In a previous piece on Beams I looked at the remnants of shamanic consciousness on contemporary fairy tale-based tv shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time. The journey into shamanic forms of experience and healing is one that I've found myself on over the last year. This has been an unexpected but beautiful turn in my life. Up until this switch, I had followed a path that would be characterized, in yogic terms, as one of bhakti (devotional practice), karma yoga (the path of service), and jnani yoga (the contemplative mind). Those others elements all remain rooted in my being but something else has developed recently. Or at least something I'm now giving more time and attention to--which for lack of a better word I'll call shamanic.
Shamanism includes things like kundalini energy or the experience of the chakras (especially the 6th, aka the third eye) and auras. It's the seat of imagination, intuition, and what is often termed energy work. It's also the home of The World Soul (Anima Mundi). This realm is often encountered through the use of entheogens or in (genuine) Pentecostal experiences: e.g. speaking in tongues, bodily ecstasy (aka holy rolling), and so on. While shamanic consciousness is by no means solely reducible to these phenomena, they do constitute an important set of core elements in the shamanic tradition.
In the Western world many of these phenomena like auras and chakras are typically thought of as New Age. And certainly there are those who would label themselves New Age who are connecting to those forms of experience. New Agers however don't have a monopoly on such experience--these are simply domains of possible experience available to all. Human beings (traditionally called shamans) have founds ways of accessing, learning from, and working with those domains for many thousands of years across the globe: from aboriginal Australians to The Americas to the Siberian tundra to sub-Saharan Africa...and even the Middle East (as we'll see in a moment).
My experiences over the last year have opened my eyes to my own sacred scriptures and to Jesus.
Jesus practiced shamanism.
What I find most interesting is that these shamanic forms of practice surrounding Jesus are the stories that embarrass liberal Christians the most: exorcisms, healings, and apocalyptic language. Weirdly these elements have become largely confined to much more conservative forms of Christianity like evangelicals and Pentecostals. They therefore have a bad rap. And yet when we stop running from what's right in front of our noses, the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus was a shaman.
The reason historically that liberal Christians denied these elements of Jesus' life were because they were seen as irrational. Influenced as they were by the Western Enlightenment, liberal Christians emphasize reason and tolerance. They see Jesus as a Teacher of Morals and Eternal Wisdom. One great counterexample to this is the liberal Christian scholar and priest Marcus Borg. Borg's book on the historical Jesus argues correctly that Jesus was a charismatic healer and exorcist. Borg however stays safely within the domain of the scholar, not a practitioner nor an advocate of this path.
The costs to liberal Christians of denying this reality are enormous. The New Age gains many of its adherents after they leave churches seeking precisely these forms of connection. In its liberal forms, Christianity tends to become either a very heady exercise or a social justice-only movement (or both). Liberals lack the fire and passion of many of their conservative brethren. Liberal Christians see the shamanic as pre-rational and therefore regressive (hence the embarrassment). They're unable to grasp that a good deal of what's going on in this arena is actually trans-rational (post-rational). It is more, not less, than rational.
So what if these shamanic ways are simply practices that could be taken up and interpreted and placed within a different worldview than that of arch-conservative Christians? I do believe many so-called fundamentalist Christians do have these experiences--though it's clearly an area rife with charlatanism so separating the real from the fake can be tricky. Whether genuine or not, these Christians embody these practices largely within a framework of traditional moral conservatism: e.g. anti-gay, patriarchal, non-Christians seen as bound for hell, merged with excessively literalistic readings of The Bible.
What I'm suggesting is to retrieve these practices but place them within a more progressive contemporary moral, political, and social framework, attempting to reconcile the best of both worlds. In what follows, I've selected a few categories of shamanic work and have picked representative stories from the gospels concerning Jesus that illustrate these very categories at work, thereby establishing Jesus' authentic shamanic identity.
They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, 'Can you see anything?' And the man looked up and said, 'I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.' Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then Jesus sent him away to his home saying, 'Do not even go into the village.' (Gospel of Mark, Chapter 8, verses 22-26).
There are a number of classic shamanic healing elements to this story.
First, Jesus takes the man away from the village to a secluded place. Healers like to work alone. While Jesus does not always do this--he does sometimes heal in front of crowds--generally he tries to create private space for the healing act. He is not interested in gaining personal notoriety (see last verse).
