Michael Harner’s book The Way of the Shaman (1980) opened a new dimension in the lives of many Westerners. The ground was already prepared by Carlos Castaneda’s writings about his experiences with his master, don Juan Matus, in Mexico. But, in contrast to Castaneda, Harner wrote a manual – a systematic description of how shamans can work hands-on.
I remember how I almost feverishly turned the pages of The Way of the Shaman and felt an intractable desire to start drumming and journeying into the other worlds. The fact that Michael Harner himself came to Sweden and gave a basic workshop in shamanism in the summer of 1983 was like a gift from Dreamtime. The impetus of this workshop was far-reaching; drumming groups were formed and a lot of soul journeying and ecstatic dancing was being performed. The Way of the Shaman was translated into Swedish and I had the privilege of writing the preface where I stated: “To those who want to try the way of the shaman Michael Harner’s book is indispensable.”
I wouldn’t make such a statement on Harner’s new book Cave and Cosmos – Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality (2013). Rather I would say that it might be indispensable to go beyond Harner’s version of shamanism if you really want to deeply root your shamanic way in Mother Earth.
I am deeply indebted to Michael Harner not only for the workshop in 1983 but above all for two pieces of advice on my own shamanic work; he advised me to go North in order to learn from Saami healers and shamans, and he had the good idea of how I should find a teacher in non-ordinary reality who could teach me the essence of the old Nordic runes. But this cannot stop me from being downright critical of Cave and Cosmos. To me it is a boring read, partly due to the long and detailed stories from Westerners (mostly white middleclass Americans) about what they have experienced when journeying into the dimension that is called the upper world or “heaven” in core shamanism.
I guess that Harner's point is that reading those accounts will demonstrate that Westerners can have similar experiences as traditional shamans but then it would have been enough with just a few journeying reports. After all, one of Harner’s main theses is that we all experience different things and that the meaning of the experiences only can be fully understood by the individual doing the journey. Another question that follows, and that Harner doesn’t address, is if you really can compare what an Inuit shaman-to-be experienced naked and alone in a snow hut after fasting for a couple of weeks to what a Westerner experiences during half an hour lying in a cozy and warm room with sonic driving sounds in the earphones. Are the experiences really of the same dimension? Doesn’t the Inuit shaman have a point when he claims that wisdom only comes through suffering and loneliness?
I remember how Harner in 1983 frenetically took notes of what people in the workshop told about their journeys explaining that he was working on a cosmological cartography. After 30 years we have part of this mapping in Cave and Cosmos - but it is hardly a coherent map of non-ordinary reality, since all maps of non-ordinary reality are individual and no one can draw a universal one. Some of the book’s drawings by Harner’s disciples describing the different levels of heavens remind me of the Swedish theologian, and Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg and his book Heaven and Hell from 1758 (In Latin: De Caelo et Ejus Mirabilibus et de inferno, ex Auditis et Visis = Heaven and its Wonders and Hell From Things Heard and Seen).
Is Harner trying to establish a new religion? He himself rejects such an idea. According to him, core shamanism is no religion since it is based on what each individual can experience. You don’t believe what other people tell you – not even Harner – instead you find out for yourself by directly experiencing how things are. That sounds good and is also a traditional shamanic standpoint, but core shamanism has been developed into its own brand of shamanism. This is quite obvious if you compare Cave and Cosmos to The Way of the Shaman, which really was a general introduction to some of the methods that traditional shamans use. Core shamanism has now been cleansed from most of the cultural and traditional features that you will find in “old” shamanism and turned into a modern, Western, individually designed kind of shamanism.
According to Harner, this “culture free” kind of shamanism is what best suits Westerners. This might be so, especially for those Americans who have lost contact with their own European indigenous traditions and haven’t found any creative way to connect to the land of Turtle Island. But there is a danger that this “culture free” kind of shamanism will be decoupled from the landscape, the world view and the ways of life where shamanism developed.
Even if you don’t look at core shamanism as a new religion it is obvious to me that it certainly has the potential to move in that direction. The core shamanism of Cave and Cosmos seems to be totally focused on soul journeying with the help of a drum or other sonic driving devices which only is part of what shamans traditionally devote themselves to. It represents a coherent system, a shamanism that is systemized in a way that is unknown to traditional shamans. One might call what Harner has created a shamanic “body” held together by certain basic theoretical key tenets that bears many similarities to religion. For years, Harner claimed that core shamanism has no “dogma.” Sadly, Cave and Cosmos negates that statement.
The main topic of Michael Harner’s paradigm seems to be the question of spirits – the existence of spirits, the proofs that they exist and the differences between varied types of spirits, those that dwell in this world (the middle world), those that dwell in heaven and those that dwell somewhere between. In The Way of the Shaman Harner wrote about energies, power and power animals, now this has changed into detailed descriptions and classifications of spirits. The shaman is seen mainly as a mediator between the humans who need help and the “compassionate spirits” who always know what everybody needs.
Which spirits do Harner’s disciples meet in heaven? It can be Benjamin Franklin, or Albert Einstein, or Jesus, or Buddha. The spirits are clever and adopt guises that are adjusted to the journeyer. These compassionate spirits, according to Harner, all have experiences from life on earth, either as humans or animals; they know everybody’s need and they only wish to do good – in contrast to some of the spirits in the middle world that have not been able to make it into heaven. Those spirits may cause chaos, sickness and all kinds of problems. For me, this talk about good and evil spirits is distressingly familiar and gives me bad vibrations. Has Michael Harner turned into a prophet? He stresses that his heavenly journeyers have the same experiences as the founders of the great religions and he interprets his disciples’ reports as proof that the heavens do exist. I accept that this is Harner’s experience, but my own 30 years of shamanic work tell me quite other stories about the cosmos and Mother Earth.
Harner writes that the power of the universe is so strong that shamans have to work with mediators such as power animals and spirits. My experience and understanding is that the cosmos chooses to let its power take familiar forms when it meets our consciousness, just to make it possible for us to handle this power. Carlos Castaneda wanted to take a further step, namely to experience energy directly instead of via its mediated forms. In his book The Wheel of Time he lets don Juan Matus explain how he has used shamanic rigmarole about allies, power plants, Mescalito, the little smoke, the wind, the spirits of rivers, mountains and chaparral as a way to lure Castaneda’s attention, as a way to trick him into the way of the spiritual warrior. Harner chooses the opposite way; instead of transcending form and experiencing energy directly he elaborates a highly systematic way on how to deal with the forms of power. This is not what I call spiritual freedom.
To me, shamanism has always had a political dimension, a Mother Earth dimension, and shamans sometimes have to take a stand in very practical and concrete ways, e.g. trying to stop the building of a pipeline or the mining for uranium or supporting indigenous peoples in their struggles to preserve their culture and land base. But the core shamanism of Cave and Cosmos seems to be more concerned with – and to prefer - Heaven than with Earth.
To Michael Harner core shamanism is sufficient unto itself. To me core shamanic methods can be used to reconnect to the shamanic traditions of your own landscape, but then you also have to transcend core shamanism. Shamanism cannot be “culture free”, at least not if you really want to put your shamanic feet deep down into the earth, making yourself accessible to the kiss of knowledge that is given not in heaven but by the spirits of the Earth, the landscape, from real existing animals and plants, from Mother Earth herself and through ceremony and prayer.
(This article has been published in the fall issue 2013 of A Journal of Contemporary Shamanism. It was published in Swedish on this site May 3rd 2013: Michael Harner skriver testamente).