Unitarian Universalism is an experimental faith. It tells us there is a wide world of truth to be known, coming from multiple sources, and our job is to explore. Don’t automatically dismiss something because it’s different from what you know. There’s more to life than meets the eye. Get beyond surface appearances. Try things out. Prove things through first-hand experience, whenever possible. Don’t be afraid.
Because even from our mistakes, we can learn. Even from the times when things don’t pan out as expected, there can be progress. And unfortunately, not too many people can say this. Religion, for too many, says that the Universe is an unsafe place ruled by a God who is just waiting for us to screw up so He can send us kicking and screaming to Hell. But that is not religion, for us. For us, we know (or we ought to know) that even our flawed experiences and limited actions can be turned to some good. THAT is the kind of Universe we exist in. So don’t be afraid.
Today I want to share an episode of spiritual experimentalism in my own life. What led me to it, what happened, what I learned. I was 24 at the time, so it was around 23 years ago. The focus of my experimentalism was the earth-based spiritual tradition called shamanism. “Shaman” comes from the word “saman” of the Tungus people which means “one who is excited, moved, raised.” Shamans voluntarily enter altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves traveling to other realms at will and interacting with other entities in order to gain knowledge and power and to serve their community.
In shamanism, we see the nature of religion as it was tens and even hundreds of thousands of years ago, long before Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and all the other classic world religions were even born. Shamans were artists, poets, actors, healers, priests, mediums, and sorcerers all rolled up into one. I was 24 at the time, and where religion was concerned, all I had had first-hand experience of was Church of Christ Christian fundamentalism. So I was ready for something very VERY different. Shamanism gave it to me. As writer S. Kelley Harrell says, “Even in woo woo circles, shamanism is the fringe of the fringe.”
THAT’S what I was getting myself into.
It began with a book. Originally, this book was submitted in 1968 as a masters thesis in the school of anthropology at the University of California, by a graduate student named Carlos Castaneda, but the book would go on to become a bestseller in the popular market. It was called The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. This book entered my life in 1991 when I was just completing my own masters thesis in the school of philosophy at Texas A&M University. It electrified me. (NOT my masters thesis, which put me to sleep. HIS book.) Here’s a bit of what I read:
“The aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive.”
“Self-importance is our greatest enemy. Think about it: what weakens us is feeling offended by the deeds and misdeeds of our fellowmen. Our self-importance requires that we spend most of our lives offended by someone.”
“Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.”
“For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length–and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.”
The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge is ultimately the story of a graduate student who lives too much in words and in his head, who is being drawn into the largeness and wildness of life by a skilled, wise, and wily teacher who just happens to be a shaman! Psychoactive drugs like peyote played a big part in the book, but I wasn’t into that, so I put that to the side. Mostly what riveted me was the thought of two graduate students, Carlos Castaneda and myself, both imprisoned in word boxes, but one broke out. He did. I wanted too as well.
In my journal from this time I wrote this: “March 28, 1991: I am tired of school, I am tired of the coldness of traditional philosophy. I hate, hate, hate my stupid thesis.”
Then, several months later, on August 14, 1991: “I am distracted… what am I hiding from by compulsively consuming words? Books will not help me trust myself. As I read the books that recommend self trust, I burn the time in which I could be actively exploring genuine self trust. I feel so weak and undisciplined. My mind is mud. Things don’t connect, I can’t think through, I go half-way, I read one book, relish in its thoughts, then read another, hoping that as I string together all the words I will be stringing together a new life. But it does not seem so. Nothing motivates me wholly. “
This is where I was. By August of 1991 I had completed and successfully submitted my own thesis, “The Ethical Relativism of George Santayana,” but for all the work that that involved, I was not one inch closer to discovering my path with a heart. I was not one inch closer to balancing the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive. I was not one inch closer to defeating my greatest enemy which was my self-importance and capacity to feel offended by others. Not one inch closer.
I was just like Carlos Castaneda in the book, who seemed to have an unlimited ability to frustrate himself. But the big difference was that a true teacher had come into his life, Don Juan, and rocked his world. Me? Just my philosophy professors who seems as boxed in as I was. I had no real teacher who could usher me into a larger life. “And here it comes again,” I write in my journal on August 14, 1991: “the longing for a teacher. I long for an enthusiast, a mentor to see into my heart and tell me not only how to start but how to hang on for the wild ride of my life. I feel so alone. Are there no teachers for me in this wide world?”
I wanted to find my path with a heart. Fundamentalist Christianity was a complete dead end. But so was the sterile secularism of traditional philosophy that I had thrown myself into after leaving the Church of Christ.
