Shamans and Soul

We often read about the spirituality of shamans. I am not at all sure this is correct.

Psychologist James Hillman distinguishes between two basic orientations to the world, which he calls spirit and soul. Spirit, he says, is detached, objective, intense, absolute, abstract, pure, unitary, eternal. Soul, on the other hand, is mortal, earthly, low, troubled, sorrowful, melancholy, and profound. Spirit means fire and height, the center of things; soul means water and depth, peripheries, borderlands. Spirit seeks to transcend earth and body, dirt and disease, entanglements and complications, perplexity and despair. Spirit “seeks to escape or transcend the pleasures and demands of ordinary earthly life.” But soul “is always in the thick of things: in the repressed, in the shadow, in the messes of life, in illness, and in the pain and confusion of love.”

Spiritual transcendence, writes Hillman, “is more important than the world and the beauty of the world: the trees, the animals, the people, the buildings, the culture.” Spirit seeks “an imageless white liberation.” What Hillman calls spirit, Martin Buber calls, simply, religion — as he puts it, “exception, extraction, exaltation, ecstasy.” But the mystery instead dwells here, below, in the world, “where everything happens as it happens,” in the possibility of dialogue. Philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas puts this idea in theological terms: “Going towards God is meaningless,” he says, “unless seen in terms of my primary going towards the other person.”

Indeed, the transcendent orientation of spirit can be a way of escaping the messy demands of soul — a process that psychotherapist John Welwood, in a much-copied phrase, has called spiritual bypass. Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield puts the idea this way: “Many students have used meditation not only to discover inner realms and find inner balance but also to escape. Because we are afraid of the world, afraid of living fully, afraid of relationships, afraid of work, or afraid of some aspect of what it means to be alive in the physical body, we run to meditation.”

I believe it is soul, not spirit, which is the true landscape of shamanism — the landscape of suffering, passion, and mess. Shamans deal with sickness, envy, malice, conflict, bad luck, hatred, despair, and death. Indeed, the purpose of the shaman is to dwell in the valley of the soul — to heal what has been broken in the body and the community. Shamans live with betrayal, loss, confusion, need, and failure— including their own. The Amazonian shamans I have known have not had easy lives; think, for example, of the struggles and sufferings of the great Mazatec shaman María Sabina. Graham Harvey, a scholar of indigenous religions, puts it about as pithily as it can be put: “Salmon ceremonies and salmon respecting,” he says, “are about eating salmon, not about communing with symbols of transcendence.”

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