Second, he uses spit. The use of natural elements in healing rituals is commonplace: e.g. stones, saliva, water, fire, smoke, etc.
Third, the man's healing did not quite take at first. Often healings require multiple go rounds, even apparently for Jesus. Or perhaps the man was unable to interpret his new found sight.
Fourth, Jesus holds conversation with the man--asking him to participate in his own healing process. "Can you see anything?" It's crucial that the one who is receiving healing also partakes in the process--though to a lesser degree no doubt than the healer.
One of the reasons the healing stories in the gospels have caused controversy is they come from an era prior to modern medicine. Contemporary healing work must make a clear distinction between healing and curing. Healing does not equate to curing (though in the gospel stories it must said they tend to be conflated). People may work with healers on an energetic level--with unprocessed emotions or past wounds--and they may receive healing but they aren't necessarily cured in any sense. Healings may have curative physical effects but such physical manifestations need not take place in order for genuine healing to have occurred. I say this in response to the medical establishment's studies on say prayer and healing which define healing solely as curing.
This is a particularly relevant topic in disability theology. Blind people or folks in wheelchairs often groan when these miraculous healing stories are read in church. They're afraid some perhaps well-meaning but ignorant fellow church-goer will ask them when they're going to get healed. Or worse assume that the person's physical challenge is a sign of their lack of faith.
So we need to be clear that there's work to be done through healing--these shamanic domains affords insight and resources not available to the rational mind. But this is not be equated with magical curing.
Jesus went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, 'Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.' But Jesus rebuked him, saying, 'Be silent, and come out of him!' When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm. They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, 'What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!' And a report about him began to reach every place in the region. (The Gospel of Luke Chapter 8, verses 31-36).
Mention the 'e' word (exorcism) and immediately images of Linda Blair's 360 projectile vomiting come to mind, with priests holding crucifixes over her face yelling "The Power of Christ Compels You". This fascination with the occult and paranormal is not helpful to understanding what's going on here. As with the healing stories, the gospels play out the dramatic elements of exorcism stories. It makes for gripping drama but I think has obscured this realm and prevented it from having a stronger foundation in society and the church particularly. In other words, while Jesus did perform exorcisms, they need not all be of such a violent nature as the one above.
Exorcisms are simply a subset of healing in shamanism--it's simply a certain kind of healing. An exorcism is a healing of intrusive entities. It's a cleansing of such entities (or quasi-entities) from one's field. In Biblical language they are "cast out" of a person's field.
A lot of work, among some, goes into identifying and categorizing such intrusions--creating gradations of demons, unclean spirits, and the like. There's a cottage industry in asking where entities come from and how they glommed on to a person: are they from past lives, dead relatives, evil specters, etc. I think much of this is misplaced energy and attention. We don't need to know the origin and ultimate meaning of such things to know how to respond to the actual issue at hand.
As the Buddha would say, in a different context, it's as if someone shot with poisonous arrows was asking the doctor to explain the meaning of poison rather than simply extracting the arrows and the poison.
Intriguingly in the early Church persons studying to be baptized (called catechumens) received salt under their tongue. Salt is an element of an exorcism rite. At the time this practice began only adults could be baptized though later when infants were able to baptized they too received the salt (correctly depicted in the final baptism/bloodbath scene in The Godfather, NSFW, 1:05 mark). The symbol points the belief that all of us had picked up various destructive energies that needed cleansing.
Today however exorcism is seen as this weird creepy realm of demonic possession. This area of inquiry could potentially be a fruitful one for mental health professionals. But again even suggesting that comes up against the rationalist bias of our contemporary world where all such realities are viewed as mental illness (typically seen as brain or chemical imbalances). I'm not suggesting all (maybe even most) forms of mental illness are caused by psychic disturbance but I have to imagine some must be. To be clear, I'm not advocating a crusade against psychiatry or advising people to go off their meds. It's a really fine line. Certainly I can imagine situations in which a person already lacks a strong healthy personality and ego structure who then comes in contact with various spiritual energies could experience a split with reality (psychosis, schizophrenia, etc.).
Even more generally all of us are in need of some degree of healing. We live in a crazy complex chaotic world that intrudes upon us and to which we add our own negativity. Processes of cleansing and repairing are therefore vital.
