The Reluctant Shaman
By Robert Amacker
I’m tired as I begin this. Accelerated, perhaps, to something approaching some sort of ultimate limit, but by all rights I should be in bed, sleeping off the affects of being pushed to this limit, quite unexpectedly, by a woman almost twenty years my junior. Less than four hours of sleep at I-Churek's house, followed by a ten-hour trip from Tuva back to Moscow, with four hours of jet lag thrown in, was only the inevitable end of a story that was a recipe for exhaustion. It is, however, a story that needs to be told, and I am stricken with a kind of paranoia that, like a dream, it must be recorded immediately, or it may somehow elude consciousness. It had many dream-like qualities, and I discovered that, while working, I could evoke a condition so that the entire experience duplicated the dream state exactly, first by accident, and then at will. But more about that later.
I know as well that the tone of my literary voice is not one associated with accounts of this kind, that a certain academic style is preferred, but this is a story about learning to move from intuition, from the heart, and it needs to be told from the heart. Shamanism cannot be studied in the same sense as other subjects, or as other anthropological or cultural phenomena. It is not an adherence to exact rituals, or the passing on of sacred texts, although it is clear which ritual is being done, and there certainly are great bodies of information to be learned. But such a description also applies to music, and, as in music, every shaman is free to sing his own song. In a shamanic culture there is no hierarchical ladder to climb, no certifying board or sanctifying priesthood. There is just the “juice,” the energy, the power, and it is as clear to see as anyone’s height, weight, or hat size. There are no rules of age, and, as with the American Indian, it is associated with transcendental states and, with children, permanent conditions that are completely socially dysfunctional. Tuvans in fact are in many ways what the American Indian could have been if not suppressed, a dominating cultural force, instead of a struggling remnant of years past. Every instinctive perception of the average Tuvan is tuned to recognize shamanic force, and they expect as well to place certain demands on anyone who has it. Their perception of their peers is also constructed around these instinctive values, even in the most modern teenagers of Kyzyl, who may completely reject shamanism on a conscious level. As the Tuvan guitarist, Sasha Chowinchuck, told me at one point, upon learning that I was born in Texas and have a huge family there: “In Te-has, everyone think they are cow-boy. In Tu-va, everyone think they are sha-man.”
Getting to Tuva is, by tradition, hard to do. I had been invited twice, but had not made the trip, despite my love for the music there. I decided to relax and wait for the right time. It came with a phone call from Vera Sajena. I had been playing with Vera for years, and knew her as a great singer, and one who had progressed measurably from our first meeting. We have a group with a third member, Villy Melnikov, called Tengu, though it was not yet in existence at this time. Vera is, besides being a fine musician, about as pedigreed as one can be in the shaman department. As I was soon to discover, shamans pick their students, and then push them into realizing their latent powers, which the shaman sees clearly. A shaman, considered perhaps the most powerful in Tuva at that time, picked Vera from a group of tourists in the museum in Kyzyl. Upon his death, he willed his entire shaman wardrobe and collection of sacred objects to Vera, designating her effectively as his successor (if shamans had “successors”). She has real healing powers, which she manifests almost completely through ritual. I had discovered this first hand when she startled me by reminding me, during the course of a ritual healing, that I had been cursed quite professionally over thirty years before. This realization was followed by the immediate cure of a back condition from which I had suffered for almost that long. (Or rather, the beginning of the cure was immediate; the actual process took exactly one year.)
She told me that the famous Tuvan Shaman, I-Churek, was coming to Moscow and wanted to meet me.
“She wants to meet me?” I said. “How does she know about me?”
“I don’t know,” said Vera. “She knows many things. She wants to meet you, is all I know.”
The next day I went over to Vera’s with Maria Volchenko, a woman who cannot be quickly or conveniently described. Suffice to say that she is a former professor of logic who now devotes most of her time to the study of dreams. We sat in Vera’s living room and had tea, the three women and I. I-Churek is one of those Tuvans that looks exactly like an American Indian (as one Indian friend commented, Navaho), with a small and stocky build. As we discussed subjects of no great importance, she smiled infrequently, but when she did it lit up the room. Finally she showed me her buben, a Mongolian version. My own buben is designed for music, not shamanic ritual. It was rebuilt from a commercial design by the former chief designer for Valje Drums, Akbar Magaddan, and is completely tunable. I have played it much on stage, but, since I had never heard the word shaman until a couple of years back, my whole direction was completely musical and personal. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I just play what I play, anyway, so we began.
I-Churek started to play a waltz time series of perfectly spaced quarter notes, one of the simplest possible rhythms, but the energy she demonstrated was enormous. I began to play a tune over her steady beats, trying to turn the whole thing into music. She startled me by turning the energy up even further, and I began to sweat a little. Shortly I found myself struggling to keep up with the force of her playing. It was an experience parallel to meeting someone with a stronger personality than one’s own. Your responses start to sound hollow and false, and you essentially have three choices. You can simply recede into a shell and shut down; you can imitate the energy and, as a side effect, begin to duplicate the stronger personality; or you can summon up the strength to manifest your real self. I was struggling to do this. It took forty-five minutes, but at last I broke into the energy necessary for the task. Almost immediately, I-Churek diminished her playing and stopped.
