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An Essay on the Shamanic Experience - by Yoni Garb

A recent and unexpected addition to the growing map of Shamanic communities is Israel, birthplace of the Western monotheistic tradition.

The centre of this community is Dan Russell, head of the Hypnotherapy Training Centre and Northern School of Tai Chi in Carlisle, on England's Scottish border. Dan's search for sources of power and healing has led him to Tibet, Bhutan, Fiji and Taiwan. His intensive studies with Tai Chi masters and Tibetan Lamas grew into a unique synthesis centred on what he calls "Shamanic Awakening".

For centuries Scotland resisted the spread of Christianity and was both renowned and feared for the Shamanic arts of its people (1). Medieval documents describe women in Scotland transforming themselves into animals in "ecstasies and transis" (2). Today, in the rugged hills near Dan's home in Scotland, executives and attorneys rediscover these ancient paths in weekends devoted to Shamanic Awakening. These initiations include fasting, solitude and intense physical effort aimed at transcending the imagined boundaries of the self. Dan constantly inspires his students to shed the constraints imposed on them from without, and discover the limitless potential within.

In recent years, Dan has renewed his connection with Israel, where he spent several years in his youth. Dan arrives frequently in Israel to lead Shamanic weekends, while almost every month, Israelis come to Carlisle to practice trance and martial arts. Several of these have begun to travel on paths totally alien to their culture and upbringing, yet they feel that in a deep sense they have returned home. I have collected several "travelogues" of such inner journeys.

Descent, Confrontation, Ecstasy

"Dan clasped me on the forehead and sent me into trance. I very soon wanted to lie down. Dan asked me if i saw a staircase. I saw an elevator is a tube station. I was afraid of that I saw at the bottom of the staircase. There were black rocks, very polished and perfect. Very sharp. The escalator began to move very fast. Dan told me to hand on, I was cutting my hands on the rocks. He insisted that I hold on, it became overwhelming. He said to let go and I will be on my own. He said I will get further away so I should call his name if I no longer heard him. He said "My name is Dan". I had forgotten it. I felt myself swept away. I said his voice is a room away. Then I was near a cave, he said to go in, it was wet, it sucked me in and there were snakes trying to pull me down. Dan asked if there was a wave and I saw it. He said be careful and it was too powerful. He said go with it and I swam, sometimes I nearly drowned. I was scared and said the critic is here. Dan said be careful, if he wins you won't be able to go back. The critic said Dan is making this up to scare me. Dan said go though him with my teeth. I attacked but he melted away and threw me back. Dan said again with my teeth, but I was running away. And Dan said if I run away I will lose everything. So I attacked. He kicked me in the balls, and had me in a choking hold. I was helpless, he was very powerful. He said he was holding me hostage. Dan said to tell him he know if he wins we both die. He said he didn't care. Dan asked him what is he doing. He said waiting for Dan. Dan leapt at me and choked me. I tried to throw him off. He said use my voice. I did a martial arts shout but it didn't help. He said again, and I did it wilder and threw him off. He attacked my eyes, and we grappled, but my body knew what to do and I got out each time and we stood up and I got in a perfectly timed punch and kick. And Dan sent me down again and said well done, and I was in a soft feathery sinking surface being tossed up and down, and it was very good and Dan said this is my place and no-one can take it away from me and I can always go there."

As Joseph Campbell (3) has shown, numerous cultures have preserved the narrative of the hero's journey, his or her confrontation with the powers of the deep, and the eventual victory which enables the hero to return with new powers and insights. The powers acquired by Shamanic training include the ability to exit the body (as in the Greek term for trance : ex-stasis) and travel to other realms: either by ascending or descending. It is in these worlds that on encounters the obstacles that blight one's conscious life, the banes of one's 'normal' existence. If on has the courage to confront and win through, then it is possible to penetrate into the deeper level of our being that is hidden by one's inner adversaries. This level has as many names as they are spiritual paths: in Judaism it is refereed to as the divine spark, in Christianity it is described as the Kingdom of God within us, while in the Buddhist tradition it is know as Boddhicita or Buddha-Nature. But however we choose to designate it, this level is an infinite source of wisdom and power that becomes accessible through trance, meditation or martial arts.

Merging with the Animal Powers

"Dan clasped my neck and forehead, and I went into deep trance, deeper than I had ever been. I was flying south very fast. I found myself in a forest clearing. Leopards were dancing round a vast fire. They asked me where I have been all the time. There was a leopard in the flame. I went towards it. It scratched me and leaped on me. Then I felt myself dissolving into it. We flew back north to Israel. I was a child playing football in front of the house. I saw a cat on the fence, and realised that it was the cat from the fire. I said to Dan "there must be millions of them" in a tone of great wonder. All my life I had loved cats, and even alley cats normally shy of humans have been drawn to me. Until now I had not truly understood the depths of this connection. We were back near the fire, they were dancing and me with them. Dan set me down, and I was breathing intensely and began to feel unbearable energies in my body. Dan was breathing with me. Suddenly my rational mind told Dan that all this was not real. I left the trance state. Dan asked me to sit facing him in a completely normal state of mind. His face disappeared and began to change into a gnome-like face, like Yoda in Star Wars. He pointed out that this was happening in 'normal' consciousness and is real."

For many thousands of years humans lived with animals. Even in the most modern and technological of cities we live side by side with cats, dogs, birds and squirrels. The dominant religions and philosophies teach us that animals are inferior to 'man' who is created in the 'image of God' and destined to rule over all other life forms. In another version of this narrative, we are told that only 'man' is capable of language and rationality and that animal behavior is a more reflex and conditioned response. Yet there is an alternative to these dogmas. Many archaic cultures have enabled shamans to develop powers of transformation. These masters of ecstasy were able to merge with animals and acquire their unique powers and gifts, which were then utilized for healing. In Europe, as historian Carlo Ginzburg has shown, these individuals were persecuted as witches and werewolves.

Through trance some of us have learned that the human form is only one of many that we are capable of. In these sacred journeys, we have been able to befriend our animal guides and learn their ways.

I would like to conclude with a short statement on Shamanism by Dan Russell which appears in a short booklet entitled "Shamanic Awakening - Recollections of a Weekend with Dan"

(4): "The essence of the shaman is that his or her way is full of power and life. Not reliant on others for stimulation or comfort, yet nourished also by the love found in abundance on the 'path'. The other essential aspect of Shamanism is that it is there to help and heal people - everyone is one's tribe, community, family - rather than being focused on reclusivity/spiritual development. Of course one needs to cultivate the ability to be alone and to actually experience solitude also, but that is never a goal in itself. Just a means to understanding and empowerment. What do you 'call' learning to be strong, learning to love each other, to love life itself?"

Footnotes: 1) See the material collected in Carlo Ginsburg's Ecstasies (London: Penguin) 1992. 2) Ibid, page 100. 3) Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (London: Abacus) 1975. 4) Northern School of Tai Chi Chuan and Trance, Carlisle, 1991.

Biographical information on the author:
Born in South Africa in 1967, Dr. Yoni Garb, PhD, has lived in Israel since 1973. He specializes in Jewish and General Mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and also studies Tai Chi Chuan, Zen Shiatsu and Nin-Jutsu.