The spirit is the master, imagination the tool, and the body the plastic material. – Paracelsus.
When Avvakum Petrov (1620 – 1682) a Russian protopope of the Kazan Cathedral on Red Square wrote for the first time in his memoirs (written before 1676 but first printed in 1861) the word šaman, meaning “one who knows”, little did he realise the depth and breadth of feeling, emotion, revolution, backlash, explosion of variants, exploitation and misrepresentation this single and earliest example of this recorded word would create. Today a ‘shaman’ is seen as a practitioner of shamanism, a magico-religious practice involving animism, faith healing, spiritualism, spirituality and traditional medicine. Shamanism itself is a religious practice that involves a practitioner who is believed to interact with a spirit world through altered states of consciousness, such as trance and possession. And yet, as beings of many countless inner and outer possibilities living a life which is ultimately an enigma that we cannot penetrate, there are those that still feel a strong and powerful urge to not allow ourselves as beings to self-designate. I am told that the word ‘shaman’ has a very precise meaning and that it is a Russian corruption of the Tungus-Evenki word šaman, an adjective used to designate the priest of their religion. It seems that the Russian language willingly took this word originally and like a virus rolled with it into a massive and endless world of variants that like so many ripples on a pond still reverberate across the world today. The word ‘shaman’ still has a clear and important value in my mind despite scholars, writers and researchers adding each and every possible permutation to its meaning. For me there is no middle person when it comes to spirit. It’s throughout and within us all. Respect and consideration for each other are far more difficult to identify.
Apparently, we now live in a “spiritual marketplace” (an ugly term in my mind) and are susceptible to being told in certain articles that “a true shaman, or healer, does not walk around calling him/herself a shaman.” What happened? How did we get here? Even the word ‘shaman’ itself has been weaponised against those that authentically and sincerely hold it as a tenet or precept of moral, ritualistic and ethical behaviour. Numerous spheres and vectors throughout society for many reasons varying from self-interest to just plain and simple hatred of any seemed disrespect or appropriation (the act of taking something for your own use, usually without permission) find distaste at so called “New Age Shamans” who it seems believe in what they/we like. Can they/we not believe in what we feel or like anymore? Do we not have our own story, history, herstory, theirstory? Has humanity become so incredibly intolerant to the level of an authoritarian playing the part of a word cop? Is the idea of free will and embracing as much as your arms, heart and mind can carry too much for some? Is the hallowed and sacred cow of lineage now the preserve of profoundly discriminatory elitism? If a soul independently embraces an idea or ideal with a good heart, then so be it. From acorns vast trees grow. The title of ‘shaman’ is usually given either by the community, collection of peers or teacher after ordeals/training that take the initiand close to death. Wearing a fur skin hat with fake horns, bare chested with a smorgasbord of tattoos and storming the Capitol building in an act of attempted sedition does not make you a shaman and is for all intents and purposes not a good look whatsoever for you or the whole pre-existing authentic shamanic global community. However, now playing the devil’s advocate here, was this person, apparently previously an actor who was allegedly capable of many voices and accents, not possessed by something? Is not possession a core element of shamanic characteristics? I am not in any way legitimatising this person’s behaviour or beliefs for one single moment. I am simply pointing out that as unpalatable and very ill-judged as I viewed this person’s appalling criminal act, they exhibited something that seemed to emanate from an act of possession irrespective of how mindless it seemed. Afterwards this person deeply regretted their actions. Their illusion, and the idealogue that they represented, was well and truly broken.
It was my ex-wife, after many months of severe illness and unrelenting pain, did she utter the words “You are a shaman” to me. I did not respond immediately to this missive but let it settle deep down into my being for quite a number of years. Indeed, I had forgotten the fact that she had even said it to me, and it only resurfaced when I questioned myself about my decision to designate myself a shaman after discovering that I had all along been exhibiting signs of this fact. It was a quiet day when after years of soul searching and personal reflection did I finally came out of the shamanic closet and put the word into my Twitter biography space. Unremarkable and completely silent. No fanfare or ritual. It was a simple process of being completely and brutally honest with myself and confronting and coming to terms with the experiences and interface with the world/worlds I was already experiencing and had experienced. The voices, the spirits, the deep fear of feeling unseen presences as a child, leaving my body and a crushing near death experience, the three-dimensional highlighted prophetic visions that spoke to me and a still continuing voyage through the underworld all now made an indisputable sense.
