Prologue, Part 2 -- iPhones and can-phones
I sent this prologue to a friend and I read it to my wife, Shirley. Both of them questioned the validity of my claim that paying taxes and living a life of privilege would compromise one's ability to stay true to a shamanic calling. Shirley was upset with me! She said I was being arrogant and painting with way too broad a stroke.
There is no easy black-and-white explanation for what I am feeling, but I think maybe the best way to explain what I mean is to sidestep attempting to respond directly to the objections of my wife and my friend.
When Alverto Taxo, Ecuadoran shaman, was about to leave his village to travel North for the first time, to the Land of the Eagle to teach his message, the women elders took him aside and cut his waist-long hair down to his scalp. They wanted him to leave his pride behind and maybe to stop taking himself so seriously. That's a good example of what I mean by sacrifice. (I am guessing that was the first time he ever had his hair cut.) When I attended his workshop in Connecticut at a friend's house, there were three kinds of weather passing through -- rain and sun and a strange combination of hot and cold. The weather spirits were throwing a party. Alverto was excited and summoned us all outside. He sat in the yard under a tree and we formed a semi-circle around him. (He had been telling us that the world will only heal when the eagle flies with the condor.) He took out his medicine objects, arranged them in front of us and invited us to place our iPhones beside his feathers and bones and rattles. He said, we need to stop using technology as fancy toys, and start seeing them as powerful tools and medicine for healing, to broadcast our truth, bring each other together and change the world. Only then will the eagle fly with the condor. Right when he finished speaking it began to rain. Everyone grabbed their phone and ran under the porch. He sat there all by himself and laughed and laughed just like a child, with huge delight.
Alverto pays taxes in Ecuador, but his country isn't destabilizing the Western world and it isn't selling weapons to countries that will use them to destabilize their own regions. We are living in a time when, because the United States happens to be the most powerful and the richest country on Earth, we could be heading off almost certain disaster, using our wealth to stabilize the world by fighting plagues like tuberculosis and malaria, by supporting true democracies, by wiping out starvation, helping third-world countries help themselves, no strings attached and by mitigating climate change rather than steaming ahead as the flagship of environmental collapse.
There is an ominous disconnect in the Land of the Eagle that reminds me of the 1956 film, "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers". I was only five years old when it came out but I remember the stir it created. Basketball-size pods were being delivered to hometowns by the truckload, presumably all over America, by soldiers, whose human essence had already been "snatched". The way it worked was, this alien filament would issue from a pod to infiltrate a person's body through their nostrils the moment they fell asleep. When they woke they would be themselves in appearance only, but their affect would be flat, no life in their eyes; they would be a pod person.
Why wouldn't we be investing in our own communities, our children, their education, thus our future, unless we, as Americans, are suffering from some profound pathology that subverts our higher instincts, in favor of a baser, aggressive / defensive hard-wired mentality that discounts thousands of years of evolution! If, by some miracle, we stopped investing in war, but allocated our resources for the rehabilitation of our humanity, the war chest would pay for everything, with plenty left over for picnics and block parties. Instead, this country is a very sick addict sucking the life-blood from its own people to feed its habits. We have become a country of pod people. But seriously, this dysfunction has created a huge shadow and very bad karma that is virtually inescapable! To the extent that we finance this addiction with our taxes, allowing ourselves to be lulled by a privileged life-style, or the dream of one, we are complicit in what many are calling the crime of the ages ... the dismemberment of Mother Earth.
So, I can picture Alverto fielding this question: Can there be real shamans in the Land of the Eagle when so much dysfunction, and I would even say evil, is being perpetrated on our watch, at our expense? (If you watch archival footage of Soviet and US nuclear detonations there is no denying that you are witnessing the release of something monstrous, and uncanny that should have been left in the ground.) I can picture him smiling sweetly while his eyes communicate both compassion and deep sadness, and he might hedge the answer with a halo of his innate optimism, so as not to discourage us, because I know that he sees our culture as adolescent. We have a lot of growing to do. The sweetness is his nature, the compassion comes from his all-embracing heart, and the sadness comes from his sense of the very real possibility that we might be out of time.
I admit, I am deeply troubled and I promise to address this in my memoir.
The trouble is, I feel we are dealing with a real core problem or, something tells me, we wouldn't be where we are now! But I'm not sure I am describing the problem accurately. It has to do with the question: How can contemporary shamans be effective at healing the kinds of existential crises that crop up in modern life if those shamans are living under the shadow of the dysfunction they are trying to heal one on one or in workshops, through social media, or by journeying? An analogous question might be: How can anyone within the Washington Beltway be expected to solve any of the problems that plague our government?
The most powerful forms of healing in the world are shamanic because they are deep. Modern medicine is effective and indispensable but how can we expect it to heal the ills that are endemic to or even caused by our modern life style. For the healing to be deep, effective and lasting we can't leave nature and the spirit world out of our healing rituals. Shamanic rituals are not like a shot in the arm; they cannot be performed in a vacuum or by appointment or in the ER, but we must foster the creation of communities that support healing rituals. I would even go so far as to say, communities are only as effective as the rituals they support. (By the same token, countries are only as effective as the communities they support!) Every time I have worked with a shaman (one on one or in group) and participated in healing ritual, I have tasted the deep connection I have just described, but invariably, as I drive away through the Land of the Eagle, that feeling (or taste) begins to fade.
I use the Alverto story with the phones because I see him as someone who is outside the karmic Beltway. We listened to his teaching but when it rained we responded in a knee-jerk way, reverting to our conditioning, and that is what he found so hilarious and even endearing. His and other spiritually older indigenous communities have many generations of experience and conditioning behind their shamanism. For the last hundred years or so those communities have been under siege by the so-called global economy, and global culture. They have been infiltrated by pod-people. Without those ritually-rich ancient communities with close ties to nature and place and ancestral land spirits, shamans and shamanism remain on the endangered list.
Malidoma Some' was abducted from his village, in West Africa, to be schooled at a French mission where he spent the next 16 years. He escaped, returning to his village, and was eventually initiated but the elders told him he couldn't remain in the village because basically he is two people in one; he has two purposes that meet in his name, which means friending the enemy. I can identify with his situation. All my life I have felt that I am living in two lands, the land where my soul feels at home and the United States, to which I concede no love, because it does not see me, nor has it ever supported my soul. Until I moved to Vermont 25 years ago, finding a place where I felt I belonged was always problematic. With Malidoma, the two sides of his nature are experienced as two continents, two cultures. He finds balance by going back and forth between Africa and the West. I experience a similar division but rather than two continents, it is two awarenesses (dare I say two karmas?) vying for one psyche and one body and the conflict is intensifying as I get older. I cannot ignore how I feel about the Land of the Eagle, which seems to be intent on flying alone. It has created many of the epic problems we are facing now because of its addictions and has squandered numerous opportunities to transform.
This memoir follows some of the threads that have not snapped in my life. They are like strings that stretch from who I am right now, all the way back to my teenage years and childhood, like a tin can-phone. Remember those can-phones we made? They didn't really work as phones but, in the metaphor I am using here, my can-phones work. My "grid" is very basic; it doesn't need the power company or the internet. I am talking to myself from different stages of my life, pooling information and stories and dreams, consolidating my truth. And the strings that connect me to earlier versions of myself are party lines, with my present self operating the switchboard.