Something has been gnawing at me since I read Gordon’s recent post over on Runesoup: he loosely identifies a chunk of what he describes in his praxis org chart as shamanic. When we talk about shamanism, are we really talking about things like energy work and meditation? That sort of identification doesn’t seem out of place in Western magical circles, we are, but I don’t see it capturing what goes on in ‘traditional shamanic practices’ (would that I could put flashing lights on those scare quotes–the whole set of notions are so fraught).
I can follow Mircea Eliade’s suggestion that meditation and energy work in the various yogas have their roots in shamanic practices and, as a corollary, that to the extent Western occultists have been inspired by the yogas, they share those roots. However, historical roots do not common cause make. The more distinctly we can point out ‘meditative’ and ‘energy work’ as distinct, the less rooted in a shamanic world they seem. Magic, too, participates in that differentiation from shamanism.
This isn’t a huge problem except as we move toward Gordon’s observation about the Lindy effect. Gordon seems to be identifying shamanism’s underlying durability with the durability of those independent practices like meditation and energy work, but I haven’t seen much in shamanic work that grounds that. There is one mighty big element missing from the chart which forms the basis for most shamanic practices: prayer.
You might be able to slot prayer into power raising, but that distinction, too, rests on differentiating in theory what isn’t differentiated in practice. A shaman isn’t likely to do meditation or energy work as we think of it, but they pray all the time. They pray to animals, plants, their ancestors, their tools. They pray at the earth, at the air, at the great spirit. To the extent that they engage in anything like energy work or meditation, it is in direct response to the forces that answer these prayers. They learn to breathe and sing and all that, because it helps them regulate the intensity of spiritual contact. Prayer work uncovers a zone of experience that make possible mediation and energy work. The differentiated practices like those Gordon describes label and approach the zone technically, breaking it up. Questions like “What does the spirit move in when I feel it crawling up my back?” and “What am I if some of my thoughts are the voice of spirit?” lie at the foundations of this.
As they develop, they acquire some independence from the original shamanistic situation. The work they make possible can be undertaken without direct spiritual contact, too. It can become anatomical, describing organs outside of their use, and experimental, seeing what happens when you manipulate them independently of spirit contact. They are sort of like spiritual Kagel exercises (if they are trained for their ‘original’ purpose) or sport (if they are trained for the sake of seeing what can be done with them). Look at the asceticism in Buddhist and Indic yogas–is there not something like sport in it, a training up the mind and energetic system to do cool things because they are cool and/or status granting? Those sorts of things have a different lifespan than shamanic practice in general and seem to earn less Lindy effect credibility. Running will be with us for a long, long time, but basketball?
I wonder if we can say that magic is to shamanism like basketball is to running, with one being more directly rooted in the physico-spiritual organism and the other having a good deal more cultural and historical contingency to it.
That doesn’t make magicians or basketballs better or worse than shamans and hunters. However, it does bear upon concerns about some sort of magical synthesis, talk of which I have bumped into here and there around the web. The way toward cross-practice communication does not lie in the middle place occupied by the practices like Santeria and Golden Dawn work but upward toward mysticism or downward toward more basic forms of experiences associated with shamanism. Betwixt and between there is ever and always fruitful diversity where things like magic and spiritualism and witchcraft and all the rest partake of both.