The Reluctant Shaman Returns
By Robert Amacker
How reluctant can I be, returning? Less and less, it turns out. I seem to be living out the realization of an old joke, where the punch line is something like “It seems to work whether I believe in it or not.” At any rate, reluctance seems something of a normal precondition for shamans; at least this is my impression after talking with them on the level of friends. Besides being reluctant, they can also be lazy, crazy, or drunken. None of these things disqualifies them from being shamans, but only presents certain occupational difficulties.
After returning from my first visit to Tuva (The Reluctant Shaman), in which I was more or less drafted into the faith healing business by I-Churek, duly appointed head of the Tos-Deer society (Officially: The Russian Federation Central Religious Organization of Tuvan Shamans), with the apparent enthusiastic collusion of Mongush Kenin-Lopsan, founder and Honorable President of Dungur Society, I paid a visit to Natalia Udovichenko, the famous (in spite of her most sincere efforts not to be) Moscow psychic. It is of possible interest at this point to mention my attitude towards the whole “psychic, occult,” or in America “New Age” phenomenon. I have always seemed to have a penchant for the esoteric and the abstract, but if people are involved (as they were not, for example, when I studied mathematics at NYU), they quickly begin to take precedence over other factors. When a young musician, I was completely devoted to jazz. This was not motivated principally by the absolute nature of the music, though jazz can certainly claim a highly sophisticated structure, but by the fact that the best musicians were playing it. The truth is that the “New Age” movement in America is so sanitized and candy coated that it attracts a large number of extremely boring people. I-Churek remarked to me once that lots of people in America smile too much, and that such people are considered in Tuva to be demented. By contrast, some of the most powerful and fascinating minds that I have encountered in Russia deal with the psychic reality of life in so natural a way that few Americans could conceive it.
I had already met a few of these people the first time I saw Natalia, but even so, I felt more than ridiculous going to see a professional psychic. She did, however, have all the marks of the real thing. Although she kept a low profile and did no advertising, appointments to see her had to be booked months in advance. There were gum chewing teen-age receptionists listening to heavy metal music to take our money, five hundred rubles (about eighteen dollars, a large sum of money for the average Russian, even those living in Moscow). I later learned that the building was owned by a school for hypnosis, from which Natalia rented space.
Natalia herself looked like a saleslady for Mary-K Cosmetics. She sat in a bare office and nervously fingered an amber rosary as she stared at me with the most absolutely impersonal expression that I have ever seen on anyone’s face. I was grinning and not taking the whole thing seriously at all. Ten minutes later I was in a state of stunned disbelief as Natalia proceeded to lay out my past in a nonstop monologue. The Amazing Randy says that psychics generally work by asking lots of leading questions and prompting the client for clues. Natalia doesn’t even let you talk, generally, but just overwhelms you with information. If you try to trip her up by claiming a mistake on her part, she just looks at you and says: “nyet.”
The fascinating thing about many people who are involved in the occult world in Asia is that it is not necessary to make some sort of conversion to the flying saucer set to realize that they are clearly extremely aware, intelligent, and energetic people, and whatever they are doing, they are certainly doing something. Natalia was most definitely doing something, and if it was trickery, then it was fun being tricked so instructively. Since that first meeting we had become friends, and she was extremely pleased by the changes in me since my trip to Tuva.
“You have been frequently in trance state, yes?” I had hardly said hello.
“Yes, I guess so,” I answered, remembering my long days of constant dream like activity healing Tuvan patients at the Museum in Kyzyl.
“This is good,” she said, smiling.
We talked a little about my Tuvan experiences, and I realized that a question had been nagging me.
“In these trance like states, I frequently have extremely ordinary thoughts, yet they do not seem to interfere with what I’m doing. Is this right?”
“Yes,” answered Natalia, beaming. “This tells me you are doing the right thing. The fact that you reveal it shows that your heart is pure.”
“I don’t know if my heart is pure or not. You’ve got to understand, I’m an American. I was raised being taught not to take this stuff seriously. Even Americans who think they take it seriously really don’t, not the way I’m expected to now. I feel completely unsure about all of this. I’m extremely worried that I might be doing the most foolish thing I’ve ever done.”
“If you didn’t feel that way,” answered Natalia, “you’d be an idiot. You are learning to use your intuition. Intuition is always unconfirmed by intellectual analysis, the kind you’re used to making. Relax. They have told you that you are shaman. Believe it.”
“But Natalia,” I protested, “I’m making it up as I go along!”
“We all are. Some of us are just better at it than others.”
By November, I was ready to go back and make up some more. Certainly some sort of change had taken place in me that fell far short of reluctance. Normally I am the world’s worst packer, waiting until the last minute. Returning to Moscow from the US in early October, I soon found myself completely packed and ready to leave for Tuva a full month ahead of schedule. Where before I had jokingly called myself the New Age George Plimpton, I started now to feel like a Tuvan T. Lobsang Rampa. I stayed up nights picking exactly the right clothes, until I began to look something like a cross between an American Indian and Superman’s dad, Jor-el. I may be on the cutting edge of twenty-first century male chic, but this is yet to be determined.
My bag of shamanic objects for ritual and healing, before casually regarded, a hodge-podge of gifts and long treasured desiderata, became suddenly extremely important. Each one was now examined with new eyes, with a strange kind of critical force. I was seized with an instinct to dignify these objects by some sort of decoration, something that I quickly realized brought a focus of attention strongly to each one and created, by the ritual of making what I later learned were called eerin, a permanent mechanism of invocation. I consulted Maria Volchenko for instruction in primitive sewing and braid making, things about which I had never the slightest interest. I put in long hours painstakingly working over every object in my kit, searching for appropriate bags of all sizes, attaching now great importance to things that I could have lost without noticing a few weeks before. I scoured the house for scraps of leather and cloth, old buttons, broken toys. All the things which disappear because everyone forgets their existence, I was now searching for and collecting like a subway tramp.