She turned to me and said in Russian: “I formally invite you to Tuva. You may live anywhere you wish, in an apartment, in a yurt, or in the woods, but you are invited to stay at my house. You will be entirely under my protection.”
I knew that this was the invitation I had been waiting for, and accepted without hesitation. The earliest time possible for me to go was almost a year away, but I-Churek found no problems with this. I was enormously pleased and excited. I had no idea of what I was getting into.
The next day Vera called and said that I-Churek wanted to come over to my place. I was a little confused and asked what the purpose of this visit was. I was made to understand that she wanted simply to socialize, to just hang out. My experience had been that Tuvans are the greatest people in the world at hanging out. Perhaps a nine-month winter that features temperatures that regularly reach fifty degrees below zero is conducive to this ability; at least, this was my theory. So when the two women arrived I felt perfectly relaxed and casual about their visit. We had a long discussion that touched upon my personal life, and the next day they asked to see Masha, without me being present. That evening I asked Masha what the idea was all about. I-Churek had wanted to apologize for delving into the area of our personal relationship, but explained that she needed to find out certain things about me.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Was this some kind of test?”
“Yes,” answered Masha. “It was.”
“Well, how did I do?” I said, in a joking way.
“You failed,” said Masha matter-of-factly.
This gave me some pause.
“So does this mean I’m no longer invited to Tuva?”
“Of course not. This is not some kind of game, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“I-Churek sees people very clearly. You are completely transparent to her. She simply does not want to see the work you have done go to waste, when it could be used.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I think you will,” said Masha, “when you get to Tuva.”
One year later, I finally did. I-Churek had arranged our visit to begin on the new moon, and end two weeks later, when it was full. At the airport I was amazed to be met, not only by I-Churek and her husband Huliarol, but also a TV crew from the local station. The reporter asked me for my impressions of Tuva. I replied that since I had been there for approximately five minutes, I had no impressions. Then he asked me what I planned to accomplish in Tuva. I had no idea what this could mean, so I said that I had no plans to accomplish anything. Then I-Churek made a little statement in Tuvan, which I did not understand. I was fairly certain that I had been a pretty thorough disappointment to all concerned. Later that evening I learned that this was not the case. I-Churek told me that I was very smart to say so little to the reporters, and that this was sure to have made a good impression on anyone watching. I eventually learned that in Tuvan society, no quality is valued as much as shyness. Behavior that is thought of as confident and professional in the west is, in Tuva, rather the mark of a fool.
I was then asked what I like to eat, and remarked that I was anxious to sample some of the famous Tuvan lamb. Furtive looks were exchanged, and a couple of the men hurriedly exited the room.
“Did I say something wrong?” I whispered to Masha.
“Not really,” she answered cautiously. “You are the honored guest. Now you behave like him. But you have caused a lot of trouble, as it is very late.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You have asked for great honor. This is the meaning of lamb. One will now be slaughtered for your dinner.”
“Did you think our hosts would simply run to the supermarket? A lamb will be killed, and you must watch and approve the process, or everyone will be greatly offended.”
We stepped out onto the porch, and I watched in horror as a white lamb was dragged from the goat shed towards the house. It was explained to me that Tuvans have a special method of killing lamb, in which the animal feels no pain and sheds no blood. After watching the process, which took over half an hour, I might argue with this statement, although there was, it was true, almost no blood. While the animal is held on its back, its stomach is slit with a knife, and one of the men reaches inside with his hand until he finds the major vessel of the heart. He then pulls this out through the opening in the stomach and cuts it. I am certain of one thing: I do not want to die this way.
After the skin was removed, the women took over, pulling out the intestines and organs, each to be prepared in its own special way. The blood was drained into a large pan. Every part of the animal is eaten (as the honored guest, I was presented with the heart and testicles), and even the blood is cooked in a way which causes it to congeal and attain the consistency of custard. I have to say that the meal was incredibly delicious.
On the following day, we went to the Shamanic Museum, where I met the director, Ludmilla Salchak, and Kenin Lopsan, the Chief Shaman and official head of the Tos-deer Society, the main shamanic organization in Tuva, of which the four or five others are branches. I presented him with a present from David Rico, a Native American healer friend who lives in Hawaii. He accepted this present with great formality, and it was clear to me that Tuvan Shamans think of American Indian Medicine Men as absolute brothers and complete equals. Later he presented me with a gift for David, and invited him to Tuva at the same time.
Then it was time for our “presentation” before assembled shamans and interested townspeople. I was instructed to don the gold robe that I-Churek had instructed Masha to make for me, complete with nine hanging bells, crystals, and shamanic necklace. Feeling totally ridiculous, I made my way to the meeting hall, but was surprised to find that I was met with no snickers or scorn, but only great respect. People, and especially shamans, still wear such clothes regularly in Tuva, and my attire was only viewed as a respectful adaptation to society. We were extremely late in showing up, through no fault of my own, but I still felt compelled to begin my talk with an apology to all present, which was also very well received. I really had no idea what was expected of me (my own perception of what was going on can only be described as monumentally stupid), so I told my history and then, as instructed, attempted a short explanation of T’ai Chi Ch’uan, my profession for over thirty years, especially as it relates to health. I was continually amazed at the lack of communication between Tuva and China, considering their proximity. As one of the stops on the famous Silk Road through Asia, Kyzyl had its share of Chinese visitors, and yet Tuvans seem very distant from the Chinese, who traditionally referred to them and other Siberians as the “forest people.” They listened to my talk with apparent interest, as if it were all entirely new to them.
