Reflections on Michael Harner’s “Cave and Cosmos”

Reading Michael Harner’s new book, Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality, is like listening to a very old man (which is how he describes himself several times in the book) who has spent many years practicing and studying shamanism and listening to others’ shamanic experiences. You feel like you are sitting with a wise storyteller who has a wealth of wisdom tales to share with you. If you were trained by Michael, you will have heard some of these stories before, and hearing them again reminds you how they once energized your longing to know the mysteries of shamanism however many years ago. But the book is rich with new stories, some personal accounts from his own life, and many insights passed on to him by indigenous shamans and other anthropologists, as well as his own students who have shared their journeys and healing experiences with Michael over the last thirty-plus years. In fact, one of the values of this book is that Michael thoroughly honors the shamanic knowledge that his students have acquired in their own shamanic journeys, and demonstrates, as his own mission in life has demonstrated, that Westerners are fully capable of discovering the other realities that traditional shamans have known about for centuries.

I enjoyed the chapters in which Michael recounts his early experiences in South America and elsewhere as he learned first-hand about the various doorways into shamanism, and how he discovered and created core-shamanism out of his experiences and years of study. People trained either by him or teachers in his Foundation for Shamanic Studies will appreciate the account of how he was first awed by the power of the drum at a Zuni Pueblo in 1948, and then through the 1950s, 1960s, and into the 1970s “rediscovered” (as he says) what shamans the world over have long known: that the repetitive sonic driving of a steady drumbeat can bring the shaman into the altered state of consciousness that Michael eventually called the “shamanic state of consciousness.” This book reveals the truth of what the Sami people of northern Scandinavia say about the drum, and what Michael has encouraged thousands of people to discover for themselves: It is “a thing out of which pictures come.”

Cave and Cosmos demonstrates with many examples of shamanic journeys from Michael’s students that spirits really do exist and they want us to know that they exist. He reminds us how scientists have never disproved the existence of spirits and that Alfred Russel Wallace (who developed the theory of natural selection simultaneously with Darwin) actually noted that if the most scientific theory is that which explains a whole series of phenomena then, as Wallace stated, “the spirit-hypothesis is the most scientific, since even those who oppose it most strenuously often admit that it does explain all the facts, which cannot be said for any other hypothesis.” Shamanic practitioners will readily concur. The section in the book on the “bound shaman” is an example of how an almost impossible phenomenon can occur through the mediation of spirits. In ordinary reality the shaman is bound with tightly tied ropes and then set free by the intervention of spirits. Michael reminds those of us who have personally experienced this how there really seems to be no other explanation for it. When the knotted ropes and twisted bindings fall from our bodies and we are freed, it’s spirits—and nothing else—that have done it.

Readers will especially like reading reports of shamanic journeys that reaffirm their own discoveries in non-ordinary reality and show how they parallel the same landscapes, spirits, and adventures that indigenous shamans have been having in the other worlds for thousands of years. Journey accounts by Westerners are interspersed with Michael’s comments and teachings that point out how in remarkable and sometimes miraculous ways people in contemporary Western societies are exploring the same realms that have existed since time immemorial. Some of these reports include experiences that, as Michael says, cause us to “(remember) our union with the infinite, the ineffable, the total universe,” giving us knowledge that is “beyond the confines of language.” Like shamans of old, we are not “bound” by what he calls “a fractious and perilous world willing to quarrel interminably about spiritual matters on the basis of belief in old stories” left by the founders of the major religious traditions. The shaman’s way is to acquire spiritual truths first-hand, discover his or her own stories, and become what many cultures call “the one who knows.” Michael reassures us that we need not even accept his own stories if they interfere with finding our own.

For Michael, “the shaman’s drum is the ballot box of spiritual freedom.” He suggests that the unbound shaman is a lesson about how the spirits can set us free. If “spirits can miraculously unbind the shaman, so can they liberate humanity from its limiting bindings of belief and disbelief.” The heavenly, upper-world realms that are described in the many journey accounts in this book show that each of us can approach the divine through shamanism in our own authentic way. And if by chance we don’t see God, perhaps we will be like the Canadian Athapaskan people whom Michael quotes: Those who drum themselves up to heaven “don’t see God. They just see people who are working for God.” And that’s a good place to start. Or end up.