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SPEAK to your

ANCESTORS

Jez Hughes-
Finding authenticity in shamanism

During a reconciliation meeting with Australian Aborigines, Jez was told...
“We have nothing toshow or teach you here! We are a humble people. We learn from our ancestors,
they teach us about our land, if you wanna learn to be in harmony with your land and yourselves, go back and
speak with your ancestors,they will show you theway, go speak with your ancestors!”
These words stayed with him and he shares the journey they have taken him on...

In 2000 I attended a reconciliation ceremony in the Australian outback. A group from Britain, Australia and Europe had invited members of a local Aboriginal tribe to apologise on behalf of our ancestors for the acts of cultural genocide they had perpetrated against all the Aboriginal people.
A small group of men arrived from the tribe and seemed uncomfortable amongst the several hundred eager westerners. Around the burning fire, words were spoken by a select few, mainly from England, heart-felt words expressing their shame, guilt, disgust and grief over the actions undertaken by our ancestors in the name of our country.

When the speeches ended, there was a pause; it was the turn of the few elders gathered from the tribe to respond. The silence grew, as did the sense of nervous anticipation, it seemed that a great collective redemption was hanging upon these elders, and perhaps sensing the weight of this, they were cautious about responding.
Then a message was passed by a young Aboriginal man, conveying that the elders were thankful for the apology, but due to the shy nature of their culture, they felt uncomfortable speaking in front of so many people, especially being asked to do so, on behalf of a nation

This seemed to disappoint those gathered and people began to press and cajole for a response, suddenly there appeared an overwhelming need for something from these wise indigenous elders, something that would validate the apology.

Eventually, the young man got up again and he spoke passionately. As all present hung upon his words, he thanked us for the apology, then suddenly, as if sensing a deep need and hunger within western culture for exotic, tribal wisdom that perhaps lay beneath some of the intention behind the ceremony, he exclaimed, ‘we have nothing to show or teach you here! We are a humble people. We learn from our ancestors, they teach us about our land, if you wanna learn to be in harmony with your land and yourselves, go back and speak with your ancestors, they will show you the way, go speak with your ancestors!’

His words hung heavy within me, creating confusion, as they did with many present. Was he not aware of the state of our civilisation? How disconnected we had become from living in harmony with the earth. How we had killed and wiped out our own wise ones who had been connected to the mystery and magic of the land; that colonisation, with all of its attendant evils of power and control, fear and suppression had begun and been mastered on our own soil, before spreading, like a virulent disease across the waves. Were we not here to apologise on behalf of our ancestors! Surely we did need the wisdom and connection of their culture. I needed it.

And yet, something in his words did resonate, deep in my heart, I knew that they held the key to something that would be unlocked in time. And, of course, the fact they were spoken by someone from an exotic tribal culture, helped the resonance spread that much deeper!

Eleven years and many journeys later, these words, randomly caught by a youthful and expectant heart, have begun to leave the abstract realm of ideas and solidify into a deeper understanding, a way of being. This has led me to want to explore the modern shamanic renaissance and the culture that is being created by it in a questioning way, to add discussion to that we are recreating here.

The importance of ancestral honouring may appear obvious to anyone engaged in shamanic work, and yet at times it feels to me like the simplicity of this work can be sometimes overlooked in the rebuilding of our own shamanic heritage.

It has always struck me as a clear but often overlooked irony, that the earth based tradition that ‘shamanism’ seeks to reintroduce into the western world, has its roots firmly in the airy realms of academia! Much of what has been discovered and written about, including of course, the name itself, stems from anthropological research. Books are full of authors displaying their academic credentials in the letters following their name, as if this was some kind of proof of shamanic aptitude. In my experience it can often be the opposite, those with a strong intellectual bias can find the surrender needed to become ‘the hollow bone’ very difficult. The practice of shamanism often covers terrain that is maybe better suited to the illogical, crazy world of the artist or poet!

Sometimes, the modern history of shamanism appears to me as having the potential of being like an inverted tree, with its roots dangling in mid-air. No better is this exampled than in the way so much of what we are taught in the West about shamanism can come from the written word, from others research. This is something, in my opinion, which needs to be delicately handled as it sometimes has the potential to be at best misleading and at worse, damaging. This is most obvious if we go back to where academia crossed over into the mainstream of society and the modern shamanic renaissance was born within the strange trickery of Carlos Castaneda’s world.

