of many, her central idea - she misses the real point of comparison between the two. The graduates of modern neo-shamanic classes differ most wildly from the angakok, and from traditional shamans, not simply or even primarily due to their cultural behaviors toward their "spirits". The main difference is that people in the former category are seized, changed and set to a lifetime of work - irrevocably, without their consent and often against their will - by real, living, powerful entities with a unique perspective and agenda. The graduates of a neo-shamanic workshop, on the other hand... aren't.

From an outsider's viewpoint, it can seem like the difference between a fan of science fiction and an "alien abductee"; the fact that they are both talking about spaceships can confuse the issue, but their experiences of life are entirely different. There's also that, in the end, the cognitive trustworthiness of the alien abductee depends heavily on the actual, provable existence of aliens. It's rather like the old Jimmy Stewart movie "Harvey", where the nutty main character is continually talking to a six-foot-tall rabbit-shaped pooka-fairy that is invisible to everyone else. One can talk all day about the psychological and sociological reasons why pookas are attracted to, as one character reads in the dictionary, "..rum pots, crackpots, and how are you, Mr. Wilson? Uh - who in the dictionary wants to know!" One can talk around the issue of validating traditional cultural perspectives forever, but when it comes right down to it, sooner or later the Western academic audience will doubt the sanity, or the sophistication and lack of gullibility, or at the very least the lack of ignorance, of the person who claims to work with spirits. There is no way to get around their assumption that if the spirit-worker in question were properly educated, if they "knew what I knew", they would cease to believe in the spirits to whom they had dedicated their life. In the end, it is impossible to defend the spirit-worker without insult unless you believe in the existence of the pooka.

Part of the trickiness is that sooner or later, the study of cultural spirit-work stops being about anthropology and starts being about religion, and religion is one thing that human beings have been massacring each other over for millennia. The anthropological scholar desperately does not want to get involved in questions of religion. He may already have a religion, and one that differs in its worldview from that of the spirit-worker, and he may not want that challenged. She may have no religious views at all, and be strongly invested in that position. Getting close enough to the shaman's worldview to understand it means getting entirely too close to the shaman's view of the Mystery, the numinous, that which is Bigger Than You Are, and - worst of all - can start to interfere in your life if you Notice it, or if it Notices you. It's the heart of the conundrum: if you come close enough to understand, you begin to Believe, and as soon as you Believe, your objectivity and your credibility is immediately suspect.

This is echoed by the sparse documentation of researchers who crossed that line and then had the courage to write about it. One example is the fieldwork of anthropologist Edith Turner, who studied spirit-workers among the Ndembu in Zambia. During a healing ceremony, she actually saw a large grey blob of something like plasma emerge from a sick woman's body, and courageously wrote: "Then I knew the Africans were right. There is spirit stuff. There is spirit affliction; it isn't a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology. And I began to see how anthropologists have perpetuated an endless series of put-downs about the many spirit events in which they have participated - 'participate in a kindly pretence. They might have obtained valuable material, but they have been operating with the wrong paradigm, that of the positivist's denial ... Thus for me, 'going native' achieved a breakthrough to an altogether different world-view, foreign to academia, by means of which certain material was chronicled that could have been gathered in no other way." (Turner, 1992, "The Reality of Spirits".)

I once read an anonymous person summing up all religious viewpoints about a controversial activity that might or might not be spiritually correct into three basic camps. The first two camps were the ones that usually fought it out together; they consisted of "This is the way we've always done it; it's tradition, and therefore sacred, and we know this because our forefathers handed it down, and to change it would be blasphemous," opposed to "Looking at this situation in a modern, compassionate, thoughtful context, one must assume that the ethically right thing to do is to change this practice that alienates so many."Those two voices can go toe to toe indefinitely; the problem is that there's a third voice, one that says, "Well, I talked to (deity) yesterday about this problem, and (deity) said XYZ."

