I have spent a good part of my life studying and practicing shamanism and working with dreams. On the surface, this is an odd pedigree for someone teaching and writing about nonduality. The more common path is through some tradition of eastern spirituality or exposure to a particular guru. I get this question often enough that I think it is worth addressing: How does a shaman come to nonduality?
I should begin by saying that my conception and practice of shamanism has evolved over time and is not the commonly accepted view in the neo-shamanic community. This evolution is something I began to describe in my book Stone Age Wisdom: The Healing Principles of Shamanism and has continued to grow. It is not the stereotypical view of shamanism. It is neither a cultural appropriation nor does it require a regression to some pre-rational stage of awareness in order to accept and practice. I have taken to referring to it as an integral shamanism to distinguish it from what is commonly practiced but in so doing, I mean no disrespect to traditional shamans or neo-shamanic practitioners.
In the book “The Master Game” Robert DeRopp writes: “What people really need and demand from life is not wealth, comfort, or esteem, but games worth playing.” He goes on to elaborate that: “We can divide life into object games and meta games. Object games can be thought of as games for the attainment of material things, primarily money and the objects which money can buy. Meta games are played for intangibles such as knowledge or the salvation of the soul.”
While I think this conception is useful, I would argue that what we are really playing are state games. We want to attain some state of consciousness like peace, happiness, contentment, fulfillment, wholeness, health or love. We play object games because we mistakenly come to associate a desired state with the acquisition of certain material conditions, relationships, or situations.
The ultimate state game is the awakening game.
Whether you are an anonymous tribal shaman or one of the founders of the world’s great religions, the underlying premise of the meta game of spirituality is that we are asleep and living in a dream world. The evolution of the awakening game over time has taken us from the shamans who were the early pioneers of transcendence and consciousness to the Buddhas and beyond.
Shamans were probably the first explorers of consciousness, so it makes sense that at least some shamans must have been the first to stumble upon the truth that consciousness is everything or everything is consciousness. Of course how that truth was understood or communicated depended upon the cultural stage of evolution of that particular shaman.
Shamans, to the level they were allowed by their cultures, developed tools and techniques for awakening to the true nature of reality and exploring consciousness itself. Of course those techniques were subject to a cultural overlay that was usually animist or based in nature and ancestor worship, but the techniques themselves were profound and would evolve into the meditative and contemplative practices that are at the core of the world’s great religions.
Because shamanism evolved among nomadic peoples for whom physical survival was of paramount importance, it tended to have very practical applications such as locating prey (elk, buffalo, whales), healing illness and injury, and caring for the emotional psyche of the tribe. Ultimately this led to shamanism developing powerful techniques and practices for attending to the unseen dimensions of the waking world or the world of form, but stopped short of the idea that all people might awaken from the dream.
Ken Wilber writes about three great states of consciousness that seem to appear in both the great religious traditions and in our own day-to-day experience. These states are the gross (physical), subtle (dreaming), and causal (formless emptiness). In the “state game” that has been my life, I was drawn by a deep fascination with dreams and dreaming states and the desire to do healing work. It led me to explore shamanic practices (the spirituality of the gross physical world—mother nature—Gaia—the circle of life and other third-person forms of meeting the face of God). Shamanic techniques like enhanced awareness of energetic flow, focused attention, and sensitivity to the patterns that lie beneath the manifestation of form in the material realm do help one play the game more artfully and with more effectiveness. As my path progressed, however, I was also drawn to the idea of not just playing the game better, but of waking up from the game itself. Because, in the end, playing the game better, even mastering the game, only takes one so far.
For me shamanism is first and foremost the exploration of consciousness. It is a sensitivity to the way energy, as a kind of template for arising form, moves and flows. Borrowing terminology from physics, shamanism is a sensitivity to or fascination with strange attractors—what creates patterns out of chaos. All the specific techniques that seem so exotic and strange are really just a cultural overlay for developing, enhancing, and refining a specific set of skills and techniques for working at the intersection of form and formlessness.
Because of a deep desire to serve and help others, I have spent a lot of time counseling and coaching in ways that sometimes look shamanic and other times look like satsang and still other times look like an exchange between a therapist and client. What I have found is that in my own life I have little patience for further empowering my illusions, but when it comes to helping others, the principles and techniques of shamanism and dreamwork have value. This is why I think it is relevant to blend an integral form of shamanism with dreamwork and nonduality. In the gross realm, shamanism can be highly useful. In the subtle realm, dreams give us guidance and clarity in the dialog between the dream and the dreamer. Nonduality places all of this in perspective.
The physics of Einstein and Newton describes the visible world in elegant and predictable ways. But when we approach the subatomic level the math that predicts phenomenon so consistently collapses and we need a new math, a new physics—quantum mechanics. The search that drives cutting-edge physics today, however, is for a unifying theory that brings together the macro and the micro realms.
Science and technology describe the physical world with a high degree of predictability, but there are some realms in which science seems to break down. Shamanism is, for me, like quantum physics. When you strip away the layers of cultural decoration, the history of animism, and the cosmology of tribal deities and forces, shamanism does a good job of describing and even intervening locally in an energetic phenomena that we do not readily perceive or fully understand.
Nonduality, for me, is a search for a unified field theory.
Of course I also know that all of this—from shamanism through dreamwork and including everything I might say about nonduality—is just a story that I am telling myself.
