The Reawakening of Shamanism in the West1
By Bill Brunton
© Shamanism, Fall/Winter 2003, Vol. 16, No. 2

Page 2 (continued)

Townsend4 is more to the point in specifically addressing neo-shamanism as a part of America’s “modern mystical movement.” She sees it as a specific direction among many that have recently emerged, specifically in the decades following the 1950s. She contends, echoing a point made by Harner,5 that shamanism has often existed alongside other spiritual traditions and that this is no less true for the West. The importance of this observation is that it shows that shamanism can fit naturally alongside other spiritual and/or religious traditions, emergent or traditional, not necessarily competing with them, but operating as an adjunct system. This, of course, does not mean that shamanism and other, specifically religious, systems always coexist without conflict. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism can, and have been, hostile to shamanism, depending on the sect, time, and place of contact between these systems.

While specifically considering the reawakening of shamanism, Townsend includes in her focus other examples of “New Age” spiritualism, seeing in them certain shamanic elements that show (in hindsight) a consistency of American interest in shamanic practices. As part of this general spiritual quest by Americans, shamanism seems to Townsend6 to be immediately rooted in the sociocultural unrest of the 1960s, a point also emphasized by Noel.7

More specifically, a significant catalyst is seen by both writers to have been the work of Carlos Castaneda,8 particularly his first book resulting from his doctoral dissertation. Although Castaneda’s work is controversial in scholarly circles,9 his impact on students and other young people of the 1970s who were seeking alternatives to institutional and vicarious spiritual approaches and who accepted his work less critically, was profound. Asking who, in an introductory class of anthropology students, was familiar with Castaneda and his work during the 1970s and 1980s always resulted in a large number of raised hands. During the years immediately following Castaneda’s first volumes, there were rumored to have been many young Americans searching the Sonoran Desert of Mexico for Don Juan and other teachers of native North American mysticism.

While we see shamanic overtones in Castaneda’s work, it is important to note that he described his Sonoran mentors as “men of knowledge” and as “sorcerers” in his catalytic early volumes. This pluralism of terminology may reflect or even derive from the Western penchant to loosely apply labels to spiritual practitioners with great imprecision. It is important, too, to note that Castaneda’s first book resonated with seekers after spiritual knowledge and experience who sought this knowledge and experience in psychoactive substances, and who were on a quest for direct, personal, and profound spiritual teaching.

Perhaps the most significant event in terms of this present consideration of the emergence and context of neo-shamanism in the West is the 1980 publication by Michael Harner of his landmark manual of shamanic methodology, The Way of the Shaman. In it he precisely articulated a synthesis of shamanic methodology he termed core shamanism, a distillation of common themes of shamanic practice having global or near-global distribution, illuminated by his own ethnographic experience in South America among the Conibo and Shuar (Jívaro). This core of shamanic methodology was presented by Harner as the bare essentials of shamanic practice, stripped of traditional, regional, and cultural specifics. This volume, experiential workshops in core shamanism, and the creation of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies by Harner, have significantly affected the growth of shamanism in the West, as well as having repercussions worldwide.

In an unpublished manuscript, Conton,10 expanding on recent work by Townsend,11 applies the latter’s finer distinction concerning emergent Western shamanism: that between neo-shamanism and core shamanism. The former is described as a “hodgepodge collage of shamanistic and non-shamanic spiritual forms,” and the latter as a “conservative” approach involving a “strict shamanic discipline”.12 It is within the neo-shamanic approach of Americans that appropriation of shamanic heritage from Native Americans and others is done, mixing what it has borrowed. In this regard it is consistent with other New Age spiritualism.13

We thus see an America of the post-1950s that is ripe for shamanic and other spiritual change, a culture already rich in such innovation. It is to a description and interpretation of the resulting Western shamanism that I now turn.

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