And I was happy. Strangely, weirdly happy. I have always hated tedious chores, complicated, intricate physical tasks where one slip can spoil a night’s work. But this was exactly that, and I was completely content. I did everything by instinct, measuring nothing, making no plans, working slowly, relaxed, but moving from one job to the next without so much as a pause for breath. And everything came out perfect. I didn’t have the slightest idea what most of these bizarrely beautiful objects were for, but I did know one thing: they were perfect.
By the time I landed in Kyzyl in mid-November, I had realized that in spite of whatever intellectual reluctance I might have entertained, something in me was definitely ready to go on shamanizing. I had with me now two bubens, my tunable, concert model that I had used before, and a new one made especially for me by the same builder, Akbar Magadan. This new buben was not tunable, and was covered with hair. I intended to use it entirely for shamanic ritual and retire my other drum from the healing business. Packed inside its single skinhead structure was almost the entirety of my newly worked shaman kit. Packing the buben is, as far as my limited experience shows, an almost universal practice among Siberian shamans, and all bubens must do double duty as small one-sided suitcases.
It was early morning when we arrived at the airport, and this time there were no TV crews to meet me, just I-Churek, her husband Huliarol, and Vera Sazhina, who was taking the same plane back to Moscow after two weeks in Tuva herself. Masha and I were taken to a Soviet-era apartment house on the edge of Kyzyl, where we had rented rooms for our stay. I-Churek told us that our work at the Tos-Deer clinic would begin the next morning, and that someone would be by to show us how to take the bus and get there on our own in the future. I was looking forward to a few hours of rest and goofing off after traveling, but even this evening was planned. There would be a car picking us up at five to bring us to Tos-Deer, where some sort of big event was scheduled. Another lamb would be slaughtered, and I should bring my drum.
We dutifully arrived that evening to find what appeared to me to be a group of exotically dressed American Indians (about twenty) sitting in the clinic’s kitchen, prepared to eat, drink, and toast my return to Tuva. These turned out to be the assembled members of two shamanic societies, Dungur (Shaman’s Drum), and its parent society, Tos-Deer (Nine Heavens). Shortly thereafter we retired to the yurt outside, where the shamans sat around the circular walls in a kind of receiving line to greet me personally. Tuvan shamans put their hands out in greeting, and lightly touch palms. There seems to be some kind of etiquette in whose hands are up and whose are down, but I could never quite figure it out. As I went around the yurt, I encountered the oldest shaman there, with sparkling eyes and a missing thumb. I touched his palms (the hottest of all the shamans present, by far), and he stared directly into my eyes. He seemed to be very into it, so I continued. I think I’m starting to get it, went through my head. After that, I stayed in contact with each shaman for several minutes, exchanging energy and doing my best to read the akashic record. It took a long time and I wished dearly to hurry the process, but I was determined to do the right thing. Later several of the shamans remarked upon the “interesting American shaman custom” of holding people’s hands for long periods of time.
Hugging is also a personal greeting quite foreign to the residents of Central Asia, but they find no offense in it, and will humorously exchange hugs with Americans, whom they have learned like that sort of thing. On one occasion I met a Tuvan for the first time who said, “Oh, you are American!” and immediately wrapped his arms around me and lifted me off the floor.
I-Churek made a long speech in Tuvan, which neither Masha nor I had any ability to comprehend. I-Churek makes a large number of long speeches to apparently completely attentive audiences, so long, in fact, that at times I cannot believe it possible that anything more could be said about whatever subject it is that she could be speaking. Her authority, however, is quite apparent, and she is not hesitant to remind people of it. This is probably necessary. A shamanic organization is necessarily a collection of extremely independent and forceful individuals, and may even be an oxymoron. The young head of Dungur, Andrey, told me that his grandfather, a very famous shaman, told him that no self respecting shaman would ever be a member of any society. (I am reminded of Graucho Marx’s famous line, “I would never join any club that would accept me as a member.”) I told him that I agreed thoroughly with this, and that if I could ever manage to think of myself as a real shaman, I would be sure to quit straightaway.
I was directed to the seat of honor in the yurt, more speeches were made, and a lamb was brought in and slaughtered. Looking at all the shamans present, I experienced a shock. As I recognized the faces through their feathered headdresses, I realized that all the people who had helped me on my previous trip, driving the cars, cooking the meals, carrying the bags, all had been shamans in plainclothes. I had joked before going about wanting a shamanic bodyguard. I’d had one all the time and not known it.
Now individual shamans got up and played instruments, danced, sang, or demonstrated ritual performances (which I-Churek calls “shaman mysteries”). They even did standup comedy and pantomime, like “The Soviet General meets the American Indian.” It took me a while to realize what was going on, and how truly bizarre my life is. Americans come to Tuva is hopes of just meeting a real shaman, of getting even a taste of the real thing in this, the last truly pure and open shamanic society left. I was being presented with a shaman talent show!
Then it was revealed that some great musicians had showed up for the party, like this fellow Sahd, who was regarded with apparent reverence by those assembled, and sang the most soulful version of Tuvan music that I have yet heard. I was asked to play a solo, after which everyone more or less jammed and banged on bubens.
