Sunday, 30 October 2011

Buddhism Meet Shamanism (Part.1) (ENGLISH)

“… I would venture to say that the essence which unites all Buddhist traditions is the idea of freedom. Specifically, freedom from the causes of suffering: greed, hatred, and delusion. While this is usually defined as an “inner” or spiritual freedom, it also forms the basis of an “outer” or cultural freedom.
Increasingly, I see Buddhism as a culture: a complex, interrelated system of values and practices that inform every aspect of human life. For instance, the early Theravadins describe the world as a vale of woe, which is the world seen from the perspective of anguish, whereas the Vajrayanists describe the world as radiant and beautiful, which is how it is seen from the perspective of freedom.  All these different perspectives together give rise to what we might best call a culture.
Since each of the Asian Buddhist schools tend to see one perspective of the Dharma as being true, or more true than the others, we get a lot of bickering over what is the highest teaching, the purest teaching, and so on. I don't think that will happen so much in the West, because we are encountering all traditions at once: Theravadin, Tibetan, Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren. The perspective of any one of those traditions is, to my mind, always partial because it is looking at the world from one point of view. The challenge in the West, it seems to me, is to find a way of incorporating all perspectives.  To do this will entail working towards a definition of Buddhist culture, which will respect, even celebrate, the differences, while providing a coherent overview.”
Stephen Batchelor, ‘A Culture of Awakening,’ from Enquiring Mind. 

The above extracts come from an interview with Stephen Batchelor. The whole piece is typical of Batchelor’s intelligence, scepticism and open-minded approach to Buddhism outside of traditional perspectives. Batchelor is one of those figures who often inspire extreme reactions. His breakout text, ‘Buddhism without beliefs,’ was extremely successful, but seemed to be most often spoken of as the book that denied reincarnation. I didn't like the book that much and I have no problem believing in reincarnation; in fact I find it perfectly logical. I have gone on though to very much appreciate Batchelor’s critical and enquiring approach. I would go as far as to say that he is one of the modern-day champions as far as pragmatic & contemporary analysis is concerned. Whether you agree with him or not is beside the point. He is doing all Buddhists a great service by willingly confronting sacred beliefs about Buddhism with Western empiricism and critical thinking. He’s knocking on mysticism’s door and saying open wide so we can see what’s really there and whether it has merit.
So, why did I choose the extract above to start of this piece? Well, I'm not just a Buddhist. I have been actively and deeply engaged with the world of shamanism for almost 15 years, not as a Native American fantasy, or a dream of living in a tepee in the wilderness somewhere, but as an apprentice on a powerful, challenging, at times controversial yet an exceptionally pragmatic, alchemical/shamanic path, which has produced deep, lasting and real change to every aspect of my life.
The relationship between the two paths has been fascinating to say the least. There has often been conflict or friction emerge between them, but I have come to understand over the years that this conflict and friction was really inside myself and very much about my clinging to philosophical perspectives and rigid beliefs. As I have matured in my practice I have begun to experience how one feeds the other. This is not to say however that they are somehow the same: they are quite clearly not.  
The extract above features the following three lines: 
‘I see Buddhism as a culture: a complex, interrelated system of values and practices that inform every aspect of human life… All these different perspectives together give rise to what we might best call a culture… The perspective of any one of those traditions is, to my mind, always partial because it is looking at the world from one point of view.’
Each of these lines reminded me of how knowledge is expressed from a shamanic worldview and it got me to thinking how it would look if key Buddhist principles & practices were placed on a medicine wheel, which would display the pragmatic applications of different key ideas in Buddhism in relationship to one another.
I chose the ‘Balanced Choreography’ wheel (BC) of the human. From among many foundational wheels I chose this one which indicated the positioning, in relationship to the elements, of the five aspects of a human being.  This choice was in part inspired by my own strong dedication to a spirituality that is deeply human. Secondly, the human choreography wheel speaks of what we all innately possess and therefore the five working components for any developmental work; the body, mind, emotions, the spirit, sexuality, or our life force & its vitality.

