Sunday, December 5, 2010

Becoming Radically Present

I recently spoke at a local church about my spiritual journey and my intention to explore the potential of shamanism to awaken people to the numinous and the sacred and thereby encourage their participation in the stewardship of the planet. In response to my talk, a highly respected Canadian feminist writer and activist expressed a reservation: “Where is the social gospel?”

I took this as to mean that she wanted to know how my spiritual approach responded to urgent realities such as class inequality, sexism, and racism in the way that the politically progressive Social Gospel movement has historically done so within organized Christianity in Canada, and in the way that her own congregation presently does. Perhaps I also heard in her question some skepticism that my approach even has the potential to do so. Time did not permit me to respond to her question, but since then I have thought a lot about how I would have answered.

Many people are seeking guidance in the views and practices of ancient peoples in order to achieve personal balance and meaning in difficult times and to respond to the multi-dimensional crises the world is facing. The growing practice of contemporary shamanism is one manifestation of that search.

(I will use the term “contemporary shamanism” rather than just “shamanism” here only for the purpose of distinguishing current practices from the shamanism of traditional societies. I also could have used “neo-shamanism”, literally “new shamanism”, but unfortunately the term signifies to many people a less “real” or “authentic” set of practices than traditional ones.)

Particularly in its early stages, there was a tendency within contemporary shamanism to project idealized wisdom on indigenous cultures without fully appreciating the context of their lives and spiritual practices. This often led to romanticized, idealized views, and ultimately to the appropriation of indigenous symbols and rituals, particularly of First Nations peoples. In response, many First Nation elders exhorted those of us who are immigrants to the North American continent, whether of current or previous generations, to recall our own original roots, to find wisdom in our own traditions in Europe or elsewhere, as distant as they may be in some cases.

Jürgen W. Kremer is an academic and the editor of ReVision Magazine. His critical perspective has been very important for my thought and practice. Kremer believes there is a healing that comes through what he calls the “remembrance of the original instructions” of ancient European and other traditions:

“Each of the peoples on this planet received an understanding—a teaching—which they had to take care of. This was their responsibility. Following this teaching would not just allow them to be in balance where they lived, but it was each person’s contribution to the balance of the entire planet.” (Kremer 1997)

He writes that we must be careful not to idealize these ancient cultures and their teachings, to project on them a utopian aura. “However, he says, “they do provide a framework for a practice of being and knowing, an ontological and epistemological understanding that seems remarkably relevant today.” (Kremer 2002)

In this spirit I am seeking to join with the many people and organizations who have been working for many years to give voice to the indigenous noita/tietäjä shamanic culture of Finland, my original ancestral heritage. For example, ancient Finnish culture, like many other Eurasian shamanic cultures, was deeply animistic, seeing in life a web of relations among human and other than human persons such as animal persons, tree persons, and others. Ancient Finns sought above all to find balance in those relations, through spiritual and other means. I believe that this ontological vision has considerable relevance in responding to the worldwide environmental crisis of the 21st century.

When we explore our indigenous roots in a non-idealized way, incorporating rituals drawn from them in our personal practices, we can go on to meet with individuals from other indigenous cultures in a shamanic coming together to share healing stories and visionary experiences in what Kremer terms “shamanic concourse” (Kremer 1992) or the “nurturing conversation. (Kremer 2002) This is a deep, humbling form of dialogue that involves listening patiently and with compassion as we ask and answer: “Who am I? And who are you?” It means not privileging the rational, but rather aligning the rational with “emotional, somatic, and spiritual senses, understandings, and meanings”. The conversation need not be solely verbal:

“It can be in the exchange of food, in the dance movement, in the intake of air, in the rush of a waterfall, in the play of air currents in a bunch of grass, in the song offered to the mountain, and in the melody brought down from high peaks in the wind.” (Kremer 2002)

Kremer forcefully argues that this shamanic concourse cannot stand alone; it must be built on the foundation of a critical understanding of, and personal engagement with, the real history of the relations of dominant and indigenous peoples. Historically, dominant political and economic elites and their academic allies have characterized the social and cultural changes that often violently transform the lives of indigenous peoples by the use of benign terms such as “development”, “becoming modern” and of the need to change in the face of “progress”. However, for indigenous cultures the face of progress has usually been, and often continues to be in the present day, that of colonialism, racism, Christianization, active suppression of “pagan” practices or neutralization through incorporation, destruction of indigenous ecology, geographical displacement and confinement, and even genocide.

It is true that regardless of these powerful obstacles, the indigenous cultures and their earth-based spiritualties would have changed and evolved anyway. However, we cannot know what wondrous forms they might have taken and the even richer legacies that they would have developed, but for the implacable forces arrayed against them.

Kremer identifies “dissociated mind” as a powerful factor in maintaining this state of affairs and warns that we as individuals are not prepared for shamanic concourse as long as we are still rooted in it. (Kremer 2002) Dissociated mind is mind split from its connections with nature, ancestry, community. To that we may add the sacred and the numinous. It is exemplified at its most extreme by the U.S. Air Force personnel working in trailers in the Nevada desert, manipulating the controls of remote high altitude rocket-carrying drones over Afghanistan to target and eliminate suspected “enemy combatants” who appear on their computer displays.

Dissociated mind is based on colonial “whiteness” (whatever our skin colour) and “euro-centred, hegemonic, colonizing, economically globalizing consciousness”. It also characterized by individualism and rigidly bipolar gender roles that serve the supremacy of males. (Kremer 2002) The process of neutralizing the “ferocious and violent powers of dissociated mind” is an extremely arduous yet potentially highly creative one. In addition to the psycho-spiritual dimension, the process has moral, political, and activist dimensions as well. It opens us new frameworks for “struggles for social justice and equality, and la lotta continua”. Over time, the process results in what Kremer calls “radical presence”.

