Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Gloria Orenstein on Shamanism

Shaman (1993)

For years I've been wanting to share this article by one of the most eloquent Eco-feminist writers I know, Gloria Femen Orenstein.  The article is  extracted from Toward an Ecofeminist Ethic of Shamanism and the Sacred .

I heard Dr. Orenstein speak in 1989 at the Symposium for Art and the Invisible Reality, produced by Dr. Rafael Montanez Ortiz, at Rutgers University.   She was accompanied by her teacher, and friend, Ellen Maret Gaup-Dungeld who was a traditional Sami shaman.  I remember well how powerfully Ellen Maret cleared and raised the energy of the auditorium she spoke in by 'singing the yoik'.  More information about Gloria Feman Orenstein is available at the bottom of this post.
Toward an Eco feminist Ethic of Shamanism and the Sacred .

The shamanic worldview considers all of creation to be both spiritual and sacred. This dimension is as sacred as the spirit world. Thus, what happens to us while alive and awake, although interconnected with what is taking place in the spirit world, is also of great importance shamanically, and, of course, is also sacred.

Through the spiritual journey Shamans pick up vital information from other realms, in much the same way that we get our news from abroad via satellite and TV. By the same token, one could not characterize the human experience by the "core" activity of tuning into the news from abroad, even though this is a necessary part of our daily lives. Naturally, when Shamans work in the here and now, they are calling upon forces that reconfigure our ordinary concepts of space an time. Whatever their powers for certain kinds of work, they are not necessarily journeying out of the body, but they are expanding our concept of what a body is and relating to the body as an energy field composed both of spirit and matter.

Once again, from my own experience in Samiland, I know that I was always waiting to meet my "power animal," and my Shaman teacher was always taking me to the real reindeer, the real birds, the real mosquitoes. It wasn't until she communicated with birds, brought them to us, talked with them, and sent them away, or until she "psyched out" the problem of a lost reindeer, that I began to understand how the neo-shamanic narrative from contemporary workshops had actually blinded me to the fact that real animals are also spirit and power, and, at least to my Shaman teacher, they were every bit as important, or even more so, than her owl spirit guide who had appeared to her in childhood.

Sometimes I used to feel that I had a more "shamanic" perspective than she did, because I was always coming up with sophisticated symbolic interpretations of dreams and I was always looking for "power animals," while she seemed to be more interested in the real animals and she understood the figures in dreams to represent the spirits of real people. The truth is that she made less of a distinction than we do between real and spirit people or animals. To her, all was real, all was spirit, and all was sacred, simultaneously. There was no contradiction in that.


Through our education in the scientific worldview of the Enlightenment, we have become alienated from the earth and have forgotten that the earth is also a heavenly body. We have ceased to take into consideration the powers of the forces and the knowledge of the cycles that govern our lives. We hardly ever give a second thought to gravity, for example, without which we would all be floating off into space, and we certainly never think about the real magnetic force of the North and South poles. We also take for granted the amount of light and dark we experience each day. But what if an that were to change? What if we were suddenly plunged into a world in which the sun never set or never rose? What if we were to go to live at the magnetic North Pole? 

Then we would begin to experience syndromes similar to jet lag, and we would take seriously the implications of the revolutions of the earth on its axis around the sun. In Samiland during most of the fall and winter, the sun sets very early in the morning. During the summer, the sun doesn't set until well after midnight. The rituals women have begun to perform in the feminist spirituality (Goddess) movement have begun to put us back in touch with an awareness of the solstices, the equinoxes, and the lunar cycles. But how does this all relate to ecofeminist ethics and to Shamanism? Because of our geo-cosmic ignorance and amnesia, we fail to take into consideration the fact that certain powers can only be obtained and put into practice in certain places on the earth and at certain times during the year or during the larger cosmic cycles.

 It is interesting that when it comes to sacred herbs, we recognize that they grow in certain places and that people who cannot obtain certain herbs cannot experience their effects. However, herbs are portable, and this suits our purposes, for we can transport the products of the Amazon jungle to California via plane. However, we can never transport the magnetism of the North Pole to California. Nor can we manifest the effects of the Arctic midnight sun in Los Angeles. 

