—Shamanism in a Modern World

We live in an age that suffers from loss of soul. We learn in school that the world is inanimate, that the universe is dead, that the Earth is an island of life in a lifeless Universe. We learn that the stars are not the eyes of God but nuclear furnaces that will become white dwarfs and eventually explode, spewing their lifeless innards into the void of space.

We have learned to explain too many things. To an Indian child high in the Andes, or in a Hopi reservation in the Southwest, life is a mystery, the sky is inexplicably wondrous, rocks are beings that talk to you and counsel you. They know that rivers don’t lie, that when the mountain speaks it whispers with a voice that was heard on the first day of creation.

I remember walking with a missionary in the high mountains of Peru. We were nearly to 14,000 feet, where the air is crisp and thin, when we spotted a boy, no older than twelve, sitting on a large boulder. As we drew close I offered him the few dried rolls of bread I carried in my fanny pack. The boy’s faced lit up; he thanked me for the bread and sped off to his home. My companion, who had only recently left the seminary, explained how it pained him to see such beggars. I remember turning to him and saying that this boy was no beggar, but a warrior who slept under the stars, warmed only by his little poncho at night.

To this boy, and to all the native peoples of the earth—the aborigines in Australia, the Sub Saharan people, the villagers of Tibet—the earth is animated. It has a Soul. And the threads of our own Souls are interwoven within the tapestry of the Earth’s Soul. One of the prices we have paid for our philosophy of materialism is to lose touch with the Soul of the Earth, and with our own souls.

How did this happen? Some say it started in the Renaissance. In the year 1564 the elders of the Church convened a Vatican Council to determine if women, animals and American Indians had Souls. After long debate the wise men of the church unequivocally declared that Indians and animals did not possess a soul. (Women barely squeaked by.) This gave the Conquistadors carte blanche to enslave Indians, animals and nature alike. In the first one hundred years after the Conquest, 60 million Indians died in mines and fields working like beasts of burden. They had no soul.

Two centuries later, Renee Descartes arrived at his delirious “I think, therefore I am.” He divided the world into subjective and objective phenomena, into matter and spirit. Matter was not the stuff of spirit. The Earth was not alive, we had to plow and turn it and struggle with it to sustain ourselves. Spirit was an untouchable other to be attained once we dropped this physical body. The word matter comes from the Latin Matter, Mother. With Descartes we finally achieved the definitive separation from the feminine, from the mother earth. Science replaced all the old mythologies. Objectivity and reason became the new reality. The divine within us was reached through penance and prayer, and not through personal awakening and direct revelation. Miracles ceased happening. We forgot that reality were only those myths that we don’t quite see through yet, as they are invisible to us, like the air we breathe.

The Soul is what brings us face to face with the mystery of creation. As an anthropologist I’ve always been awed that we (Europeans & Americans) are the only peoples in the world ever kicked out of Paradise. In all other world mythologies, in the Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, humans were given the garden to tend and be caretakers of. Only in the Judeo—Christian tradition are the first children of the Earth ousted from Paradise. They were told they could eat every fruit but that of the tree of knowledge. And they did, first the Woman, our first Mother. And we were punished for tasting the forbidden fruit. And we forgot the language of the rivers, of the mountains, and stopped speaking face to face with God.

There is not a single Shamanic culture in the world that punished a person for tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge, the mystery, and the ways of the feminine as represented by Eve. Every culture has a way of engaging knowledge directly; the vision quest for the Native Americans, the walk-about for the aborigines, the silent contemplation of Buddhist monks.

By learning the techniques of Shamanic Journeying, of Soul Retrieval, and the ways of the luminous warrior, we can learn to recover that self that never left the Garden, that still walks with beauty in the Earth. The Shamanic teachings offer us a way to return to the Mother that we may heal ourselves and our planet. Shamanism is as viable a tradition today as it was 100,000 years ago, and can help us once again see the eyes of God in the stars, and discover the mystery of our creation.