Don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is anything substantial separating traditional shamanism from materialistic Western science.
Although it’s tempting to believe that Western scientists are bastions of objectivity – mechanically-precise observers of nature – they’re really no different from the shamans of animist traditions who journey into astral realms to bring back knowledge and wisdom.
Animism, the belief that everything in the world possesses a living spirit, is found in most of the traditional cultures that also utilise shamanism. It’s common for animism to be based in a duality between the seen and unseen worlds. The seen world is composed of the forest; the animals; the people; the village. The unseen world comprises the natural spirits and their desires and wills, influencing the events in the seen world.
A malicious spirit working in the unseen world may be the cause of an illness, or dispute, in the seen world. Some process, mostly hidden from our normal perception, working away in the shadowy realms of the unseen, could be behind a drought, a food shortage, or an invading army.
In these animist belief systems, trained shamans are the only people capable of venturing into the unseen; perhaps to investigate the causes of illness, or influence future events. Shamans will diagnose and treat conditions of the spirit and body, usually for an exchange of goods – but they are more than just doctors. They also transform themselves into animals, entering the forest to lure prey into traps, or to maul their enemies. Their visionary states can show them past and future events, and allow them to travel to distant lands.
At first glance, especially from our perspective, this seems worlds away from the labcoats and laboratories of Western scientific methods.
Yet it only takes a moment of reflection to see the differences are mostly superficial.
In the materialist paradigm, the world of atoms and quantum forces is largely (if not entirely) unseen. In fact, it seems that the more we search for substance and solidity in the behaviour of particles and forces, the more we find it slipping through our fingers.
We can easily see how the materialist philosophy creates a stark dualism. One one side, we have the seen world of our subjective experiences (vision, feelings); and on the other side, the unseen world of the “objective” particles and forces working like a mysterious and impenetrable engine.
The only people who claim to be able to see inside this engine, and report back on its workings, are scientists.
They can peer into the unseen world and explain to us why things are the way they are. Why am I sick? Because a bacteria is working its way through the cells of your body. How can I get better? One of us will inject you with an unseen magic that will attack and destroy that bacteria.
Scientists embark on vision quests, much like those of the shaman. Einstein envisioned himself running alongside a wave of light. Mullis saw himself astride a DNA molecule being replicated by the polymerase enzyme. Hawking’s mind “soar[ed] ever more brilliantly across the vastness of space and time to unlock the secrets of the universe,” according to a Time magazine review of A Brief History of Time. As much as modern science wants us to reject the idea of our leading scientists as experiencing humans, the ability to journey into visionary realms is absolutely crucial to scientific discovery.
The tools of the scientist, while different from the tools of the shaman, also allow brief glimpses into the unseen worlds for the appropriately initiated. Anyone can peer into a microscope, or take a psychedelic plant medicine; but it takes training with either tool to be able to interpret what they’re seeing, and turn it into knowledge.
This isn’t to say that either one of science or shamanism is superior to the other. They are both methods of venturing into the unseen world, and bringing back knowledge, or exercising power.
Both scientists and shamans can be guilty of similar crimes.
Western scientists are keen to manipulate their laboratory findings, and falsify results, for personal gain. Pharmaceutical companies thrive on lies, keeping us hooked on ineffective and dangerous medications. Researchers often do more than simply tell us what they’ve observed on their travels into the unseen – they can be corrupted by bias, racism and patriarchy – causing untold suffering. Historically, science has been used to justify bigotry in any number of forms.
Shamans can often be guilty of misogyny, abuse, and sorcery; all justified through their personal experiences of the unseen. They frequently use their visionary powers to cause pain, and manipulate the world for their own purposes. They sometimes see themselves as gatekeepers of truth; the all-powerful stewards of natural processes. Sound familiar?
Scientists, and shamans, are also both capable of great healing. Without the discovery of penicillin, who knows how many millions more would have died. Without traditional shamanism, and its understanding of the natural order, we may have lost even more of our precious rainforests and life-sustaining habitats – and let’s not forget about the healing benefits of psychedelic plant medicines.
The most important thing we can learn from the similarity between scientists and shamans is to avoid worshipping our ontological prophets.
The current scientific paradigm has swept the Western world like a religion; and the most popular scientific figures are the clergy of our times. Ontologies that challenge the mainstream materialist philosophy are met with a vicious evangelical passion.
Similarly, an unconditional trust of indigenous shamans is foolish. Many are abusers, many subjugate women and queer people, and many are more interested in profit than healing. This problem is becoming more pronounced as Gringo neo-shamans have begun to flood the market of quick-fix ayahuasca tourism.
The moral here, I think, is to also venture into the unseen world ourselves. Find our own methods for understanding the engines that drive our experience. Always retain scepticism of authority figures that come back from the unseen with their own fervent teachings; while also respecting the wisdom of those who have used their journeying to demonstrably heal others – scientist or shaman.
Learn what you can from the twin wisdoms of science and shamanism, and reject those who would insist you solely follow one over the other.