Stephen Larson the shaman’s doorway examines the relationship shaman has to the human psyche and society through the perspective of a psychotherapist. He seeks to show a relevance of this path in a modern world and that a new grasp of these techniques can help to escape from the alienation and confusion caused by our demythologized and industrialized environment. As Larson states “Wonder must overcome terror in the balance of things. And the task of the shaman is to embody and transmit this message; to bring meaning and healing in life; and to create a growing sensible cord with the informing root of all being.”
The author posits that the modern shamanic path consists of a “creative and affirmative relationship to life it would be impossible to have true believers who are card-carrying shamans because we are to be found in all parts and professions: therapists, artists, clergy, writers, poets, musicians, filmmakers.” The creative shaman is the person who dedicates him/herself not only to the visionary experience, as hypothesized in this book but to the revelation and sharing of this experience. Larsen suggests our lives can be made richer by an influx of creative works: the gift of wonder. Key to this is the act of creation as explored with the lens of the personally symbolic.
Creation, like any ritual, can be a self-transforming experience. When handling mythological materials one gets the feeling of their aliveness, and their life altering potential. Everywhere, and throughout history, human consciousness has been penetrating, re-creating and enriching the mysterious universe in which we live. It is our most significant and reoccurring dreams that appear to merit the title myth, the chaotic seeming surface of which is tied together by these perennial themes emerging and countless disguises, recognized or unrecognized throughout the millennia.
Our present relationship to myth seems different in some basic way from our ancestor’s. Our age is full of paradoxes, psycho-mythological riddles meant, perhaps, to boggle the mind then lead it beyond itself. As Jerome Bruner states, “When the myth no longer fit the internal plights of those who require them, the transition to newly created myths may take the form of the chaotic voyage to the interior; the certitudes of externalization are replaced by the anguish of the internal voyage.” The internal voyage is the way of the shaman is opposed to that of the priest. The shaman is the prototype of the spiritual, psychological, adventurer. Early man’s attraction to the mythic is not just a result of his cognitive inferiority, nor his susceptibility to wish fulfilling delusions, but of his preference at times for different mode of consciousness, which blends to his experience the sacred quality. One key concept to larsen’s theory is that the meaning of myth is to be experienced; and that moment of primary meaning should be pursued. This meaning cannot be compelled or defined. It does not show itself to those stuck in logical, analytical modes of secondary understanding. Simply it presents itself to the receptive consciousness, and we can only truly know it in that moment of experiential impact. This then is the moment of meaning that takes us beyond ourselves. Myth is not fully understood unless one enters into an altered state of consciousness, yet at the same time the myth itself may provide the trigger for an ecstatic or experiential learning.
“For those of us who find our vision drawn toward contemplating the mystery dimensions of life, myth does not require explanation, but attention. Myth is the ever-changing mask that the mind of the beholder fits over a reality he has never truly seen. For those of us whose attention is drawn to the final and empirical unveiling of the real, vision must ever be cleared of its myths, so that in time there will be no more mystery. The first leads to that of the poet and the mystic whose impulse is to celebrate the mystery of existence in its many masks of meaning, whereas the second leads to the perspective of the scientist, whose basic aim is to ever seek ways past and beyond man’s illusion susceptible tendencies.”
In his exploration of the classical western approaches to examining myth Larsen feels that, “all of these approaches, the aim of which is to reduce vivid world of mythology to some kind of principle, there is a weightiness, heaviness of vision that negates and alienates the character of the myth itself.” Something ineffable is lost in the analysis.
The author worked out five typical patterns of relationships between man and his primary mythic imagination these are as follows.
- Mythic Identity (possession): the mythic imagination is activated with little or no relationship to the actual properties of our outer reality. Some examples of this are on an individual level psychosis, possession, certain forms of religious ecstasy, certain forms of psychedelic experience, and shamanism. The collective of the examples of this would be mass hysteria, collective rituals involving spirits possession, and charismatic leadership.
- Mythic Orthodoxy (religion): the mythic imagination and outer reality are held to a fixed relationship. Revelation hardens into dogma. A given mythic hypothesis is accepted, and alternative points of view are unwelcome. Individual examples of this include fixed personal beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality, and delusion. Some collective examples would be Orthodox religion, mythology, and ritual.
- Objective Phase (science): man imagines that he can eliminate the mythic imagination from his involvement with outer reality, and he is partly successful. There is a determination to accept no mythic hypotheses without miracle verification. The relationship to the reality principle is systemized the examples of this would be a thoroughgoing scientist, inveterate skeptic, and modern man.
- Suspended Engagement (meditation): the meaning aspect of the mythic imagination is activated in an attempt to achieve the content less experience. There is a determination to accept no mythic hypotheses. Commitment is withheld from any experience short of a major breakthrough in consciousness examples of this would be Zen and yoga meditation, and some aspects of psychedelic experience.
- Mythic Engagement and Renewal (dialogue, transformation, and renewal): the creative capacity of the mythic imagination is activated and engaged. Its guiding function utilized for self-discovery and creative transformations of the personality. Assertions about the ultimate nature of outer reality are not made to my: rather learn true is a recognized a psychological the ability to return to the world of common sense in the normal experiencing is retained. Examples of this would be the mythological hero’s quest, the creative artist, some aspects of psychotherapy, as well as some aspects of psychedelic experiences, and the creative shaman.
Personal consciousness is a continual selection and construction, at each stage becoming more conservative. As a refinement of the active, personal mode, science is one of the most restricted forms of knowledge available to man. Our senses limit; our central nervous system limits; our personal and cultural categories limit; language limits us; and beyond all of these selections, the rules of science cause us to further select information which we consider to be true. By a slow, conservative process of construction, science gradually builds stable lore of knowledge. Science is the very essence of the analytical mode one of meticulously charting causes and effects, of radically restricting the conditions of observation in order to attain precision. It constitutes another highly specialized development of consciousness, at once it is most conservative, yet it is most reliable. Yet in spite of the illusion of objective reality, we have to remember that all knowledge is ultimately personal. In spite of this viewpoint Larsen believes that, “Science and myth need not the antagonist. We can use technology and methodology to extend the world of our vision.”
A few closing thoughts. Larsen’s subject matter is approached both clinically and anecdotally. The related accounts of first hand experiences of visions and spiritual epiphanies are some of the most interesting materials particularly when viewed through the psychoanalytical lens. As is almost always the case the research writings can be at times dry and on several points Larsen can lean overly toward circumlocution. However in spite the text is engaging, well written and thoroughly enjoyable. If you have any interest in the subject I would highly recommend this as an addition to your knowledge base.