Castaneda, it seems to me, started the often unhelpful mystique of shamans/ healers/ medicine men being removed from and somehow above being human. In his stories, and others I have read since, the shaman appears as somewhere between a mixture of a fairy tale, mythical wise person and the heroic exaltation of Nietzsche’s ‘superman’. I would say, as others have noted, that the way we have often portrayed shamans, and the cultures they arise from, says a lot more about our own imagination than anything else. They often seem to appear as great ideals or archetypes of the perfect human being or societies, over poeticised in many ways.

This can be useful for helping to create the mystique that attracts people to the path, or in local terms, to help with people’s ‘belief’ that they are to be healed by the shaman, which can go a long way to helping initiate the bodies innate healing powers. However, if we travel too far along this path and still are trying to emulate an abstract perfection, to be so full of ‘power’ constantly that nothing can touch us; then problems can arrive. This can be especially true when shamanism becomes wedded to that other favourite offspring of academia; psychology. In short, it can become too heady.

The Medicine men/woman, shamans and indigenous healers I have met and had the pleasure of sharing ceremony with bear little resemblance to those I have read about. They are usually far too down to earth, with an ironic, wicked sense of humour, and too inquisitive a mind to hold the projection of an all knowing, mythical hero. They also often have too much compassion and kindness in their eyes to appear removed from any human frailty within themselves.
Sharing an all-night ceremony with an elder of the Native American Church, I remember him talking about how sometimes his mind gets the better of him and he can’t see anything right or good in the world, his voice took on a self-deprecating, playful tone as he told us his solution which was simply to say to himself, ‘Ken, go to bed!’ No deep psychological analysis needed here! The same elder, as we prepared to enter a sweat lodge once and everyone fell silent in solemn respect, quipped ‘let’s go play Indian!’ In my experience, such elders have always worn their power very lightly and have a natural honesty and warmth regarding their ‘humanness’.

This seems quite far removed from the fictional wonderings of Don Juan and those that have followed in his stead. I have also spent time with authors, whose real life personality and behaviour differs so much from their authorial voice or workshop persona. It is a little too easy to appear wise in print. Ironic, I know, to be writing such a thing in an article.

However, it appears to me that when modern shamans exist outside of their immediate community, wheeled out primarily for healing, holding teaching or ceremonial space or spreading wisdom through the written or spoken word, there is the potential for creating an imbalance. Traditionally shamans and healers would to be an intricate member of their communities and an active part in the richness of its life in all its shades; good, bad and indifferent. People would respect their role but also know much of their lives intimately; the opportunity then for over idealisation or grandiosity would be much less with a community ready to bring you back down to earth.

The problem I see in the over revering of shamans and shamanic cultures, and the print culture it has spawned, is that in the spiritually starved and unconfident culture that we inhabit, the potential for creating another unattainable illusion, a garden of Eden projected onto the indigenous landscape, is large. On a very real level this can create yet more yearning and pain. I see a lot of people for healings who are at war with themselves because they are unable to attain some spiritual ideal that they have read or learnt about, that actually goes against their nature or instincts. I know this fight well myself.

All this can stop us from truly accessing the richness of our spiritual natures, both the positive and negative sides, which lies somewhere deep in our bones, or more precisely, within our ancestral heritage.

The way to avoid such traps, as I understand it, is to be sure that it is the land itself who we are really listening to regarding our spiritual journeys and the reintroduction of an earth based culture. Books can open us up, and techniques can be learnt, however we must also learn to really listen to the land. It sounds obvious, and yet with the advent of the core ‘shamanic journey’, stripped of cultural trappings, (immensely useful as it has been) we can undertake a lot of ‘shamanic work’ in a kind of disembodied and disconnected state from nature; in the classroom so to speak.