The next morning we went to the clinic for our first day on the job. The Tos-Deer Clinic, a sort of shamanic HMO, is a traditional log house on the bank of the Yenisey River, one of the few big rivers that flows north, ending in the White Sea. It stands next to the famous monument that marks the center of Asia, and I derived some exotic pleasure from the fact that I was working in that place on the Earth that is the farthest from any ocean, a sort of anti-Hawaii.
The temperature was about minus twenty, centigrade (-4, Fahrenheit), and I marveled again, as I had in the Russian countryside around Moscow, at the ability of these rough looking log structures to stand the intense winter cold. The yurt outside had returned to its normal function, a kind of lounge where shamans could relax, smoke, and generally hang out. The yurt’s similar ability to deal with extreme cold is especially mysterious. The walls are single and thin, the floor equally so and lying directly on the frozen earth below, and there is a large hole in the roof. The secret is the small petchka or oven in the center, in which wood or coal is burned. Its thin walls heat up very fast and the shape of the yurt somehow maximizes the efficiency with which it almost instantly fills the room with heat. It must be constantly tended, however, for as soon as it runs down, the temperature drops with lightning speed.
I ultimately decided that the yurt is actually the most practical winter house, for precisely the foregoing reasons. The major problem with Russian homes in winter is that one cannot leave without the entire house freezing solid. Upon returning, one is literally doing duty inside a block of ice until the long process of reheating the house is completed. The yurt, on the other hand, will freeze almost instantly upon one’s departure, but can be made comfortable within minutes of returning home. I expressed a desire to live in one the next time I came in winter, but was told that this was impossible, as I would be robbed.
The clinic consists of a kitchen and dining area, through which all must pass to reach the rest of the building, and then a large waiting room with petchka and a TV set which is run more or less continuously (people sit for enormous periods of time waiting for shamans to see them), and finally a collection of rooms in which shamans work either singly or in pairs. Masha and I were given room #4. I was later told that it was the coldest of the rooms, but I found it quite comfortable, although I brought a couple of panchos the following day for the patients’ occasional use. Its two windows looked directly out onto the river and across to the mountains beyond. Directly in front was the ritual sacred tree or ova, made of rocks, branches, and strings of colored cloth, where shamans frequently took their clients for outdoor ceremonies. Next to that was a place for bonfires.
There were two desks, some benches, and a table with tea, crackers and fruit. The walls were the stuff of eco-warrior nightmares. Not only were they covered with huge antlers, horns, and tusks, but various constructions were made as well, like the skull of a bear sprouting eagle wings, and a fur-covered skeleton ending in the feathered head of a fish. I must say that one of the joys of being in a place like Tuva is in partaking of a guilt-free relationship with nature. I have always been torn between the obvious logic of ecological imperatives, even if occasionally delivered in an over-emotional and self serving way, and the instinctive feeling that mankind is best suited to be a participant in nature, rather than its God-like overseer. Perhaps if we did not institutionalize the destruction of nature on such a large and commercial scale, we might realize that, as individuals, we have a perfect right to make use of it, as much as any animal. I am now the owner of a large number of objects that would be viewed with horror by a great many Americans (including, perhaps, my own mother), and clothes that would produce gauntlets of ecologically correct individuals ready to spit on me as I passed by. But if I stand ready to defend the right of the shamanic citizen to wear fur and collect bones, I do so doubly in the case of shamans themselves. The use of animal spirit and energy in ritual healing is absolutely essential, and the idea that one could access these energies without dealing with the existence of real animals, real life, and real death, is paramount to the assumption that it is all nothing more than a minstrel show.
And a minstrel show it most emphatically is not. One thing I had dreaded secretly about returning to Tuva was encountering my old patients. I have no attachment to the role of shaman. I have two other roles I have to worry about avoiding already (musician and martial artist), and I don’t need another one. I have at all times been more than ready to accept whatever defrocking procedure might be connected with the loss of this particular job. But I didn’t want my particular karmic experiment to end up cheating, deceiving, or most of all hurting anyone, and I fully realized that, just as I was I-Churek’s experimental animal, my patients were mine.
So when my old patients began to show up, I was fully prepared to direct them to other, more professional shamans who would hopefully (I use the term in both its old and new sense) correct my mistakes. But no, this was not the case. Most came to simply say hello, some with new ailments or family problems, but all claimed complete cure or at least vast relief of their old problems. I am quite sure that some of my patients were not cured and didn’t show up, but the presence of those who did gave me confidence that, at the very least, I was following the ancient medical maxim: “first, do no harm.” One visitor was particularly gratifying for me, one of my T’ai Ch’i students who had come from a far outlying provence. He had suffered from a concussion previously, a large dent in his head and accompanying bald spot clearly evidencing this, and had previously had to interrupt his classes with me to lie on the floor, groaning with pain.
Previously, in the spring, I had tried to keep my shaman activities separate from the T’ai Ch’i Ch’uan classes which I taught every evening. This was in part because the local karate teacher who had kindly loaned me his well-equipped school for the occasion was a member of the fundamentalist Baptist Church, recently established in Kyzyl. But being constantly on Tuvan TV had made anonymity impossible, and on the last day I found that my secret was out and my students suddenly appeared with tales of various afflictions. The most serious was this head injury (most had back pains from the incorrect practice of other martial arts). I had little hope at the time of having any lasting effect, but, as it turned out, my student insisted he was completely cured from my one treatment, and had never suffered a moment of discomfort from that point. He had traveled the long distance from his village, he told me, not for healing, but to pursue T’ai Chi Ch’uan, which he found of addicting interest.
