The Shaman on a House Call
Imagine a preliterate society or rather organic society long ago anywhere in the world, 1000 years ago in Australia, 10,000 years ago in Middle East or 15,000 years ago in Africa or Europe. Or imagine a Native American tribe in New York about 500 years ago or in Ohio 300 years ago. The story I’m about to tell could take place in any of these tribes for the core of the story or the archetypal theme and characters are the same. The differences are names, physical features, language, clothing, diet and a couple of other external reflection of human experience but the main events in the story could have taken place in any organic society anywhere in the world.
Since I live in the state of Oregon in the United States, I’ll imagine a Native American tribe living not far from where I live some 250 years ago. The main character in this story and his apprentice are male. There are and have been female shamans around the world but since I, the storyteller, am a guy and don’t want to pretend to know all about women therefore I’ll go with the male version of a shaman in my story. Shaman is the word commonly used as epithet or the title of a person whose main focus in life is to understanding the relation between body, mind, and spirit and takes an active role in guiding uos(his or her) community in spiritual matters. Once we gain even a glimpse of inner knowledge we’re on a healing path and the one who helps us gain that knowledge is a healer therefore shamans have also been called healers.
This story begins with a family at their dwelling. Their son, Som, who is 19 years old is acting abnormally. He seems to be having visions and hallucinations or what nowadays is considered and diagnosed as psychotic behavior. It’s obvious that the Shaman’s help is needed and they send for him. By the time Shaman arrives the family and neighbors have surrounded Som. The Shaman takes control, calms the young man down with words, songs, touch and looking into his eyes and eventually they sit on the floor and gradually go into a trans.
Som is now on the inner journey with support and more certainty for the Shaman is able to guide him within. At a certain point Som is on his own and the Shaman comes out of trans and asks one of the parents to get some berries from a bush miles away. For a short moment this parent is shockingly surprised as he looks at Som then at the Shaman who’s looking back at him waiting for him to get going, then again looks at Som’s condition. He shifts gears, prepares for the journey and takes off on foot. Som goes through some hot and cold spells and by the next morning the berries arrive. Som’s father was on his own journey through the night to get the berries. The berry tea is brewed which has a strong aroma and the Shaman goes back into semi trans and feeds the tea with the father’s help to a semi conscious Som. Later Som gains consciousness and is back in the same reality he had left a couple of days earlier but not quite the same person. He has had a vision that not only has changed him but will influence the decision making and governing process of the tribe in the coming years.
For the next few days after the vision he goes over to the Shaman’s place and begins to receive guidance as how to integrated his vision into day to day life. The parents bring the Shaman gifts as token of their appreciation and give reverence. The Shaman doesn’t accept their gifts but humbly accepts the reverence.
A community event with ceremonies and rituals had already been planned. The Shaman has only a couple of weeks to find a way to integrate Som’s vision into the event. He can’t orchestrate it in time. He knew the vision and Som himself needed to be honored not only for the well being of the individual but also for the well being of the community as a whole.
During the rituals the Shaman suddenly gets up and walks over to Som’s parents and requests the berries and a tool. They were taken back by the request. They’d never seen the Shaman use that tool and the value of the tool was much less than the gifts they had offered earlier and they needed this tool the next morning. It was integral part of their livelihood which also contributed to the sustainability of their natural environment. The Shaman knew all that. As their response had a delay the Shaman walked away. Another family overheard the Shaman’s request and they immediately send someone to get that tool for the Shaman.
After the community event and rituals everyone went home and in the middle of the night Som had another hallucination, or a “psychotic episode” but more severe and out of control than the first. The Shaman had an intuition this might happen and was sitting in contemplative state when a messenger showed up and asked for home visit. The Shaman could have stayed at his place and gone into trans to help Som. He would have given the berries to the messenger with special instructions. But he could see the karma between Som and his parents and the inner shift that needed to take place for Som to continue in the inner journey. This shift began to take place earlier during the community rituals but wasn’t completed so he had to go over in person.
Som came back from his trip quicker than the first time and the parents offered the Shaman the tool in humiliation. But the Shaman who had no need for the tool in the first place had already been offered by the other family. The karmic connections between Som and parents were completed and Som continued his apprenticeship with the Shaman and grew up to be a shaman himself.
Today we also have shamans and guides but hardly enough. We have psychiatrist and of course people who have inner vision of various degrees. However their natural hallucinations are called psychoses and treated as mental illnesses with labels such as schizophrenia. Joseph Campbell was one of the critiques of the modern way of dealing with natural hallucinations and visions. He called these inner experiences, Hero’s Journey. He even described their stages from the initial “call” to the “return home”. He also said that the psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight with the help of the right guide.
In the story above the Shaman became a signpost in the inner world that Som recognized as the place to return to, Home and home. And not get lost into an in-between place we now call psychoses. The recovery and integration back into the day to day life was very important. The Shaman helped Som to describe his vision and the gifts the vision had to offer to the tribe.
Nowadays young people don’t have an intelligent way of returning home from such inner journeys. Sometimes they get locked up in jails because they end up doing or saying the wrong thing in the wrong place. Or they end up in mental hospitals. But sometimes they wonder the streets as “homeless”. Often they end up getting prescription for variety of drugs for profit. Some psychiatrist and drug company may allow the greed element, which is in all of us to one extent or another, to take over. At the same time some of the intelligent therapists, restricted by “ethics codes” dictated by a central headquarter of a hierarchical establishment, can lose their licence to practice if they use methods of healing which are too “alternative”.
The story of the Shaman on a House Call has two important points. First, people have inner experiences in one way or another and for some folks it’s intense as they’re taken far beyond common reality. They see and gain a certain knowledge which is difficult to put into words. Joseph Campbell calls them experiences and knowledge that “no tongue can soil”. Another words, no matter how hard they’d try to explain it with words and language the glory of that experience can not be describe. One of the ways that Rumi put it is this: If I talk about it the mind will will vanish — When I write about it the pen breaks.
ور بگویم عقل هارا بر کند — ور نویسم پس قلم ها بشکند
The second point of the story is that after someone has had such an experience or “psychotic crack up” and comes back with a vision then if the people, preferably the tribe members, take the time to listen to uos story and vision they may get unexpected gifts or insights. They will most likely feel better by giving appropriate reverence to this person. Not necessary giving authoritarian power or have unrealistic expectations, but a simple reverence for the well being of that individual and the the community.
What happens if excessive reverence is given? What happens when authority to rule the tribe has given to the shaman? My next story Emergence of Pseudo Shaman will tell a story in that regard. These two stories are part of a series about spiritual sensitivity within Social Ecology.