My Path in Shamanism
Interview with Michael Harner
From Higher Wisdom by Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob. Albany: State University of New York Press, ©2005.
Do altered states implicitly convey something about ethics? Do they teach people to live more ethical lives?
Experiencing an altered state that occurs in the Middle World would not necessarily do that. However, outside the Middle World, the shamanic state of consciousness gets you in touch with the teachings of the compassionate spirits. These are concerned about reducing pain and suffering, and do indeed make it more difficult for you to be unethical. It’s not that you can’t be unethical, but you’re going to have a harder time being unethical.
Similarly, people who begin to study with us may not at first have any interest in ecology. But after a few journeys they start having a different view, one they never expected, about the interconnectedness of all species and the planet that is their home. Once you start realizing we’re not superior to the rest of the cosmos, but that we’re just part of it, this creates a more compassionate and ethical orientation. And if you know that material reality isn’t the whole ball of wax, you can drop your focus about getting everything you can in this reality before you die. A fellow wrote a book he actually called Die Rich. What an amazing concept, huh? I think he made a lot of money doing it, but I don’t know if he’s still alive. [laughs]
Someone else wrote a book about dying empty— giving everything away before you die.
That’s more like it, yes.
The spirits may help you do what you do, but you’re still choosing to do it, right?
I think it’s a two-way thing. The spirits have an effect on you, and you’re never utterly disentangled from them. There is a kind of osmotic effect, so that the spiritual connections permeate you. Right now, while I’m talking to you, I’m seeing several of them. Not because I’m calling them in, but because I’m touching on a subject that they feel strongly about.
But the real effect is when you’re on duty and not in your ordinary life. Your ordinary life is often quite imperfect. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be, because if you were too satisfied with your ordinary life you wouldn’t have the attraction to this other reality.
Most people who really take this path seriously have suffered significantly. Perhaps not in the dramatic, traumatic way it’s portrayed in some of the Siberian literature, but they have suffered. They’re hoping there’s more to life than this.
Once you start interacting with these spirits, they guide you in certain ways that are no longer entirely your free choice. You may go on a journey wanting something, and then they give you what you need, not what you want. So, there is that feedback.
But what about those who take a path of sorcery; they’re making that choice, right?
Persons who go down the sorcery path have often been unknowingly possessed by suffering Middle World spirits who have hostile orientations. To that degree, “free choice” can be a questionable term. The compassionate healing spirits will stay with you as long as you don’t go down the sorcery road, but if you do, they’ll leave you. We’re like rechargeable batteries, and we get spiritually recharged constantly as long as we’re working in alliance with compassionate healing spirits that want to reduce suffering and pain here. When, let’s say out of anger, we make a big mistake and decide to “get even” with somebody, then the healing spirits disengage. They will not support you in such actions. You still have that residual power—the battery was charged—and you can do damage for quite a while. But ultimately it’s going to fail you because the power source will be gone. And whatever you put out there comes back to you multiplied. That’s when it’s disastrous for you, for your protective power has left. There are sorcerers who can keep going for awhile, who are drawing on spirits other than the compassionate ones, but it’s a big mistake to go down that path.
One advantage of shamanic education is that you learn you can get angry at somebody, but still protect him/her spiritually, and thereby protect yourself. But people who aren’t trained shamanically usually won’t have the discipline of knowing that they should control their spiritual powers when they get really angry.
Have you ever tried the combination of plant medicine and drumming at the same time?
With peyote, of course. But peyote is so mild that it’s easily done. However, with a strong dose of ayahuasca you don’t even want to hear a dog barking or a child crying. It’s too overwhelming. With ayahuasca you want to hear the songs, which are great, and they can connect you very strongly to your spiritual allies. But they involve no drumming.
Carlos Castaneda renewed interest in shamanism and had a tremendous influence on contemporary psychedelic culture. What do you think of Castaneda?
He performed an important role. He showed the Western world that non-Western peoples could have a fascinating and radical perspective on reality, even if they were barefoot. And he also helped provide some sort of framework for people in the psychedelic movement who were having a hard time figuring out how to organize their experiences.