No, this was no minstrel show. Something quite real was going on here, even if I might be the last person to understand it. I found that I returned easily to the strange dream-like condition which guided me at the museum in June, only here, surrounded by shamans and prayerful patients, it seemed even easier, and no longer strange. The sounds of bubens and throat-singing coming with regularity from every wall quickly became familiar and comforting. Sometimes, while treating patients, I wondered at the lack of disturbance accompanying even the most incongruous of sounds filtering in, like pop-sa soft drink commercials on the TV, or the cacophony of a screaming fight among the shamans, conducted in the heavily aspirated and high toned Tuvan language.
These frequent fights among the shamans were in fact one of the things that I liked best about them. The shaman clinic, a sort of combination hospital and church, fostered a society that undoubtedly contained all of the jealousy, competition, intrigue, and just plain bullshit of any hospital or church, but the difference is, a lot of it is out in the open. Now, don’t think me naive. This is an Oriental society, and Oriental societies don’t operate out in the open, period. But let me say that being with the shamans was like hanging out with a group of gifted and extremely powerful children.
In normal theological institutions, there is an enormous emphasis upon the future. Acolytes compete, not in present time, but preparing for the eventual judgement of death, the eventual meeting with God (even if such occurs before death). Even the cleverest among them is forced to deal with this problem, to make special conscious effort to be in the here and now, to find “eternity in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.” And so, in a sense, they are forced to deal completely with potential, their own potential, which, except for extreme and frequently well noted cases, is never realized until death.
Shamans, on the other hand, are not in any sense waiting to see God. They see God every day, everywhere, in everything, without the slightest philosophical effort. The whole attempt to find God in ordinary reality, in fact, is only made necessary by the fact that one has exiled him to extraordinary reality in the first place. Shamans judge each other not by what they seem capable of, or what wisdom they display, or even what magical powers they might seem to posses, but simply by the work they see them do, from day to day. This work speaks for itself, and the individual shaman sees no reason to amplify or falsify any element of his personality, in support of some higher potential or more important philosophical goal. It is not lost on me that this is exactly the real enlightened goal of all religion, and this child-like state indeed indicative of it, but in more modern, transcendental religions, they are working so hard at it.
Julian Jaynes notes that in the development of religion, god is first personified, then the personification is placed upon higher and higher pedestals, until it finally disappears altogether, and only the pedestal is left, ascending to empty space. Shamanic society exists in a realm that predates that first personification. Without that initial personification, there is no role of piety to follow, no image to imitate. In fact, the whole idea of God making man in his own image has about it a strange conceit. It’s not that shamans don’t think that man is the image of God, of course he is. But so is everything else. Shamans are the day laborers of the spiritual universe, classless beings who compete, not with incense burned in heaven, but in tangible acts measured daily, as real as fish caught, trees chopped, or game bagged. For this reason there is no real order in a shamanic society, and while, for personal or political reasons, there may be competition for some official role, such as that of I-Churek, for the most part it is quite clear to all the shamans who has the most powerful magic, the most juice, and there is little argument about it. There is little point in trying to establish some sort of official pecking order when everyone will make up their own mind anyway.
So there are no pious monks sniping at the bishops, no one smarting at their lack of recognition or status. Everyone’s status is minute to minute, a completely chaotic and unregulated process which no one can claim to be unfair, a “system” with which no one can find fault, since there really isn’t one. Some of the shamans themselves, upon reading this report, will undoubtedly object and explain to me that I am giving them a whitewash. But by comparison with the deep guilt and monstrous spiritual suffering that I associate with modern religions’ spiritual search (“straight is the gate, and narrow is the path ...”), this confession is almost childlike.
Not that shamans don’t engage in the most serious warfare. But it is not a fight over who is more holy. Rather than trying to be good in the eyes of God, Buddha, or Mohammed, shamans cut right to the chase by putting pins in dolls and casting spells designed to consign generations of unborn innocents to karmic hell. No false piety here. I loved the way the shamans would erupt into screaming fights directly in front of the patients, without the slightest touch of shame. They had, in fact, the attitude of skilled professionals, whose personal behavior is not a part of their job description, whose attitude is: since I can do the job, whatever attitude I have is the right one, or right enough, at least.
And just what, after all, is the job? Shamans have, officially, two jobs, healing and ritual. This in actuality is really only one job, because the healing that they do is ritual healing. To understand this, we must understand the relationship of ritual to the unconscious. In a sense, every physical action is a ritual, for the purpose of ritual is invocation, and every action is an attempt to invoke some power or make some change in the universe. Some are more obvious than others. We light the stove, we invoke fire; we turn on the tap, we invoke water. But we reserve the name of ritual for those specific actions that clearly invoke the unconscious. By this I mean that we do things that deliberately relate to nothing in our conscious life, except through the use of common elements. In a natural society, the use of natural elements (fire, water), plants, and animals, is a natural bridge, since our unconscious life is also constructed around those elements. As psychologists are fond of saying, and rightly saying, there is no unconscious mind, in the sense that it is any different from the conscious one. It is in fact the same mind. Consciousness is simply the selective view of certain areas of it.
The simplest, and most powerful ritual is the word. Speech, and verbal thought, is the continual evocation of the unconscious. When we speak, words appear in a steady stream directly from the unconscious. Not a single one was simply hanging in our mental view waiting to be selected. There is no “consciousness” of huge amounts of words before us. They appear, literally, like magic. Shamans from the beginning of time have understood that the word is a bridge to the unconscious.
