Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Personal Journey

A talk given at a local Toronto church, October 24, 2010

Like probably all of you here I have been on a spiritual path over a number of years. However, in the rush of events, our personal spiritual orientations often seem ephemeral and discussing them is not seen as a priority. That’s why this is such a precious opportunity for me. My thanks to you for inviting me.

I want to share with you some aspects of my journey as they relate to my exploration of Buddhism and shamanism. I’ll start with my experience in my family.

Living with my family in the United States I was a religious naïve in the sense that I was completely un-churched. The words “sacred”, “spiritual” never passed our lips. My mother perhaps only half-jokingly referred to us as heathens.

However, I did have an early sense of sacredness, as my parents were of Finnish heritage and like many other Finns had a deep reverence for nature. They observed it daily in many ways through things like maintaining an organic garden.

I was fortunate in that my parents talked to me a lot, which was very formative for me. What we mainly talked at home about was politics and environmentalism from a Marxist perspective. My parents were worried already in the early 1950’s that capitalism was taking the world toward an ecological catastrophe, based on trends that they could see forming.

We were an unusual family in the rural area where we lived. We were of another ethnicity, weren’t conventionally religious, and were definite political outliers in the McCarthy era of the 1950’s. My family was like a puzzle part that didn’t have a hole to fit into. I personally felt this early on, a sense of being different, without a place to stand. The feeling persisted into my adult life.

A memory I have from my childhood was when I was about eight years old and was in an apple orchard with my brother and his friend. I experienced there a dramatic sense of the immensity and open-endedness of all that exists. It was like an inner eye had briefly opened. I certainly couldn’t process it within a rationalist mode. Looking back, I feel it was an experience of what the theologian Rudolf Otto called the numinous, or awe at existence.

To me now, this was perhaps the first indication that I had something of my own to add, beyond what my parents had transmitted to me. This was a heightened experience of and interest in the inner world.

In university I experienced the rich political and cultural landscape of the 1960’s and learned an even healthier disrespect for authority in thought and action than I already had. I became a draft dodger to Canada and identified with all types of ways of breaking down barriers in thought and living. But at the same time I had a continuing sense of inner struggle and lacked the concepts and insight to process it.

I tried different individual therapies. I made some gains, but finally became disillusioned with therapies based on the deficit model that put the problem inside me as the client, making me feel worse about myself and putting the therapist into a power position over me. I was attracted to the therapies of the more politically inclined neo-Freudians and the radical therapy model of R.D. Laing and others with its idea that therapy needs to include attention to the social context and not just personal adjustment

Around this time I was still following the intellectual heritage of my family. I had joined Marxist political groups and was studying Marxist thought as a graduate student. I valued the power of the Marxist political economy method and still do. However I found that Marxist theory and political practice based on it gives little or no status to the inner world, to issues of consciousness and being, which seemed to me to be critical to personal and social change.

That marked the beginning of my disenchantment with scientific materialism in its present form, even of the Marxist variety. I had a growing sense of the problems and limitations of its style of knowing based on the subject-object dichotomy and Cartesian objectivism. It didn’t seem to allow for exploration of a deeper level of things.

In looking for a vocation where I could work directly with people and at the same time contribute to social change, I came upon the writings of the Brazilian literacy educator Paulo Freire. He used Marxist analysis but at the same time was a humanist with a strong spiritual orientation. Freire’s example led to my going into adult literacy, first studying at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and doing a thesis on his work and then being employed in this area in the community and later in government. I just retired from a 30 year career in adult literacy in July.

But back at OISE, in part because of my study of Freire, I was now more open to an explicitly spiritual orientation than before. I took up the practice of meditation being taught by a Tibetan Buddhist group, both for reasons of personal healing and for the expanded worldview that it promised. My Marxist friends at OISE made fun of me. They could see no legitimacy in the practice. I had now officially gone off road in my personal journey: I was in new territory from that of my upbringing.

I learned that Buddhists see suffering as a constituent part of living so there is no point in thinking that you are somehow special or in taking it personally. Suffering results from our attempt to try to make things safe, solid and predictable. One term for it is ego clinging.

