We Are All Shamans in Training by Paul Levy
In 1981 I spontaneously went into such an ecstatic state that I was hospitalized by the “anti-bliss patrol.” The authorities had become alerted because I was simply unable to restrain my enthusiasm at the “good news” that was beginning to reveal itself to me about the nature of reality. Stepping out of my usual way of trying to control my experience, during that next year I was confined to mental hospitals a number of times and (mis)diagnosed as having manic-depressive (bi-polar) illness. I was told that I had a chemical imbalance and would have to go on medication and learn to live with my “illness” for the rest of my life. Little did the doctors realize that, although my experience looked like a typical nervous breakdown, I had actually gotten “drafted” into a deeper psycho-spiritual process of an entirely different order—a spiritual awakening/shamanic initiation—that was blowing my mind, even as it was simultaneously revealing it.
My inner process had spilled outside of my skull and, just like a dream, was synchronistically expressing itself through events in the seemingly outer world. Finding myself in a meaning-filled, enchanted universe, the world had become animated by spirit, as if it was a living oracle, a continually unfolding revelation that was speaking symbolically. It became glaringly apparent to me that there was an intimate correlation and synchronistic correspondence between what was going on in the internal landscape of my psyche and the “outer” world. The boundary between inner and outer was dissolving.
According to consensus reality, I was “certifiable.” I was in full agreement, in that I had certifiably stepped out of my self-limiting, self-binding conceptual mind into a much more expansive “space.” As if snapping out of a trance, I found myself not ‘out of my mind’, in the sense that I was crazy, but rather, inside of my mind, which was now discovered to be everywhere. I was beginning to realize how powerful dreaming actually is.
My parents bought into the psychiatrist’s diagnosis that their only child had a mental illness. This was not an exceptional conclusion for them to come to. After all, in my parents’ world, doctors were genuine authority figures who knew what they were talking about. In the words of the late psychiatrist R. D. Laing, “Attempts to wake before our time are often punished, especially by those who love us most. Because they, bless them, are asleep. They think anyone who wakes up, or who, still asleep, realizes that what is taken to be real is a ‘dream’ is going crazy.” Tragically, with the support and blessing of the psychiatric community, both of my parents passed away convinced their son was crazy.
Meanwhile, stepping out of my normal, conditioned, repressed and domesticated self (as if breaking out of a prison), I felt on the cutting edge of the big bang itself. It was as if I was becoming attuned to a more authentic, less self-conscious and much more unfettered, creative and ecstatic part of myself to freely in-form my experience and give shape to itself. My experience was so mind-blowing that I had trouble “keeping it together,” particularly because, previous to the hospitalizations, I wasn’t in a safe container but was unrestrained, out in a world that did not understand the value of such experiences. My situation was actually quite dangerous, as during the beginning stages of my awakening I was not able to mediate and channel the transpersonal energies that were activated within me in a way that was acceptable to the culture at large.
Fortunately, soon after getting out of the last hospital I began meeting my spiritual teachers, some of the greatest living Buddhist masters from Tibet and Burma, who, unlike the psychiatrists, helped to evoke the healthy part of me. When I described to them what I was subjectively experiencing, instead of being pathologized, they reflected back to me that I was beginning to remember what in Buddhism is called our “true nature.” In finding my teachers, I had dreamed up the part of me that was seeing and relating to the part of me that WAS awakening. Having someone else bear witness and reflect back the healthy part of me created a bridge that helped me to see it, too. It was as if my teachers became engaged with me in an intimate relationship that helped me to not get stuck in the trauma of it all—to not get caught in being “sick.” By simply relating to the healthy part of me, which was an expression of their own level of health and wholeness, they helped me to step into and incarnate the part of me that was well. My teachers and I had instinctively created a supportive, nourishing container between us which cultivated healing. They had gotten dreamed up to help me learn how to “dis-spell” and transmute the darker forces with which I had been wrestling.
As Below, So Above When we begin to spiritually awaken, our personality structure and sense of who we are can melt down and disintegrate, while our inner “constitution” is being rewritten. As my own experience demonstrates, this process can convincingly appear to others as if we are having a nervous breakdown or a psychotic break.