And this is the key. The spells, the rituals, the chants, of course in themselves have no power. But the subconscious has enormous power. When a shaman heals a patient, it is always the patient healing themselves, and people have enormous powers to do this, if they can be invoked. Even the most conservative of western physicians will admit to this. The secret to this invocation lies in the shaman’s ability to literally confuse his unconscious with that of his patient. In ritual healing, half of one’s energies are devoted to directing oneself into certain states of consciousness, and half to bringing the patient along on that journey.
Consider if you will a certain view of the mind. Though it might seem so, this view has nothing in contradiction to the premise that there is actually only one mind. The most direct view of the unconscious is to be had of course in dreams, and the dream mind is effectively synonymous with it. The general attitude toward dreams is that, since they exist only in our minds and have no bearing on reality (or at most a “symbolic” and therefor useless one), we can harmlessly ignore them. Even many people into “dreamwork” and actively concerned with their dreams in relation to psychology are essentially considering the dream mind to be without will and something more or less on the order of a slave, or perhaps a potential to be tapped. But remember that there is only one mind. Consider the idea that, just as we think of the dream life as inconsequential, so does in fact our unconscious consider our waking life to be equally inconsequential.
In our waking life, we are bound to the physical laws of the universe. Every day is a struggle dealing with those laws, an attempt to either conform to or control them. But we are free to break mental laws, that is, we are free to be insane. In our dreams, we are free to break any physical law, to fly, to walk through walls, whatever, but not to break the mental ones. The unconscious mind of everyone is completely healthy, and when a shaman, or anyone, puts a spell or curse on someone, it really constitutes a kind of block to the unconscious, a sort of loop that keeps reflecting the consciousness of the victim back onto itself, preventing him from access to his own sanity.
How can we access this ultimately sane part of ourselves? The major problem is, neither side is listening. As I mentioned, why should our unconscious essentially give a damn what happens in the real physical world? We can only expect a mirror of our own conscious attitude towards dream life. Real life is after all quite boring by dream standards, a place where you can hardly do anything without worrying about being killed, and everyone is insane. What a drag. And besides, it doesn’t really exist.
Through ritual we essentially tell our unconscious that we are listening to it. Like some kind of internal SETI program, we are designing signals primarily for the purpose of simply getting an answer. If, for instance, we act out something done in a dream, an action which has no other conceivable purpose other than to signal recognition of that dream action, if we do this a few times, a peculiar thing happens. Our unconscious begins to realize that we’re listening. And then, and only then, does the unconscious get the bizarre thought, that all this crazy stuff that goes on during the sixteen hours a day that he’s asleep, all this weird struggle and pain and physical need, all this mental illness, all this stuff just might be real.
When this happens, the unconscious begins to concern itself with the conscious life. The signal that this is happening is that one’s dreams become extensions of one’s waking reality, containing the same characters and situations as “real” life. At the same time, dreams become more lucid. In fact, ritual action is the exact counterpart of lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is the presence, the invocation, if you will, of the conscious mind in the dream world, and ritual action is likewise the importation of the dream mind into the world of the conscious.
This unconscious or dream mind is in fact linked to the deepest levels of our own internal physical structure. It can release powerful energies and regulate them with surgical skill. It simply has no idea that it is supposed to do this, no idea that the destruction of the physical body, especially in this (from its point of view) dream state, could be of any significance. And it’s you! It’s just you stripped of that narrow selection of thoughts that defines your minute to minute persona.
So the task of the shaman is clear. He, by all his methods, must attract the unconscious of the patient to the surface so that, if not awakened in the aforementioned sense, it is at least momentarily enlisted in the service of “real” life. When we are awake, our unconscious is asleep, dreaming our waking life. Now it is having a lucid dream, in which it has been seduced, if you will, into actively participating in its dream. Descriptively, it resembles hypnosis. But it is not hypnosis. The other side of this process is the reverse, in which, while dreaming lucidly, we perform a ritual action in the unconscious. But I will return to that.
Spells and curses, then, can only afflict someone whose conscious and unconscious states are out of touch. The unconscious can only be tricked into doing something harmful if it has no connection to the conscious. You can only hurt yourself if you essentially have lost belief in your own existence. The shaman, just for a moment, reestablishes that connection, long enough for the unconscious to do tremendous work.
By this means any spell can be broken, any curse cured. Anything that can be produced by a process can be cured by a process, or by rather reversing that process. In fact, one of the highest levels of healing is to see the ritual which was actually done (the original curse), and perform it exactly in reverse, from end to beginning. If a candle was burned, you start with a burning stub and then replace it with an unlit candle. If chants were spoken, you speak the same chant, but in reverse. It is important to understand that one need not make the assumption that the shaman actually psychically perceive the true ritual curse, like some sort of science fiction ESP freak. It is only important that the intuition of the shaman is powerful enough for him to imagine a ritual that would truly relate to the ailment of the afflicted, so that on the level of the unconscious, this aforementioned confusion can take place.
My own most dramatic example of this was in the case of a woman described to me as an “important patient.” As I have mentioned previously, the oriental concept of importance is slightly lost on me. As I have tried to explain to Russians, for an American you can be rich, you can be powerful, you can be famous, you can certainly be important to someone, and everyone is, but you can’t be Important. At any rate, she was. She was a patient at the local hospital, who for the past months had suffered from sudden heart seizures. The hospital had administered a battery of tests and found nothing wrong with her, yet her attacks had increased in both frequency and intensity. They hesitated to move her at all, and I offered to come to the hospital, as I had in the Spring. No, I was told, the hospital is all wrong, it’s overcrowded, it’s smelly, it’s got essentially bad vibes, like all hospitals. I agreed with this completely, so we made the rare appointment for ten o’clock the next morning.