Buddhist Applications Wheel
 South: Emotional aspect
Moving out of reaction
 Facing & working with the range of emotions
 Addressing uncomfortable emotions
 Developing intimacy with presence
Liberating emotional energy
Morality & ethics

West: Physical aspect
Working with sensations
Developing presence in the physical & material
Deep relaxation in the body
Uniting presence with mindful action
Compassionate action
Morality & ethics
North: Mental aspect
Working with attention
Developing concentration
Disciplining inner-dialogue
Applying intellect & critical thinking
Working with beliefs & doubt
 Developing wisdom
Expanding curiosity
Morality & ethics

East: Spiritual aspect
Working with spaciousness
Developing compassion
Opening the heart to universal suffering, freedom
Touching life deeply & being touched deeply by life
Being of service
Centre: Sexual aspect, life force
Working with primal impulses;
Giving life/destruction
Morality & ethics

The above wheel shows core pragmatic principles of Buddhist practice placed on the BC wheel. This wheel should ideally be presented on an actual wheel, but unfortunately I couldn't manage to cut & paste as I'd originally hoped, so for now a list will have to do. Imagine however that they sit on a circle in their relevant direction. 
What is a medicine wheel? Medicine wheels are tools for presenting the interrelationship between any one thing, with everything else. It is an ancient system for presenting knowledge that runs contrary to linear thinking. Each of the directions faces an opposite direction, which acts as the greatest teacher of that direction. At the same time each direction is fed by and feeds into the other directions. A wheel can be travelled in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction. Every time you cross from one direction to another you pass through the centre of the wheel and are influenced by the centre aspect.
Wheels can be understood as maps, but like any map there are different ways and different forms of mapping. It is therefore better to consider wheels within a specific system as they relate to each other; it's rather like learning a language, that is to say you need to study the grammar, the rules and the vocabulary of the same specific language, otherwise you will end up confused. 
Various shamanic cultures assigned the cardinal and non cardinal directions with particular qualities, or powers. It is difficult to argue from a rational stand point that such wheels mapped a fixed, permanent reality. Rather, shamans of old had such a deep and intimate relationship with the natural world that they saw patterns in how nature expressed itself. Different shamanic cultures produced different maps, wheels, but their assigning of powers to directions was based on observation of the inter-relationship between forms of life so that the positioning of the relationship between said forms gave a structure to the world and our place in it. Working with a collective of maps from a specific tradition then leads to workable knowledge that we can use to understand our place in the bigger picture.
 Each wheel sits on top of others; it is superimposed. This means that any wheel teaches or deepens your understanding of any other wheel. This is really what makes them so fantastic. 
Although the wheel above is an invention of mine, I have followed the basic principles of mapping within the system I'm using. The map comes from a contemporary, alchemical, mètis shamanic path. In this path the basic, beginning map shows where the elements sit in relationship to each other. Everything starts with the elements.

South: water
West: Earth
North: Air
East: Fire
Centre: Void

Utilising the cardinal direction we begin an exploration of how one wheel teaches you about another. Starting in the south we find the water element. Water therefore relates to the emotions. Water moves, transforms, heats up, cools down, freezes, turns to vapour, ensures our survival and makes up the majority of our physical mass. Wow. Apply all that to the emotions! It gives a pretty nice reflection of the different forms that emotions take and how essential they must be to our existence: that’s an unusual idea as far as emotions are concerned, they are essential to our survival, or rather the meaning of our existence.

 If the outer world reflects our inner-world, then how water behaves and takes form in the outer-world is a reflection of our own inner-emotional landscape. We can, from a shamanic outlook, perceive the natural world as a great teacher, perhaps the greatest teacher there is, and so observing rivers & the sea we can take direct instruction on how to work with emotional energy. 
Water is naturally fluid, so fluidity becomes the first key to understanding how to relate to emotions. Emotions must be fluid. They must move. Movement in water equals health. Unhealthy bodies of water are stagnant, they are not fed and don’t feed. Even violent bodies of water contain life and give life, even when they are destructive. A healthy river has different forms and intensities; it feeds into pools, bays, and provides sustenance for fish, trees & plant life. Water does not repeat itself. In the natural world it is in constant movement. 
We tend to learn specific emotional expressions which we play out over and over again. They are learnt reactions to circumstances that challenge or affirm our sense of self. Our happiness tends to have a similar flavour as does our sadness, no matter the circumstances. Certain behaviour from certain types of people tend to lead to set reactions. These types of emotional reactions are false in a way; at the least they are not invigorating.Emotions in these circumstances are fixed, learnt reactions to expected stimulus.
The purest water is the most refreshing and the same applies to the emotions. Spontaneous and original emotional expression is refreshing, revitalising. It brings life. 
With regards to Buddhism, healthy, fluid emotional movement is more easily applicable to the tantric path where working directly with emotional energy & harnessing it to empower awakening is central. As an idea it is contrary to Theravada models of emotional restraint and control. 
In truth both ways of working with emotions are important. It might be seen that the Theravada approach is an initial step in working with our emotional aspect. We must learn to get balance into how we experience emotion, and at the start of practice, our emotional reactions to experience. On the cushion this translates as adopting the position of the witness-observer when emotional energy arises.
As we make progress in purifying our emotional reaction, we find that underlying learnt emotional forms is a reservoir of pure emotional energy that can be understood as power. Pure emotional expression becomes a conduit for awakened, compassionate expression that is spontaneous and unscripted. In this form it is natural, healthy and brings life.It is also unpredictable. That is why we must clean out our emotional selves. If we continue to carry emotional baggage it will impede our development on the cushion and subvert gains we make in awareness and presence. Unhealed emotional pain and repression does not disappear with developing awareness. It only takes a different form. By confronting and purifying our past and by facing the depths of uncomfortable emotion, we learn to live the whole range of emotional expression without getting caught up in the symbolic meaning of any one particular emotion. We also no longer become overwhelmed or forced by external expressions in others of any emotion, including extremes. It is all just energy moving and part of the rich display of the tapestry of human expression.