And then this book from 1968 found me, containing the words of Don Juan the shaman which electrified me. “For me there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length–and there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.”
From then on, I kept an eye out for other books on shamanism. I wanted to learn more. And I did, through such books as The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner. That’s a name you want to know, by the way, if you want to go deeper. Harner is widely acknowledged as the world’s foremost authority on shamanism and has had an enormous influence in both academic and lay circles. Just the other day I was at the Phoenix and Dragon off of Roswell Road and picked up a CD that Harner, through his Foundation for Shamanic Studies, produced. The CD is of solo and double drumming, to accompany people who want to engage in shamanic journeying or soul flight. Now what I just said might have made as much sense to you as “fiddlesticks red said the pudding pop,” but hold on and you’ll see what I mean in a moment.
As I was saying, I found and read The Way of the Shaman, which was excellent. But not as excellent (at least to the person I was 23 years ago) as Secrets of Shamanism, by Jose Stevens PhD and Lena Stevens, which, on the very first page, says, “This is a book about success, the success of the shaman over the ages and the success you can achieve by following the shamanic way.” “Shamanic techniques work in a modern urban environment just as they do in the jungle, the steppes, or under the harsh desert sun.”
Why was I, an exhausted and rather cynical young man of 24 years, so engrossed by this? Well, I was ready for a little success. Lots more was going on in my life besides completing my masters thesis and graduating. I had just legally changed my name from Anthony David Makar to Anthony David, as a way of emancipating myself from my birth family which was riddled with alcoholism and drug abuse and emotional abuse; to save myself from drowning in all that, I needed to get away. I had also just gotten married and, early on, Laura became pregnant, so there were all these changes. We would become parents. I would become a father. What would that be like?
So I wrote on August 14 1991: “OK, I am incredibly lost. My future’s up in the air. Will we move to Copperas Cove so that Laura can become a Kindergarten teacher? Will we remain here so that I can teach logic at Blinn College? Will we have enough money for next month? What will we be doing a year from now? And what of our new child, as yet unborn? What will she bring into our lives?”
Six months after I wrote this, I would know: Jan 22 1992: “Night from hell. Sophia is up crying, feeding every second it seems. Laura’s been doing this all day long without a nap and she’s whiny and this is so unlike her and it scares me. I’m exhausted from work. But things peter out around 4am and we’re finally getting some rest—until a chorus of stray cats starts wailing and carrying on right outside our window. I get up and shoo them away, then back to sleep, then this: both Laura and I, separately, dream that we have three babies and they are all crying loudly and we are running around like crazy trying to comfort them all….”
Like I said, I was incredibly lost, and I was ready for a little success. This, on top of wanting to escape the word box I was in, and to find a teacher….
What I learned from Secrets of Shamanism was that, through the technique of shamanic soul flight, I could encounter an inner teacher and in this way experience the success I was wanting. “Shamans,” says the book, “access vital information and knowledge through what is known as the spirit journey. As shamans put it, they travel within their imaginations to contact the spirit world or the world of the spirit self: they contact the universal source of all information by ‘flying’ deeply within themselves. If they do this while focusing on a question or a matter of concern, their ecstatic journey will provide an answer, allowing them to bypass the stumbling blocks of the material world and rely upon a broader vision.”
So that’s what I learned how to do. I would pull out my shaman drum and create a rhythmic pattern of sound that would carry me deeper and deeper into my imaginative focus, just as the book taught. I would travel within my imagination, and it would be just like a visualization exercise except you aren’t controlling the events and situations you encounter. Through your thoughts and emotions you are interacting with the interdependent web of all reality which, according to shamanism, exists primarily a web of energy and, only in a secondary way, as material objects and forces.
On page 45 of Secrets of Shamanism, was the complete recipe for soul flight:
Step 1: Lie down in a private place
Step 2: Relax
Step 3: Formulate the question you wish to ask
Step 4: Picture opening into the earth
Step 5: Meet guide or ally
Step 6: State problem or question to guide
Step 7: Follow guide’s lead and instructions implicitly
Step 8: Return via the same route
Step 9: Thank your guide
Step 10: Jot down your experience.
And I did jot down my experience:
August 27, 1991: “I relax, I imagine an opening into the earth. I feel anxious. I am drawn into the opening, down and down into the earth. I emerge onto a heap of feathers and I sense a presence, a falcon presence, and it hands me a key. I ask its name, but its reply is garbled. “Roc” is all that’s definite. Instantly I think, Oh great, a weird name … and then I feel guilty. In fact I’m feeling like I’m making all this up. Am I making this up?”