Then it was time for the “big cleaning,” another term that I found somewhat obscure. I-Churek, Vera, and I began to play our bubens, and the audience took on a prayerful attitude. I noticed that Lopsan had taken a seat close to me and seemed to be listening very intently to my playing. Vera began to make the rounds of the people in the room, stopping before each one to shout, spit, bite, and laugh hysterically. I had seen nothing like it in Moscow, probably because, during my own healing, I had kept my eyes closed. Frequently Vera would return to a small spittoon to rid herself of acquired bad spirits, and I saw to my amazement that at one point she spit real blood, apparently from a shocked looking teenage girl in the audience. Later I asked her about this.
“Yes,” she said, “sometimes you must really bite. When it is necessary.”
When the ritual was over, Kenin Lopsang made a speech welcoming me and Vera, for whom his respect and affection was quite apparent, to Tuva and to the Tos-deer Society. The whole event was filmed by local TV, and I was interviewed again. Later that night, back at I-Churek's house, I was amazed to see my footage captioned, in Russian, “Shaman Robert Amacker.” Still a little slow to catch on, I asked what the program was for tomorrow. I asked for a careful translation to be sure that I didn’t misinterpret.
“Tomorrow you will begin work. Many patients have bought tickets to see you, and you will work from nine until five or six at night. Then your class of fighters has been arranged at the local karate school. You will teach from six until nine in the evening there.”
Apparently I had originally been scheduled to work at the Shaman house, a kind of clinic where local shamans kept regular office hours and saw patients, a stone’s throw from the famous monument at the center of Asia. Now this had been changed. I was to work at the Museum instead. I interpreted this as a sort of recognition that I was more an object of interest than a real shaman.
“No,” I was told. “This is not correct. This means Lopsang is very impressed with you. To work at the museum is great honor. Your office will be next to Vera’s and Lopsang's. He was very impressed with your buben playing. He said in particular that one rhythm which you played was extremely good for the blood and very esoteric. He said he had never heard it played with such skill.”
I listened to these plans with no comment, realizing that I was being paid some sort of great respect. Later, after I-Churek had left our small guest cottage, I revealed my true state of mind: complete panic.
“This is crazy! I’m not a shaman! I’ve never even wanted to be a shaman. And I’ve never healed anybody in my life, or wanted to, either. This is like some sort of gigantic plot to make a complete fool out of me. I mean, do I get this right? I’m supposed to dress up in these far out robes, burn candles and incense, and cure peoples’ diseases? I don’t know who is going to be more embarrassed by this, me or I-Churek.”
“First of all,” said Masha, “anyone who wants to be shaman will never be one. It shows a complete misunderstanding of what is happening. Many shamans try to escape their role, but they suffer for this. A shaman is simply someone who has certain energy. It must be used, must be released, or it will poison them. You were on the verge of great disaster, a victim of the kind of self destructive behavior that many artists, who are very close to being shamans, frequently fall victim to.”
“Yes,” said Vera, “if I-Churek says you can heal, then you should believe it. She is very good at this, this seeing of people. Another American came here, and I-Churek also forced him to heal. He was very powerful. Many Tuvans still remember him and wish for his return. He was as unprepared as you, even more so.”
“But what am I supposed to do? Just explain to me what these rituals are, what the methods are, and I’ll at least try to make a go of it. I can see it’s my obligation to do that much. But give me some clues, please.”
“How can I tell you? Every shaman has his own way. I can only tell you what I do, or what I have seen done by others. This is useless information. No one can know how you will heal, only you yourself.”
If there had been a plane out of Kyzyl for Moscow that evening, I would have been on it.
But there wasn’t, so the next morning, at nine AM, I found myself sitting in an office, the desk before me spread with candles, incense, bear claws, antelope horns, crystals, strange rocks, and my buben, waiting for my first patient. Masha was with me, to work as a translator and advisor.
My first few patients made me realize some things about shamanism that I had never understood. First and most importantly, shamanism is an outgrowth of shamanic society, and cannot be separated from it. It is extremely difficult for westerners, and in particular Americans, to understand shamanism, despite their most sincere efforts, because of certain deeply ingrained worldviews. The religions of the world can be divided generally into two types, shamanic, and what I would call world saver, or transcendental. Shamanic religion is really simply the worship of nature, the recognition of natural forces and energies, and the attempt to discover ways to both gracefully conform to and also control those energies. Transcendental religion is based around a kind of personal achievement, however egoless it may supposedly be, which may be called enlightenment or grace. It naturally postulates a kind of idealization of human qualities that tends toward monotheism. History shows that these transcendental religions have in every case been forced, in order to make converts, to merge with indigenous shamanic beliefs, as in, for example, the absorption of Taoist ideas by Buddhism in China. The central figures of these religions, their priests, are respected for a kind of achievement, carrying with it panache of power. It is hard for westerners, who are generally steeped in this technically more advanced kind of spirituality, to keep from projecting this view onto the idea of shamanism. They, without really realizing it, think of the shaman as a kind of adept who frees himself from worldly karma, attains grace, enlightenment, or some sort of release from the world, and then returns to save others. In this context, the idea of wanting to be a shaman, studying to be a shaman, and then finally becoming a shaman seems perfectly reasonable. But it is a misunderstanding.
