Journey to Enlightenment – Ross Bishop

Journey to Enlightenment
Ross Bishop
Blue Lotus Press, 2008
248 pages

I’ll admit that when it comes to anything that’s more New Age than Neopagan, I’m a tough crowd. Ross Bishop, happily, has presented a book that got through my cynicism and gave a wonderfully balanced approach to healing internal wounds. I am quite pleased to have had the opportunity to read this book.

A good bit of Journey to Enlightenment centers on healing the traumas (no matter how seemingly small or supposedly unimportant) from childhood. It’s not just a matter of blatant abuse, but of simply not being understood, or having to deal with the bad conditioning your parents may have had that may have affected how they raised you, even if they never meant to hurt you and loved you dearly. However, Bishop also touches on a number of other issues that people may have unhealthy relationships with, such as finances and social skills.

The thing that makes this book valuable is that Bishop gently guides the reader into facing hir traumas head-on, without guilt or shame, and without too much pressure. He offers a set of thirteen principles that build upon each other as the book progresses, which form the core of a system for going into the self, confronting the issues and getting in touch with the inner child, and bring about healing for all aspects of the self, past and present. Guided meditation is used as a tool to further this process, though a lot of the book is brain food, things to get the reader really thinking about the issues, rather than a book full of rote, stock meditations and exercises. It’s a nice balance of things to think about and things to do.

If you’re expecting traditional shamanism a la Siberia and the Amazon, you won’t find it here. However, Bishop manages to bring elements of shamanic practice into 21st century postindustrial terms in a way that channels much-needed lessons and healing to an audience that can benefit from it. He never claims to be descended from eighteen Native American shamans, or attempts to frame his experiences in anything pretentious; he is down to earth, and strikes a good balance between (neo)shamanism, and healing psychology.

The writing style is pleasant; Bishop is a good writer, and conveys his concepts with thoughtfulness and depth. He has good research, too, and is well-grounded, something that more of the New Age should pay heed to. He proves that one can have a solid footing and still explore spirituality without floating off into the ethers. Other than a few typos, it’s a really good read structure-wise, and the layout far exceeds that even of some larger presses.

Five pawprints out of five.

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The Spirit of Shamanism – Roger N. Walsh – October BBBR

The Spirit of Shamanism (reprinted as World of Shamanism, 2007)
Roger N. Walsh, M.D., Ph.D.
Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990
286 pages

I can’t say enough good stuff about this book. It’s this month’s Bargain Bin Book Review, and it’s quite possibly the best one I’ve picked up.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled against shamanism for years has been that shamans are schizophrenic or otherwise mentally ill and generally dysfunctional. This goes against more recent observations that the shaman is actually one of the most psychologically healthy people in hir society. This excellent book is an in-depth look at the psychology of shamanism, from a very positive, constructive and yet objective viewpoint. Euro-centric bias is tossed out the window, and shamanism (or, rather, the various forms thereof) is explored from within the contexts of the cultures it stems from.

Walsh draws upon a number of ideas and inspirations. Campbell’s explanation of the Hero’s journey is applied to the shaman’s development, from ordinary citizen to community leader. Of particular interest is the motif of the initiatory crisis, the time in which the shaman undergoes extreme changes internally and may exhibit incredibly odd behavior to the consternation of other members of hir society. This, and the seeming “delusion” of the shamanic journey are studied in great detail throughout the book, and the importance of these two experiences in particular cannot be ignored.

To me, the most valuable gift this book offers is the detailed explanation throughout of how shamanism, rather than paralleling the unhealthy and disorganized experience of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, in fact has much in common with modern psychological practices ranging from psychoanalysis to Jung’s work, and in particular to the modern practice of transpersonal psychology. The placebo effect is explored, and its effectiveness in both shamanism AND in Western medicine is discussed; in fact, there are a couple of chapters that focus specifically on shamanic healing and how/why it works. Finally, the altered states of consciousness inherent to shamanic practice are shown to be, not a matter of escapism and trickery, but of a path towards enlightenment-like states of being, though different from the states achieved through yoga and other forms of meditation.

It’s an incredibly well-researched book as well. Unlike too many of the texts on shamanism today, this one takes an academic approach rather than a New Age one, yet as mentioned doesn’t fall prey to the usual academic pitfalls. There are numerous in-text citations and a nice, meaty bibliography.

In all, we’re left with a picture of shamanism that has less to do with dysfunctionality, quackery and superstition, and more to do with modern healthy practices that, in some cases, Western psychologicy has only recently “discovered”. While the author does not go so far as to tell people to dump their therapists and become shamans (which anyone with good sense knows is irresponsible), he undoes decades of Western bias as well as the later romanticism that has all too often been applies to shamanism. In this text we’re allowed to see that shamanism is both terrifying and ecstatic, and is an evolution rather than de-evolution of human consciousness.

Five enthusiastic pawprints out of five.

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The Way of the Shaman – Michael Harner

The Way of the Shaman
Michael Harner
HarperSanFrancisco, 1990
172 pages

This is the fourth time in the past decade I’ve read this book cover to cover (as opposed to looking up specific factoid and techniques) and I’m finding that this time through, I’m not so fond of it. It’s not that it’s horrible; it’s just not as impressive to me these days, now that I know more than I used to.