I learned through meditation to let things be in my mind, even the painful things. As thoughts and feeling states arise, you watch them come and then let them go, over and over and over. A teacher who I followed in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition is Pema Chodron. She once likened it to staying as still as a mountain when a hurricane is blowing, which described the turmoil in my mind very well.

I learned that at the very center of the flow of thoughts and sensations is the “I”, ego, or self. It seems solid, but is merely composed of a series of thoughts and body states that are held in place by a continuous inner dialogue. As you gradually become aware of gaps and inconsistencies in that apparently solid ego, and you come to see your personal drama in a more detached or transparent way. You become less predictable, more able to make use of your personal gifts.

I have brought a visual aid, a bumper sticker that expresses the phenomenon being empty of inherent existence. (“Honk if you don’t exist”) It is considered very funny among Buddhists. From what I have heard a lot of people honk when you put it on your bumper so it must strike a chord, even if in a humorous way with many non-Buddhists as well.

I think of some of my more rigid leftist friends at OISE who would have benefitted from realizing that things are not entirely solid.

Over a period of years I grew tired of some of the limitations of the Buddhist group I belonged to. It was quite definite in the do’s and don’t’s of spiritual practice. I felt a tension regarding spiritual authority, being obedient to rules regarding what and how to explore.

At that time I was in a workshop with Tara Bennet-Goleman, a Buddhist therapist. When I told her my Buddhist group said you must approach meditation in a certain way she said quite vehemently to me: “You don’t have to do it if you don’t think it’s right. It’s your mind!” That said to me that you need to trust your own perceptions and judgments first, before all spiritual teachers and traditions. In fact, that is exactly what the Buddha taught, but it is often conveniently forgotten.

I took her words very seriously. They inspired me make my own sort of spiritual declaration of independence. From that point forward I promised myself to trust my own inspiration and experience in spiritual matters, rather than uncritically accepting pre-determined answers. For example, I went on to develop my own type of meditation practice, based on mahamudra or objectless meditation, which I practice to this day. Through it I cultivated a friendlier and more relaxed relationship with my mind.

After 8 years I ventured beyond the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to teachings in the Zen tradition, including Thich Nhat Hanh and Cheri Huber, who is my current teacher.

Cheri Huber teaches us to recognize the negative internal messages of ego as represented in the constant feelings and thoughts that “there is something wrong” and “there is not enough”. We sense these themes as subtexts of consciousness, as constant types of tension that are below, but underpin, a flow of thoughts that is characterized by constant self-criticism.

We are taught to recognize and drop these subtexts and the thoughts they spawn, both on and off the cushion, instead of just watching them impassively as is the case in the teachings I had encountered before. I continue to find it to be a powerful form of compassion for myself and an effective response to suffering.

But as powerful as these practices were and are for me, I found that overall Buddhism tends to be very “heady”, not well related to the body, where feeling states reside. For me those feeling states are as important as thoughts for anchoring me in my habitual patterns. As a further step, I branched out beyond Buddhism to earth-based practices, in particular shamanism.

I first attended a weeklong workshop given by a recognized master on the shamanic healing practices of the ancient Bon religion of Tibet, a tradition which also has Buddhist-type practices, including meditation. The focus was on the healing practice of life force retrieval, calling upon the earth elements to strengthen positive inner qualities. I found over time that following the practice gave me a new sense of rootedness and opening up a whole new avenue for personal exploration.

I have brought a ritual tool to show you called a “dadar”, or spirit arrow. It is used in the practice of life force retrieval. It has a silver disk called a soul mirror and coloured ribbons representing the earth elements.

Tibetans and indeed most indigenous cultures are animistic, understanding the natural world to be sacred and alive with beings and forces, visible and invisible, which are available for personal and communal healing. I learned that Buddhism and animism are actually quite compatible in practice. In fact, each major Buddhist contemplative tradition is paired in a sense with an animist tradition in Asian cultures.

For example, after Buddhism conquered Bon in Tibet a thousand or more years ago, it allowed Bon to remain and continues to borrow from it. Prior to the Kalachakra ceremony conducted by the Dalai Lama that I attended some years ago, I noted that before the ceremony he went around the outside of the building placing offerings to the spirits of place.