The first step to worshipping nature is the recognition of nature. This in a certain sense is simply the discrimination of the obvious. Certain places are clearly more beautiful, energetic, and otherwise powerful than others. In America, we make them national parks; in Tuva, they become sacred places. In this kind of thinking, people are simply a part of nature, basically no different from rocks or trees. It is entirely natural for some people to be more energetic than others, and it is just as natural for this energy to be transferable to others, just as one may be stimulated by a waterfall or a mountaintop. It is as reasonable for someone to seek out this human energy as it is for them to visit any sacred spot. A shaman is just a kind of movable sacred spot.
It was clear from the beginning that a huge part of my job was accomplished merely by this assumption. I soon changed many of my ideas about healing. I had thought, for example, that in order to heal, one must somehow access a kind of power, which was otherwise unavailable. On the contrary, this energy is a completely normal component of the real world. It is everywhere, and the diseases of mankind are a result of some kind of blockage, of mankind’s separation from the natural world. The shaman only seeks to break down this block, to erase the context of normal human relationship and leave only a natural flow of energy. It is clear to me that in fact there are many modern contexts in which healing takes place without any sense of the remarkable, as in the connection between a mother and her child. The obstacles to healing among the general population are due, I think, to two major causes.
First, the materialistic view of the universe, so effective in promoting material wealth and success, carries with it an unconscious rejection of any energetic transference not immediately measurable by machines, and quantifiable through mathematical formulae. Even those researchers who seem the most accepting of what might be called shamanic reality, who enthusiastically seek to discover through testing and experimentation some sort of subtle, but measurable, energy which might be exchanged, are actually reinforcing the idea that it is only such energies which have any reality. Attempts to force this kind of thinking, in the guise of modern enlightenment, upon a culture which is based around more subtle energies is somewhat reminiscent of the efforts by well meaning parents of the sixties to convince their LSD taking offspring that “nothing was really happening to them.”
The second reason for the absence of any kind of spiritual healing in the modern world is the absence of physical contact. In my thirty years of teaching T’ai Chi Ch’uan, it was obvious to me that, in the practice of t’ui-shou, or hand-pushing, my students were actually touching other people for the first time in years, at least in any context which was not emotionally charged, such as sex or familial relationships, or physically distracting, such as contact sports. I could see clearly that, in many cases, I was asking them to do something that was extremely psychologically disturbing. I could also see that, after a few weeks of such practice, they were clearly benefiting from the process. I-Churek had already remarked to me that my hands were clearly open channels for energy, which she attributed to T’ai Chi Ch’uan, though she knew little about it. To my complete amazement, my patients reported great relief when I touched them. I expected this to be simply a kind of wish fulfillment on their part, a result of expectation and excitement, but I was surprised to find that, days later, they were still quite happy with the results of their treatments. Sufferers of arthritis, in particular, insisted that their pains disappeared almost the moment I touched them. In fact, this was an effect which I had observed in teaching T’ai Chi more than once, but since, as I have said, I have never had any sort of aspirations as a healer, I rather dismissed these occurrences as coincidence, or simply the result of the exercise itself.
Despite my years of teaching T’ai Chi Ch’uan, I know next to nothing about acupuncture meridians, Chinese theories about elemental balancing, pulse diagnosis, etc. My interest has always been in T’ai Chi Ch’uan as a boxing art, not as an adjunct of oriental medicine. Initially, in my meetings with patients, I chided myself for my lack of interest, wishing to grasp at anything that might give me a crutch or a clue in healing. Later I realized that my very ignorance was in certain ways an advantage. Had I had access to such theories and techniques, I would have certainly used them, and become what I have frequently mocked and despised, a sort of hippie wannabe Chinese doctor. I realized that such a pose would have canceled out any possibility that I-Churek would have pushed me into the situation that she did. The shaman, as Kenin Lopsan later told me in conversation, works on pure intuition. In fact, he is careful to protect this intuition from mechanistic ideas. The kind of altered states to which he aspires in his work are as much for the purpose of this protection as any other.
In teaching T’ai Chi Ch’uan, I have repeatedly described the skill being developed, and my personal experience in contact with students, as “looking for holes.” In the T’ai Chi context, this is a dynamic phenomenon, based on the idea that any projection of power or substantial effort will produce a balancing weakness or insubstantiality, a kind of “hole” which if found is completely without protection. It was an entirely new thing to me to look for such “holes” in people who were completely still, but, to my amazement, it seemed that when I did they were in fact present. Putting my hands over these holes, sometimes without even touching the patient, seemed to cause definite changes. In most cases, there was a report of relief of pain. In certain cases, however, as with one young boy whose bladder was underactive, my treatments caused a kind of pain where nothing was felt before. I was somehow completely certain that in these cases such an effect was salutary, and in fact these patients later reported improvement in their condition.