After applying for a job as a music manager in a London based start-up, the company I was auditioning for required me to take an online test called a Kolbe Test. I became enlightened to some trademark signs that were there all along. The Kolbe Test designated me and my work skills profile into a four-digit number 7833. The company hired me on the numbers 7 and 8 alone. I was apparently of a higher-than-normal detail orientation. I could apparently see things that many could not. Later on, pure instinct lead me inexorably to take more tests. Three autism tests later and I found much to my surprise, relief and utter frustration at having been ignorant that I was very firmly well above an average score. One friend said to me that “most people are autistic in one way or another”, which only inflamed and ultimately devalued how I was feeling. This seemingly simple plot twist for me was a game-changer. Years of my life all suddenly fell into a clear and vivid perspective that was once a jigsaw accident of incomprehensible shapes, patterns and images. My childhood spent in remedial groups at school because I was a “slow learner” and the countless times I was given extra tutoring because I was unable to comprehend maths all now seemed just an unfair and pointless exercise in torture and humiliation. My ability to empathically lock into people and situations while sensing premonitory waves of knowing only made my learning difficulties all the more frustrating. My bedroom resembled a shrine. I filled countless drawing books full of a myriad of designs and fantastical figures. I taught myself how to repurpose my hi-fi system to record my own little taped shows. OCD tendencies under scored my obsessive and driven need for order, composition and meaning.
Gonzalo W. Benard once posted onto his Twitter account something that was and still is enormously helpful to me. It was a blog called Autism and Shamanism. This single piece of writing helped me in ways that are still reverberating with me today. In it he states, “Being autistic and shaman, I always found that they actually help and complement each other.” Indeed, they do. I found that I fell into trance extremely easily and often found myself tripping into worlds without drugs at the drop of a hat. But does this mean that I am a ‘shaman’, and should I continue to wear this title as if all of this dreamworld portal jumping is a card-carrying visa pass for me? My continued and still forward motion through experiencing rituals and upholding my daily practice of chanting, meditation and working with spirit certainly puts me into the ballpark. But can anyone be a shaman? I know that there are those that talk the talk but do not silently walk the walk. People can be a minefield of contradictions. Over the years I have developed as if by accident or design a series of personal tools that have grown organically from decisions/non-decisions which bring me to this point. My healing capabilities come through my music/sound sculptures which I will continue to produce. Since a child I have painted and drawn all that has passed into me from beyond. My voice through Tibetan over tone training can now shift deep seated pain and alter the texture of any given space. Now however I find that writing and sharing is a newly recent development, spurred on by my first article in Indie Shaman, that has been beneficial to more people who seek maybe just a crack of light in the darkened room.
Since 2017 I have come into contact with the Ajarns of Northern Thailand. These sublime Buddhist practitioners have opened me up towards expansive and enriching evolutionary rituals which have changed my life. Buddhism has been a part of my life since my late teens but now it has centre stage. No alcohol or drugs pass into my body. Three pilgrimages have what I would call pressed a total and complete shutdown and restart of my entire living being. A true and authentic life-changing experience. I am no longer the man I was. My teachers have shown me a clear pathway. I have so far in total experienced seven separate rituals pertaining to Sak Yant. Sak Yant is a tattoo of profound magickal power and can only be applied by a fully realized and recognized master of the art. The Thai word “Sak” means “to tap”, while the word Yant, derived from the Sanskrit word Yantra, means literally “machine” or “contraption”, a divine mystical diagram rich with occult meanings and magickal functionality. Physically passing into and through rituals, irrespective of how simple or quiet they may seem, be it candle magick, geomancy, the making of fetishes, storytelling or drumming yourself into a trance, can yield many benefits and positive enriching experiences that can help not just ourselves but also the world around us in hidden ways. I am open and inclusive of many pathways. If a road is less travelled it does not make it any less effective.
