Wonder and Warning

The Huichol shaman Don Jose Matsuwa once said, “The shaman’s path is unending. I am an old, old man and still a baby, standing before the mystery of the world, filled with awe.”

If Don Jose is right, our shamanic practice, in addition to never ending, will continue to fill us with awe as we stand before the universe and explore the many realms that it contains. But I think there is a hidden warning in this statement from Don Jose as well as an expression of wonder. The warning is this: stay humble.

It is easy for people following a spiritual tradition to develop grandiose beliefs about themselves. There may be something inherently self-serving in embarking on any path of holiness, enlightenment, salvation, or whatever “reward” a spiritual path holds out for its followers. For this reason, Zen Buddhists, for example, have the difficult task of seeking enlightenment but are expected to not desire it. Christians are expected to save their souls, while believing that only the redeeming sacrifice of Christ can save them.

I often wonder about those of us on a shaman’s path. What do we seek? What are our rewards or our goals? In what ways are we warned not be become too big-headed about them?

In some ways the core shamanic practices leave open-ended the more traditional goals of the major religious disciplines. One can practice shamanism as a Buddhist, Jew, Catholic, Protestant, or Pagan incorporating the specific goals of those traditions into a shamanic practice. But on a core level, that is, at the very heart of shamanism released from any traditional religion, the goal is a bit more elusive. What the shaman seeks is to be a healer. If someone purporting to be a shaman cannot heal others, he or she will not be accepted as a shaman by the community and for all intents and purposes, is not a shaman. Healing can take a number of forms, from the core shamanic practices of restoring lost soul-power to storytelling, dream interpretation, teaching, counseling, and ceremonial work. Shamanism is both a cluster of healing methods and a way of life that brings that healing into the community and larger environment. But whatever form healing takes, shamanic practitioners pursue the goal of health and wellbeing, and the accompanying goal of being recognized as a healer.

Staying humble in the face of public recognition, and in the face of sometimes miraculous healings, is a daunting task. But we have help from the spirits. This help is seen most clearly, I believe, in the faery traditions found in many cultures. One of the most common characteristics of spirits from the world of faerie is their love of mischief, trickery, and sabotage. In some cultures this “undermining” force is seen in specific trickster spirits, such as Coyote, Loki, Raven, or Fox, who are both loved and feared by the people of those cultures. In the faery traditions, however, the mischief is shared more evenly across the faerie realm. All the fay folk seem capable of mischief if they put their minds to it.

When they do, people have minor mishaps at just the wrong moment, such as losing their car keys, locking themselves out of the house, losing their way through familiar territory, discovering time slowing down or speeding up more than it usually does. Sometimes the trouble is indeed more serious than these examples and contains deeper significance. But often the faeries annoy us with these tricksterish events simply as reminders that we are not alone in the universe, nor the most important beings in the universe, even if we are shamans. Much of the aggravation of daily life is caused by mischievous spirits although average people do not attribute it to them. They simply break their shoelace, offer the appropriate curse, and get on with their day. As shamanic practitioners, however, we know that the spirit world can and does reach into our world in many ways, some extremely annoying, but always, if we look for it, with a purpose.

Shamans are usually secure in the relationships they develop with their familiar helping spirits, and tend to journey into those places in the Otherworld that they know and understand. These same helpful spirits assist them to be successful healers. And so, it is not unusual for a shamanic healer to acquire feelings of great self-importance. There is a lot about shamanism that can nurture an inflated sense of self.

We should value, therefore, the mischief of faeries, even though we don’t like it. It keeps us humble. The faeries waylay us, and we are forced to rediscover the way. In Taoist terms it is precisely this Way that is so ever-present and yet so elusive, unnameable, indescribable. It is the mystery of mysteries, the most obscure of the obscure, the shadow of all shadows, the dark-enigma. In the small and large events of our lives, we need to remember that we never know exactly what it’s all about. We must find value in simply living the mysteries, which may be more important than our desire to understand them. Perhaps that is the shaman’s dilemma: to know and not know. And the shaman’s path is unending. We will never know the mystery of the world completely, nor should we ever think that we do.

It might help to remember a couple lines from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “If we surrendered/to Earth’s intelligence/we could rise up rooted, like trees.” I think this is a wonderful expression of real humility and awe. We surrender to Earth’s intelligence (which is where the fay folk dwell) and know that when we do rise up, strong and powerful as trees, the panoramic view from the highest branch is rooted in that same intelligent Earth. And there will be times when, like babies, the very old, or the clumsy, we will stumble over those roots, and curse ourselves, the root, or the faeries. But we could also take a moment when we do fall to express something deep and true to our shamanic practice — heartfelt gratitude for Earth’s intelligence, the great mystery that keeps us filled with awe and keeps us humble.

(This article also appears in Susan McClellan’s Shaman Times newsletter. Susan is a co-founder of The Seventh Academy and Dream Song L.C. whose website is www.theseventhacademy.org.)