Initially, I expected that within a couple of days my healing efforts would be exposed as fruitless and I would be retired to the status of tourist, but instead Lopsan reported to I-Churek that my patients were highly pleased. I discovered that many more people had signed up to wait outside my office in the blistering heat (temperatures were in the eighties and nineties at this time in Kyzyl), and that my one day off had been canceled. This is what I mean by the demands that are placed upon anyone who finds themselves in my situation. I was by now being treated with the greatest respect by the people of Kyzyl, and in fact understood that I was protected in a way that was sure to smooth any future trips I might make to this area of the world, but it was completely assumed that I fully realized as well the obligations which came with such respect. I began to feel a little crazy. Days, finally a full week had passed, and I had seen nothing of Kyzyl or Tuva except the inside of my office and the local karate school. I spent every day entirely indoors, sweating under my gold robe. But I have always been more interested in people than in places, and I was meeting people in a way that was intimate beyond any expectations. Old, young (my youngest patient was five), educated, illiterate, artists, policemen, there seemed to be no area of Tuvan culture that was insulated from shamanism. I was especially flattered when a woman appeared at the end of one day, just as I was packing up, with a letter from Kenin Lopsan, formally requesting that I treat her. She was in fact his sister or cousin (I could never get clear exactly which).
One factor that I could never quite get used to was the prevalence of curses. I would have laughed at considering such a thing from a medical point of view, but in the case of my own problems, it had turned out to be entirely real. Although rare in modern society, it is completely normal in Tuva. Everybody knows how to make curses, and the practice is common. As Vera told me later: “Yes, here everyone is cursed. It is rare to find someone who is not cursed. At least ninety percent have curses.” By the second week, I amazed myself by suddenly blurting out, while hearing the ailments of a teenage girl: “It is clear that you have been cursed.” What in the hell are you talking about? I thought to myself. And yet it was clear to me, in some weird way that I had been sensitized to. She had a strange black boil on her eye, of which the local doctors could find no cause and affect no cure. I started to talk to the girl, who was quite beautiful, and found that she had no boyfriend, and had indeed lost her boyfriend two years before to another girl. Her life had become miserable. Upon further investigation, I came to the conclusion that she had been in fact cursed by this other teenage girl. This is completely insane, I thought. Teenagers putting curses on each other, and they apparently worked. I treated her using a black meteoric stone and was completely startled to find that within minutes the blackness around her eye began to disappear. By the time she left the office she looked almost entirely normal.
After a few days Lopsan told me that my specialty was apparently curing people who were old and fat. I had received good reports from everyone, he said, but old fat people were definitely my happiest clients. As you might imagine, I greeted this with mixed feelings. I would have certainly preferred young, female, and good looking, but we shamans have to go with the flow, I guess.
My other healing tool was of course my buben playing. It had been, in fact, seeing a concert that I gave in Moscow that made I-Churek certain about inviting me, I was told. “Anyone who can play buben,” she told me, “is highly respected by Tuvans. As well as your healing work, you will also give concert. Then your acceptance in Tuva is assured.” Playing was in fact one of the few things expected of me about which I felt complete confidence. I had played with Tuvan musicians before, and they had always been very enthusiastic about it. I had never, however, thought of it as having any healing powers. I was told that Lopsan had written a paper about buben playing, in which he identified several rhythms as specific to the healing of certain diseases, and was an expert on this subject. I requested an audience with him, in which I would play and he would evaluate and instruct me about this specific subject.
He assented to this, and the next day I interrupted my work to move to his office, along with I-Churek, Masha, and Vera. As I started to play, he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. “Very beautiful,” he said after a few moments (in Russian). After a minute more, he sat up and looked at me with a startled expression. “How did you know I had heart trouble?” he said, smiling slightly. He continued to make occasional statements during my playing, in each case identifying something I was doing as being useful for treating kidney problems, breathing disorders, incontinence, depression, delusional insanity, etc. Vera joined me for some of this by singing, for which I am most grateful, since she is a constant musical inspiration. At the conclusion, Lopsan spoke with great seriousness.
“This,” he said, “is real buben playing. There is no shaman in Tuva who would not be honored to listen to you, or to have you assist him in his healing. You are playing the buben the way it was meant to be played, the way that is spoken of in legend, a way that has been all but lost by modern shamans. I will tell all of my shamans to make an effort to hear you, and to learn.”
I was frankly overwhelmed by this, and had to be later assured that Lopsan would have never made such statements out of politeness, or unless he meant every word. I asked him about my instinct to play buben only at the end of my sessions, and then not in every case, but only when I felt it.
“This is correct,” he told me. “The buben should be used at the end, as a kind of closing, a sealing of the energy. It is not called for in every case, but when it is, its powers are enormous.”
Then he took out his own buben. There were three methods, he said, which he would now show me. One for calling spirits to earth, one for summoning them from the lower worlds, and one for facilitating communication with dead ancestors. These techniques and rhythms, he informed me, had never been shown by him to anyone. He had kept them a secret, he said, because he felt that no one had appeared who could render them with the necessary skill. I later used one of these techniques in the healing of a patient (summoning the spirit of his dead grandfather to assist in the removal of a curse), and the patient appeared at my final presentation in high spirits and apparently cured.