Nevertheless we have these stories, like the one above, from around the world, including a number concerning Jesus. This story exhibits common exorcist patterns from around the world and through time:
The intrusive entity (a much better name than demon) or entities know Jesus by name. This is not atypical. Shamans work on the level at which an intrusion has occurred and therefore there is an open line of communication between the healer and the intrusive energy or entity. Jesus both speaks to and hears the demon--interestingly the text simply says the demons "cried out in a loud voice". It doesn't specify whether this loud voice was physically audible to all or was only audible to Jesus in a healing-trance state. Contrary The Exorcist, it's typically the later.
It's unclear whether the entity in question is singular or plural. The text says "an unclean demon" but then the demon speaks in the first person plural "What have you to do with us?" The line between singular and plural, whether an intrusive reality is a full entity in the way we think of autonomous agents or whether it is more a kind of sub-entity or entity-like reality is often a bit unclear. What can appear at first to be a single intrusion can actually be hiding others.
The entity/entities are confused and scared. Rather than seeing all such entities as evil, we may learn to have compassion for them. The entities might be lost souls trapped between this world and the next. A number of exorcism stories in the gospels show this pattern: the entities ask Jesus not to hurt them.
Still while including a compassionate tone, there is a forceful act of extracting the intrusive entity (i.e. the exorcism proper). Jesus' method for this seems to be direct commands: "Be silent and come out of him."
Other traditions speaks of coaxing or persuading the entities to come out from the person's field. The exorcist in this case tries to persuade the often scared or confused entity into trusting the exorcist, following his/her voice out of the person and typically residing in another reality temporarily (e.g. a crystal). The crystal might then be placed in a fire to purify and release the entity to journey on.
Elsewhere, Jesus commands an exorcised entity not to return. He then warns of the possibility that a person could be healed but other intrusions return worse than in the original case. These aren't simply symbolic sayings but sound to me like actual shamanic wisdom. For this very reason, shamans have rituals to protect the previously intruded upon person to make sure they are safe in the future and do not experience a repeat intrusion.
While again not necessary, it is common for there to be uncontrolled physical spasms that take place during the extrication process--in the story above the healed person jerks and falls down but as the story makes clear, this occurred without the man being harmed. This is a typical occurrence, not just in extraction work but in healings more generally: when traumas stored in the body are released they can cause temporary physical or energetic spasming or emotional releases (e.g. spontaneous, uncontrollable crying).
When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, 'My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.' So he went with him...While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader's house to say, 'Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?' But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, 'Do not fear, only believe.' He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, 'Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.' And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, 'Talitha cum', which means, 'Little girl, get up!' And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5: 21-24, 35-43).
Soul Retrievals are yet another common form of shamanic healing. The idea behind soul retrievals is that through certain traumatic events, people may experience the loss of a part of their soul. It's as if that part of the soul breaks off and is lost. The shaman journeys to retrieve this lost part of the soul and return it to the person. This is typically done by the shaman blowing the retrieved soul piece back into the heart, the mouth, and/or the top of the head of the person.
I read this story of Jesus' as a soul retrieval. While everyone else thinks the young girl is dead Jesus intuits she is sleeping--i.e. she might be in a coma. The barrier between death and life is thinner than people believe. Even in our own day with advanced technology it can be actually hard to determine when someone is actually fully dead. Death is more a process not an end state...death isn't an on/off switch.
In other words, I don't think Jesus has brought this girl back from the dead. Rather I think he's retrieved her soul and this has re-animated her (animate from animus/anima, meaning soul).
The story does not include any specific mention of Jesus going into a trance or journeying to retrieve the soul part as is usual in shamanic literature. It is common however that when a soul retrieval journey is undertaken that family members can be there in the room with the shaman as in this story.
Jesus speaks directly to the girl--very close to her body. Since he takes her by the hand and she is laying down then presumably Jesus is seated next to her or bending down. The breath that blows "Talitha Kum" would go right into the girl's face and in particular her mouth. This is classic soul retrieval technique. The words Talitha Kum might then be what shamans call, "power words." They are words that effect what they say. Talitha Kum (Rise up little girl) is not simply a didactic command from Jesus, like someone telling you to close the door. He is calling her to awakened reality. The words have force and spirit behind them and effect the 'waking' up of the girl.
This hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that there is an intervening story between the announcement of the girl's illness and her supposed death. An old woman who has suffered from a disease for 12 years (note the girl is referenced as 12 years old) touches Jesus' cloak and she is instantly healed. Jesus whirls around and notices that "power had gone out from him." This power is shamanic energy. And he can feel that some went out of him just as a Reiki healer can fell when the flow of Reiki passes through his/her hands.