I recently joined a “shamanic” Facebook group. I felt that maybe I was a part of some form of ‘community’ and searched for fellow practitioners. This chaotic experience only simply made me feel more isolated than before, though isolation, like any form of ascetic disinterestedness, should not be sneered at and welcomed as an opportunity for renunciation of worldliness. Amongst the posts that stated, “What is your shamanic lineage?” and “I don’t get why people think that shamanic work is only plant medicine and that you only do ‘good’ work when you work with plants.” I saw only small and scant places where any actual wisdom lived. There was some but not much. I saw shaming and putdowns. “Are you saying you are a shaman? No señorita! To be a shaman is lot of more than facing yourself, is way more that doing the job…”. Indeed it made me feel that authentic practitioners would stay as far as possible from any group and thus take on the precepts that the Sādhus of India would hold, living on the fringes of society, rarely or seldom seen, not slamming down their egos, and deeply held opinions in social media groups. Contempt, anger, and arrogance are poisons that destroy one’s ability to connect and engage with spirit. I then left the “shamanic” Facebook group and contemplated why on earth I joined in the first place even though the group called itself a “resource”. Furthermore, I see a growing and increasing intolerance and one could say hatred towards what is called “westernized shamanism”. As much as I respect and wholeheartedly support the rights of indigenous people to protect and preserve their sacred traditions, rituals, and rights I feel that the aggression of terms like “dismantling”, “reasons to stop using” and “adopting the culture of a historically oppressed group for profit or status” because of “cultural appropriation” only increases attachment, conflict, and the expansionism of elitist caste systems through the toxic privileged club of perceived linage. The “decolonization” of a perceived “colonization” puzzles me. Why blame humans for wishing to avoid dinosaurs, find food, find wisdom, and following the ancient star maps that are hardwired into our hind brains? We are, have always been and will always be nomadic and shapeshifting. This logically will still apply to humanity as we move into the stars. Humans have moved unceasingly across the face of this planet since time immemorial. I see, acknowledge and constantly discover the untold and censored history of violent, imperialistic, and military invasion and the resource stripping of countries as a form of pure evil of the highest order. The ancestral trauma of historical violence is very sadly a part of our shared and personal experience. When in Rome, one must absolutely accept the status quo and vigilantly respect the place, the culture, and the practices. Rome however was made by the treasure of many invasions across its empire, and this must never be forgotten. Currently in this toxic and intolerant atmosphere there seems to be no room for any form of progressive evolution or hybrid collaboration. Humanity is of course a work that is still very much in progress. Our home is this planet. This planet does not have lines drawn upon it. Humans have created this construct, not the planet. The planet is wise beyond all humans. It breathes and we are just irritating ideas that are currently destroying it while bickering, discriminating, fighting, recriminating, and slandering each other. Is hybridization and the evolutionary growth of practices while genetically splicing new forms not the way forward? Are we not allowed to blend, mix, and go where our own spirit takes us? Is not my motivation founded in meaning? As we live and breathe we take into ourselves the air and water of all things that exist on this planet, the air and water that has repeatedly passed through all living things countless times. When I breathe am I appropriating the Gaian Goddess? Am I appropriating the vast expanse of deep space that surrounds our tiny world? I am not appropriating it. I am a part of it, and it is a part of me.
A form of divine synchronisation takes place when we take responsibility for ourselves and focus on what needs to happen. My love and respect for nature, chanting each and every morning and giving offerings to my shrine, caring full time for my disabled elderly mother and occasionally a similarly vulnerable neighbour, are all elements that underpin my daily life. Then some time for work, rituals and meditating. Being a shaman is being human, being a shaman is being connected into the world and worlds that we inhabit both seen and unseen, being a shaman is to give back to society after we have quested and sought knowledge. If there are those that cannot understand this, then this is of no concern to me. While growing up a saying was often thrown at me at regular intervals at school, “Empty vessels make the most noise.” As vessels of and for spirit, silence is ultimately our best friend. I will now leave you with words from The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell (1949); “When the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labour of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet, or the ten thousand worlds.”
This is an unedited and expanded version of my article ‘On Being a Shaman’ that appeared in issue 49 of Indie Shaman magazine.