I later learned that when I played for my patients Lopsan would frequently leave his office, from which he could faintly hear me, to come and sit outside my door and listen. I think that I will forever remember this as the greatest compliment I have ever received, and my small concert for him, the most important in my life. I was very aware that my playing was changing, and this was remarked upon later by musicians back in Moscow. It now had a serious focus, a purpose that precluded any self-indulgent shows of virtuosity. When I played for my patients I always sat out of their view, trying to erase any concept of performance from what I was doing. Even my instrument seemed more alive, almost visibly happy about the purpose to which it was being put, and about living now in the Shamanic Museum, where it seemed to be at last at home. The elaborate and sometimes almost ludicrously laborious tuning procedures for which I am known in Moscow were entirely unnecessary in Tuva. It was always in perfect tune.
In the course of all of this, several things occurred worth mentioning here. On the second or third day, as I was sitting with a patient, I felt the sudden unexpected feeling of being in a dream, that the whole trip was a dream, and that I would wake up in my bed in Moscow, ready to catch a taxi to the airport. It became clear that this was an indication of what I might call the dominance of intuition. In a dream one may in fact have very rational and self-referential thoughts, but one’s actual actions in a dream seem usually to come from nowhere, and are surrounded by an unquestioning authority. In this state my actions with patients seemed to take on a similar authority. At first, I was frequently overwhelmed by a feeling of sympathy for my patients, and seized by an incredible desire to fulfill their expectations by actually helping them. I felt a personal empathy for them, and this all conspired to make my treatments last much longer than the usual custom. I treated perhaps as many as ten patients a day; Vera frequently treated as many as thirty. I later realized that all of this personal reaction and involvement was of little use, and simply a manifestation of my insecurity, my unwillingness to believe that I was actually doing this. It was a kind of caveat from myself, to myself, for being what might be the biggest fool that anyone could be. If I really cared about them, it seemed, then perhaps my patients could forgive me for playing this role to which I felt so monumentally unsuited.
In this dreamlike state, which I found that I could invoke at will, I lost all of this self-reflection and mitigating humanity. My sessions became more truncated. I simply did what it seemed I should do, and showed them the door. I am absolutely certain that this was a correct evolution. I have, in fact, much more sympathy with the sometimes apparently unsympathetic behavior of doctors. What is important, I realize, is to do your job, and not to curry favor, friendship, or admiration. Whatever and from wherever this mysterious energy came, I became extremely sensitized to anything which might interrupt or distort it. This dream state and my actions became interdependent, each reinforcing the other in a very obvious way. I began to move with great authority, even though, in the most literal sense, I had not the slightest idea what I was doing.
I also began to notice the presence of sympathetic pain. I would start to feel what my patients felt, so that I could describe to them their own symptoms with apparent exactness. Not only pain but also more subtle sensations of constriction or even numbness became clear to me. At first this occurred only when touching patients, but later happened as I merely sat across the desk and observed them. I was worried about this, even though these manifestations disappeared following the sessions. I was told that it was normal and a sign that I was doing the right thing. This was definitely related to this dream like state, as I could experiment and establish, at least to myself, that it only occurred when I was in this condition.
By chance, one of my T’ai Chi students was a member of the Baptist Evangelist Church which had recently come to Tuva to save the locals from their heathen ways. Before I left, he presented me with a parallel Russian-English version of the New Testament, hoping, no doubt, to save my soul. Thinking to improve my Russian, I began to read in the few moments before bed that I had to myself. I was, after only a few pages, struck by the new light in which I perceived this old story. I realized that the society of Jesus, the entire context within which the Bible was written, was incredibly shamanic. The stories of Jesus being pursued by multitudes throwing themselves at his feet to be healed, which seem so incredible in modern context, I now saw were completely normal and actually somewhat unremarkable. I practically had the same thing happening to me in downtown Kyzyl. I had begun to be fearful upon exiting any building that I would encounter lines of people waiting to be healed. The frequent quote from Jesus that “I am not healing you, you are healing yourselves,” was no longer a mystical or spiritual affirmation, but simply a statement of the most obvious fact.
Before this experience, I would have said without hesitation that mental illness was certainly more easily cured than physical illness. One patient was enough to change my mind forever. Towards the end of my stay, Lopsan called me to his office for a special purpose. There was a boy, he said, who was seriously mentally ill. He heard voices that told him to do things that “he didn’t want to do.” He was completely uncommunicative and closed, and potentially violent. His condition had progressed to the point that the next step would be incarceration in a mental hospital. Lopsan was sure that such “modern” treatment would drive him over the edge to complete insanity. Given my knowledge of Russian psychiatric medicine, I more than agreed with him. His parents, it seemed, were resistant to shamanism, a kind of “new breed” of modern Tuvans who were now, however, desperate enough to try anything. His father was a very important official in Kyzyl, and the whole matter of his son was a problem that exceeded merely personal bounds.
“I think,” said Lopsan with gravity, “that you can save this boy, and perhaps only you. Will you take on the job?” My answer was obvious, and the boy was immediately brought to Lopsan’s office with his parents, who looked frankly terrified and completely exhausted. I was happy to see that the boy, about sixteen years old, seemed to react in a very positive way to me, like we were old friends. This in itself was enough to bring an amazed relief to his parents’ faces, and I had him taken to my office.
In a few moments of conversation, I was completely convinced that nothing in the boy’s behavior was contrived or false, and that he was quite sincerely tortured and terrified by these visitations, that in fact none of his descriptions of his own experience were anything but entirely sincere. At one point he asked me what year it was. I told him it was the year 2000. He told me that for him, yesterday it was 1997, and that the day before, it had been 1994.