This is the voice of the mystic, and it is secretly or not-so-secretly hated by both the other sides. One reason for that hatred is that it seems dangerous to trust the word of someone who has no credentials except a claim to talk to God, or the Gods, or the spirits, or whatever. As a spirit-worker, I know from experience that the Gods and spirits do not choose their targets on the basis of intelligence, competence, sanity, morals, life history, or general goodness. Actually, most spirit-workers (including myself) are completely bewildered as to what criteria the Gods and spirits do base their choices on. It's one of those Mysteries that can make you tear out your hair if you think about it too long. It's a Mystery.... and a damned annoying one. It's perfectly understandable that both the traditionalist and the reformer are going to look at the wild-eyed mystic, who has no credentials, no power, and possibly little education on the subject, but who claims to be able to Talk To The Source, and dismiss them entirely. What Jesus or Freyja or the ghost of the dead guy said to you is not something that they want to take into account. Who are you, anyway, that they should believe what you say? You could be delusional, or lying in order to manipulate people, or just earnestly mistranslating the puppets in your head. And, to be fair, those are rational fears; any of those things could be true.

The other reason is that in order to believe in the slim chance that you're telling the truth, they must confront their feelings about the fact that Jesus or Freyja or the ghost of the dead guy is not talking to them. That's a hard pill for people to swallow. Why not me? they ask themselves, on some level. Why am I not good enough? Why would the Divine Presence reveal itself to that guy over there, but not me, no matter how much I pray/meditate/act rightly? What right do they have to the God-Phone? The pain and resentment are often enough to make someone reject the message just on principle. Spirit-work is bizarrely elitist, in that it chooses some and not others, and it cannot be made to fit into the box of "anyone could do this if they just tried hard enough". To many people, raised with the modern concept that any religious experience ought to be accessible to anyone who works for it, this is bitterly unjust.

I don't have any good answers for that unfairness, either. I've seen that pain in the eyes of someone whose divine patron has given me a message to pass on to them, when they've worshipped that patron for a long time and still need me to do the communicating. I remember reading an interview with a well-known Catholic nun; when asked what the most difficult part of her strict life was, she answered, "God's silence." The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich apologetically wrote that people must not think that her communications with saints made her a better person; that she knew many who were far better Christians than she, and she had no idea why the saints did not speak to them as well. But it's a warning for the spirit-worker who wants to be believed: sooner or later you must have an answer for that pain and indignation in the eyes of the people who aren't seeing and hearing what you are seeing and hearing... and the truth is that there is no answer. I've seen people try with all their might, for years, and not be able to make that live connection. That's why I believe that it is discourteous at best, and damaging at worst, to try to force someone to believe in any deity that is not speaking to them personally.

Which, of course, would include most of the world's population.

And that brings us back to the initial problem: If the spirits aren't speaking to the scholar, why should he believe in them? Why should he believe that the shaman is anything other than delusional? All I can say to the one on the spirit-worker side of that conversation is that trying to convince your academic opposite that you really do have the Spirit-Phone is likely a losing battle, and discourteous anyway. What the spirit-worker does have the right to do is to A) make it quite clear, without tempering or obfuscating, that she really does believe, fully and completely, in the reality of her world(s); B) make it clear that she considers herself to be sane and reasonable, and that her views are sane, reasonable responses to her extraordinary experiences; and C) inform the interviewer that if he cannot fully accept A and B, he should be honest even though it means that there is no point in going on with the interview.

The spirit-worker also has the right to ask the interviewer how they are going to mentally handle the suspension of disbelief. It's important to me that my questioner has worked out a way to think about someone who believes in things that they do not that does not reduce the conundrum of that person's unproven beliefs to ignorance, delusion, wishful thinking, or comforting psychological thought-forms - in other words, anything that lessens them in the mind of the interviewer. What I actually said to the young woman who was interviewing me was, "I've told you what I experience. You know that I am quite aware of what most people's world view would think of this. You do not feel that I appear to be insane to you, yes? Yet in the face of everything I've studied, I still believe firmly in the reality of my experiences, not as metaphor or psychological perspective, but as reality just as firm as the chair that you're sitting in. How do you feel about that? How do you handle it in your head, to reconcile these things? Please be honest with me."

However uncomfortable the interviewer is with talking about their own views and biases, however much they feel that it is irrelevant to the proceedings and might even interfere with the subject's willingness to be open, I as the shaman sitting across the hut have the right to know whether this person is psychologically equipped to do fair justice to my words. I have the right to know if I am wasting my time.

And, if all else fails and the interviewer is not forthcoming, the spirit-worker should just ask the spirits if this is worth doing. They haven't failed me yet on that account.

