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This is an archive version of 'Psychedelic Information Theory' Alpha chapters. The final version of this text can be found at:
Words of Caution to the Would-Be Shaman

James Kent

Chapter 06: Psychedelic Information Theory

So you want to be a shaman? What a pity...

Sad though it may be, there have been many times when well-meaning young men have approached me with a twinkle in their eye declaring, "Hi, I'm a shaman!"

Yes, it's true.

I try not to laugh at these people, but it is hard. Sure, I know where they are coming from. They have spent some time learning the psychedelic arts and have had some experience tapping into the wonders of the great psychedelic journey, but does this make them shamen? No, of course not. For those who would object I will pose this analogy: Just because you know the names of all of the teeth in your head and use them to chew food, does that make you a dentist? No. You may know a little something about teeth, but does that give you the knowledge and skill you need to perform oral surgery? Of course not, so why would you assume to be able to do the same thing with psychedelics and shamanism?

To be quite honest I am very skeptical when anyone calls themselves a shaman, even someone who has studied with tribal shamen, even someone who comes from the Brazilian rainforest. There is no degree or diploma a shaman can get that is worth anything in my opinion. Because so much myth and superstition permeates this field I can't tell if anyone really knows what they are talking about when they claim to practice shamanism. The only proof of a shaman's worth is the health and well being of his tribe, and if you are not administering psychedelics to a tribe in a ritual or therapeutic context then you are not a shaman!

I think the problem here is with language and cultural barriers. I'm not even sure if the word shamanism means anything in the modern world. People don't put much stock in the shamanic method now that Western medicine has become so good at treating so many things. Like witchcraft or voodoo or any other tribal occult ritual, shamanism is considered to be an outdated concept unworthy of much critical study. And with the creeping destruction and assimilation of global tribal cultures, shamanism as we know it appears to be on the ropes.

But it is very important that we don't discredit the entirety of shamanic method in our rush to do away with the old and usher in the new. There is some real scientific value in the knowledge and ritual of the shaman, and stuff that should not be overlooked just because it is adorned with eagle feathers and bone rattles. But where do the ritual adornments end and the scientifically significant bits start? Can the ritual and the science even be separated? And if so, what kind of a practice can a shaman actually hope to have in the modern world?

To be perfectly honest, the way of the shaman is rough, it is not an easy job. It is hard enough to juggle the emotional health needs and desires of a small tribal community, let alone try to grapple with the existential woes of a complex modern society. In some sense, the desire to become a shaman could be listed as a pathology of its own, a sub-set of martyr complexes in which the individual strives to heal the pain of the world through some kind of radical alchemical interpersonal transformation. Yes, it is that bad. The desire to become a shaman is some kind of aberration, a sickness of its own kind, like wanting to be a vampire or a super-hero. The shamanic call has a whole lot of downsides and very few rewards. It can be physically and emotionally draining. It can be downright brutal, sucking time and strength and happiness, opening you to all kinds of weird energy from random directions. If you don't know what you are doing you can do real damage to yourself and your patients. And, most importantly, you never know what kind of a situation you will find yourself in when taking psychedelics in the presence of strangers, and the threat of mistrust, deceit, paranoid or obsessive ideation, and inappropriate behavior is amplified to the extreme within the context of federal prohibition and illicit use. So the whole notion that you could be something even approaching a real practicing shaman in the context of modern industrialized civilization is absurd to say the least.

Yet, some still consider this path a viable option. I can't honestly explain why this is, but the shamanic pull must override all other sensibilities, like the desire to be a rock star or a cowboy or a ballerina. It is a romantic unreality that can be idealized and emulated, but trying to translate the shamanic process from the old world to the new world without intense operational oversight is most likely a recipe for disaster. Just because you do a lot of 'shrooms and read some Castaneda books does not make you a shaman, nor should you fool yourself into the notion that you are one. Most likely you are someone who has taken too many drugs and might possibly have recurring and persistent delusions of grandeur...

But with all that said, there are a few very rare people who do manage to find that fleeting shamanic context in the modern world where the psychedelic can quietly work its magic. These modern-day shaman may appear as kindly old men, dreadlocked DJs, Wiccan priestesses, alternative therapists, drug dealers, college professors, street prophets, wilderness retreat leaders, rock stars, doctors, promoters, cult leaders, and in a wide variety of other forms, both entirely sketchy or bordering on straight up legitimacy, but very rarely do they carry a business card that reads "Shaman" (though I have seen this, and yes, I have laughed). In many ways, the traditional role of the shaman has become distributed in the modern world through a complex network of specialists and informally trained amateurs who more or less spontaneously emerge into ad hoc shamanic roles when context relies on them to do so.