I arrived early, and a driver was waiting. Sure I was on the job, he left for the hospital. Thirty minutes later, my patient arrived. Elegant, well dressed, around fifty I believe, my patient was not only important, she was beautiful. It was plain to see that she was also scared to death. I sat down next to her and immediately put my hand on her back. She looked at me with a deep fear, not something I was used to from my patients. It shook me a little. Masha did a ritual cleaning on her with artysh, and talked to her a little bit in Russian. I understood about half of it, but I didn’t need any more.
The truth is, I had never been more certain that I could help any patient, from the moment she walked through the door. Although, as I have explained, I had no idea what I was going to do next, I felt more absolutely certain of doing it than in any other case. Perhaps this is why her obvious lack of confidence in me or, I clearly perceived, just about anything, seemed so disconcerting. If the kind of positivity I was feeling failed to reach her, she was going to be a tough case.
I had her lie down on her back on the hard wooden bench that I had softened a bit with a lambskin, and told her relatives (daughter and sister) to sit across the room. I blew the conch shell to the four corners of the Earth. This seemed to frighten her even more. In fact, her daughter and sister were also frightened. I sat down next to her and looked into her eyes.
“Do you think she’s been cursed?” asked Masha.
“Absolutely,” I said. “No doubt about it.”
I decided to do a rare thing. Normally I play the buben only at the end of the session, a habit confirmed by Kenin-Lopsan as standard practice. This time I needed it at the beginning. This was going to be psychic surgery (not the Filipino kind), and I needed an anesthetic.
As I played the buben next to her extremely quietly, the most supportive, relaxing beat I could imagine, she seemed to visibly soften. In five minutes, her breathing had changed and the look of fear was gone from her eyes, if not her face. I was ready to begin my operation.
I learned certain interesting things about the requirements needed for this type of process to be effective, and some were quite surprising. For one, as noted, television serials and screaming fights were extremely easy to ignore, as were the periodic interruptions made by patients sticking their heads through the door to see if I was busy. Any sort of intellectual conviction about what I was doing seemed totally irrelevant to the process. As I mentioned at the beginning, it seemed like it worked whether I believed in it or not. As I said, I could have extremely ordinary, self referential, and inane thoughts that seemed to interfere not a whit with what was going on. Essentially, the patient must believe in the process but, strangely, they need no conscious awareness of exactly what is taking place, and may in most cases sit with their eyes completely closed, if they wish. The performance, and ritual healing is that, to be sure, is for the shaman, at least the details of it. Once the unconscious of the patient has been stirred, it is receiving the power of the shaman directly, and it is the shaman who needs to follow the details and rules of his own structure and ritual (which, remember, he is always more or less making up as he goes along), not the patient. By analogy, the musician must in concert conform to a highly sophisticated set of rules (also making it up as he goes along), a process that actually permits him to achieve great heights of emotional expression. The listener, on the other hand, need not even follow the music to be energized by its execution.
Now all of this, as mentioned, has a resemblance to hypnosis, but the difference is this: the doctor is more hypnotized than the patient. The patient’s unconscious is open to suggestion, yes, but this suggestion must follow the intuition of the shaman, and cannot be manipulated by his ordinary self. In other words, there is no way in this process for the shaman to consciously and willfully direct or influence the patient, for good or ill. He is more at the mercy of the process than the patient, although, as I have said, intellectual attitudes seem of little influence, negative or positive. (In my first article, I described how initially I imagined that some great generation of faith was appropriate on my part, eventually realizing that it made absolutely no difference whatever.)
In this case, the patient could see what I was doing, and though I only realized it later, what I did in her case was probably the most openly hypnotic procedure that I used with any patient. First I covered her chest with a blue cloth, and burned artysh over it. Then I took out a pendulum I’d made from an American Indian arrowhead, and let it circle over her body, gradually winding down to touch her chest. At the point of the arrowhead, which I then removed, I made an incision with a stone scalpel from my stone age surgery kit. I removed my “snake” from the table and put its head at the point of the incision. I looked down and it seemed that I could see a kind of red line coming from it and running over her body. I arranged the tail of the snake to follow this line. I checked my patient. She was staring at the ceiling, now a serene look on her face. I gradually moved the snake back along the path of the red line, as though it was backing out of the heart. Completely running on instinct, it was only at this moment that I realized that I was reversing the invasion of some kind of clogging energy that had, in the past few months, been making its way to her heart. My snake was clearly eating and digesting this sort of psychic phlegm, reversing the process by which it had been deposited. (It was only later, by the way, that I was informed of this curse reversal concept.) After this I used a smooth flat stone reserved for this function to close the wound and seal it against (psychic) infection.
Then I played buben. This was not anesthetic but highly ritualistic and very, very loud. I remember thinking clearly during it: Well, if I haven’t cured her, she’ll never live through this. When it was over her relatives looked completely shaken. But the patient, my important lady, looked absolutely serene. She stood up and began putting on her coat.
“Nye boyus,” she said in Russian (I have no fear).
She asked me if now she could leave the hospital. Clearly the confidence problem was over. I suggested that she remain there a couple of days and let the doctors watch her, but to take no medication. Her attacks had increased in frequency to every few hours, so I figured a couple of days were enough to notice a change. They did. All her symptoms disappeared overnight, she became completely relaxed and calm, and was released a day later. In fact, she sneaked away from the hospital the following day and came on her own, no longer the important lady but sitting in the waiting room with the other patients, just to thank us and tell us how wonderful she was feeling. I saw her at the big cleaning on my last night there and she was radiant and happy. She had brought her daughter back for me to try my skills on some of her ailments.