So what advice do I have for the scholar who sits opposite the shaman in the next interview? First, I ask them to consider the things I've said so far. Sit quietly and do a little psychological exercise with yourself. Suspend your disbelief and imagine that the shaman could, actually, convince you that the Gods and spirits that they worked with were real. How would that change your world? Carefully sort through all the things that you take for granted, and imagine how they would change. As you do this exercise, take note of your emotional reactions. How does this idea make you feel? Can you consciously extrapolate what this kind of a change would do to you, psychologically? Some part of you can... and that will be the part that will be hovering worriedly in the back of your mind, ready to throw out a kneejerk reaction and skew your objectivity.

Am I asking you to somehow create an unqualified belief in whatever the shaman says? No, as I've noted, that would be unfair and unreasonable. Instead, I'm asking you to be as fully aware of your own defense mechanisms as possible. Far too many scholars claim as "objectivity" a position that is too carefully bordered with defense mechanisms installed not for the sake of filtering out ethnocentrism, but for maintaining their own emotional comfort. Be reassured that it is normal for these sorts of interactions to create an emotional reaction in the interviewer. Your job is to be entirely aware of your reactions, and not let them get in the way. That's a lot more challenging than simply ignoring or denying them, and letting them sneak in while you're not looking. In other words, don't go interviewing tribal spirit-workers until you have thoroughly excavated and studied your own feelings and beliefs on the subject, including the irrational ones. Be especially wary of defense-mechanism stances that put a huge gulf of human difference between yourself and the spirit-worker, and/or your culture and their culture. While it is good to appreciate cultural differences, it is insulting to hold a view that implies, however subtly, that you come from the "rational" sort of human beings and they come from the "irrational" sort. I have seen both sides of this coin. On the one hand, I have heard the frustration of spirit-workers in indigenous tribes when faced with an attitude of how "fascinating" their odd cultural beliefs are - "fascinating" being a conscious or unconscious euphemizing for "quaint and colorful" - and how much more "spiritual" they are than Ordinary White Westerners. Don't think that changing the interviewing language even further is going to disguise that attitude, either. These people are not stupid. Many of them have jobs that require a great deal of human service work for their tribe/group/clients. Even across a cultural divide and a language barrier, they can probably tell when you are fetishizing their alienness.

The other side of that coin comes up, surprisingly, when I as someone who was actually raised in the dominant Western intellectual culture is subtly chastised for having defected. I've bene told directly and indirectly that I can't possibly be experiencing the same sort of thing that an indigenous tribal spirit-worker goes through. I've heard scholars refer to the attempts of Western spirit-workers to reconstruct the practices of our actual ancestors, via a combination of research and direct spirit-teaching, as "appropriating the past". When I question them, I find an underlying assumption that modern Westerners - especially white, educated Americans - are so spiritually impoverished by our centuries of "rational" thought that we are somehow racially unable to have such spirit-connections any longer. Sometimes this is accompanied by hand-wringing over how all we can do is to respectfully observe indigenous people doing their oh-so-spiritual gyrations, which should of course be preserved because it's a good thing that someone can still actually be oh-so-spiritual, and we've just ruined that for ourselves, as a group.

Under the veil of this apparently humble stance is a huge streak of cultural egotism, and a great deal of fear. No matter how much it is lauded, the idea that certain ethnic groups are more "spiritual" than your group can easily become - and usually is, on some level - conflated with "irrational", especially in the mind of someone whose identity and self-worth is based on their intellect. Scratch the surface of the self-deprecating modern white Western scholar with their almost desperate attempts to be respectful and even adoring of indigenous spiritual practices - although never actually trying to intrude, because that would be co-optation - and you will find someone who is secretly relieved that These Sorts Of Things Just Don't Happen To My Kind Of People. Because if they did, that might mean that any of us comfortingly rational folk, even those with multiple advanced college degrees, might suddenly get grabbed by the Spirits, and forced to do all sorts of bizarre and primitive-looking and irrational things, and we couldn't just pack them off to the bin without a second thought. Because if they did, we might have to take another look at a certain percentage of the people that we have packed off to the bin.

Because if they did, that might mean that we as modern Westerners might have to take responsibility for our lack of cultural context for spirit-work in our society. We might actually have to Do Something About That, and the implications of that are huge enough to make the average college student researching their thesis run and hide...or maybe even drop out and start trying to Do Something, which might ruin them for life in the eyes of everyone else in this society.