The practices that sit in the south of the wheel are the following:
1.      Moving out of reaction
2.      Facing & working with the range of emotions
3.      Addressing uncomfortable emotions
4.      Developing intimacy with presence
5.      Liberating emotional energy
6.      Morality & ethics

The first practice then is developing the ability to move out of reaction. This is not about repression. Water flows. It’s about allowing movement to take place without clinging to the process. You don’t try to contain what is felt, or avoid it by hardening in your focus on the meditation object. You let it be and stay with the meditation object. This requires discipline of course and consistency. 
This then widens into experiencing how we react emotionally in a variety of situations; step two means allowing the whole range of emotions to do their thing, to be as they are. Rise and fall. This brings us inevitably against uncomfortable emotions that we may have either indulged in a lot throughout our lives, or avoided at all costs. Again, water must flow, so they are allowed to emerge and subside like waves on a shore. The shore is our attention.
The next stage marks a maturation phase in spiritual practice. Intimacy begins to develop with feelings and our emotional field deepens and enriches and leads to the liberating of emotional energy as a regenerating force and an expression of the truth of what is. Emotional energy moves through the body as feelings and as refined sensations. Out of the consistent experience of such emotional richness and renewal a personal and spontaneous morality emerges. It is not based on conditioned responses to a set of specified circumstances and behaviours, but rather a deep, felt sense of what is right and wrong that emerges spontaneously in relation to the circumstances we are living through.
Life touches us much more deeply, but we can stand it now. The suffering and injustice is tangible, yet we don’t crumble under its weight. Our emotional selves are more whole, we feel much more, but are much less affected. We experience fully, but no longer identify with we feel.
None of what I have written here is new and I know that others have expressed it more eloquently. The difference in my case is that what I know has been arrived at in great part from the shamanic path, then refined through Buddhist meditation. 

Meditation followed in a consistent manner will eventually lead to the steps above. Applying a shamanic perspective can help give a sense of direction and the stages that we move through. The shamanic approach would be to work directly with the inner and outer elements. Working with the streams and waterfalls, waves and crests, the rain and storms, we can intent-fully invite their presence into our body. We can reach out through feeling and dissolve the barrier of separation between our body and the elements. Nature is a great model of how to be. In NLP great emphasis is placed on modelling; the careful observation, analysis, and mimicking of excellence in others. We can do exactly the same with Mother Nature. Her perfect expression of the elements is an invitation to learn, to open and dissolve, to receive and perceive. If you open to her language, she will teach you, and for the hardcore Buddhists out there, this is not an invitation to be something you are not, rather point out that there is a hidden language in nature's expression that can be heard if you apply your attention fully, and deeply enough.

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  1. Good blog - very interesting to be given some insight into something often considered too esoteric or arcane or cultish to have relevance to the majority of those intent on spiritual fulfilment and how it may align with Buddhism (which, I suppose, was also considered similarly in the west until fairly recently).
    I have a few questions I'd like to ask - please excuse me if they're a touch dense:
    1) How is the medicine wheel used in Shamanic practice and how could it be applied/integrated into everyday practice?
    2) Is placing the key Buddhist ideas on the medicine wheel a 'tool' for understanding or is there also a practical aspect, i.e. for meditation and other developmental work, and how would this take form?
    Thanks for posting.