Harner’s book is pretty much a classic on NEOshamanism; it forms the foundation of core shamanism, a shamanic practice that is (mostly) devoid of specific cultural trappings. His background in anthropology, as well as experience training as a shaman in the Jivaro and Conibo tribes, make this a well-researched and well-informed book. There are plenty of endnotes, and a good bibliography, so it’s easy to trace where he got his information from.

The problem is the presentation of the practical material. First off, my main complaint is that his selection of techniques seems incredibly arbitrary. He draws on the tobacco ties of certain Native American traditions, Jivaro-flavered sucking shamanism, and the spiritual canoe from a particular Northwest Native tribe. And he seems to ignore a number of shamanic practices that may not be necessarily appealing to the New Age crowd, such as spiritual dismemberment and reassembly.

Also, he fails to mention that even within a specific culture there are several types of shamanism. He should have, IMO, either billed this as a form of healing shamanism, or stuck to one of the cultures he trained in, rather than adding in elements of numerous cultures. He doesn’t quite draw shamanism far enough away from its cultural roots to make it fit together well; rather than doing as Peter J. Carroll did with Chaos magic, and making a system that is not at all culturally specific (and so can be plugged into any culture), Harner attempts to make (certain) cultural artifacts relevant for people outside that culture, while also trying to make it relevant to modern mainstream American (and other postindustrial) culture. Unfortunately, the end result still retains enough of the original cultural material (such as biases against certain animals like snakes and insects) without explaining the contextual relevance of such elements.

Finally, he waters down certain pieces of information. “The SSC [Shamanic State of Consciousness], it can be said, is safer than dreaming,” he says (xxii). Yet shamanism, even in modern practice, is NOT safe. He doesn’t talk about spiritual defense, other than talking about how one’s power animal and other guardians are supposed to protect you. He barely brings up any dangers, other than seeing animals with bared fangs. Nor does he talk about how close to the edge shamanism can bring a practitioner (or the skills needed to maintain a proper balance).

In short, this is shamanism for the living room. The techniques itself are solid, despite the contextual issues, and can be easily used by most people who pick up this book. If presented as a book on shamanic techniques, I give it a four. However, as a book on *shamanism*, I give it a two. This balances out to….

Three pawprints out of five.

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Gift of the Dreamtime – S. Kelley Harrell

Gift of the Dreamtime: Awakening to the Divinity of Trauma
S. Kelley Harrell
Spilled Candy, 2004
156 pages

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while, and finally had the chance to sit down and do so. I’m very glad that I did; it’s a wonderful resource that I think more people need to know about.

Harrell, a modern shamanic practitioner, offers up her story of how she used shamanic techniques to heal herself from the effects of childhood sexual abuse. She works within a first person narrative, using her words to illustrate her journeys to the Upper and Lower worlds to visit with guides and retrieve pieces of her soul. Rather than abstract descriptions of what “should” happen, she tells the story of her own experiences, both the good and the bad. A warning: while her descriptions of abuse are not incredibly graphic, they may be triggering for some people, so be prepared. There are techniques for healing in her story, but not without the price of facing the past.

I generally am not a fan of narrative shamanic texts, a common format in core shamanism/neoshamanism books. However, this one is an exception. I felt that, rather than trying to impress me with credentials and pidgin-English-speaking guides, Harrell simply wanted to offer up the solutions that helped her in the hopes of sharing healing with others. Hers is a humble story, and instead of 200 pages of ego-stroking and no meat, I got a lot of ideas for working with my own traumas; while I was never abused as a child, I’ve had my own traumas both as a child and an adult, and this book has planted a few seeds in my mind.

The book is not without its potential controversy. At one point Harrell writes about how one of her guides reveals that the reason she was raped was that she owed a debt from a previous life to her rapist. I know this made me look a bit askance, as I’ve seen New Agers take this idea to the extreme of saying that anything bad that happens to a person is caused by bad karma. However, due to the nature and quality of the book, I trust the author to be honest, and she never comes across as the least bit fanatical or off-balance.

Additionally, I would have liked to have seen more content. It seems that she mainly hit the highlights of her journey, and it’s a little unclear how long it takes her to get from one section of the story to the next. Granted, she is revealing a very personal part of herself here, so it may be that she only tells what she’s comfortable with. Still, I’d be curious as to some of the backstory, what happens inbetween the meetings with the various guides, and a timeline of when these journeys happened. The book as it is, though, progresses nicely, so even if she chooses to forever keep the rest under wraps, this is a worthy project.

Overall, I recommend this to those who have experienced trauma in their lives, as well as those who work with such people in a spiritual role, and want some good ideas for healing through shamanic techniques. It’s not a huge how-to book, though there are some basic pieces of information at the end. Rather, it’s one person’s story of how she utilized these techniques to do some pretty serious healing on herself. It gives hope for those of us who sometimes feel that maybe we’re not doing things right, or that perhaps there is no healing to be had.

Five pawprints out of five.

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