What I'm asking for is that we be allowed to talk about this in brutally honest terms, across that metaphorical fire in the hut. There may be no way to reconcile our world views, but we can at least come to the table being completely honest about our own biases, which we are going to have anyway.

The second thing that I want to impress on researchers who interview indigenous people is that you cannot be sure that this tradition is going to survive in its entirely. The sad fact is that most of the shamanic practices that were evolved thousands of years ago are mostly or completely gone. These were oral traditions, and when things happened to those people - often mass and/or forced religious or cultural conversions - people just stopped passing them on. This means that the descendants of those people may have to reconstruct those practices someday, and your writings may actually be useful if, all Gods forbid, that time comes. I'm not worried about the ones who are reconstructing it because they find it quaint or are seized with a bout of cultural pride. I'm worried about the ones who are seized by spirits that they barely know or understand, and are in the middle of shaman-sickness and desperately trying to learn enough to survive it. I don't know how many times I've read a century-old narrative that dryly recounted, "and then the shaman did something with some herbs," and I scream at the long-dead writer, "What? Which herbs? What did she do?" It's not a hobby for me. It's my life. Keep that in mind when you take down details... and make leaps of assumption about the meaning of those details, based on your own pet ideals.

Granted, some indigenous practitioners may not trust you, the outsider, to get to know details about their spiritual practices. There may be mystic-secrecy issues involved, or just plain old mistrust and suspicion, and you are not going to be able to overcome that immediately, if at all. Just write what details you can, remembering the predicament of that possible future spirit-worker. If you want to be more pushy abut it, the best thing that you can do is to ask the spirit-worker politely to please inquire of their Gods and spirits as to whether you are the medium by which those spirits want their knowledge disseminated to the world. If they come back and tell you no, leave it at that. Frankly, the spirits know better than you do anyway.

It's interesting, being on the shaman side of that smoky fire in that metaphorical hut, looking through the smoke that obscures and the fire that lights up just enough for curiosity, when I knew what the other side looks like and feels like. Unlike an indigenous tribal spirit-worker, I have the privilege of remembering what it was like to hold that world view... before I knew what I know now. This means that I can, if I'm on my game, reach through that smoke and communicate more effectively in words that they will better understand. It also means that I can more effectively see the defenses that they have erected in order to keep any part of themselves from interfering in the work...and, conversely, in the hopes of keeping the work from affecting them. It's those latter defenses that sometimes interfere not only with the former ones, but with the work itself, and I'm not above gently demolishing them if I think that they are a barrier to communication.

On the other side, sometimes an interviewer will suddenly show a penetrating insight into that smoke of difference that lies between us, and I will be surprised, and learn something myself, something that I may be able to pass on to other interviewers. I encourage this. To the tribal worldview, this should be an exchange, not a one-way transaction. Even the gift of money or barter is not enough to make it an equal exchange. This is in vast contrast to the academic world-view, where offering anything of yourself ruins the objectivity and therefore the exchange.

If you come to a spirit-worker as a client, you might offer them money (if they are allowed to take it for those services) or barter (if this is allowed instead), or if you have nothing at all and they agree to help you anyway out of duty, you give them your respect, and your trust. This, if nothing else, is a fair exchange, and one that it is possible to give to an interviewee without damaging your objectivity, if you work at it. Conversely, if you are the spirit-worker and someone comes to you as a client, you owe them not only your best efforts at your job, but also your best efforts at penetrating their perspective in order to more fully understand their needs, even if only to decipher whether those needs can be effectively met by you. This, too, is possible to give to an interviewer without compromising or diluting the telling of your experience.

We must not allow either side to forget that these exchanges are vital to the future. The degradation and extinction of many shamanic traditions around the world have proven to us how fragile such teachings are, and how easily the lineage is thrown off. On the other hand, the continuing pull of the spirits has shown us their strength, even if the human links prove to be the weak ones. It is humiliating enough to have to search for scraps of your ancestors' lore in the writings of people who don't believe those teachings quoting people who considered those teachings to be evil. It doesn't need to be that way for those who come after us. If the scholars and researchers can step ahead of themselves, their theses, their degrees, their short-term struggles, and even their lifetimes, and see the really important audience - and write with those future shamans in mind - I will bless them, and so will the spirits. Even if you don't believe in them, the spirits' blessing is worth having. Trust me on this one.