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General · 18th April 2015
Ray Grigg
Among the many insights of the French Jesuit, philosopher and paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), one in particular strikes with a special impact. “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey,” he writes, “we are spiritual beings on a human journey.” This reverses the narrow, selfish and materialistic way we usually think of ourselves, allowing each of us to assess our actions, motives and ethics from a much broader and deeper perspective. Optimistically, de Chardin believed that humans are evolving mentally and socially toward to a perfect spiritual state.

But what is this “perfect spiritual state”? Understanding de Chardin's sense of the spiritual presents interesting theological and philosophical problems when considering his Jesuit background. But his work as a paleontologist and the censure he received from the Catholic Church for being “unorthodox” suggests a more primeval and earthy understanding of the word “spiritual”, thereby placing him in the company of other eminent 20th century thinkers such as the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, and the American mythologist, Joseph Campbell. Take away any hint of religion, and the “spiritual state” anticipated by de Chardin approaches the insights provided by Jung and Campbell of the shaman.

Jung, who pursued the subject of shamans with great enthusiasm — he studied them diligently for many years, and even lived among them from 1924 to 1926 — came to believe they were connected to our collective unconscious, the common awareness functioning below the surface consciousness of all human beings. The shaman, according to Jung, was the link between this shared unconscious and the superficial differences we call values and culture.

But the shaman, Jung realized, also connects us to the world of nature, to our ancient roots as hunter-gatherers when our relationship with the animals, plants, water, ground and air was immediate, continual and intimate. Fundamentally, however, despite the sophistication of our modern lives, little has changed. Our sense of being removed from nature is mostly an illusion. Our bodies are natural. Growth, maturation, hormonal drives, mating, eating, sleeping and dying are all natural processes. Seasons, weather and climate affect us profoundly. Below the level of consciousness, we know that our global civilization, despite its vaunted accomplishments, is just a passing drama on Earth's churning tectonic surface. This unconscious knowing is the incessant apprehension whispering beneath all we do and accomplish. It is the shadow of frailty and vulnerability that haunts our human existence, drives our learning and aspirations, and links us all together in the same inescapable condition.

Joseph Campbell had a similar view. He, too, held that creative awareness “comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.” The insights of the shaman cause people to say, “Aha! This is my story. This is something that I had always wanted to say but wasn't able to say.” As Campbell so vividly explains in The Power of Myth, “The shaman is the person, male or female, who in his late childhood or early youth has an overwhelming psychological experience that turns him totally inward. It's a kind of schizophrenic crackup. The whole unconscious opens up, and the shaman falls into it.”

The traditional definition of a shaman is someone who is connected via a trance to the the world of good and evil spirits, and thereby becomes capable of divination and healing. But this notion essentially excludes the shaman from a modern culture. Campbell fills this vacancy with the artist. But the role might not be that exclusive considering the myriad of profound insights that many people commonly have.

All of us have partial access to the same process and potential as the shaman. We all sometimes feel a bit alienated and distant from the culture in which we live. Indeed, individuality is the hallmark of this feeling of being somewhat distinct, separate and lost, as if the awareness within the self is sometimes too expansive to be contained in the roles, duties, ambitions and social pressures trying to mould us into conforming members of a culture. This feeling of separateness and distance, if it is not understood in a personal or egotistical way, is common with some of the essential inner attributes of the shaman, and may serve as everyone's portal into the shaman's consciousness.

This may not be an unusual experience. Many of us have moments of profound insight to which we pay only brief or scant attention, moments of intuitive clarity that quickly dissolve into the demanding whirl of ordinary life. But the insistent feeling that we are alive in a living place is neither strange nor rare. So follow these feelings. Listen to the wind and stars. Talk to the river. Enter into a conversation with the trees, the ocean, the rocks. They do not speak words. But they do speak a primal language that we can all understand if we listen attentively with the deepest parts of ourselves. The fullness of this silence is the wisdom of Earth communicating to the unconscious, the profound voice of knowing that whispers below the humdrum of the mundane, of the material, of the individual and of the ego. It is the lingua franca of a sacred wholeness speaking to the healing powers of the shaman within.