Reflections on Spirit

Note 10: Spirit-Death. 6/8/99

Several months after I finished collecting the old man's two circles of stones from the desert in West Texas, he convinced me to take a first necessary step toward what can only be called "spirit-death." Dying to, or into, the spirit world is something so common to shamanistic practice, so universally known to animistic people, that no one hardly ever discusses it inside or outside the tribal community that embraces the notion as a matter of fact.

The issue itself, and the silence which generally surrounds it, has a double source in native American culture, so to speak, since there are two reasons why people who know the most about it, medicine-men and -women and shamans, almost never discuss it with anyone. Some Europeans have expressed the opinion, derived from credible sources of information no doubt, that the prohibition against speaking about the subject originates in a superstitious fear that doing so will deprive the speaker of his/her essential shamanistic powers. If that were actually true, every shaman would be heard talking about spirit-death and every other subject even vaguely related to the activity from dawn to dusk every day of the week. There would be no way to shut them up because no one who is shaman or medicine-man or -woman actually wants to be one.

Europeans never believe that because they always want most to be what they are not and cannot become and always assume everyone else is the same as they are. They also believe that being shaman would give them power and dominion over everyone else in the tribe. This seems true to them because the shaman is considered to be a con-artist who fools people into believing he/she has power over natural forces and other people and always receives both extreme respect and substantial rewards for doing next to nothing at all. In European perception being shaman is like being the king of paradise because everyone else gives him/her whatever he/she wants and the shaman never has to work for a living either since sitting around in a trance state once in a while hardly seems like work to someone who has never been called upon to do it.

One reason almost no one ever talks about the concept of spirit-death concerns the fact that the only people generally arrogant enough to ask questions about it are Europeans. Native Americans would never question a shaman about how or why or when or whether he/she dies into the spirit world. On the one hand, a tribal person who is not a shaman, and therefore the only one in a position to need to ask, since every medicine-man and -woman already knows far too much about the basic concept, would never ask one who is because the one who does not know does not want to know anything whatsoever about the concept. Not being a shaman is a blessing in itself and no one wants to risk attracting the attention of the spirits who promote shamanism by asking questions that might imply an interest in becoming one. At the same time, the subject of human/spirit interaction is a private affair, especially for shamans, and no tribal person would ever violate that aspect of social decorum by inquiring after it for any reason at all.

Europeans, of course, are cursed with a diminished capacity for good sense, apparently, and have no reluctance to ask even the most embarrassing questions of anyone at all unfortunate enough to fall under the range of the singular or collective voice. The fact that no one much in tribal cultures has ever said anything significant to a European about the concept of spirit-death, at least in a native American context, has generated both a considerable suspicion on the part of the inquisitor that his/her informant is concealing something valuable, like gold or silver, from his/her ever-inquiring eye, or is deliberately lying to him/her if the informant does happen to be induced to talk about any aspect of shamanistic belief. Not talking to Europeans, of course, about any aspect of native belief is a habit of long-standing practice because every time anyone did say something he/she ended up tied to a stake being burned to death. Early on, that fact was literally true; more recently it is only figurative but hardly less destructive over all and in general.

For all these reasons, then, I am quite reluctant to embark on a discussion of spirit-death in this or any other context. Two different things have loosened my tongue somewhat. Firstly, I believe that virtually no one will ever listen to this revelation either well or closely enough to derive any particular knowledge from what I might say about the concept. Secondly, if the old man did not approve of my intention to say what I am about to say, I would not be saying it in the first place. Being granted leave, as it were, by the old man to discuss spirit-death is the only reason I am inclined to talk about it at all.

The first and most difficult thing for Europeans to understand, or perhaps just to accept, is the fact that becoming a shaman or medicine-man or -woman requires one to sacrifice every element of personal desire and identity in an absolute sense of becoming dedicated to the well-being of the other. That is precisely what spirit-death means. Only when you die to the self, to every aspect of doing what is best for yourself, for your own personal present and future well-being, only when you give that up completely and absolutely, is there any chance at all that you can begin to make progress toward becoming shaman. The reason tribal people take care of the shaman is simply because the shaman cannot take care of him/herself. Every shaman who has ever lived would starve to death if other members of the tribe did not feed him/her out of gratitude, not for the particular ritual that cured this or that ailment or disease, but because the shaman has given up all claim to existence as a normal self-driven individual capable of sustaining him/herself as other people do. The shaman cannot sustain self because the shaman does not have one. Payment for services rendered, in European perception, looks like the act of giving this or that valued object for the ritual performance that cured this or that individual of his/her ailment: one cure is recompensed by one payment. One pays the shaman, not for a ritual performance, but for his/her willingness to die continually, to live in a state of death, as it were, for the sake of the lives and well-being of every other member of the tribe.

Europeans always denigrate shamanism because it actually is what Christians only claim as their highest, but most unattainable, goal. To live a selfless life of Christian charity, not for the sake of the other necessarily, but only in an effort to achieve a blessed existence in the afterlife, doing good along the way as a kind of afterthought, as it were, has always been a primary claim and aim that Christianity establishes as a value and a goal for its believers to pursue. Undoubtedly, many people who aspire to this lofty ideal have actually accomplished good and valuable work in the real world on their way to heaven. Certainly, I do not mean to suggest that it is better to pursue a course of mindless greed than it is to seek one of selfless charity but the sad fact is that most people, especially those at the highest levels of the Christian hierarchy, tend only to pay lip-service to the ideal while pursuing their own wealth or glory at the expense of everyone else. What does it suggest, for instance, that Pat Robertson, who has always set himself up as an example of Christian charity and goodness, is currently pursuing the ownership of a gold mine in a former African colony that has been suffering at the hands of Eurocentric greed for the past 500 years?

