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The Shamanic Vision: Kinship with All Creation

The Lunar Era Chapter 5

It is a considerable challenge for the modern rational mind to enter into the very different consciousness of the lunar era where people lived in small communities which remained in close relationship with the same area of land for thousands of years.

I am the brother of the forest and must defend it.

David Kopenawa Yanomami, a contemporary Amazon shaman

With the movement of increasing numbers of people to cities where we have become cut off from any physical contact with the land, we have become alienated from the soul of the landscape, the soul of nature. We live in a secular culture and no longer have a myth to connect us with a living Cosmos; we no longer regard the Earth as our Mother. As Mircea Eliade observed, “Desacralization pervades the entire experience of the nonreligious man of modern societies.” This makes it difficult for us to enter into the soul of archaic man in shamanic societies and respond to his fundamental understanding that the life of the cosmos, the life of nature and the life of humanity were one life, permeated and informed by animating spirit.

For many thousands of years before the advent of religion as we know it and even to this day, people in shamanic cultures aligned themselves and their communities with an unseen dimension of reality.

With the rise of the patriarchal religions this sense of containment within a sacred order began to fade, although in Europe, it survived to some extent until the end of the Middle Ages. I believe this loss had its distant roots in an image of God who was defined as a Creator separate and distinct from His creation,

Their lives had meaning and value because they felt they lived within a Sacred Order where spirit, though invisible, was not regarded as something remote from nature. Nature was ensouled with spirit.

who did not hold the world within His being nor was present in every leaf, every creature in this world. It also had its roots in the myth of the Fall of Man (see Chapter Seven) which tells the story of how, as a punishment for disobeying the will of God, we were expelled from the Divine World and exiled to this world of suffering, sin and death.

The ancient shamanic experience of an ensouled nature

Western civilization was profoundly influenced by these beliefs and developed on the foundation of a fundamental dualism, a split between spirit and nature, creator and creation. This split ultimately destroyed the ancient shamanic experience of an ensouled nature and opened the way to its ultimate exploitation. It led to our current worldview which rests on the premise of our separation from and mastery of nature, where nature is subject to the will and perceived needs of our species.

This dimension was never seen as separate from nature, but rather was the invisible ground of nature, variously called the Spirit-world, the Otherworld and sometimes, by the later Greeks, the Immortal Realm.

Yet we carry within our psyche the inheritance of two different kinds of consciousness, two different ways of knowing: a participatory ‘lunar’ way of knowing described in the last chapter and in this one that was mediated through instinctive feeling, acute powers of analogical thinking, a highly developed intuition and shamanic techniques of connection with an unseen dimension of reality.

Secondly, a more recent ‘solar’ way of knowing, developed through the spread of literacy, whose focus was on the development of the intellect or rational mind, eventually leading to our present scientific and technologically-oriented culture, where there is a fundamental disjunction between our human selves and the world of nature. Over the course of thousands of years, the second way of knowing replaced the first although, for many centuries and in different regions of the earth, they overlapped. To understand the primary needs of our own time, we need to know something of these two great meta-narratives, these two different kinds of consciousness, and the circumstances which led to one overlaying, replacing or displacing the other. It may help to view them as representative of different phases in the evolution of consciousness.

A sense of kinship with all creation

The main feature of the shamanic of way of knowing that the English philosopher Owen Barfield called ‘Original Participation’ in his book Saving the Appearances, A Study in Idolatry, was an instinctive feeling of relationship with a living earth and cosmos and a sense of kinship with all creation.  No-one has described this state of consciousness better than Richard Tarnas, in his book, Cosmos and Psyche:

The primal human being perceives the surrounding natural world as permeated with meaning, meaning whose significance is at once human and cosmic. Spirits are seen in the forest, presences are felt in the wind and the ocean, the river, the mountain.

The primal world is ensouled…  It is pregnant with signs and symbols, implications and intentions… A continuity extends from the interior world of the human to the world outside…The human being is a microcosm within the macrocosm of the world, participating in its interior reality and united with the whole in ways that are both tangible and invisible… The human psyche is embedded within a world psyche… Within this relatively undifferentiated state of consciousness, human beings perceive themselves as directly—emotionally, mystically, consequentially—participating in and communicating with the interior life of the natural world and cosmos. To be more precise, this participation mystique involves a complex sense of direct inner participation not only of human beings in the world but also of human beings in the divine powers, through ritual, and of divine powers in the world, by virtue of their immanent and transformative presence.

This primordial participatory consciousness has survived today in indigenous cultures such as those of the Kogi Indians of Colombia, the Mayans, the North American and Amazonian Indians, the people of Outer Mongolia, certain communities in Africa and the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and New Zealand. All of these were and still are shamanic cultures. But it also existed in highly sophisticated ancient civilizations such as those of Egypt, India and China and is discovered in the Corpus Hermeticum of Egypt, in the sublime texts of the Vedas and Upanishads of India, in the Taoist texts of China and in the mystical tradition of Kabbalah, described in Chapter Three.

In all these traditions, there is no dualism; nature is not split off from spirit. The two were regarded, in essence, as one; the phenomenal world was the manifest form and dwelling-place of invisible spirit.

As the Bhagavad Gita quote (V11:19) proclaims:  “All is the divine being”.  The most important insight of these shamanic cultures was that spirit is ubiquitous, present within every aspect of the phenomenal world, and that man does not hold a position of dominance in relation to nature. Shamanic cultures lived within a Sacred Order. We do not recognize the existence of such an Order and that is why the collective soul of humanity has become disconnected from its roots and why our culture has become dysfunctional and is unable to respond to our deepest needs.

The arrogant view on primitive cultures

Why does this matter? Because if we don’t know the ancient mythological influences that have formed our way of thinking, we cannot develop the insight we need to change our beliefs and modify our behaviour nor can we reconnect with a living yet silenced aspect of our psyche that has for too long been denied access to our conscious mind. We cannot become whole.

Because our highly developed science and technology have vastly improved the material conditions of our lives, we have come to view the history of civilization as an ascent from darkness, superstition and ignorance, an ascent to a sunlit upland from a primitive and thankfully outgrown past. This position is no longer tenable in the light of archaeological and anthropological discoveries and the large amount of data that has now been gathered over the past century about shamanic cultures, past and present, in different parts of the world.

Moreover, as Richard Rudgley writes in his comprehensive study of prehistoric culture, Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age, “In the light of the vast body of evidence collected in this book, it is now clear that a fundamental assessment of the prehistoric contribution to civilisation is necessary. Each of the elements of civilisation has been shown to have been highly developed before the rise of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia… Civilisation did not suddenly appear around 5000 years ago.”

We may look back on this remote past with some arrogance, congratulating ourselves on having long outgrown its ‘magical’ approach to life.

We do not realize that our present consciousness has evolved out of the matrix of this ancient and instinctive way of knowing characterized by an awareness of the relationship between all orders of reality, seen and unseen. But with considerable conscious effort, we can recover and integrate this older way of knowing with our rational mind and our current view of reality.