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. – Michael Harner

I read Michael Harner’s “Way of the Shaman” a long time ago. Long enough ago that there are people I know of who read this blog who weren’t born yet when I first read it. I liked it at the time. I thought it was neat. I instantly identified with the idea that taking journeys into “non-ordinary reality,” to use Harner’s term, was a cross-cultural universal human practice. It was nice to get a label for something I pretty much did anyway. The details of his practice – drumming and power animals and soul retrieval and all that – didn’t do so much for me and didn’t have a whole lot to do with anything I was up to, but I liked the idea of a cultureless practice. It seemed like a handy way to have the experiences without having to engage with the various inaccessible ethnic groups associated with them. As I said, this was a long time ago and I was very young. Young enough that I could uncritically accept the idea of a cultureless anything. After reading the book and playing around with the techniques, I let it drop and moved on to more interesting things.

Lately I’ve been looking around at American shamanic practitioners in order to try to learn more about experiences I’ve been having, and of course any such research leads to all kinds of CS encounters. I am seeing now the utter absurdity of it.

Here’s the absurd: the idea that it is “culture-free.” Harner has distilled practices from various parts of the world and, the claim is, stripped them down to their vital essence, decontextualized them from their cultural roots, and made something universal that anyone from any background can work with. More than that, CS practitioners are encouraged to use this as a framework to drape whatever embellishments they like back on to the practice – adding some knotwork to make “Celtic shamanism” or pentacles for “Shamanic witchcraft” and such. And so there are all these folks out there doing this practice with a cosmetic embellishment of whatever they’ve chosen to paint it with – but because it comes from Harner, who claims that his cultureless practices are also ancient and universal, you get people saying that they are actually recreating the shamanic practices of their ancestors by slapping some symbols on it.

This is such a very modern American thing to do that all I can do is laugh. It is so very not “culture-free” – it is so typical to our culture that it’s almost a parody. “Core shamanism” is a practice tailor-made for American consumerist society. Faux-antique, customizable to individual tastes, safety-tested, and commodified.

This probably sounds kind of brutal and maybe that’s not fair. I don’t mean to judge the individual practitioners – I am a big fan of “whatever works” and this seems to work, for some value of that word, for a lot of people. If CS is your thing, this isn’t meant to run down your practice. I am also sure that this is not an original criticism – it’s too obvious for that.

An even bigger issue for me, though, is that CS is pitched as being “safe.” It’s fun! It’s safe! It’s easy! You’ll learn about yourself and it won’t hurt a bit! Anyone can do it! I do not think I want a safe spiritual practice. I don’t think it should be comfortable or safe or easy. I also think it has to be contextualized – there is no culture-free spirit world. I think such a concept is attractive as it implies a sort of Edenic union of consciousness – a primal state where we were all one people. It’s one of the hidden tasks of anthropology to uncover that proto-human existence, but I don’t think it exists. Maybe once it did, but it’s long gone. The urge to simplify, to cut away what is seen as extraneous or accreted to reach some simple essence is essentially destructive – the accretions are part of the whole.

Working with the Underworld, the faeries, the plant spirits, the gods, the guides – this is my practice and it’s complicated. It’s a web of relationships and relationships, as any adult knows, are really hard. They aren’t always safe or easy or fun. I don’t understand large parts of it, and that’s OK. There is certainly a cultural and ancestral context there, I don’t always understand what it is, and that’s OK too.  It’s OK that it’s difficult and complex and that sometimes it hurts. It’s OK that I don’t get to build it myself and others were here before me. And it’s OK that they left something of themselves behind.