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General · 18th April 2015
Ray Grigg
Mike Bell, a former monk who once worked in social services in Canada's Arctic, and is now an environmental activist and teacher in the Comox Valley, initiated a six-part series of “talks” and conversations entitled Climate Change, the New Cosmology and Earth Spirituality. Much of his material was inspired by his long-time friend and mentor, the famous theologian and philosopher, Thomas Berry.

As an effective teacher who learned some important lessons from his old friend and mentor, Bell offered an anecdote that provided an important insight into our disconnection from nature and how our resulting behaviour is contributing to the plethora of serious environmental problems now looming so threateningly around us.

Bell recounted an occasion when Thomas Berry was invited to talk to a group of high school students. He wanted them to understand the depth of our problem by giving them a sense of our spiritual predicament. As Bell recalled, the term autism came to mind, and [Berry] asked if anyone in the class could define what that meant, unsure if he would get a clear answer. A student jumped up and explained, “Autism is about people being so locked up in themselves that no one and nothing else can get in.”

This, Berry thought, is exactly what has happened to the human community in our times. “We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe. All the disasters that are happening now are a consequence of that spiritual autism.”

If, then, we are going to mend our environmental problems, the first thing we need to do is to reconnect to Earth, to break out of the autistic isolation that lets nothing else in. This is why Berry believed that “The Great Work” of our day-to-day lives cannot be done by the priest or the prophet, but only by the shaman.

Shamans, although they may seem distant and primitive to us now, have been part of our human history for millennia, serving as a powerful connection between ourselves and the natural world. They preceded any notion of religion and were once the primary means by which we maintained a harmonious relationship with each other and the natural world upon which we were totally dependent.

The trances, rituals, divinations and healings of long ago may now seem rather fanciful in an age of science. But the essential function of the shaman can be transferred easily to our contemporary culture for a new relevance. While the historic shaman addressed issues of both physical and spiritual sickness, the modern shaman is needed to address issues of psychic and environmental health. Indeed, with only minor adjustments in language and thought, we are beginning to recognize that we are both unwell, and as dependent on nature as our ancient ancestors. If Thomas Berry is correct, we are only going to survive our unfolding environmental challenges by ending our autistic condition and re-establishing a meaningful communion with Earth. This is a truth that we have long forgotten but always known. The shaman's function, therefore, is mostly unchanged.

In actuality, the psychology that supports an argument for the shaman's new relevance is not so difficult to find. Artists of all sorts, including anyone in any kind of creative enterprise, can attest to the insights that derive from the sense of perspective coming from being distant from the mundane world. The paradoxical feeling of a separated connectedness that inspires music, poetry, ideas and inventions produces the same insights induced by the shamanic out-of-body experience. The spirit of shamans are alive and well in our modern culture as artistic creativity and environmental conscience. And this spirit is also amply evident in the scholarship of scientists and philosophers, in those empirical pursuits that require a delicate balance of detachment and engagement. The Canadian media guru, Marshall McLuhan, would probably have placed all these people in the august company of shamans by defining them all as “early warning systems”.

The shaman's calling derives from some awareness of alarm, some sense of actual discord that either exists in the present or is pending between the present and the future. This awareness doesn't come from being fully immersed in the moment, but from being in that special disembodied place between the disconnected and connected. Experiencing simultaneously from both outside and inside the culture provides powerful insights that are not available to others who are fully committed and narrowly engaged by their autistic focus.

So the shaman, by definition, is marginal, on the fringe of the normal and conventional, engaged in selfless public service that has nothing to do with personal gain or prestige. The role of advisor, mediator or healer falls to the shaman because of a calling, not because of a desire or intention. This alone makes the attributes of the shaman unusual, special and suspect in an autistic culture that is unfamiliar with a comprehensive consciousness able to derive insights by giving simultaneous attention to both detail and context.