Originally published in Comfort Zone Newsletter: February 2011
In keeping with the spirituality theme, I’m mentioning two books by Peter Kingsley. A Story Waiting to Pierce You is his latest and shortest. Reality is a long one. These led me to return to Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Synchronistically, I was loaned and encouraged to watch The Horse Boy, a film following an autistic boy with a connection to horses and his devoted parents on a journey to Mongolia to find a shaman who might heal him. I am discussing these together because before we were “priestly advisors” (which I discussed in the article on spirituality), we were probably the shamans. These are our roots.
However, before I go further I should mention another book I like, Karen Armstrong’s Spiral Staircase. It is her autobiography, revealing her change from an “overly sensitive” young nun to a broken soul with nothing to replace her religious vocation except mental illness. The book then spirals upward as you witness her resurrection, so to speak, and transformation into one of the leading scholars and popular writers defending religion and the belief in God. Her story is a little slow in places, which makes it all the more real as an authentic autobiography, not a flashy “memoir.”
Back to the more esoteric, Peter Kingsley turns the history of philosophy into a page-turner and a means of personal transformation. I’m not certain you will be quite as transformed as he hopes. It’s hard for a book to do that. But Kingsley definitely has aspiration to open your mind to reality as known by the shaman, your highly sensitive ancestor. He also wants you to grasp how this alternative reality underlies western civilization, but has been lost, and we need to gain it back. What he says feels so mythos-true that you stop caring about how precisely logos-true it is.
Kingsley’s A Story Waiting to Pierce You presents the evidence (or myth, as you like) that the pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, who lived in the fifth century B.C.E., was visited by a shaman from Mongolia/Tibet who came with the deliberate purpose of founding western civilization. The knowledge he brought was about that other reality, long forgotten by the scholars who have explained away the written historical references to this event as just strange anomalies. In the process, Kingsley says they have robbed us of that perspective belonging to the shaman. Again, science or scholarship of a purely rational nature can become a hollow, pseudo religion that we all believe in without realizing what is missing.
Reality (who could resist that title?) is Kingsley’s scholarly yet highly spiritual examination of a poem by Parmenides, another pre-Socratic philosopher living in the fifty century B.C.E. Parmenides has been called the founder of logic, the father of rationalism. Actually, according to Kingsley’s research, Parmenides is anything but. This philosopher, too, was conveying knowledge of that other reality, that of the shamans of the east (Mongolia, Tibet) and possessed by Phoenicians like himself, who had had contact with other cultures. It was not understood at all by the Greeks, however, and thus, again, lost to us. This book reads like a mystery, as Kingsley opens new vistas, chapter by chapter. Parmenides’ poem begins with him in a chariot, being led by the Daughters of the Sun Night towards a meeting with a goddess whose layered teachings require this thick book to decode. But for me reading it has been, well, fun.
Eliade’s Shamanism is an encyclopedia on the subject, to be dipped into from time to time if you like rigorous scholarship. It makes this other reality more real. He too argues that the purest example of shamanism is found in Mongolia, Siberia, and in earlier times, Tibet, and then came to the New World with those who came across from Siberia via the Bering Strait.
Finally, The Horse Boy may be important to you, as it was for me, because of one scene. To heal their autistic son, the family visits several Mongolian shamans, but the ultimate man to see, as all the others say, lives among “the reindeer people.” The camera crews and the family arrive, but the man in the starring role is a simple person in plain clothes when he does his healing. You can see his hands and face as he works down the boy’s back and grounds what he is taking out of him into the earth. He works casually, yet with exquisite knowledge of this other reality. You know this is “real” reality, even before the boy begins to improve as the days pass after his healing.
I am not particularly interested in shamanism as a spiritual path, but rather how it has been the foundation of more than we realize. I practice a form of meditation coming from the Vedic tradition, the oldest source of this practice. Patanjali (probably second century B.C.E.) is considered by some to be the ultimate authority on meditation, having given it to us as part of the eight limbs of yoga (postures or asanas being one of the others) still used today. Part of what he taught was how to develop “sidhis,” or perfections–skills that can be put to use by more or less moving or stirring a state of pure consciousness developed in meditation. Although I do not know of anyone who has thought of them as such, these sidhis are almost a shopping list of shamanic powers, such as knowing what is hidden from view or having the strength of an elephant, but the ultimate is flying, the power most associated with shamans. Clearly Patanjali’s teachings are grounded in something shamanic (or perhaps “grounded” is not the right term).
Buddha came from India as well, and to gain enlightenment he initially used practices that would have been like those that influenced Patanjali. From India these teachings have morphed into the various forms of Vedic and Buddhist meditations we have today, plus whatever is being taught at your local yoga studio, along with “those crazy TMers” who claim they are learning to fly.
The story takes yet another turn, in that King Asoka, who converted to Buddhism in the third century B.C.E., left a written record of his having sent what amounted to Buddhist missionaries to all corners of the earth, including what we call the Middle East. In the very next century there appeared a small ascetic movement in Judea called the Essenes, the group to which Jesus allegedly belonged. Their practices (celibacy, not eating meat or sacrificing animals) and beliefs (the immortality of the soul and that the body would be resurrected, perhaps a reference to reincarnation) were more akin to Buddhism than Judaism at the time. “What goes around comes around,” another term for karma.
In sum, we do not know exactly how this knowledge of the other, shamanic reality has moved about our earth and our minds, but I am sure it is alive in the souls of sensitive people. Certainly something ancient yet familiar was stirred in me by watching, very closely and with fascination, as that gentle Mongolian man on the DVD healed an autistic boy in 2007
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