He will tell you, of course, as his spokesperson already has, that one thing has nothing to do with the other. And certainly no one can dispute that claim because the individual Christian, removed from the point of sacrifice of self by 2,000 years, does not, and cannot be expected to, give up his/her self-interest for the sake of anything at all, much less for the benefit of some nameless, faceless, other who believes in devil worship and refuses to accept the God-ordained position of being subservient to Eurocentric greed. The point here is that the image of Christ as self-sacrificing savior is based, at least in part, and perhaps in whole, on the animistic concept of the spirit-death that every shaman must undergo and endure before he/she can provide any positive benefit to the tribe in which he/she takes up residence. Convincing any Christian of the truth of this assertion is probably impossible for the simple reason that everyone always already knows that Christ is wholly good and every shaman is completely evil. Hence, there cannot be any comparison between one thing and the other at all.

When Christianity appropriated the ideology of shamanism, in order to facilitate the conversion of animistic people to its false perceptions of reality, it became necessary to distort the ideal from its ground in the sacrifice of the self for the direct, positive benefit of the other in the actual context of everyday life, and turn it around into a promise that the personal, ego-centric, consciousness of every believer would be granted, and received into, eternal life, which could only be achieved and actualized by the blood-sacrifice of a living human god, whose purity and goodness would expiate everyone else's guilt. at one time and for all time, and provide an escape from a perceived condition of sinful depravity, a condition claimed as being the reason people were no longer blessed with immortality in the first place. The tradition of Christ as the Great Physician, even if he only cures the soul of its sinful state, or rather because that is all he can do, ought to make it clear to any reasonable person exactly where this ideology has its deepest roots. The fact that this self- sacrifice only had to be done once, by claiming, as it were, that the victim was also God and absolutely pure, dismisses, for all time, the necessity that anyone else needs to worry about being called upon to repeat the performance. That many Christian martyrs did, if only to gain entry into heaven more swiftly, testifies more to their ignorance of what it actually means to be shaman than it does to the state of their grace.

The shaman's death to the self confers life on the other; the saint's attempt to mimic that tradition only creates the illusion that he/she has had eternity conferred on the self.

Consider this difference as a point of verification that what I say here is probably true. When the shaman dies his/her physical death the body is usually cremated, not buried. The reason for this "distinction" from ordinary people in tribal culture concerns the fact that the spirit of the shaman is more quickly released from its connection to the physical constraints of the body when it is burned to obliteration. This allows the spirit to return more quickly to the tribe than it would otherwise do if the body were allowed to decay in more normal circumstances. In Christianity a different tradition exists. Every effort is made to preserve the body in as near to perfect a state as any embalming method can sustain or achieve. After that, the body is placed in a steel casket, as near to indestructible as possible, and then encased in cement to prevent, for as long as possible, any effects of decay that can degrade its condition. Why is that? Christians came up with this idea that the body would be resurrected at the Second Coming and I suppose every good Christian and true wants to look his/her best when God calls them to justice. Put another way: what would be the point in eternal life if you are not your self when you start out? The idea of dying to the self in Christianity is anathema to everything it teaches and believes about the nature of the afterlife. One thing cancels out the other and every Christian is left free to pursue personal gain at the expense of the other simply because the desired goal of the faith is to achieve the eternal survival of the personal, ego-centric, self. Looks like a formula to enshrine greed to me. But I'm only an ignorant savage, so what could I possibly know?

So anyway, on the day in question, the old man sent me off on a journey toward spirit-death without precisely informing me that that was what he intended. He probably said as much, and in so many words, but in my Eurocentric skin at the time I was essentially incapable of comprehending what he meant. How could I? What he wanted me to do was simple enough on its face. I had finished collecting the stones he had left for me in the desert and he wanted me to use them to construct a medicine-wheel on the floor of the spare room in my apartment. Before beginning that task, however, and one he said would probably take several months, between summer solstice and autumnal equinox actually, he wanted me to climb to the top of a mesa on the west bank of the river (Rio Grande) where he said I would find something to make my task both easier and more meaningful. The mesa itself, he said, was diametrically opposed to the place where I had hunted the stones, an idea I accepted of course, even if I had no idea what that meant in any geographical or philosophical sense of its terms. The old man had been teaching me a kind of geometry for several months which was directly tied to his collection of stones.

As I neared the summit of the mesa, got to the point on its upwardly sloping face where my head was approximately level with the three-foot thick band of caliche that formed its table-top and held its shape together against the forces of wind and rain and gravity, I found myself looking directly into the black opaque eyes of a coiled, and ready to strike, six-foot long diamondback rattlesnake. He was less than two feet from my face. As the old man put it later: "Bang, you're dead;" and I most surely would have been too because there was no way in hell I could have gotten back where I came from if the fangs had found anything more than the bottom edge of my left earlobe when the head went past my jerking away lunge to the right. Had I gone left instead, because of the orientation of his coil, he would have had me between the eyes.

A reaonable supposition I have always had to live with, due to subsequent developments, is that the strike did not miss its mark at all.

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