September 3, 1991: “I need to consult with Roc. Why is my life so stagnant? I feel so pessimistic…. I relax by allowing gravity to pull the tensions and resistances out of my body. I call for Roc and he flies to me. I jump on his back and we fly upwards, straight up to the moon. From there, the earth appears clear and jewel like. Roc says I have great love for it. Then the earth blows apart, and Roc says I have great anger towards it. Then he says that philosophy is good for me right now, but I am stuck because I have so many feelings going all sorts of different directions. He counsels patience.”
One time, I had an hour between the logic classes I was teaching at Blinn, and I spent it journeying. This one did not involve Roc. The question that started it was “Where am I in my life right now?” Here’s what my journal says: “I see the path of my destiny clearly: it’s a golden road, solid, wide. I am at the beginning of a ten year phase, solid and unbroken. Yet afterwards there will be a radical change or shift. The image is this: the road suddenly stops and reappears to the right. That new road is also solid and wide. Walking this second road, I feel that it rises very quickly. But at the top of the rise, there’s a narrow gap which I need to leap. Following this gap, the road steadies off and continues until the end, where there is a door with a window. Looking through it, I see pastel curls of color in an infinite space of light.”
A last journal entry to share, in which I sum up my experiences of shamanic soul flight: “I feel confused about the substance of my journeys. I fear that I may simply be ‘talking to myself.’ But why? Am I so ignorant and limited that at some level of my being I can’t be wiser and more sensitive than I consciously realize myself to be? Oh I am worried worried worried. I do something different with my consciousness now, like I have been wanting to do for a very long time, but I am brought up short by fear and a lack of trust. How can I gather knowledge when I do not trust the visions and half-hidden sources? Possibly the visions are so jittery and confused because I do not trust them to unfurl themselves and reveal themselves.”
Fairly soon after this, the journal entries devoted to shamanic soul flight stop. I got caught up in other stuff. I allowed it, because it felt like I wasn’t going anywhere with shamanism. I still felt lost in my life. It wasn’t taking me into the success that I had been hoping for. The inner teacher, Roc, my falcon spirit guide, seemed never to say anything that was beyond what I already knew. And as for the message of being patient? Wow, that’s not what I wanted to hear at all.
But as I look back now, all of 23 years later, I realize that I did get something important out of all of this. I did learn secrets.
I learned that community is key to spiritual progress. Self-trust is something we strengthen in each other. I think I would have progressed much further down the path of shamanism had I been practicing it with others as sincere and committed as I was. We could even have a shaman circle here at UUCA. Why not? Let me know if you are interested. I might even join you.
Because as I look back at those journey transcripts of mine, it really does feel like something was opening up. As an adult, I was being asked to take my imagination seriously, as an actual power with which to interact with the interdependent web of all existence. I turned the tap of my imagination on, like Secrets of Shamanism taught me, and yes, what came out initially was rusty water. But it was MY water, it was the song of MY own heart, not someone else’s ideas or words. And we know what follows rusty water flowing from taps long unused. Water that is fresh.
In fact, the particular episode where I envision the path of my destiny: it actually happened. The ten-year phase was my life in College Station, being a philosopher. Then came the radical change. The road suddenly stopped and reappeared to the right because I became a minister. Just as the vision said it would—but in the strange, hard-to-interpret language of visions…
Secrets of shamanism. Perhaps the most profound, however, have nothing to do with shamanism at all. I’m thinking in particular of how we can find ourselves in an uncomfortable place and it feels like it never ends and it can make us so angry we want to blow apart the entire world. I look back at that exhausted and cynical young man from 24 years ago who felt so lost, and I just want to love him. I just want to tell him that the real spirit guide to learn from is far less fancy and dignified and successful than Falcon. The real spirit guide is tiny Snail, whose power is a power of sheer being—of sheer goodness in the moment—because it sure ain’t a power of doing. Snail doesn’t look like he does much at all. Yet of course he does. As slow as he is—even though it appears he’s going nowhere—he goes. It happens. Movement happens and will happen, no matter how stuck things appear.
Roc said, Be patient. So hard to be patient, or as I pray constantly,
to forgive the world for all the ways it appears to fall short
to trust that whatever I truly need will come in my life when I need it
to be thankful for what I have
The teachers I longed for did come. Just not ones like Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, which is what I expected, or demanded. Instead, my teachers have been experiences in ministry. My relationship with my daughter. My marriage. My divorce 22 years later. My Unitarian Universalist faith. These are the teachers who have helped me discover my path with a heart. People and events coming into my life that are like the sun, and everything in me recognizes them, and in that sunlight I become even more of who I am.
With or without shamanism, believe me, the teachers will come.