Many years ago in Brooklyn one of the members of our weekly drumming circle recounted her journey, and I’ll never forget her comment when she finished. In a low, matter-of-fact voice she admitted, “I was not impressed.” As I recall, I was impressed with her journey, but it seemed to have done nothing special for her. In the previous Rivercurrent I suggested that a “great” shamanic journey, like great art, gives us images to help us imagine our lives. On that night my drumming buddy evidently did not have a “great” journey. She was not impressed.
As I think about the shamanic journeys I’ve had over the years, I can also say that some of them did not impress me. This is not a criticism of the spirits I know and journey with, or their commitment to helping me with my shamanic life. I think it may have something to do with familiarity and routine. Events in the shamanic journeys can become routine as do events in ordinary reality. It doesn’t mean the journey is worthless; it just means that it has a somewhat humdrum flavor. Maybe the same kinds of journeys repeated too often begin to function like the many images that we encounter day after day in our image-glutted culture.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how our society bombards us with images: television, movies, magazines, the Internet. When I watched the Oscars this year (I know, I know; there are good reasons not to, but I do), I got to thinking that a great movie gives us images with which to imagine our lives. The Academy Awards program every year bombards you with clips and stills and songs from movies over the last 80plus years. Some are memorable, some not. I wonder if those that we remember as really “great movies” were the ones that had images that helped us imagine our lives. It’s curious how you can watch one of your favorite movies years later and think, “I am not impressed,” and then you wonder why it had such an impact on you years ago. Perhaps you needed those images then to get on with your life, and now that you have, the images no longer carry the same meaning for you as they did then. But of course there are movies that still pack their wallop even 20 or 30 years later. Could it be those images are still alive and shaping your life today, and seeing them again confirms something about your life that is important and true?
Modern life is so saturated with images that we tend not to notice them. We become oblivious and perhaps immune to them. Maybe we need to develop immunity so that the truly horrific images as well as the inane ones that deaden our spirit don’t have so much impact on us. But this immunity can have ambiguous results. If our ability to imagine, if our imagination itself, becomes less sensitive, less creative, then the trait that separates us from other species—our personal power to imagine and create—may be going extinct. The irony is that we have more images than any other generation of humans, and yet this great feature of human life, the ability to imagine, may becoming dulled in us individually as we let the culture saturate our souls with mindless, chaotic, and dispiriting imagery. Each person has a challenge to not let the boundaries of his or her life become too narrow. It’s a challenge to keep horizons open and nurture the ability to imagine your life beyond the daily facts and routines. But it’s not the things and creatures that surround us every day that are the culprits. It’s the voice that we hear in ourselves or in our culture that says there is no mystery left to discover. Maybe too many images reinforce that voice denying the mysteries. Been there, seen that.
The Irish poet Galway Kinnell said, “If the things and creatures that live on earth don’t possess mystery, then there isn’t any.” He maintains that to touch this mystery, we must love the things that surround us and “go out to them so that they enter us, so that they are transformed within us, and so that our own inner life finds expression through them.” I fear that if we build up psychic armor or grow thick skins to protect ourselves from the deluge of imagery in our culture, we may end up not letting the natural world touch and enrich our inner lives. The natural images that have always fascinated and inspired human beings will lose their power to do so, and we will miss the mystery and lose the ability to be lured by the unknown. Then we may find ourselves unable to imagine our lives in ways that are deeper and richer than what the processed imagery of our culture offers.
Emerson said that a poet should develop “an original relation with the universe.” This relationship is built on images that speak of the mystery and the hidden wisdom which poets—and really good film makers—discover by letting the things and creatures of the world transform their inner lives. Shamans also have original relations with the universe based on the same kind of poetic involvement with the things and creatures around them. They let the universe come into them, and speak to them, and so the universe finds expression in their souls. With a poet’s language the shaman can describe what he or she experiences and can introduce us to worlds beyond the ordinary boundaries of daily life, as well as the mysteries that reside in the things and creatures within those ordinary boundaries. But it takes a sensitivity that is not armored or thick-skinned. It takes the kind of open vision that the naturalist John Burroughs had in mind when he asked if we wanted to see something new, and answered: then walk the path you walked yesterday.
So there is the challenge. Walk the path you walked yesterday. And be impressed.