So here I am applying a vague notion of synchronicity to the emergence of shamanic subtypes within the context of the modern industrial world. For instance, one traditional role of the shaman is to take a lot of drugs and return from the near-death void with a set of new songs and rituals for the tribe to perform. Okay, now we have rock stars and techno musicians who do that for us, and the art form is spilling over with specialists of ever-increasing skill and technique. Another role of the shaman might be to council quarreling tribe members through rough times. Well, now we have priests and psychologists and family counselors who do that (though not under the influence of psychedelics, at least not legally). The chemists, MDs, psychotherapists and pharmacologists have taken other shamanic specialties, and the alternative healers have taken their own blend of specialties. But outside of straight-up indigenous tribal culture, the role of the psychedelic shaman in it's multi-faceted, bone-rattling glory does not exist, at least not right now anyway. In a culture of increasing specialization, very few people have the capacity to even know all the stuff you would have to know to be a practicing shaman. You would have to limit yourself to a specific field of shamanism or get shut out of the game by competitors who do their little bit just as good or better, so why even try to keep up?

I know, it's pathological.

The application of psychedelic drugs on the self is tricky enough as it is, but attempting to manage someone else's trip, to channel their outcome in some predetermined way, is very tricky to say the least, near impossible unless you are highly trained and experienced. The interpersonal messiness of modern culture is so complex and loaded with taboos and etiquette boundaries even getting past the simplest "hang ups" and into the real core of real shamanic healing can take many sessions even with a close friend, let alone a total stranger. Shamanic therapy requires an almost childlike leap of faith in which the patient must submit all trust and control over to the shaman. Getting to that point with a patient who is even a little skeptical about the practice can be almost impossible.

As I said, highly trained experts can work around even the messiest issues, but the web of interpersonal potential between shaman and patient surpasses most of the boundaries we would expect from an MD or a psychotherapist, and it is rigorous, challenging work, especially if patients do not improve and only get worse. Then what do you do? The shaman must invest an immense amount of personal energy in each and every patient, and there is no support system for burnt out shamen, nor is their an oversight committee for shamen who abuse a patient's trust. In short, there is no cultural infrastructure to support a working shaman. If you practice, you practice on the side, in secret, and only on referrals from close friends and other patients. It is sketchy work which would be defined as criminal in the US, even if you are licensed, trained, have degrees, etc. It is not the life I would chose for anyone: the outlaw healer.

So those are my words of wisdom for you true believers and followers of the shamanic path. If you still want to be a shaman then here are a few more words of wisdom for you: Do something else with your life. Educate yourself. Don't kill yourself, and don't kill any of your friends. This is delicate pharmacology you are messing with, and if you do not know the fundamentals of pharmacology and persist in applying drugs to friends and strangers in some "shamanic quest" without knowing what you are doing, or checking for contra-indications and pre-existing medical conditions, then you are not a shaman, you are tempting disaster. This is worse than dangerous, it is bordering on pathological, sociopathic, and megolomaniacal.

Thinking that you can "save the world" and "heal people" with the transcendent power of psychedelics (typically applied to yourself and close friends in mass quantities) is the definition of a delusional shamanic complex in a nutshell. I have seen it many times in many people, sometimes expressing itself in positive and creative ways, sometimes expressing itself in dark and negative ways, but nonetheless delusional. I don't want people to get angry at me for saying so, but I think these people are all freaks. Psychedelics change things, that is true, but ascribing this change as "saving the world" or thinking that all psychedelic use is "healing" or "therapy" implies an innate goodness and infallibility to the power of the psychedelic trip, and I do not for a second believe this is true. To believe that all psychedelic use is positive or at least "can't hurt" is na´ve beyond contempt. It is dangerous.

A tribal shaman must apprentice for years before treating his own patients, and it only applies more so in the modern world. Get your MD, get a PhD. Educate yourself. Apprentice with elders. Find a real way to help people and stay committed to your pursuit of psychedelics. If, some day, opinions change and this field re-opens, there will be a lot of need for formally trained academics to structure the protocols and boundaries that shamanic work will entail, but whatever it looks like it will not be accessible to hippie wannabes who dropped a lot a shit but never got their act together. If a legitimate context for shamanic work ever materializes in the modern world, it is safe to say that education and academia will be the only keys to exploring the shamanic realm. And that is not delusion, that is the reality.

So after all that, do you still wanna be a shaman?

Well then, read on...

Author's note: I have gotten a lot of feedback on this chapter, generally of the opinion that I am being too harsh on those who adopt the term "shaman" to describe anyone who experiments broadly with psychedelic drugs. I am of the opinion that casual use of the word "shaman" dilutes the meaning and ultimately removes any credibility from the study of shamanism, instead turning the term into something of a joke. A similar thing happened to the term kahuna, the Hawaiian word for shaman. In Hawaiian society, the kahuna's power often rivaled that of the King's. While once respected and even feared, the term kahuna was stripped of its original meaning by casual use in hipster surfer lingo, which was then adopted by 1960s era Gidget movies. Today the term "Big Kahuna" is little more than a joke. To illustrat my point futher, you wouldn't call someone who inhales the most nitrous oxide at a party a "dentist" (unless you are joking), so I ask that you please don't make the same mistake by calling someone a "shaman" just because they like to take a lot of psychedelic drugs. It dilutes the original meaning of the word and does a great disservice to those who would like to see the concept of shamanism legitimized in a modern context. Thank you!

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Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2005-02-16 00:00:00