I have suggested on more than a few occasions that the boundaries of the self, which we take as a given today – boundaries that serve to delimit me as independent of the world I inhabit – were not always so stable or so inflexibly fixed (and perhaps for some, they are still not). It seems that such boundaries were more fluid, even malleable, for our pre-civilized ancestors. In recognition of this fluidity or openness, I have often used the phrase: “my flesh, the flesh of the world.” By this, I refer to that permeability, which to-us now appears as a rigid and impervious self/world barrier. My use of that expression was meant to reflect an original participation (“intertwining”) that predates our more recent experience of diremption – a “tearing apart” or severing – of self from world, and our now normal sense of being a solitary ego locked up tightly in a bag of skin, observing the world as a series of external, objective, and independent phenomena in a presumed space-time continuum.
This modern experience of selfhood – as some Transcendental Ego existing psychically and physically as an agent independent of the world – seems to be the result of much philosophical and psychological distancing. It is a state of mind bequeathed to us from the earliest civilizations, the Israelites, the pre-Socratics, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Bacon, the Enlightenment, and a host of other theorists down through the centuries. This entire Curriculum has culminated in the concretization of the highly refined instrument of scientific rationality that defines the West today. However, the sense of permeability that was once a lived experience (apparently overwhelming at times) for the earliest of our genus, Homo, now lies hidden in forgetfulness (letheia), covered over by generations of inculcation to this Curriculum, layering of template upon template, delimiting for us the dimensions of our selves, our world, and our worldview.
The experience of ecstasy (ek-stasis or the event of ‘standing out’ from oneself and existing in that pre-thematic “chiasm” of lived-body-world) was apparently a given for our primogenitors before the birth of cities, the invention of the written word, and the fixating of a unidirectional linear temporality. In the early Pleistocene, the entire lived-world was animate with power – rock, water, snake and sky – a significance that spoke directly, and in the fullness of the present, to the senses of each person participating the world. Animism had its roots in this experience, as did totemism.
There was, in this respect an ongoing, albeit often muted, dialogue between our pre-civilized ancestors and a powerful, reciprocating – sharing – universe. There was a felt experience among our primogenitors of sharing with the environment and with non-human animals, as well as a reciprocal sharing among persons within the tribe and even among tribes. It defined the unique social niche of the Homo genus within the natural world, distinguishing us from other primates (Morton Fried). Yet, what is sharing, phenomenologically speaking, if not a voicing of this original permeability of the lived-body-world that one participates? It may be none other than a clear indication of an ek-static existence. However, there appears to be a point at which the non-human world, the inhabited world, begins to fall silent for the tribe as a whole, and the figure of the shaman slowly emerges as the one who seems to participate and communicate still with those powers of earth and field, sky and water.
Shamanism was preeminently a phenomenon of Siberia and the Central Asian Steppe. The word “shaman” actually comes to us through Russia from the Tungus word “saman.” Nevertheless, the traditional role of the shaman (alternatively called medicine man, healer, etc.) can be found throughout the world among indigenous cultures in the Americas, Africa, Asia, etc. A specialist in ecstasy, the shaman naturally assumed the role of technician of the sacred, as the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene. In altered states of consciousness (being-beside-oneself), he/she would commune ‘ecstatically’ with the powers hat animated the world in order to perform a healing or to understand why his tribe or village was beset with specific problems. Archeological evidence for shamans appears between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago in Siberia. Certainly well before large-scale agriculture and city-walls were erected; and the techniques of ecstatic trance (participating the world in order to effect some change) eventually became the sole province of his or her person.
The shaman obviously had many tools and techniques available to enter ecstatic trance – herbal concoctions, vision producing plants, rhythmic drumming, chanting, dancing, etc. It seems to me that the shaman may have represented a critical turning point in the human project. Perhaps, where the power of the non-human landscape no longer spoke freely to all individuals in the tribe or village directly, the shaman emerged as the voice whereby all could still hear. In any event, the shaman was particularly adept at communing with and applying those forces of life. By managing the concerns of his comrades, he became a crucial figure, the messenger, par excellence, tapping into the power of a vibrant, living cosmos. It was most certainly one of the first specialized statuses in the pre-emergence of stratified societies.
I suggested last week that the intuition of time in the preliterate world is one of deep temporality, an experience of the “thickness of the pre-objective present” (Merleau-Ponty), a present in short that has yet to be dissected or torn asunder. We might further characterize this as an experience of the world in which, from its very “over-abundance, everything breaks out at once into what is overwhelming” (Heidegger). I would wager that the shaman had near-ready access to the doorway of that powerful present, to an overwhelming experience of deep temporality, allowing him to participate the world in a way that others could not or could no longer sense.
Additionally, it is important to recognize that the shaman most often lived as an outsider (the Other) among the group that he served. Physically located on the edges or outskirts of the community itself, he was the preeminent embodiment of alterity or Otherness. He lived this social estrangement within what we might label a psychotic or schizophrenic personality. There was always a mystery and even some fear surrounding his person, his trances, and his abilities. He was never called upon casually, but always out of more extreme need or dire circumstance, requiring his special type of intervention and services. It must have seemed to those whom he served that he lived in the gap, somewhere between what was becoming a more muted experience of power in the group’s experience, and his special vocational ability to enter what they may have increasingly sensed as the other world.
As this diremption or violent separation of self and world continued, and a small tear in the fabric eventually became a gaping and irreparable crevice – where the once feral experience of intertwining simply began to unravel – this specialist in ecstasy became an ever more vital player in social stability and effective participation in the hidden powers animating the world. And, while his project cannot definitively be said to be an attempt at dominating or controlling nature, but rather at participating or sharing its powers, it could be debated whether the role of the shaman represents the formative beginnings of modern projects of manipulation and control. It is important to recognize in this respect that this practitioner, while not yet a religious figure, most certainly appears to be the earliest specialist of the sacred, laying the groundwork perhaps not only for the emergence of magic, but for the scientific project, and institutional religion as well.
So, what do we do with such a figure now? How does it help us? Or doesn’t it? It occurs to me that many individuals today are searching for some personal solution to the obsessive-compulsive behaviors worshipped in this maddening race, behaviors that are leading us unflinchingly over a precipice. Several of you are looking to find a way out, a trap door – enlightenment, salvation, transcendence, the keys to the kingdom, or just a renewed connection with powers of earth, water, fire, and air. Some are looking to religion, others to magic, and a few to the ancient shamanic practices of ecstatic trance – with and without the use of hallucinogenics. Perhaps the question to ask oneself is this: what am I really hoping to achieve with these practices, on this journey of enlightenment or self-realization? If you are looking to Be Here Now (in the oft repeated and now tired phraseology of Ram Dass, a.k.a. Richard Alpert), then you needn’t do anything at all. You do not need to become an ascetic hiding in the forest, or a monk hole-up in the monastery, you don’t need drugs (well occasional flights never hurt), and you certainly do not need to pursue some special path. There is nowhere to go, other than where you already are and always have been.
From an unnamed Zen master:
There is nothing, no target. There is no destiny. It is all beautiful purposelessness. It is all beautiful meaninglessness. It is a song. It has no meaning. It has a rhythm, but no meaning. It has tremendous beauty in it, but no logic. And it is not a syllogism; there is no conclusion. It is an unconcluded existence, and it remains always unconcluded… The arrow has reached, the arrow has always been there, not for a single moment has it been otherwise… Freedom from the goal is utter freedom because the goal keeps you tied together in a direction… When you have a direction to move in, you will have to choose where to go. And the fear will always remain, whether you are going in the right direction or not. (emphasis mine)