When I travelled to Samiland, I became aware of the effect that the magnetic North Pole was having upon me. It was causing me to enter a deep trance state when I slept, and it was when I was in such a deep trance that I was able to hear the voices of the ancestral spirits. As I ate Sami food, I noticed that my hair and skin began to take on other characteristics. This might have been due to the purity of the air, the water, and the food, as well as to the intensity of the earth's magnetic field in which the food was grown. We have noted that people are sensitive to light deprivation and that they become depressed when they do not receive enough light. Have we thought about what an overabundance of light might do to a person or how light might affect one's consciousness? In Samiland in the summer, when the sun sets well after midnight, sometimes as late as 3:00 Am., one enters altered states, highs, and expansive states of consciousness.

Westerners always want to bring Shamans to the United States, put them on American TV talk shows, and have them perform miracles on our turf to prove their powers. When a Shaman from Samiland insists that you must travel to the North Pole in order to study Sami Shamanism, an American may tend to balk and dismiss the Shaman as a phoney. I brought my Shaman teacher to the United States to participate in a number of conferences (such as Ecofeminist Perspectives: Culture, Nature, Theory-held at U.S.C. in the Spring of 1987), but she always insisted that my real training would not take place in the United States, but in Samiland.

She was right, because my progress was intensified as soon as I came into the magnetic field of the North Pole. The results of culture shock and jet lag, when combined with the magnetism of the North Pole and the surplus of light in summer, catapulted me immediately into a shamanic state that was intensified by the presence of two powerful Shamans. It is important for us to honor the geo-cosmic realities of shamanic cultures and to realize that certain things cannot be transported elsewhere.

One of the main features of summer in Samiland is that suddenly the marshes become swamped with mosquitoes. The Sami love their mosquitos, because they realize that "the white man" cannot stand them, and so the mosquitoes have, in some sense, kept their land from being taken by outsiders. Most people cannot bear to live with those mosquitoes. As I mentioned before, Sami Shamans communicate with their mosquitoes, and they understand that they can be messengers, guides, and protectors.

 Ultimately, as we come to respect the geo-cosmic specificities of particular cultures and as we realize that there are things that cannot be bought, sold, commercialized, and commodified, such as magnetic fields and sunsets, (whereas people have already commercialized sacred waters and herbs), we must develop an ethics and a politics that will protect the earth and the cultures that reside not only in "places of power" or in places where we can obtain special products, but everywhere on our planet, for we must remember that the specificity of each location has its own potency. In this way, by raising our consciousness about the geo-cosmic specificities of gravity, light, magnetism, solstices, equinoxes, lunar cycles, indigenous plants, animals, climate, and so forth, we may come to value the variety of diverse cultures and regions whose multiple knowledges all serve to enhance life everywhere on our planet in an astonishing number of ways. Most of these geo-cosmic teachings can only be acquired in the particular region in which they originated.

Finally, if we are to awaken our own shamanic abilities, perhaps lost in the mist of time for some but founded in the traditions of the Early European Tribes for others, then we must attune ourselves to precisely those same forces as they manifest in our own bio-regions. In some cases this may require us to learn about our region from the indigenous tribes in our area; in other cases we must set about discovering the power of the places in which we live on our own. This is our challenge, if we want to save the earth. We must not run away to other "exotic' cultures, but we must begin by exploring our own backyards.


By universalizing and essentializing a "core" concept of Shamanism, we tend to ignore the practical and political use to which shamanic powers can also be put. When Ellen Maret Gaup-Dungeld led a contingent of women from the reindeer ranches of Samiland to stage a sit-in in the Norwegian parliament in order to protest the hydroelectric power plant that the Norwegians were planning to erect over the Alta-Kautokeino River on the day that Prime Minister Gro Bruntland stepped into office, she used visions to create her political itinerary. 

When the new prime minister did not return to hear the Sami women (after twenty-four hours, as she had promised), Ellen Maret asked the women present to relate their dreams. Some had dreamed of flying to Rome, so she requested an audience with the Pope at the Vatican (in order to obtain publicity for their cause); another dreamed of flying over large cities, so she planned a strategic visit to the United Nations in New York. Ellen Maret did not make the kind of separation that we, in the West, would make between those dream-inspired journeys to Rome and New York and other dream-inspired journeys to the spirit world. Nor did she consider the dream to be an inferior means of establishing a political itinerary. Being a political leader was being a spiritual leader, and vice versa.