As with the healings and the exorcisms, we see here a potential for good work in our day. Persons who have experienced highly traumatic events--car crashes, soldiers & civilians in war zones, child abuse victims, etc.--may seem after the trauma that they are never "quite themselves." People say that something is missing--the look in their eyes is vacant somehow. Soul Retrievals are often required in such cases but since our society does not recognize these modalities as valid, people suffer.
And again, as with exorcisms, soul retrievals can be beneficial for all kinds of individuals, whether they have been through what might otherwise be characterized as highly traumatic events or not.
"Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, died, and was buried. He descended into the dead." --The Apostles Creed
"Jesus was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison..." --1 Peter 3:19
Psychopomps are journeys where a shaman meets a soul in a postmortem state who is unable to cross over into the other world. This soul is stuck in between the worlds, often confused, in pain, and alone.
The shaman, acting as psychopomp, helps the soul: a) realize it is in fact dead b) clear any remaining ties that bind the soul to this world c) encourage the soul to make the journey across the dividing line between this world and the hereafter.
The First Letter of Peter states that Jesus' Descent into the Dead is understood to include preaching to the spirits in the underworld. I believe Jesus is here acting as a psychopomp. My sense is that he is trying to help free these trapped souls so that they can follow the light.
Psychopomp is yet another modality that would be of benefit to contemporary society. The ancients understood well that souls trapped between the worlds are bad for both them and for us. They understood that the line between the dead and the living was permeable and therefore we continue to have relationships beyond death (e.g. ancestor veneration, in Christian language this is called The Communion of Saints). But again this modality is not commonly available because of our culture's materialist bias which sees death as complete once the physical body is no more. As the ancients (more wisely) understood, physical death is just a point near the beginning of a much longer process.
In my work as a pastor, I'm convinced more and more that our society's inability to truly grieve and to allow our loved ones to transition between the worlds compassionately is at the root of a great deal of suffering--addictive behaviors (to cover over the grief), emotional disconnection, and a great many other negative expressions.
There are a number of other correlations we could make between classic shamanism and Jesus. For example, there is the shamanic practice of reading signs in nature to provide discerning insight:
Jesus also said to the crowds, 'When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, "It is going to rain"; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, "There will be scorching heat"; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Luke 12: 54-56
Or think of the numerous parables of Jesus that derive from the earth and animal life: the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the mustard seed, and so on.
There's also Jesus' practice of vision quest with prayer and fasting: "He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him." Mark 1:12
He was with the wild beasts...this could be interpreted in shamanic lore as his connection with the animal world. In particular there are stories of shamans befriending wild animals--e.g. St. Francis of Assisi befriending the wolf. The angels waited on him refers to spirit guides, helpers, and protectors (e.g. guardian angels in our own day).
There are still yet other connections I could point to, but for I want to focus on one last important crossover between Jesus and shamanism: apocalypticism.
Earlier this year I was on an interfaith panel at a local church. As an ordained priest I get asked to do this kind of thing occasionally. The panel that evening consisted of me, a Rabbi (woman), and an aboriginal Canadian elder. The elder went into an intriguing rift at one point, almost a rant, and quoted a number of prophesies from his wisdom teachers concerning coming destruction for humanity. I had been thinking of this shamanistic lens in relation to Jesus for awhile at this point, but I had only been considering things like soul retrievals, healings, exorcisms, and so forth. At that moment, a whole other arena of Jesus as shaman opened up for me: Jesus the apocalpyticist.
As with the other arenas mentioned earlier--exorcism in particular--apocalypticism immediately makes liberal folk squeamish. The word immediately evokes images of fire and brimestone preachers raging about hell and damnation and the end of the world or being Left Behind. It brings to mind people like radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicted the end of the world on May 11, 2011 after finding the secret clue (he claimed) to unlock the book of Revelation. He follows in a long line of people who wrongly predicted dates and times of the end of the world (e.g. William Miller).
Whether it makes us uncomfortable or not, Jesus was an apocalyptic dude. Apocalypse has roots in shamanic indigenous traditions around the world. It was clearly on display that evening of the interfaith gathering. We see it also when people taking ayahuasca have visions of the return of the Amerindian serpent god in 2012.