In Japan, the animist religion of Shinto is paired with Zen, and Buddhists normally observe both.

At the same time, the focus on the existence of nature spirits set up an immediate challenge for me. I had to that point adhered to what has been referred to as “Buddhism without beliefs”, staying with the simple words of the Buddha about the nature of mind and avoiding the cosmological concepts and descriptions of the various traditions. There are tantric dieties in Tibetan Buddhism, but their reality is not of a substantial material sort. They are considered aspects of mind.

As I began to explore shamanism, which affirms a dimension of spirit, I experienced what you could call an ontological crisis, based upon my increasingly shaky commitment to an unreconstructed objectivist materialism.

I recalled the writings of Carlos Castaneda from the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Of course we know now that he was more a shamanovelist rather than what he portrayed himself to be, but in the following quote he captures something important. He writes:

"The internal dialogue is what grounds people in the daily world. The world is such and such or so and so, only because we talk to ourselves about it’s being such and such or so and so. The passageway into the world of shamans opens up after the warrior has learned to shut off the internal dialogue."

In this inner dialogue you find that the voices are constantly setting rules and limits that prevent true spiritual exploration. For example, the major religions such as Christianity are given a hands-off pass from direct criticism. However, shamanism, Wicca, the Goddess traditions, and other so-called Pagan practices, and Buddhism, are not. They are fair game for ridicule.

I could hear those messages in my own mind as I explored shamanism: flaky new age, individualist, consumerist, it is all in your imagination, etc. The messages originate from the prevailing scientific materialist paradigm and the mainstream religions and are in turn reflected in the media and larger culture, from which we internalize them. They limit our confidence in ourselves to have our own experiences and make our own judgments about what is authentic.

What ultimately helped me the most with my questions were the writings of three anthropologists who work in what is called the anthropology of consciousness and who are themselves practicing pagans. They are representatives of a developing post-modern ontology in anthropology that includes but goes beyond the limitations of the prevailing scientific materialism and allows for the reality of spirit. They and other scholars in social science, the study of religion, and philosophy are creating new space for emerging practices like shamanism.

I went on to follow up on my experience with Bon by taking training courses from the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and learned to do neo-shamanic journeying.

According to Michael Harner, the anthropologist who started the Foundation, key features of shamanism worldwide have included the following:

  • Using drumming to achieve non-ordinary states of consciousness,

  • With the help of guides, encountering spirit entities in alternate reality to ask for assistance for healing or gaining information, and

  • Using it for the benefit of oneself or the community.
Harner incorporated the key features of shamanism, minus the specific cultural features of the societies in which shamanism developed, such as First Nations in North America, into the practice of what he calls core shamanism. In that way he tried to avoid cultural appropriation.

The spirit entities that you encounter in the practice of core shamanism are not pre-defined for you, there is no common pantheon. The emphasis is on using the spiritual technologies or methods to reach your own personal experiences with spirits in whatever form they manifest. Some people even contact and call upon Christian figures such as Jesus.

Two particularly powerful healing practices of neo-shamanism that I took part in were a week long vision quest and two, two-day soul retrieval sessions.

Through the vision quest, held in Algonquin Park and led by a recognized shaman, I came to a strong realization related to my personal healing. That is, I contacted an underlying feeling of personal disquiet, a feeling that I have no place on this earth, that I don’t have a ticket to ride like everyone else. It was the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land.

In my subsequent soul retrieval sessions several months later, the shaman found my personal spirit guardian in a place that I recognized from the shaman’s description as the country of Finland. The guardian was waiting for me to rejoin him in a cave that had red markings on the rock wall. The guardian had long been tending parts of me that had been lost since I was a child.

This experience led me to the deepest level of healing I have yet encountered – not replacing anything I have already done in therapy or meditation – but building on them. I had the feeling that before this my life had in some sense been incomplete, that I had finally arrived home.

I know how this probably sounds. I can hear those critical voices too, such as this is only a product of imagination.

