Science, Spirits, and Core Shamanism
By Michael Harner
© Shamanism, Spring/Summer 1999, Vol. 12, No. 1

An earlier version of this article was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, December 4, 1998, in Philadelphia.

More about shamanism and science can be found in Michael Harner's book Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality (2013).

Shamans have long acted on the principle that humans are part of the totality of nature, related to all other biological forms, and not superior to them. This "pagan" principle was one of the many reasons that European shamans were persecuted by the Inquisition and that indigenous shamans elsewhere were likewise condemned by Western missionaries who considered such a view as contrary to the Biblical account of the origin of man and woman. Indeed, it was not really until Darwin's The Origin of Species1 and The Descent of Man2 that Westerners began, often reluctantly, to return to a general recognition of humankind's kinship to all other life forms. In other words, the West, through science, finally adopted a position for which it had long persecuted and ridiculed shamans.

Another basic implicit principle in shamanism is that there are two realities and that the perception of each depends upon one's state of consciousness. Therefore, those in the "ordinary state of consciousness" (OSC) perceive only "ordinary reality" (OR). Those in the "shamanic state of consciousness" (SSC) are able to enter into and perceive "nonordinary reality" (NOR). These are both called realities because each is empirically encountered. Each is recognized to have its own forms of knowledge and relevance to human existence.3

NOR is not a consensual reality, and indeed if it were, shamanic practitioners would have no function, for it is their responsibility to alter their state of consciousness and perceive successfully what others do not. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the shamanic practitioner is the ability to move back and forth at will between these realities with discipline and purpose in order to heal and help others.

A corollary principle is that the individual forms encountered in nonordinary reality are themselves real. These are called "spirits," and are considered real by shamanic practitioners because they interact with them first-hand. This interaction involves direct perception with all the senses. In other words, for the shamanic practitioner, the existence of spirits is not a belief or hypothesis, but an empirical fact (see also Turner4). In NOR, shamanic practitioners routinely see, touch, smell, and hear spirits; for they find them as real as fellow humans they interact with in OR. As they work, individual practitioners discover which of the encountered entities are personal helping, or tutelary spirits, which often provide miraculous help in healing and divination.

Another characteristic shamanic principle is that living members of all species, including humans, have souls, or lifelong personal spirits. I am defining the soul as the spiritual essence of the individual required for that individual to be alive. Thus it is present from conception or birth until death, although the degree to which it is present may vary. Upon death, the soul continues to exist, as it did before birth, but the length of time it does so as an identifiable entity varies. For shamanic practitioners, souls are identifiable entities because they encounter them directly in nonordinary reality, as they do other spirits.

I was trained by shamans in two different Upper Amazonian Indian tribes and also engaged in extensive research on shamanism worldwide in order to discover its underlying cross-cultural principles and practices. These fundamentals I named "core shamanism."

The shamanic position regarding the reality of spirits has long been unacceptable in Western science. Although one spirit, God, may be occasionally invoked, as Einstein often did, "spirits" or "souls" are otherwise anathema and not acceptable as part of the paradigm. This attitude has its historical origins in the attacks by the Church on such pioneering scientists as Galileo and Copernicus during the Renaissance and Reformation. In reaction, during the "Age of Enlightenment" Western science and medicine decreed that souls and spirits did not exist and were therefore not relevant to scientific study and medical practice. While this position is quite understandable historically, its perpetuation today limits the parameters of science by decreeing a priori that certain phenomena cannot have existence.

The result of this unfortunate situation is that advancement in Western knowledge is being limited by a truncated science whose Achilles heel is that it is partly founded upon an unproven belief: the belief that spirits, including souls, cannot exist. In actual fact, of course, science has never disproven the theory of the existence of spirits. And disproof of theory, or falsification, is a cornerstone of scientific method (cf. Popper 5). As long as the theory of the existence of spirits is not falsified, it cannot logically be ignored by science. In other words, the position of science on this matter is quite unscientific and, ironically, a matter of faith.

By default, experimental research on the existence and properties of spirits has been largely left to shamans. Over many millennia in thousands of different cultures, independently on five different continents, they conducted countless healing experiments with their clients, often in life and death situations, with results that have consistently supported the theory of the reality of spirits. For this reason, the fundamentals of indigenous shamanic practice are remarkably consistent throughout the world.

My own personal first-hand study of spirits began in 1961. Then, and subsequently in 1964 and 1973, I was trained by shamans in two different Upper Amazonian Indian tribes and also engaged in extensive research on shamanism worldwide in order to discover its underlying cross-cultural principles and practices. These fundamentals I named "core shamanism."

In addition to my own practice of shamanism and shamanic healing, in the early 1970s I began teaching other Westerners core shamanism for practical application in their lives and the lives of others. During approximately the last decade, I have been assisted in this educational endeavor by colleagues of the International Faculty of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, a nonprofit organization founded to study, restore, and teach shamanism and shamanic healing worldwide.

The teaching and use of the basic principles and practices of core shamanism have encouraged a rapid revival of shamanic healing practices in the West and elsewhere. By not imitating any specific cultural tradition, but rather by training in underlying cross-cultural principles, core shamanism is especially suited for utilization by Westerners who desire a relatively culture-free system that they can adopt and integrate into their contemporary lives. Today core shamanism is the dominant mode of practice of shamanism in most of the West.

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