The dangers of an over-intellectual approach to this work that this can spawn, is something we maybe need to be constantly aware of. With the difficulties that we as modern people can find in actually being in our bodies sometimes, it appears to me that the most difficult way for some people to attempt to go into a trance is by lying still. I remember a student of mine used to tell us about an old teacher he had who used to say to his students, hands up those who have had an in body experience!
It is remarkable to notice the difference between people’s experience of the spirits in the sometimes ‘cosy’ world of journeying that can take place in a warm workshop room (even when the journeys are fear provoking) and they’re experiences when they spend a night in the woods alone. I am sure they are meeting the same spirits, for they all arise from the land as I understand it, yet the respect, natural fear and awe of the spirits certainly seems more palpable when people watch them come out at night in their own natural environment! It’s at these times when it’s easy to understand a lot of indigenous cultures ambivalent relationship with the spirits, whereby their love is mixed in with a lot of fear, respect and desire to appease. On the shamanic path it seems important not to over emphasise the positive aspects of indigenous spirituality, as it may cause us to further distance ourselves from our natural instincts.

 in terms of appeasing the spirits, how many times do we undertake a shamanic journey, for the answer to a question about our lives or on behalf of another without taking an offering with us? This seems to me the equivalent of marching into the house of a much loved and respected teacher, demanding to be fed without bringing anything in return, I’m sure we might at least take a bottle of wine! It’s the same with the spirits, our offerings can be either placed on the alter, with specific prayers as to whom they’re being offered to, or taken with us in our hand on the journey. The making and ritual act of offerings is for me an essential, yet often overlooked, part of shamanism.

Another simple practicality is when we are dancing with the spirits, bidding them to enter our bodies and souls, the essence in many ways of shamanism. If we wear a specific feather or piece of fur or bone of the animal spirit we are inviting in, and if that animal or bird spirit is native to the land where we are undertaking the ceremony, the difference in my experience can be remarkable to when undertaking a similar ceremony without these things.
Sometimes the mind can forget these details, that these ‘cultural trappings’ are important and essential. It’s for this reason I feel we need to dig our shamanic roots deep into the earth. Literally. To take what we have learnt from the useful airy collating that academia has gifted us and then ground it, which is what I am sure many teachers are attempting to do. My intention here is to add to the discussion of this, again, to provoke thought on that we are recreating here.

By doing this our connection to and worship of our ancestors naturally returns. For it’s the land we tread on, the land we honour with our ceremonies, rituals, prayers and intentions that literally contains the blood, sweat, tears and bones of our ancestors.

And if it isn’t our native land, it is the land we have come to call home and maybe the ancestors have called us here for a reason. It is their lives, buried in the earth that we walk upon, it is their stories that lie beneath the soil, and in the trees, in the wind; their triumphs, their defeats, their way of living and their way of dying. To widen our concept of ancestors, this also includes all the beings that have lived in our certain corner of the world, be they plant, tree, rock, insect, bird, fish or animal.

All this incredible untapped wisdom, the lessons they have learnt from living on this unique landscape, the spiritual and practical wisdom- both usually entwined and inseparable- that has emerged from the earth waiting for us to listen, to spend time with, to honour and to really open our hearts to and love. To truly become a part of the land we inhabit and allow the land to seep deep into our bones and become a part of us.

What also comes when we open in this way, is an understanding and direct experience of just how much healing (and forgiving) our ancestors need, and how this is affecting every facet of our society at the moment and has been for a long time, especially the experiences of our recent ancestors. This for me is such a necessary and potent part of shamanic healing. A fundamental starting point.

We have borrowed a lot from indigenous cultures, relying on their generosity to reignite our own indigenous souls, to feel that connection to the wild, natural parts of ourselves that too much civilisation has quashed. I feel it is time, to take back our own cultural inheritance, to use what we have learnt from these cultures to wake again the spirit and genius of the land we inhabit, wherever that is, so that it can return to its rightful place at the centre of our universe. Recovering our stories is good, reinventing our ceremonies great, but there can be no substitute for the constant engagement with the land itself, let us leave the classroom behind as much as possible!

It’s when this happens that a voice echoes to me across continents and time and I truly feel and understand the power of those words in the Australian outback from the young Aboriginal man; and it is with pride and a deep confidence for the land and culture I am part of that I realise I have finally heeded his advice. I’ve ‘gone and spoke with my ancestors.’ And their words are good.

PUBLISHED IN SACRED HOOP, ISSUE 74