Imagination does play an important role here, as it necessarily does in shamanic journeying, but I feel that it does not constitute the whole of the story. For me this was an authentic instance of spiritual knowing that can only be understood through an ontology that incorporates, but is broader than, that of objectivist materialism. And this is where my Buddhist training comes in: The experience remains very important for me in a personal sense but at the same time I try to avoid the tendency to concretize or solidify it, turning it into something new to cling to.

The timing of my soul retrieval experience coincided with a shift in neo-shamanic circles to focusing on local culturally specific shamanisms, supplemented by core shamanism, and away from what is called an essentialist understanding of the practice. At the same time some First Nations people were saying, and pagans were heeding, the view that European immigrants in North America (and that is most of us) should look to our own original traditions, such as ancient Celtic or Nordic paganism, instead of relying on theirs.

Until then I had mostly ignored my ancestral connection to Finland. Now in my reading I found that Finland was in the ancient cradle of shamanism in Eurasia and has retained strong elements of it. I recalled that my father’s mother had been a traditional healer there, in a folk tradition that stretched back for millennia. I remember my father telling me that as a boy he had found a wooden statue in a field, most likely used as part of the shamanistic spirituality that existed in his isolated rural area, the region of Savo, just prior to his being born.

It is said that even Finns who are Christians have a very animistic understanding of God, reflecting the collective pre-Christian past.

I have since visited Finland several times with my family and have explored neolithic rock paintings that clearly show the shamanic heritage of Finns and which are very like the red rock markings that the shaman in northern Ontario had described to me. I have also gone to other neolithic sites in Europe with fresh, open eyes. What I have found is both inspiring and exciting to me. I visited places with sophisticated spiritual technologies for encountering elemental energies, such passage graves in Ireland and Brittany.

For example, the passage grave of Pierre des Plats located in Locmariaquer in the Brittany region of France has a large number of rock carvings, and is believed to have been used by shamans six or more thousand years ago to enable members of the community to encounter the Goddess of Birth and Death.

I feel that my experience of core shamanism has given me tools to access the energies of these places. I see them as having potential for present day spiritual experience and understanding.

Since then I have begun working to help reconstruct, and practice within, the tradition of Finnish shamanism, as informed by similar practices in the Atlantic area of Europe. I have made tentative contact with a Finnish shaman (“noita”) and have begun a blog, called Spirit Boat, which I will use to chronicle my explorations.

In doing this I am aware of the danger of projecting backward the world views and cultural assumptions of the present onto these ancient cultures. However, I feel that there is one very important point of commonality that we have with the peoples of those times that can act as a bridge between them and us the present day. That is what I called earlier the experience of awe at existence.

In the hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies of the late Mesolithic and early Neolithic humans had by and large not yet accumulated the surpluses that would ultimately lead them to develop class systems, complete with their own formal religious systems and corps of religious practitioners to reinforce existing power relations through means of spirituality.

Instead, the shaman was often the lone ritual specialist in the community who was responsible for, among other things, helping others to access their personal experience of this state of awe in a relatively unmediated way, a fresh take on the cosmos.

I feel we too can experience these numinous states through practices and technologies that we borrow and adapt from ancient ones. In this way we can share this timeless healing connection to the cosmos. I feel that exploring ancient spiritual roots can contribute in some small way to the worldwide transformation of consciousness that I believe is required today.

I can imagine more and more people in the future engaging in direct communication with the sacred landscape, restoring our perception of subject-hood of the entities of the natural world that was destroyed with the advance of scientific materialism. I believe it could lead to a greater collective humility and sense of responsibility for the planet and its fate.

It is a small piece of the puzzle I know, but it is one that I feel called upon to help contribute to.

Both of my parents are gone now, but I hope that they would recognize that I remain true in my own way, perhaps a quite different way from theirs, to a vision we shared of a better world.

Thank you.


  1. Dear Harold,
    What a pleasure to read your personal journey! Thank you for sharing the pieces of the puzzle you have been discovering and for encouraging us to follow the footsteps of the ancestors. With much love and gratitude! Martha

  2. Fantastic and thank you, thank you for sharing your story.

  3. Fantastic and thank you, thank you for sharing this with us.