Now this is clearly a case for the shaman. Whatever floor the shamans work on in the twenty-fifth century hospital, above the surgeons, perhaps, and below the priests, the twenty-fifth century counterpart of this patient, important, beautiful, or not, should be directed to it. But soundproofing will be essential, for a whole floor of shamans playing bubens will undoubtedly, even in the enlightened twenty-fifth, disturb the surgeons, and perhaps the priests as well.
But although shamans draw the line at actual surgery, they are called upon to perform functions that extend into the more spiritual realm of healing. One distraught mother presented me with a photograph of her fourteen-year-old son. Bumming around with two older men, they had raped two Russian women, a rape to which even the women attested the boy was only a spectator, rather than participant. Nevertheless, all three had been caught and were now in jail awaiting trial. The mother wanted me to do whatever I could with the photograph to influence the situation, and to advise her on what to tell her son.
I told her to leave me the photograph for the performance of certain rituals (which I indeed later performed), and then proceeded to give her what was simply good, but which she undoubtedly interpreted as psychic advise. This was in large measure due to my style of delivery, as, delivered in this oracular way, it would have much more force than as just good advice. Good advice is, after all, not what people come to the shaman for. I told her that the greatest danger now to her son was that he begin to take on prison vibes, that unless he appeared before the judge sporting an obvious difference in character as well as age from his older friends, the judge would view them all with the same eye.
I had never talked to anyone like this. My life has been such a chaotic hodge-podge of events up to this point that I would never presume in a thousand years to give anyone “good advice,” even a ten-year-old. But I was doing it. And it was probably pretty good, at that. But this new dimension scared me a little. The mystical laying on of hands, I seemed to have gotten through that, the use of ritual I was gradually catching on to, and I seemed to have shown up with all that anyone thought was needed in the realm of buben playing. But influencing events psychically through photographs? Later I was asked to solve a murder case, to purify a jar of cursed honey, even to find somebody’s stolen car. I was even, for God’s sake, being asked to give people good advice. My first trip I had found out what it was like to be a healer. Now I was finding out what it was like to be a priest.
And I liked being at the clinic, much more than my stay at the museum, as exciting as that had been. I didn’t feel like such a freak in my golden robe, magical third eye headband and enormous copper breast protector. I was just one of the gang! And everyone else was dressed even weirder than I was. Damn, I kept thinking, I wish I’d brought my feathered Tuvan Headdress. It was too hard to pack. Even the sound of I-Churek regularly chewing out one or another of the shamans in blistering Tuvinian became familiar and, well, real home-like. It was so regular, in fact, that I was certain that it would eventually happen to me, and finally, it did.
On the second or third day at work I was visited by a couple of musicians. They wanted to take me that evening to visit another musician and play. I jokingly but carefully informed them that at this point I was bucking for my union card, and that anything I did had to be cleared with the boss, I-Churek. Perhaps the later confusion was my fault, as they may have assumed from this that I indeed proceeded to get such a clearance. But of course I figured whatever I did in my off time was my own business (a peculiarly American misconception, I fear), so I just told them to come around at six and pick me up.
Which they did. Within minutes of their arrival, I heard I-Churek’s voice through the walls, clearly upset about something. A few minutes later they stomped by my room, stopping long enough to tell me that they were not allowed to bring me, but that they would be back, at which time they would be allowed. I thought this was the most singularly stupid turn of events that I could conceive. How on earth could I-Churek presume to forbid me to go out?
I quickly found out how. I-Churek steamrolled into the room, marched up to me, and proceeded to chew me out in Tuvinian, of which I understand and speak exactly one word, a word that was definitely not contained in her speech (thank you). As she slowed down enough to start chewing me out in Russian, I began to get the translation through Masha. The problem was, the other musician, the one at the house, was a shaman. Shamans, I began to realize, were growing out of every bush and from under every rock in Tuva. It’s the only place I’ve ever been, I remarked to a group of Tuvans later, where there are more Shamans than there are musicians.
At any rate, this guy was a shaman, and I-Churek was certain that he was inviting me over, not to play music, but to perform a ritual. As a Tos-Deer member, I was not allowed to perform any rituals without proper clearance. Clearly, mistakes had been made. At the very least, etiquette had been breached. The agents of this well-known shaman should have come to I-Churek in the first place, before they approached me, and gone through the proper channels. It was a terrible situation. The only cure would be for the other shaman to come now and personally ask I-Churek’s permission, swearing not to use me for any shamanic purposes. This in fact was in progress, the boys completing at this very moment the first leg of a night spent driving shamans back and forth in twenty-five below nighttime Kyzyl. (Cars generally travel in pairs for any extended distance, to insure against possible engine failure and almost certain death.)
They eventually returned with the other shaman, he made the proper overtures, and I was allowed to leave for the jam session. Now, this all may seem a bit unreasonable, and certainly did to me at the time, but upon reflection, certain important factors should be taken into consideration. In fact, I-Churek was taking a rather big risk with her intuition about me. As my obvious sponsor, her reputation was to a certain extent now tied to mine. The fact that Kenin-Lopsan approved of me gave her a certain cushion, but my performance was certainly a subject for her concern.