  2. Hi Koren,
    Your questions are actually great, but would require a lot of space to answer fully. I’ll give you a short reply below and then if you want to know more, feel free to ask.
    Are you a Buddhist by the way? Do you practice much?
    Shamanism is an odd one, in that it is a label given to mainly pre-modern, tribal settings. It is much more varied than Buddhism and it cannot be bracketed together into a homogenous entity. I don’t take psychotropic plants, sacrifice animals and so forth. Many shamanic cultures and traditional shamans do instead. Michael Harner has attempted to create system of universal shamanism. It has resulted in a focus on shamanic journeying. I have trained in his approach although I still haven’t made up my mind how valuable it is.
    Underlying shamanic elements though are both fascinating and I believe important and can be worked with by anyone interested in waking up and spiritual practice. Seeing the natural world as a sphere of power and a teacher is a great first step. Learning to harness the relationship you have with the myriad forms of this Earth is a win-win situation.
    Your questions:
    1) This actually depends on the level of access you have to a specific system. There are actually extremely sophisticated levels of teaching on the inter-relationship of wheels and their applications, although it’s not always easy to get access, especially if you’re not inclined towards the shamanic path. If you are curious though, I can point you in the right direction.
    To refer back though to what I posted here though, it is certainly possible to use wheels in everyday practice. That’s the whole idea in fact. It is however a long-term project.
    If you look at the Balanced Choreography wheel it gives you several resources to start with. This wheel offers us a map for how to rewire our expression of our five aspects.
    The wheel represents an ideal, and the natural way to run them.
    With our emotional aspect then we can explore how it runs incorrectly; how we hold with our emotions, how we determine with our emotions, how we catalyse with our emotions and how we determine with our emotions. Each of these is an incorrect mode and leads to various problems.
    On a day-to-day basis then you would look at how your emotional aspect plays out. Our emotions are a key to our honesty, our personal truth. By expressing them, we access our inner-truth, which means to say, where we are at, how we really feel. It’s a process of lowering our defences and our manipulation of our subjective experience of moment to moment living.
    This can obviously lead to problems and conflict however. If I feel angry I can’t just go round shouting and cursing at people, which would be more like determining our behaviour through our emotions, and is very likely to cause a lot of destruction. There are shamanic techniques and practices that one can use to deal with this, but this being a Buddhist blog, meditation practices are the way to go.

  3. 2) If you’ve read some of the other posts on this blog, you’ll have noticed that I am primarily interested in Pragmatic Buddhism. This means practice and working with the process of practice and its results, and the actual application of technique. When you practice in this manner, the lived experience of Buddhist teachings emerges and it is both highly personal in that we are essentially working with the complexity and simplicity of who and what are/are not, and fairly predictable in what issues emerge as we all share the same 5 aspects.
    In the west we have to deal with a level of both personal and collective emotional sophistication. I’m English so I inherited a certain set of beliefs and behaviours about which emotions can and cannot be expressed for example, so learning to deal with anger and fear of anger was a major step in my emotional maturity. Letting anger out led to greater freedom and a deeper level of honesty about the emotional constructs I had co-created.
    By placing them in the south, which is where emotions go according to the map, I learn that working with emotions has the steps as indicated in a generic Buddhist framework. The wording is appropriate to the approach to practice I follow. So, instead of using archaic language, or foreign terminology, I have used western language and, in a way, a mixture of more psychological orientated terms.
    To answer your question though, both are correct. It gives understanding; emotions must move, there are techniques for working with that movement, a direction to follow, and the steps you will move through.
    It is up to you then to find a teacher/practice that can assist you with this. Depending on your own individual make up, and how emotionally balanced, or wounded you are, differing degrees of assistance will be required and a different degree of practice and the application of the appropriate practice will help you confront the emotional inheritance you have.
    This brings me back to the point that real awakening involves addressing the whole range of human experience along with radical transformation. It takes real courage to work with the depths of emotional life, but it is highly rewarding. Most of our reactions to life are emotional, or based on the inability to deal with emotion.
    A major key to awakening is moving out of the process of reaction, into responding consciously, both with attention and with intention. This applies to both the shamanic and Buddhist way. The first major step would be to become a stream-winner in Buddhism.