Quite frankly, were it not for his parents’ negativity, this boy, who I will call Jack (not his real name), would have been a prime candidate for shamanic training. These kinds of “visitations” are viewed as simply connections with certain energies (energies which in fact may be connected to curses) that indicate powerful sensitivities. The kind of compulsive behavior that the boy exhibited may be described as unschooled and unfortunate attempts to enact rituals, the prime function of which is to affirm and establish intuitional and subconscious life in the conditions of normal reality. Were his family more traditional in their orientation, he would have long before been turned over to someone who would have channeled this compulsiveness into a ritual acting out of his subconscious demons, and the control of them thereby. By the standards of modern psychiatry, he would have been made more crazy, since he would now “believe in” the existence of unquantifiable and scientifically undetectable energies and “spirits.” In the context of Tuvan society, he would simply be shaman.
For me, the experience was a shock. It made me realize the effortless access to self-healing that is afforded by most citizens of Tuva, and in particular that of my recent clients. As I remarked, this openness accounted for most of the tremendous effect of my efforts. The body can be thought of as the simplest and most accessible projection of the mind. Sickness is like a warning on the most physical level of a deterioration of the mind body connection. Simply breaking through that block and reestablishing the connection is the simplest work of the shaman. But here was someone whose mind was screwed up. It was the most difficult test yet for my intuition.
I responded by dropping the shaman routine altogether.
“Look, Jack,” I told him, “you know what shamans do. They trick people. They’re tricksters.”
He gave me a knowing look, smiled and nodded his head.
“Sure, I’m a shaman, but I’m also just a guy like you. You can see this. I know you can see this. So I can’t trick you, I’m not even going to try.” This was all, in fact, true as far as I could perceive it. Jack did see me, and it was clear that he liked me. Exactly the kind of hysterical sensitivity that was driving him crazy also made people transparent to him, as they are to real shamans.
“If,” I went on, “you really want to get rid of these guys in your head, I can help you do it. But you’ve got to help me. And you’ve really got to want to get rid of them.”
Later, I explained my behavior to Masha.
“This kid is getting cut off more and more from reality. These guys in his head are becoming more real than people. He has to want some kind of human contact. I’m his link. He has to want that more than his voices.”
Jack had told us that these voices had always been with him, but he had never talked much about it. It was clear from his description that the voices were like those of children, impudent, clever children. Now that he was sixteen, he felt he was a man, and it was time to cut the connection. But the voices wouldn’t go away; they wouldn’t let him make the break. They were even able to manipulate time, to make him live, like Billy Pilgrim, his life in random order. He was afraid to make friends. His one friend had been the subject of a horrendous episode. Jack had been found one day by his mother staring into a mirror in the house, crying. When she asked what was wrong, he told her that he saw in the mirror, not himself, but his friend, and that his friend was black (not, I hope it is clearly understood, in the sense of Afro-American). Two weeks later, his friend died of mysterious causes.
Vera’s take on the whole thing was decidedly more traditional.
“He is cursed,” she said with authority. “The whole family is cursed, maybe for generations. What is needed is a thorough cleansing of all bad spirits, the house, the parents, everything.” At the same time, she found no argument with my approach. As I have said, shamans do not argue methodology. We decided to team up. I would establish a greater and greater connection with Jack, and then Masha and I would convince him and the family to let Vera do the cleaning. I requested that I see Jack every day, sometimes in the office, sometimes at I-Churek’s house. His parents would dutifully drop him off and pick him up. We had very normal conversations, talked about basketball and the like, and the family was amazed at this. Apparently no one else could get Jack to behave in anything resembling a normal way. The thing that finally pushed the parents over the edge, however, was the concert.
Sasha Chowinchuck had arranged for a final concert for me at the local discotheque, and after some discussion, Vera and I-Churek decided to join me. I didn’t quite realize that this would convert the whole concert into a huge healing ritual, but this is what in fact happened. As a result, Jack’s parents, who attended, were incredibly moved. They had avoided shamanism their whole lives, and this was the first real ritual that they had ever seen. At the end, they approached Vera and said that they were now convinced of the power of shamanism and wished to invite her to come to their house for the cleaning. She later told me that she had found bad spirits everywhere and in particular had instructed the family to get rid of the mirror mentioned before, as it was the focus of a huge amount of bad energy. She reported that Jack had been extremely frightened by her actions, and that his father had had to stand with his arm around him through the whole experience. Since we all left for Moscow almost immediately following these events, we do not know exactly how it turned out. I plan to return to Kyzyl in November, probably to do more shamanic work (I am still digesting the experience), but at any rate to record with a young Tuvan throat singer whom I met and played with during the concert, Andrey Mongush. My first act in Kyzyl will probably be to try to see Jack.
The concert itself was remarkable in simply the amount of energy generated. I have never seen anything quite like it. It didn’t have, as I remarked later to Vera, an audience. It had survivors. One old Russian, who had seen footage of me on television, but too late to catch me in my office, came to me on crutches asking to be healed. The local TV station, which again filmed the event, wanted to interview me again, and I made a deal with them to put the old man in their sound truck and take us to the museum, where I could treat him in my office. The concert, which I had thought of as my reward for being good, a chance to be just a simple musician and have a good time, ended with me hard back at work as a shaman. I realized that there weren’t going to be any days off in Kyzyl, ever.