At the same time, if she was right about me, I-Churek stood to gain a great deal from my importation, principally in terms of notoriety and prestige for Tos-Deer. I was already a known and talked-about musical commodity in Tuva. My previous concert there with I-Churek and Vera had run repeatedly on Tuvan TV over the last few months, and the return of the exotic American shaman would be good for television coverage for more than a few more go-rounds. This implies no cynicism on I-Churek’s part. She has complete confidence in her intuition, and certainly deserves to reap any harvest she can from the risks she has taken. She also has a perfect right to try to prevent other shamans from benefiting from that same notoriety while taking no risks on their part, and I suspect that this was behind her outburst of anger that night.
For my part, I told her that it was clear that she had a lot of trouble to take care of around Tos-Deer, and that I certainly didn’t want to make more for her. This was all true, and I used it to stall confronting her about something I get a little testy about, my own personal freedom. It was fortunate that I did, because I later begin to see her side of things. Still, I felt the honeymoon was over. I was worried, because I know my own limitations, and I knew that I couldn’t do what I was doing if I felt the slightest intimidation or constriction from anyone there. I would just quit. Fortunately, something happened the next day that effectively lifted me from the need for any such fears.
Unfortunately, there is little that I can permit myself to reveal about it. Let us merely say that, in this part of the world, some patients are more important than others, and I was called especially to demonstrate my skills in the healing of just such an individual, perhaps, in fact, the most important patient possible. Important enough, at least, and for other significant reasons as well, to reveal any details of what occurred only under proper advisement. To say that my apparent success at this raised my status would probably be an understatement, but status is not really the correct word. Status implies hierarchy and, as I have mentioned, shamans don’t have one.
Shamanism is perhaps the most pragmatic of all religions. I suspect that the Buddhist concept of skill in means dates from its shamanic roots, rather than some philosophical evolution. It is a tradition that overwhelms other traditions. There is no catechism more powerful than the one you are creating on the spot, if it works. In the Bon-po sect of Tibet, predating Buddhism’s arrival there, the elaborate chants and musical compositions had to be played exactly as they were passed on, without the slightest change. And yet they did change through the centuries. How did this occur? Only through the most transcendental inspiration possible. If any monk changed the litany, only two choices were possible: either the litany had to be changed forever to follow this new form, or the monk had to be put to death. This undoubtedly raised the bar on inspiration.
In shamanism, nobody is working too hard on group consciousness and conformity, and even when shamans play bubens together, they are pretty much all keeping their own individual rhythms. If it were not for the energetic level involved (and I don’t mean the volume) it would just sound like a bunch of really bad drummers, or, more exactly, deaf ones. So they don’t feel quite so urgent a need to kill each other for screwing up a tune. But, just as with musicians, where the better you can play the more radical behavior is accepted on your part, and even expected, the more powerful a shaman you are, the more you are expected to know what to do to have that power, and the more possibly mysterious this might be to those of lesser energy and abilities.
So, rather than achieving more freedom through an elevation of status, you might say that freedom is simply directly accorded to those who appear to know what to do with it. This is not conferred by fiat or rank, but rests in the judgement of each individual shaman. I have to say that these kind of direct relations, this kind of enshrinement of super-individuality, conform to my most cherished fantasies about ancient American Indian life. To see it coexisting with Oriental society, known as it is for a decidedly opposite emphasis, is odd indeed, and, I think, just a little schizophrenic for the shamans. In normal social relations, they seem such free and open characters that I sometimes forgot that they were, for the most part, highly sensitive to the subtleties of Oriental etiquette. Probably it’s only I who find it schizophrenic.
At any rate, I sensed a new measure of respect from the shamans who, because of I-Churek’s sponsorship, had always given me the benefit of the doubt, and appeared to find me a likeable sort, at least. They began to try me out for themselves now, even I-Churek’s sister, from Dungur, who had kidney problems. One shaman was entirely deaf in one ear and almost completely so in the other. He was very excited after my first treatment, saying that he experienced sounds and ringing throughout the following night, but we made no more progress than that.
I should comment that, contrary to the case of doctors, shamans make the absolutely best patients for shamanic healing. They know exactly what to do with the energy, exactly what condition promotes it. Yet shamans have a great deal of trouble healing themselves, perhaps because they move so much psychic energy through their bodies every day in healing others that any disease which can develop does so in a way that is effectively hidden from their abilities. In fact shamans are not supposed to heal their blood relatives, or even to teach them shamanism, despite the fact that it is considered hereditary. No, I was told, each shaman finds another, unrelated one to teach his child. This underscores the fact that there is no great importance given to any text or procedure, but only to an understanding of its underlying meaning, its use, and its invocation.
For my part, I needed periodic walks along the frozen riverbank, completely by myself, if I was to make things work in room #4. I also could not rush my contacts with the patients, no matter how many more were waiting patiently outside. I now felt a greater freedom to simply be myself (although this has never been a great problem for me in Russia – it’s why I love the place), and I began to really get to know the other shamans.
One of the most interesting shamans at Tos-Deer is Zoya. Her face reveals roots from farther north in Bashkiria, more Caucasian than the typical Tuvan, and she stands physically taller than the average Tuvan man. With her shaman clothes on she becomes completely androgynous, and is quite an imposing figure. All shamans exhibit a rather startling level of awareness (or they wouldn’t be shamans) but Zoya is really in the upper percentiles, to be sure. She looks, in fact, like the carnival fortuneteller from central casting, and would look especially good behind a crystal ball. She is perhaps the best drummer in the society (though I-Churek could probably blow anybody there away, energy-wise), and has an incredibly powerful and beautiful voic