GNOSTIC SHAMANRY: The Gnosis in Shamanism
Clearly, from the outset, we must fully understand that in using terms such as “gnosis” and “shamanism” we are borrowing concepts from very disparate cultures and (more importantly) epochs. Gnosis is a concept derived from Greco/Egyptian/Judaic cultures of approximately 2000 years ago, whereas shamanism (as we generally describe it) grew out of the primal societies of the pre-agrarian stages of human evolution. Any use of these terms, particularly in combination, needs be acknowledged as taking some significant degree of spiritually-poetic license. Indeed, it is only the unashamed throwing wide the doors of spiritual experimentation that is the hallmark of the New Age that allows such temerity.
But, such is where we are; smack in the middle of the New Age where such license is both assumed and demanded as post-modern spiritual seekers strive to find a relevant and resonant evolutionary path in an increasingly fractured and spiritually-barren world of consumerism and petty distraction. In this world, the old formulas and certainties, the time-worn religions and dogmas hold less inspiration, and promise less credible rewards.
What do Gnosticism and Shamanism have in common? What separates them?
I think what both unifies and differentiates the two concepts can be summed up in the word “knowledge”. And more specifically, the subtle nuances contained in the term which the ancient Greeks were well aware of; particularly the concepts of “episteme” and “gnosis”. Episteme represents the knowledge of phenomena as divided, by Aristotle, into practical, productive and theoretical facts, and these latter into mathematical, physical and theological. Coming from the term, “to stand upon”, it is a particularly “left-brain” and abstract process. Gnosis, however, is a term which we can less confidently translate or describe, but can be said to refer to a more direct and experiential experience of reality. One could perhaps say “I know the processes of multiplication and division” (episteme) as opposed to “I know the experience of love” (gnosis). One might also say they can know of the existence of fire by information, witnessing or testimony (episteme) but have gnosis of it by being warmed or burned by its presence.
My understanding and experience of shamanism is that it is a psycho-magical technology which involves a familiarity and interaction with extra-dimensional powers, beings, realms and processes. One particularly important for the modern and urban seeker who is typically quite stunted when it comes to an awareness of their own ability and capacity to engage these worlds, these beings, and their own “primal power”. It engages with these beings, worlds and powers to create effects in this world (and others) in accordance with the will of the shaman.
Nowhere, however, have I seen shamanism expressed as specifically or necessarily a “spiritual” path. There appears little, if any, focus on addressing or directly examining or transforming this will. I must be careful here, though, to not convey the impression that shamanism cannot be a spiritual path, merely that it is not necessarily or inherently one. It can indeed be observed that the otherworldly beings one meets in the shamanic journey may well be “spiritual teachers” that guide the shaman into particularly spiritual avenues of inner growth – but again, it needs to be pointed out that they may not and need not do so. Such a path is not necessary or inherent in the shamanic way.
Shamanism is, as I describe it here, a practice and technology. It provides a mechanism via which the individual impacts the world, and learns from it. It is an avenue via which the ego interacts with the cosmos and worlds around it.
We cannot proceed much further on this train of thought without addressing the problem of the word “spiritual” itself. The word is one that is generally over-used and more often than not misapplied. The word is bandied about when other words are typically more appropriate in the circumstances.
We often hear it said, for instance, that people are spiritual because they go to church on Sundays. In reality, the term better applied might be religious. People are often said to be spiritual because they can see auras or communicate with otherworldly beings, when they would be better described as being psychic. Or when someone does good and performs charitable acts they are often described as spiritual when being moral would be more precise.
In short, one may well regularly attend religious services, speak blissfully with angels , and volunteer daily at the local soup kitchen and help the poor and oppressed, without any of those things necessarily reflecting any degree of spiritual attainment whatsoever. Though these things may well be powers, traits and behaviours indicating some spiritual maturity, there is no necessary association in these things with spirituality itself.
Spirituality is not behaviour itself, nor is it access to occult information, nor is it psychic or magical power, nor is it morality or virtuous action. It is, rather, the evolution of soul and the transformation of ego into a larger essence, and a greater context. Some traditions describe this transformation of ego as the eradication of ego but in effect, they are much the same. Both perspectives speak of the evolution from small self to Greater Self, or ego-consciousness to super-consciousness, in whatever terms their traditions allow.
Gnosticism engages this journey of spiritual growth and it typically reflects a different relationship of “self” and “other” than does shamanism. The gnostic aim is the experience of “other”, directly. It is “knowledge” based on union with, or merging with, or experience of, this “other” in order to fundamentally transform the self and ego. It is about gnosis with “the other” as opposed to mere episteme of “the other.” These divisions between gnosticism and shamanism are certainly not absolute, and nor are they necessarily hierarchical. The shaman, for instance, regularly and typically merges with his or her “power animal,” “totem beast,” or “familiar.” It can accurately be said that this knowledge gained of the nature of the power animal is one of gnosis. But it can also be said that this merging is not one designed to be primarily related to spiritual growth or existential transformation; rather, it represents a technology designed to share power between power source and shaman.
My investigations into the relationship between Gnosticism and Shamanism are the result of my shamanic practice leaving me asking “what next?” Or sometimes, “so what?” Yes, I have made wonderful connections with totem beasts, I have gained otherworldly knowledge, I have experienced great bliss and warmth, and I may have been able to use my shamanic capacities to create demonstrable effects in my world. But … “so what?” In short, is this all there is?
This question, I believe, is also the one which has inspired the evolution of religious thought throughout human history. When healing the sicknesses in one’s family or clan, or assisting the tribe hunt or fight, or to alter the weather to ensure a better season for hunting and gathering, or in divining vital information for the community, there was little need for spiritual growth. There was, however, a pressing need for psychic and magical power in order to influence events in this “middle earth.”
The question of “Who am I?”, or “What is this Cosmos and what am I in relation to it?”, in short, the arising of the existential riddles, required a more abstract conceptualization of “great ideas” such as God and how each individual related to this Great Spirit. Such has clearly enough never been the focus of classical shamanism.
It has been said, “to know God is to be God.” This is the spirit of Gnosticism; the direct experience of the Great Spirit, the Divine, and the recognition of one’s place in that Pleroma, or “Fullness”. It represents the “what next?” or “so what?” of shamanic experience.
What Shamanism and Gnosticism have in common is a heavy insistence on direct experience of the otherworldly condition; be it directly journeying to the realms of “non-ordinary reality” and shaping reality in that journey, or in the direct experience of a greater reality. It is about the primacy of experiential knowing; either by direct learning (episteme) or direct experience of being (gnosis) without the requirement of belief, faith, ideology or tribal loyalty or religious orthodoxy.
My sense of “Gnostic Shamanry” is based on the premise that these traditions share (at least in some schools of Gnosticism); that the universe is essentially animistic. That a spirit lies in each being, that each being is part of a vibrating spiritual matrix whose primary identity is an energetic unity. It is panentheistic, in that it sees All That Is in every aspect of its myriad component parts, but is also beyond them. It says “God is all that is, and more!”
Gnostic Shamanry uses the practices and principles of shamanism as a path to arrive at the gates of the Great Spirit, which is the experience of Divine Gnosis. Gnostic Shamanry is the intent to marshall the psycho-magical technology of shamanism to pursue, specifically, the spiritual attainment of this Divine Gnosis. In short, it pursues the aims of the Gnostic with the methods of the Shaman.