Even the trip to the country, a long ride to the Taiga forest in the final days of my stay, was not the relaxing outing I expected. After we jumped out of the car and began to walk through the beautiful woods, absolutely rippling with the kind of energy that nature displays when it must cram spring, summer, and fall into a space of three months, I sneaked off by myself to be alone and play my buben for the eagles. After about an hour of this solitude, a caravan of cars arrived and a huge crowd descended on us, dragging, yes, this time a black lamb for the slaughter.
“Wow,” I said in amazement, “I didn’t realize it would be such a big party.”
“Yes,” said I-Churek. “Many people are coming, and you should now pick and prepare your spot.”
“My spot for what?” I said stupidly.
“For healing, of course.”
One more incident bears reporting. At one point while working in my office, the head of the local hospital, a multi-story, modern kind of building looking like nothing so much as a real western style hospital, came to the museum to consult with me. There was a patient at the hospital, she said, who was from one of the outlying towns in Tuva. A month ago, he had started to become weak and stopped eating. He seemed both withdrawn and highly agitated, and continued to deteriorate. The doctors could find nothing wrong with him, and were at a complete loss to deal with his condition. I was being formally requested to pack up my shaman bag and buben and come to the hospital to treat him. A taxi was waiting.
Somehow, this struck me as quite bizarre. If there were to be one place in Kyzyl where I would expect to not be welcome, it would be the hospital. But to my amazement, as I exited the taxi in full robes and carrying my buben, I met only respectful acknowledgment from the doctors and nurses. After being taken to a small hospital room to wait, the patient was carried in. He was as thin as a concentration camp victim, with a vacant expression. He simply lay in the awkward position in which he was deposited on the bed, and I tried to make him a bit more comfortable. Maybe, I thought, this is taking things a bit too far. But several of my other cases had also been investigated to exhaustion without success by modern medical technology (some had been as far as Moscow and Germany for treatment), and I had been able to do something for them. Here was someone from the wildest region of Tuva, and old enough to have lived a life in shaman reality. I learned his name and started to talk softly to him, in bad Russian.
At first there was no reaction, except for his evident internal agitation, which was clearly visible on his face. Then he turned and looked into my eyes. We had a silent conversation for a few minutes, after which I said to the assembled doctors:
“He thinks he’s been taken here to die.”
I performed some ritual actions, lit a candle, burned some artesh (the needles of an aromatic local pine), and asked the director if I could play the buben. No, I was told, the hospital requires quiet. I said I would play very quietly, and they reluctantly assented. The music got his attention immediately, and I felt like I had opened a telepathic channel to the old man’s soul. After a few minutes, he visibly relaxed and became more conscious. When I finished, I talked to him again, and he was extremely changed.
“This man needs life,” I said finally, “not medicine.”
After arranging to come back in two days, I returned to the museum. Oh, yes, but not before agreeing to heal the taxi driver, which took another half-hour.
The next day, I asked about the old man’s condition. I was told that he had become much more relaxed, and was now eating, though still too weak to stand by himself. (He was being fed intravenously before.) The family requested that I please return. When I did, this time the whole family was present, including his two grandsons, in their late twenties. I demanded that he be brought to a place where I could play more loudly, and we gathered in the basement, which was at this time the most pleasant place in the hospital (temperatures outside were at least ninety degrees). I rubbed the man’s feet and told him that I wanted him to dance. Then I played a long and highly energetic piece on the drum. While he did not succeed in dancing for me, he was clearly deeply affected by the music. I had been told many times that my playing had real Tuvan soul, and after this, I believed it. Again, I had to leave the next day, so I will wait for the results, but I was sure of one thing: the old man wanted to live.
The two grandsons had interesting reactions. One was extremely warm and grateful, while the other, undoubtedly educated to a more modern perspective, looked long suffering and upset.
There is no doubt in my mind that I have never worked harder than during those days, in terms of sheer output of energy. I got little sleep, and nightly battled stifling heat and swarms of aggressive mosquitoes. For one day I was sick myself, stricken with food poisoning form one of our lunches at the museum, (as was Vera, also, though, due to her smaller appetite, her condition was milder). I had fever and diarrhea (no fun in outhouse conditions), severe muscle cramps, and stomach pains. But the next day I felt fine, and was back at my usual schedule. I can say with certainty, in fact, that I have never felt better in my life than during those days of intense work. I-Churek’s explanation for this was simple. She was confident at this point, she said, that she had been right to bring me to Tuva, and invited me to return at any time. This kind of work, according to her, was the only proper use for my energy, the only use that would not be draining and self-destructive. My whole attraction to the buben, after years of studying Indian music, African music, and American jazz, was due to my unconscious need to use the drum to a higher purpose than merely entertainment. She even smiled a little wickedly as she told me that I would never be satisfied simply playing music again.
When I got back to Moscow, I played a concert of Mexican music that I had agreed to do before my trip. There were Spanish dancers and an irrepressible Mexican singer who would, if he could have, played all the instruments, done all the dances, and worked the lights and sound as well. We did rhumbas and tangos, we wore big Mexican hats, we played Besame Mucho and the Spanish version of My Way.
I’m afraid that I-Churek was, as with most things, right again.