Awhile back the radio program “All Things Considered” from National Public Radio did a series of pieces from different experts with different perspectives about what makes us human or what seems to set us apart from other animals. One of my favorites was an anthropologist who said that we may be human because we tell stories.
I personally have an on-again-off-again love affair with stories. I always have. I love stories and I struggle to remember and to remind others that they are, in the end, just stories. They are one of the unique ways we communicate thoughts, feelings, and sensations and try to make sense of what is often such a mystery.
Most of the time, when you ask a question that begins with why, whether you know it or not, you are inviting someone to tell you a story. Don’t be upset when they give you a story. It is really the best that anyone can do in the face of “why?”
A friend of mine, Susan, asked the question: Why do some people seem to affect us so much and others not at all? There is, of course no real answer to this question. There are only stories, but one of the stories that seems to address this question is that we incarnate in this realm with “soul contracts” with other souls that also incarnate here. Those people that affect us in powerful and meaningful ways are those with whom we have an agreement to help us work out or work through certain issues in this realm.
There are two variations of the soul contract idea. One is that we have these soul contracts to work through issues that in some way evolve our spirits from lifetime to lifetime. Another is that working through these issues has nothing to do with an evolutionary movement because when we die we return to that undifferentiated consciousness from whose perspective there is no need to evolve. That “story” holds that we have soul contracts simply so that the GOD/LOVE/Consciousness that we all are can have experiences in differentiated form: in essence, so that we can play the great game without knowing the ending.
There are, of course, subtle variations of the soul contract story that attempt to integrate both of these perspectives. I happen to like this story, whether it is true or not, because it shifts my relationship to people I do not like and I think any story that helps me move in the direction of tolerance and compassion and forgiveness is a good thing.
While working on my book “One Drop Awareness”, I had this dream:
I’m with my wife, Kelly, in a big, old, marble-columned building where there is a party going on. It is a costume party and to get in, everyone has to have a costume and a mask. One of the “rules” of the party is that your costume and your mask determine how you interact with other costumes and masks. I am in some kind of swashbuckling costume with a sword and a mask and a big hat. Kelly is in a long, low-cut dress from the same period so our relationship seems predetermined. We are supposed to flirt and fight but end up together. It is obvious what my relationship to some people is supposed to be (attractive women, noble comrades-in-arms, wise mentors, sidekicks, villains, archenemies, tyrants, etc.), but some of them are more confusing. When I meet people I am not supposed to like (because of their costumes and mine), I find that I actually don’t like them. They fulfill my expectations of being unlikable. The upshot is that some people I like and some people I don’t and these people have a strong affect upon me. There are, however, a lot of people that I don’t seem to feel strongly about one way or the other.
As the party progresses, I am dancing/flirting with a woman who I am sure is not Kelly, but it turns out that behind her mask, she is Kelly. I become aware that every woman that I am attracted to is actually Kelly. Then I begin to notice that the men look familiar. We begin nodding at each other, smiling and winking in secret recognition. I realize that they are all me—even the ones that I am not supposed to like (because of their costumes and masks).
Eventually, I begin to realize that even the women I am attracted to (the Kellys) are also me. This is the most amazing feeling. At first it is strange. They all do not look like me. They still look very different and they still have their masks and costumes, but I know they are really me. I know that this probably sounds very narcissistic, but it didn’t make me feel important or like I was the center of anything. On the contrary, my sense of self seemed much more diffuse. It was also really relaxing, because I no longer had anything to fear or to hide, because they were me. There was nothing and nowhere to hide anyway.
The odd thing is that in the dream we still played the game of interacting as lovers or friends or students or teachers or enemies, but we did it playfully and without any real attachment to that relationship being right or true or anything other than a momentary exchange. I could still feel myself gravitating toward strong attraction (like) or revulsion (dislike).
So my dream doesn’t really answer Susan’s “why” question, except in the sense that one reason that people affect us so profoundly is that it may be us (as GOD) affecting us (as GOD) and that when we meet someone to whom we are attracted or repulsed, it is really a kind of recognition process. We recognize things we like about ourselves in others and things we dislike about ourselves in others and that is what is affecting us. When people don’t affect us, perhaps it is that we are not recognizing ourselves in them.
This, of course, begs the question, would enlightenment or awakening actually mean that we were more affected or affected by more people (increasing the amount of feeling we have) because we recognize ourselves in more people? Or, would it mean that we were less affected because the highs and lows were neutralized by recognizing ourselves in everyone and we no longer took being affected so seriously?
Again, these are just stories, regardless of how truthful or convincing they may sound. As an author and teacher it is my job to sound authoritative, but I am more convinced than ever that while “good stories” are useful in helping us master the game and even in getting us to the threshold of awakening, “no stories” are the words inscribed on the threshold of awakening itself.
So in my case, the answer to the question of how a shaman ends up at nonduality can be summed up in the admission that I have spent my life following the path of ever better and larger stories into the realm of no stories at all.
Hell is a story about life as a series of random and meaningless events, some painful, some joyful, but ultimately going nowhere and signifying nothing.
Heaven is a story of life as an intricately choreographed dance of relationships and experiences designed to refine our capacity for consciousness, compassion, and creativity.
Enlightenment is a life without story—simply a conscious, compassionate, and creative response to what arises moment-to-moment.