As a matter of fact, Carlos himself had quite a difficult time organizing his own early experiences. That’s how we first met. After I came back from the Conibo to a position at the University of California at Berkeley in 1962, I gave a talk one evening on “Drugs and Reality in the Upper Amazon.” Carlos was a graduate student, and he read about that talk, so he looked me up at the 1963 meeting of the American Anthropological Association. He said he was curious about how I organized these experiences conceptually, because as yet he had no framework. So I shared with him the Upper Amazon perception of reality through ayahuasca and other substances.
Then when I heard him start talking, I was blown away by his accounts, because they were so beautiful. In fact, I encouraged him to write them up. So within a few weeks he came back to Berkeley with an account of his first peyote experience, which later became a chapter in his book. It was great, and I encouraged him to write more, and he brought some more a few weeks later. At that time, I think he was pretty much on the level about what had happened to him.
I encouraged Carlos to write a book-length manuscript, which he then did. He eventually published it with the University of California Press, because the New York commercial publishing establishment wasn’t ready for it, and couldn’t cope with it. In fact, the first review in the New York Times of Carlos’ book, The Teachings of Don Juan, was written by a specialist on the don Juan of Europe, of the Renaissance! He wrote a short, very critical, uncomprehending review of it. The Times had no idea of what was happening. Much later, after Carlos was popular, the New York Times assigned more appropriate reviewers.
One of Carlos’ most important contributions was introducing the terms “ordinary/nonordinary” reality, which remain immensely useful. The American anthropologist Robert Lowie had earlier used “ordinary and extraordinary,” but nothing quite works like “ordinary/nonordinary.” Unfortunately, in later books Carlos didn’t really distinguish adequately between those anymore. The first two books were closer to shamanism and to what I consider to have been experiences with a psychedelic base. Later, Carlos shifted more into his own world. His later books have very little to do with shamanism and a lot to do with Carlos’ own world, such as his construct of Toltec shamanism—nobody knows who the Toltecs really were. It’s simply an archaeological concept.
Many today believe that most of what Castaneda wrote was a sham. Do you think that don Juan, his mentor shaman, was a real person?
I think don Juan was real. However, I think some aspects of him described by Carlos were composites, and other aspects, described in the later books, were “dreamed” by Carlos. Early on, Carlos invited me to go visit don Juan. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to travel with him down to Mexico, and I’ve kicked myself ever since. But don Juan and I were in contact through Carlos. Carlos wanted to get that book published. When he mentioned this, don Juan said that he didn’t really know if it was important, but if Carlos really wanted it, he’d help. So he had three power masks made. One was for Carlos’ literary agent, one was for Carlos, and one was for me. I can tell you that these masks are the real thing. They are, in fact, very dangerous masks.
These are actual physical masks? Why are they dangerous?
Yes. I can show you mine if you want to see it. I just ask you not to handle it, okay? They are dangerous because they have immense spiritual power that’s of the Middle World.
Carlos never got out of the Middle World. You’ll never find any reference to the Lower World or the Upper World in his books, nor do you find any reference to healing. He was in the world of the sorcerer. Not surprisingly, the people that are attracted to his disciples’ workshops often are not people who are oriented toward compassion and healing, but rather to power alone.
They’re trying to amass power?
Yes. However, power alone is not shamanism. But I loved Carlos. He was a great raconteur, and he spoke the way he wrote, but with humor. You could sit for hours listening to him. You would have been enthralled. But Carlos was really not interested in shamanism, per se.
Have psychedelics been a part of your life in more recent years?
Not in recent years. I haven’t felt that they are important anymore. I felt that they were important at one time—useful as an entree. But these days I don’t want to get too deeply in there, except when I’m working. And then I usually like to get out after half an hour or so.
What do you say to students who want to take psychedelics?
It’s fine if they want to do it; that’s their business. But I don’t want my students to get the idea that they have to do that. I want them to get the bigger picture—that there’s another reality and that it’s accessible by various means.
What legacy would you like to leave to future generations?
Well, if I were to die tomorrow, I’d feel that I’d done more than I had ever hoped. I feel very lucky that way. I never envisioned this path, and I never envisioned so many students wanting to seek it. I am satisfied with what has already been accomplished, because now there are so many people who are well-trained and prepared to work with and learn from the spirits shamanically, so that I’m no longer essential. The movement has its own momentum. So, I’m now very relaxed. What is my legacy? Well, my students as much as anything, because they will carry on, and some will go farther than I have ever gone.
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Interview with Michael Harner from Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, Roger Walsh and Charles S. Grob, eds. 2005. Albany: State University of New York Press.
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