The dissolution and breakdown of the old structures of the psyche can become a breakthrough, however, depending on how it is contained and related to by the surrounding community. In other words, the disintegration can be the beginning of a coming together at a more coherent, and unified level of consciousness.
I have had a quarter of a century to ponder the full meaning of what happened to me during my spiritual crisis and awakening, and to study the dreaming process revealed to me in that event. Two things are very clear: That I am not alone in experiencing such a mental healing crisis—many others go through a similar process for themselves—and that society at large is also capable of a similar crisis. Indeed, our species and its civilization are currently in the throes of what appears to be a collective (nervous) breakdown. If what we, as a species, are doing to ourselves (destroying the biosphere, the very life-support system of the planet, to use one example) isn’t collective madness, then what in the world is?
What’s happening now is that the underlying institutionalized and incorporated structures currently in place to keep us asleep are breaking down and coming apart. Similar to the individual’s psyche, only writ large en masse on the world stage, we are going through a collective shamanic initiation process, a genuine “death/rebirth” experience. The false, illusory separate self, which experiences ourselves as alien from one another is “dying”; it is no longer functional as the fundamental framework by which we relate to each other and the world. Taking its place, a true framework of collective and collaborative self is coming into being as we incarnate and give “birth” to a truer sense of who we are, realizing our deep interconnection and interdependence with each other and all living beings.
Shamanic Intervention The shamanic personality is very sensitive to the unconscious, both in self and in others. In all cultures, the shaman has very permeable boundaries between the conscious mind and the unconscious. It is as if they’ve created a bridge between conscious and unconscious realms that allows contents to pass easily through and intermingle with and reciprocally co-inform each other. The shaman’s collaborative, creative interplay between the conscious and unconscious creates a synthesis, which is a further evolution in the incarnation of a more all-embracing, integrated and expansive consciousness.
The figure of the shaman is related to both the figures of the artist (see my article “The Artist as Healer of the World”)-, and the wounded healer – (see my article “The Wounded Healer,” Part 1 and Part 2). The archetypal figure of the shaman is the primordial medicine person and carrier of healing. The figure of the shaman (arche)typically takes on the illness that is in the community into themselves and literally becomes sick, as if they have “caught” the disease that they are trying to heal. This process can become animated through the choice of a seasoned shaman, or it can happen spontaneously and unintentionally in a budding shaman who is unusually sensitive to the underlying contradictions and spiritual illness that pervade the social and cultural fabric which connects us and in which we are embedded. A ‘fully cooked’ shaman, if you will, in internalizing the illness in the field, allows the sickness to fluidly move through them without it getting stuck in them. This distinguishes an accomplished shaman from a novice. By embracing, assimilating, and metabolizing what has gotten triggered in them, the shaman is able to heal themselves and in so doing non-locally sends healing to the whole “community.”
And here is the essential point: In our current moment in time, as interdependent members of an ever-more interconnected global village, our “community” is the entire planet. The shaman is operating in the realm of the collective unconscious, a “no-place” where information travels in “no-time,” faster than the speed of light. There is no part of the universe that is separate from the whole, which is to say that a change in any part of the universe is resonantly registered in no time whatsoever throughout the whole universe. Though the healing effects of the shaman’s process manifests “over time,” the shaman’s self-healing, transcending the seeming limitations of space and time, instantaneously insinuates its in-form-ation and informing influence faster than the twinkling of an eye throughout the entire universe in ways that can scarce be imagined.
We Are All Natural Born Shamans The shamanic archetype is one of the major processes that is becoming animated in the collective psyche of our species. We’d have to be truly “disturbed” if our emotions aren’t disturbed by what is playing out currently in our world. However, looking at it more positively, the darkness is a “disturber of the peace” in order to (potentially) create a higher-order integration of the psyche and its contents. Just as dreams are the unconscious’ way of balancing a one-sidedness in an individual’s psyche, the shamanic archetype is the dynamically evolving pattern of healing that is being constellated in the collective unconscious as a compensatory response to the trauma that is playing itself out on the world stage.