We also see it in Jesus. Jewish apocalypticism, the kind Jesus came from, grew out of mystical traditions of visions of the Chariot of God or the Throne of God (called hekhalot in Jewish mysticism). The hekhalot tradition consists of ascents by the mystics into God's sovereignty over all creation--symbolized by the chariot or the throne. The mystical ascent of the Hekhalot Kabbalists parallels the journeys of shamans to the upper world. Both Judaism and shamanic traditions include the vision of the importance of a Tree: e.g. Yggdrasil the Cosmic Tree in Norse shamanism and The Tree of Eternal Life from the Garden of Eden.
By journeying to the highest heaven, the mystic is granted a vision of eternity, transcending space and time. From his heavenly perch, the mystic can see the whole plan of creation. Moreover, the mystic, one with The Divine, is helping to dream the world into being. The mystic partakes in a vision of God's desire for creation.
Jewish seers had visions of God's throne in The Holy of Holies--i.e. the innermost sanctuary of The Temple. Entering into that realm meant that one had been transformed into a son/daughter of God, i.e. was in full union with God. God was envisioned as rushing out from the innermost sanctuary of the temple (i.e. eternity) into creation (space and time) bringing liberation, healing, and restoration. The rituals of the high Holy Day of Yom Kippur and the traditions of the Jubilee (release of debt bondage) and Jesus' apocalyptic vision of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth all derive from this spiritual tradition.
By having a vision of all things being well in God, the mystic becomes an apocalyptic prophet, able to condemn his/her age as having failed to live up to the vision of God's restoration and true justice. Scholars say that the kingdom of God is already but not yet. The Kingdom is always already the reality of God's life and everything in creation already exists, in its essence, within that heavenly substrate. And yet as a manifest form, creation does not perfectly manifest that reality. The gap between the Kingdom as already and not yet is seen in racism, sexism, ecological destruction, oppression, mass poverty, hopelessness, despair, cruelty, and violence.
Hence the painful passionate words of Christ:
"I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already burning." (Luke 12:49)
Jesus understood his exorcisms and healings as moments when the Kingdom of God was breaking through into space and time. He said they were a glimpse into the rule of God.
The shamanic view is one in which our world and the other worlds are part of a continuum. What occurs in any world has effects in the others. As the ancient saying went, "As above, so below." Or in the words of The Our Father, "thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven."
Not all shamans are apocalyptic--for all we know most of them probably were (and are) not. But contemporary research has shown among shamanistic movements in numerous places around the world (e.g. The Americas, The Pacific Islands) the tendency towards apocalyptic thought when facing times of social and economic dislocation as well as political oppression--exactly the kind of conditions that characterized Israel under Roman imperial occupation during Jesus life (and Roman-executed death).
Apocalyptic language is the dream of a new world arising out of the ashes of an old. Apocalyptic seers often visions of both light and darkness--visions of hope that spring from the possibility of a new world:
"People will come from East and West, North and South, and will sit down and eat in the kingdom of God." --Jesus (Gospel of Luke Ch 13, verse 29)
The flip side of his hopeful language is the nightmarish possibility of being left out of the new reality to come:
"Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, 'Lord, will only a few be saved?' He said to them, 'Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, "Lord, open to us", then in reply he will say to you, "I do not know where you come from." Then you will begin to say, "We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets." But he will say, "I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!" There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out." (Luke 22: 22-28)
We live in an age of major economic dislocation and dispersion, an era of ecological despoliation. Apocalyptic language is rife in our society--some emphasizing more the vision of a renewed future, others more the destruction to come if we continue on the current path.
To employ traditional language, apocalyptic is powerful medicine. In the wrong hands, however, it is quite dangerous. But there will be no substantial change without an apocalypse--without a disclosure of another reality. But that other reality will not come without intense resistance. The apocalyptic element, the prophetic critique of society, is what leads Jesus directly to the cross. In our own day we see many forces of violence amassed against the change so desperately needed. The apocalypticist has seen, however, that the order of violence and resistance is already defeated. It is already undone. It is just that we have not walked in that path yet--we have not incarnated its truth.
Jesus deployed his shamanic gifts to help give birth to his vision of a kingdom of heaven on earth. Just so, in our day we must learn shamanic modalities of healing and empowerment in order that we may help birth the more beautiful world our hearts desire.
Editor: Trevor Malkinson