Because Shamans from indigenous peoples do not separate spirit from matter and do not privilege a "core" shamanic experience over a this-worldly journey
, knowing that both are sacred, both are real, and both are spiritual, focusing exclusively on lower, middle, and upper world shamanic cosmology in our courses excludes the important political function that shamanic vision often serves. Furthermore, she took the visions of women to be as relevant as those of a Shaman. She did not establish a hierarchy among women as visionaries. These women from the reindeer ranches were considered to be the very people whose dreams (spirit-world contacts) would help the Sami to save their land and protect the earth. Here is ecofeminism in action.


In conclusion, I would Like to suggest that we begin to take the shamanic means of obtaining knowledge seriously in our culture. First we must begin to return the various shamanic practices to their specific cultures. We must not be reductive, but must see the complexities posed by the diversity of shamanic practices around the world. This will be enriching to our understanding of what Shamanism is, in the long run. Then we must set about creating a shamanic practice that is indigenous to our part of the world and our culture. However, we must revise many of our own cultural assumptions from an ecofeminist perspective. 

White Westerners must cease to project their white Western fantasies of the exotic, the glamorous, and the romantic onto other cultures. We must always assume diversity, and not make assumptions about being the same all over the world just because some aspects of them may appear similar to us. We must also resist thinking in a dualistic manner. We must remember that in Shamanism, spirit resides in matter, and all that exists is sacred. We must also resist thinking in hierarchies, privileging the spirit world and its entities over the material world and its inhabitants. Nor must we engage in elitist assumptions about whose visions have the most wisdom. We must respect the folk of every culture, remembering that their experience contains wisdom, and we must seek out women teachers whenever possible, for they have generally been the guardians of earth wisdom (because of women's socially constructed roles, and not because of any inherent or "essential" characteristics).

We must also learn the folklore of the cultures we visit and remember that what we consider to be "lore" and "legend" may have actually taken place in that culture and that these stories often contain real lessons for us that we would do well to heed. We must remember to seek spiritual protection, and we must become aware of the risks involved in shamanic practices, as well as the dangers incurred when working with people of power. They are also very human, and like non-Shamans, they may be tempted to abuse their power. 

Above all, we must cease to trivialize the spirit world. We must begin to take seriously the reality of spirit-especially those of us who engage in spirituality rituals. We should practice these rituals believing that the rituals we engage in are real events that do communicate with the spirit world. As we are taught in anthropology and folklore courses, we must not exploit the sacred ways or appropriate the sacred objects of other people-especially not for commercial purposes. 

One of the first things I was taught was that you must replace everything you take. Rather than stripping a foreign culture of its material and spiritual possessions, we should begin to contribute to its survival. We must begin to set standards for the practice of Shamanism, in order to protect the population from charlatans and new age dilettantes who know nothing about the spirit world and less about human consciousness and psychology. A new age neo-Shaman might easily jettison an ardent Shaman student into a state of severe mental or physical injury, simply due to the kind of ignorance, arrogance, and lack of responsibility that typifies much of the dabbling that takes place in this movement. We must remember that Shamanism is just as serious as surgery. Would we like to have our brains operated on by someone who had not been trained in medical school?

From the eco-feminist perspective on ethics, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is the misogyny and dualism at the root of white Western civilization that have caused the exploitation of both women and nature. On the other hand, we must not guilt-trip ourselves to the point of endangering our lives. Somehow we must come up with a balance in which we honor both non-Western cultures and ourselves for all that is beneficent, while constantly maintaining a critical position toward all forms of abuse of power.

If we take the lessons of Shamanism seriously, and  revise our cosmology in time, if we practice eco-feminist ethics while honoring both the material and the spiritual realms, then, I believe, there is real hope for us to heal the earth, our homeland.


Gloria Feman Orenstein is Professor in Comparative literature and the Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society at the University of Southern California. She is the author of The Theater of the Marvellous. Surrealism and the Contemporary Stage, The Reflowering of the Goddess and co-editor of Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism.   I  highly recommend her book The Reflowering of the Goddess, (1990), published by Pergamon Press, New York. (ISBN 0-08-035178-6).
For more information:   Gloria Feman Orenstein


Valerianna said...

Wow, great post, Lauren.. and very timely for me, thanks!

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Fantastic post. Politicians should be studying shamanism, especially the republicans.