Carts Before Horses

Karen Armstrong, a leading scholar of the world’s religions, points out in Every Eye Beholds You that faith is not something you begin with as you embark on a spiritual life. Too often we imagine that a person first believes “all the correct ideas about the divine” and then procedes to lead a spiritual life.  “But the history of religion makes it clear that this is not how it works,” she writes. ”To expect to have faith before embarking on the disciplines of the spiritual life is like putting the cart before the horse.”  She points out that in all the great traditions, sages and mystics “spend very little time telling their disciples what they ought to believe.” Her point is that faith “is the fruit of spirituality,” not its root.

We often say that shamanism is not a religion in the sense of an organized set of orthodox beliefs, practices, and hierarchy, but rather a looser, freer-flowing approach to life that trains the shaman or the practitioner to be a journeyer between the world of ordinary reality and the world we discover in non-ordinary states of consciousness that we call the spirit world or Otherworld.   But the process is similar to Armstrong’s pattern for religions: discipline first, faith second. What one learns and comes to believe about the relationship between the physical world and the spirit world is the result of shamanic practice, of journeying between the worlds, of developing on-going relationships with particular helping spirits in those other worlds. We don’t need to begin with a set of beliefs about shamanism. We just need to begin doing it.

This is what probably made shamanism such a joy to discover, begin to practice, and make a way of life. It didn’t require intellectual assent to a set of beliefs handed to us from a guru or sage. I remember in the early years of my own practice being asked by people unfamiliar with shamanism what it was I believed.  In other words, they wanted to know what was in my head.  In those very early years I wasn’t sure what was in my head. So I asked them if they wouldn’t rather know what it is I did.  I told them shamanism is something you do. Too often we think that faith, belief, or spirituality is something that resides in our heads.  Of course there is intellectual content to what we do and know.  But there is also heart knowledge and gut feelings about what we know.

With practice over time, I think each of us comes to certain conclusions or truths about what we believe.  These are based on experience rather than on what we read or hear from elders.  Of course, reading and teachings from elder shamans help us pull ideas and concepts together and shape them into a faith of sorts, but the core beliefs that we discover are self-discovered.  It can be hard for non-practitioners to understand this.  Often they are not interested in the discipline of shamanism or learning more about it because they don’t at the time believe what we tell them about it. It must seem bewildering to them when we tell them that to begin shamanic practice, they don’t have to believe what we say, that they will come to their own beliefs by and by.  They are used to wanting the cart before the horse.

Actually Karen Armstrong’s analogy here is rather apt for shamanism.  The cart is the product of human design, it is measurable, concrete, safe and sturdy.  The horse might run wild.  Better to get in the cart and let the horse follow? But shamanism is about the wildness of life, the wildness of the spiritual life that can’t be constructed into a cart or even put into a cart.  Shamanism can be a wild and somewhat frightening ride, relying on the natural world, the Otherworld, and its spirits to guide us.

The most profound teachers of the world religions usually say that we must live a certain way before we can have faith.  In other words, they too are more interested in what we do rather than what we believe in our heads.  Armstrong’s summary of these disciplines is simple: be compassionate, transcend the ego, do ritual to make even ordinary tasks an encounter with the divine, and pray.  As she says, prayer is not something you do because you have faith.  “It is a practice that creates faith.”

So too I suggest is our shamanic practice.  Armstrong’s list of practices applies to the shaman also, but we have an additional discipline: to create pathways from ordinary consciousness into an altered, non-ordinary consciousness which Michael Harner has pointed out is a unique state of consciousness in its own right. In this “shamanic state of consciousness” we can see what is ordinarily hidden from the regular states of consciousness that we use in our daily lives.  What we see are the other worlds and the spirits that dwell there.

When religions and spiritual paths are really clicking, they open us to the marvels and mysteries of the universe; they awaken us to the divine presence permeating the worlds we live in; they create in us a sense of awe that cannot be put into words or concepts or articles of belief or orthodox laws.  The spiritual life creates faith, not the other way around. Maybe this is why Buddhists encourage us to keep a “beginner’s mind” about spiritual practice.  The beginner longs to find out what it’s all about.