Speaking of what he calls “new age shamanism,” Kremer observes that this practice (along with other “self-actualizing practices”), is an attempt to address pathologies and negative features in euro-centred societies. However, while it has a liberating intent, it must move outside the orbit of individualism and dissociated mind to radical presence in order to realize it. He says:

“The experience of alternate spiritual realities seems to require as a prerequisite the experience of a specific alternate state of consciousness more difficult to attain than the shamanic state of consciousness taught in weekend workshops: compassionate presence to the various histories different peoples are a part of; empathic awareness of historical wounds and violations of chauvinisms and white supremacy, of fractures and fissures in history as told by victors; listening presence on the land lived on; and compassionate presence to the ills that are being wrought today and that are part of all our lives.” (Kremer 2002)

I find this observation to be valuable as a challenge to practitioners of shamanism. At the same time I challenge Kremer’s dismissive attitude toward contemporary shamanism. He exclusively associates it with what he sees as insubstantial New Age phenomena in this passage and elsewhere in his writings. In fact, since the initial development of what Michael Harner calls core shamanism in the 1970’s there has developed a robust community of practitioners across North America and worldwide. There are now many variations on the basic themes of practice that he laid down and there is a rich environment of practice, teaching and learning.

Many of the practices of contemporary shamanism are new. However, some practices have been borrowed from indigenous traditions. As far as I know through my own experience this borrowing has largely been done through respectful shamanic concourse with indigenous peoples by practitioners and recognized shamans who are well along on the path of radical presence. While blanket approval cannot be given to all of contemporary shamanism—some aspects are clearly highly commercial and lacking in substance—it deserves recognition as an emerging form of spirituality which, while not indigenous, is nevertheless growing deep cultural roots.

I embrace Kremer’s plea to discover our indigenous heritages, but I also believe that those of us who practice shamanism can legitimately claim two spiritual homes, one indigenous and one contemporary, and that the two can ultimately converge in authentic and creative ways.

Kremer offers the practice of “enthnoautobiography” as a tool or means of developing radical presence. (Kremer 2003) It addresses the question of “Who am I?” to surface the experiences and events that anchor us in euro-centred, colonized mind as well as the ancestral connections that can ground our spirituality. He likens the process to that of shamanic initiation through dismemberment:

“What is at times seen as the classical shamanic initiation can be described as a process in which the initiand is entirely picked apart, down to each single bone, before being put back together. It seems to me that the contemporary shamanic initiation for people out of their indigenous minds not only requires something of that sort but also the prior dark-night experience of our collective situation, past and present.”

“Unless we allow ourselves to be picked apart by the monstrosities we have created in history we may not be able to recreate ourselves as human beings capable of a nurturing conversation, now without significant splits while holding those splits that seem inevitable for the moment in compassionate awareness.” (Kremer 2002)

To illustrate, using myself as an example, the enthnoautobiographical process entails that I look closely at facts such as the following, from among many others from my life:

• I have lived, uninvited and without acknowledgement to my hosts, on the ancestral lands of the following indigenous peoples: Chehalis (coastal Washington State), Calapooya (the Willamette Valley in Oregon), and Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation (Toronto).

• The U.S., the country where I was born and grew up waged, in my name as a citizen, an imperialist war against the mostly rural people of Viet Nam. I permanently left my home in the U.S. when I was conscripted as a combatant in the war, and felt highly honoured to be accepted as a resident and later a citizen of Canada.

• I interacted as a government manager with government-funded organizations representing adult literacy programming for Aboriginal people. As part of my work I defended (even as I privately criticized) current, clearly colonialist regulations which do not recognize or fund literacy instruction in Aboriginal languages as they do in the case of English and French.

Kremer stresses that engaging fully in the process of achieving radical presence can be harrowing. However, he assures us that we will have allies as we go through it:

“Native elders have told me: You are not alone. The power is not lost, you are. Ask the question about who you are and make an offering. Ancestors will respond from the other side and help.” (Kremer 2003)

I will close by presenting an evocative, iconic image of shamanic dismemberment as found in ancient Finnish folk poetry and collected in the Kalevala, from the 1897 painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, “Lemminkäinen’s Mother”. It portrays the mother of the ancient shaman Lemminkäinen (herself a shaman) bringing him back to life after gathering and reassembling the parts of his body from the dark river of Tuoni that encircles the land of the dead.

The painting symbolically points to the process of deep transformation, both personal and communal, that was at the heart of the ancient shamanic practice of Finns. The phenomena of radical presence and shamanic concourse I have described here are likewise based on deep transformation, through psychospiritual, moral, political and activist means.

I return to the question I received during my talk at the local church by posing a question of my own: Are the practices within contemporary shamanism that I have described in any way parallel to the role of the social gospel within contemporary Christianity? I would be very interested to hear the answer and to continue the dialogue.


  1. This is profound material, it is hard to know where to start in responding. We are in the midst of a mass cultural dismemberment and the surest way to re-member ourselves is to work for the changes that will heal our earth, our cultures and our peoples. It probably starts with healing the people... one at a time. This also is where our individual healing lies I think. There is certainly healing for me in giving back by honoring beings through right action and thought and feeling.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. Indeed, as the above reflects - profound material. You have given me much to sit with.