We are truly a species in trauma. Seized by something greater than ourselves, we are collectively re-creating our trauma in the world theater as if we are participating in a sacred mass in the holiest of temples, so as to potentially awaken ourselves. The madness of trauma is its own revelation, and how it manifests depends upon whether or not we recognize what is being revealed to us through what we are compulsively and unconsciously acting out as history.
Having the shamanic archetype activated in the collective unconscious means that we can re-contextualize our problems, our trauma, and our own madness. It’s been very helpful for me as I continually deepen my own healing to remember that my experience of trauma in myself is simultaneously a microcosmic, personalized fractal reflecting the greater trauma resonating throughout the collective field. This realization allows me to not personalize any feeling of trauma I might have, or concretize myself as being traumatized, but allows me to give myself over to and embrace my experience.
We all have a part of us that is mad to the extent that we are not fully, totally awake—and who among us can truly claim such a degree of enlightenment? Thinking that we are not mad is an expression of our madness. How can we not have a mad part of us, as we are not separate from the world, which has clearly gone mad? (see my article “Diagnosis: Psychic Epidemic”). The world’s madness is a reflection of our own; we have all collaboratively dreamed up the world’s madness. Instead of pathologizing ourselves because of our madness, which is a mad thing to do, we can embrace and own it, not identifying with or judging it. In a truly radical act, we can interpret our madness in a way that is sane.
Recognizing that we are picking up the madness that is in the field which resonates with, is an expression of, and constellates the madness within ourselves, is to step out of personalizing our experience. Doing that thus lets us step into the point of view of identifying ourselves as would-be shamans. We then can envision ourselves from this more expansive point of view to have, like a shaman, the intention to take into ourselves the madness in the field, which ultimately is our own madness, so as to creatively assimilate it into our wholeness in our own unique manner as a way to help serve the field. Recognizing the part of us that is a natural-born shaman is the very act that calls forth and manifests, as if by magic, the part of us that truly IS a shaman.
Recognizing that the madness within us is both our own, while simultaneously being an expression of the field, is to snap out of our self-limiting and self-alienating identity of being separate. Instead, we can recognize our deep intimacy with the universe—which is to say ourselves. This very recognition allows us to embrace our mad part as an aspect of our vast wholeness. It snaps us out of the infinite regression and self-generating feedback loop of acting out our madness as an unconscious defense against looking at our madness. Crazy as it seems, embracing our madness is the very act that helps to actualize and reify our basic sanity. Compassion spontaneously arises as both a cause and effect of this realization.
Epilog! We are being invited by the universe to step into our shamanic “garments” and consciously participate in our own evolution. Instead of our ritual implements being drums and rattles, however, as “modern-day shamans” our accessories might be something like the keyboard of a computer or the tools of multi-media, as we work to inspire change in the underlying consciousness of the field by a simple keystroke or the creative use of a video camera or website.
The formless bodhisattvic archetype of shaman/healer is thirsting for instruments to express and actualize itself in embodied form. Its call is resonating through each one of us, whether heard or not. Recognizing, and assenting, saying “Yes,” to this deeper shamanic calling that pulses through our veins inspires us to breathe life into and incarnate the living figure of the shaman within us. Following our calling with devotion, we sacrifice ourselves as we offer ourselves in service to a power greater than ourselves. Co-operating with our deeper shamanic calling constellates the universe to support us in our endeavor, as the universe itself is the sponsor of our calling. Like shamans in training, we are each being called to connect with the spirit that animates our being, a process that can only take place within the psyche, mediated by the human heart and fueled by the power of love.
Paul Levy is an artist and a spiritually-informed political activist. A pioneer in the field of spiritual emergence, he is a healer in private practice, assisting others who are also awakening to the dream-like nature of reality. He is the author of “The Madness of George Bush: A Reflection of Our Collective Psychosis,” which is available on his website www.awakeninthedream.com. Please feel free to pass this article along to a friend if you feel so inspired. You can contact Paul at [email protected]; he looks forward to your reflections. ©2008