Originally published in New Dawn #139
Michael Harner, more so than Carlos Castaneda, more so than Gordon Wasson, Terence McKenna, Alan Watts, Abbie Hoffman or Timothy Leary, has perhaps done more than any other to enlighten the West on the truly global nature of shamanism — a cultural and spiritual heritage that seems to unify every archaic and indigenous culture around the world. Mr. Harner has been studying this cross-cultural enigma since the 1950’s when, as a budding student anthropologist, he studied firsthand the Jivaro tribe of the Amazon.
In the early ’60s, Mr. Harner studied with the Conibo tribe and was introduced to a powerful hallucinogenic plant medicine named ayahuasca. He was among the very first Westerners who would be transformed spiritually by nature’s hallucinogens into an era that would become the next step of the West’s spiritual re-awakening — a re-awakening that had been previously interrupted by two world wars. The country’s post-war mass hypnosis into a consumer-driven American Dream was about to get jolted back to a multidimensional reality.
While the children of this era were being fed synthetic hallucinogens, thanks to the research done by government-sponsored chemists, Mr. Harner began a quest into the true purpose of nature’s psychotropic gifts. Mr. Harner traveled the world studying the unifying techniques that would become the basis of what he termed “core shamanism,” or the unifying techniques, irrespective of the culture in which those techniques were colored, that sent shamans worldwide on otherworldly journeys for healing power, protective power and guidance from an infinite wisdom.
Most of the credit for the shaman’s journey was understandably ascribed by the researchers of the West to the hallucinogens. Psychedelics cast aside the veil to a much broader spiritual reality. “However,” Mr. Harner writes, “as a result of my cross-cultural research, by the late 1960s I was beginning to conclude reluctantly that shamans in most of the world’s indigenous cultures did their work without the appreciable use of psychedelic substances. It was becoming inescapably obvious to me that throughout the world, percussion sound, most notably by drumming was far more widely used than psychedelics by indigenous shamans.”
Since then, Mr. Harner has been working to preserve humanity’s ancient shamanic heritage. In 1979, he founded the Center for Shamanic Studies in Norwalk, Connecticut. In 1980, he published The Way of the Shaman, a seminal work on the study of shamanism. And in the early 1980’s he opened the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS). Today, the FSS archives nearly 5,000 accounts of Westerners’ journeys to either the Upper or Lower Worlds using Mr. Harner’s core shamanism techniques.
Cave and Cosmos is Mr. Harner’s first book since The Way of the Shaman, and consists of an in-depth overview of shamanism from a man who is an unequivocal expert on the subject, as well as an analysis of the shamanic journey via the accounts contained in the FSS archives.
“Since the appearance of my last book, The Way of the Shaman, more than three decades ago, my teaching has been primarily oral, in keeping with the age-old traditions of shamanism. The time has come, however, for me finally to address publicly certain questions that urgently deserve wider attention in the contemporary world. Two fundamental questions are whether there is more than one reality and whether we need to be alone in solving the challenges of existence.”
For some 40 years, Mr. Harner has been teaching students to journey inward to the non-consensual realities of the Upper and Lower shamanic realms, and his students have been keeping records of these journeys. Cave and Cosmos introduces apprentice shamans into a framework of what to expect when trying these techniques on their own.
But when Western, non-shamans journey using only the “auditory driving” of the drum, are they truly journeying, or only imagining it?
“Although indigenous shamans consider their journeys quite real,” Mr. Harner writes, “it is often difficult at first for many Westerners to accept that these ascensions are more than just their imagination. Experienced journeyers usually do not have this problem, having learned, through extensively practicing the technique, the existence of another reality.”
Like anything else, shamanic journeying, independent of the use of psychotropic plants, takes work.
“Shamans differ from those who believe in spirits, because they know from firsthand experience that spirits exist. They see the spirits, touch them, hear them, smell them, and converse with them…Shamans no more believe spirits exist than you believe your family, friends, and acquaintances exist.”
At the very end of Cave and Cosmos, Mr. Harner provides appendices elucidating the techniques of core shamanism — techniques to take journeyers to meet their power animals, teachers, healers and guides who exist in the realms beyond this one. And for those planning on using these techniques for their own journeys, perhaps Mr. Harner’s apprehension at publishing the book might be taken as a suggestion: journey prior to reaching chapter 6, “The Westerners’ First Journeys.”
“For years I have been loath to publish this knowledge prematurely, for fear that once it was ‘out there,’ it might deprive new students and other Westerners from having uninfluenced, autonomous experiences.”
Perhaps it’s worth trying the journeys first and then comparing those uninfluenced beginning journeys to the accounts of other Western journeyers within the pages of Cave and Cosmos.
Regardless of one’s intention to journey, Cave and Cosmos is likely the most important modern work on the preservation of shamanism and our reunion with humanity’s original spiritual heritage. Mr. Harner is often credited with sparking the shamanic revival after publishing The Way of the Shaman. Cave and Cosmos carries that torch in a way that is as relevant towards humanity’s re-awakening as anything else.