The Not-Special of Caring for the Other-World

shamanism story

I’ve been meeting more and more young people already somewhat familiar with Shamanism, which is exciting and fills me with hope. Inevitably though the first thing that comes up is the notion of “special” individuals being called to shamanism.

“What do you think about the whole special thing … ” this is usually said with a slightly sour look.

Hmmmmmm. I have some stock answers that come down to yes and no. I’ve asked Michael Harner about this topic, I’ve learned about cultures where everyone does shamanic work, others where shamanism is hereditary, and indeed others where healers are called, even from birth.

For those of us doing shamanic work in a culture that really has little room for it, “special” can be a life preserver.”Special” can be something to float on when the spirits are taking us through an experience that hurts in a way our culture has no language for, something to hold us when we suddenly see the gulf that exists between our experiences and that of so many around us. When you’re called to get up at 2am after a long day of dealing with sick kids, so that you can finally address that spirit you know is suffering, special can help. Some of us survive on special for a time, and I think thats OK.

A Not Special Flower

I’ve been thinking about special in a different way though, special as its used to diminish things of spirit. I think its inevitable in a dispirited culture that cannot fully do away with the Other-World to find a “special” container in which to hide things sacred. We honor the “special” things in such a way that it ultimately diminishes their transformative power.

Of course I’m thinking of the Selkie.

There was a time when many Scottish and Irish Celts undestood that every Seal could magically transform into a human being. It was a truth of the world that someone in your family line might be a Seal, waiting in the Ocean, beckoning for you to return at least for a visit to your kin there. I’ve come to suspect that many Celts saw the world as a place where one might accidentally slip into the Other-World at any moment. As that world was diminished the Selkie became a “special” creature likely lost forever in time. The reality of the Selkie and the presence of the Other-World are driven further and further away from us by “special.”

We live in a culture that specializes in monetizing “special.” Our most special sports heros will receive the highest salaries. Our most special students the largest scholarships. Our most special artist paintings will go for the highest prices. “Special” can leave the door open for all manner of crud that our culture seems to specialize in. If it can be understood as “special” it will be made into childrens toys and sold around the world.

In graduate school I worked alongside visual artists, some who had been through the brutal critique many Fine Art schools accept as the norm.  I was lucky to be in a program that spoke of “talent” in terms of perseverance, and no shaming or wanton hurtfulness was allowed. We focused on learning to see where the artist was at and supporting them in empowering their process. This approach seemed to dissolve any justification for the brutality that is the dark side of the cult of special. When artists no longer had to worry about the nature of their talent (how special am I?) they were able to concentrate on the body of work that they had worked so hard to bring into this world. The impact of that approach was stunning.

If we revel in the power of “special” we are blind to the power of everything else.

When Fall finally comes, I feel like a fish laying half-dead on a beach as the tide finally begins to swell enough to sweep me back out to sea. My ears begin to fill with the presence of spirit, every smell is like a deep kiss from a lover I’ve been aching for. I can spend hours sitting, just to feel the season reaching into me. Thankfully we have not yet found a way to package up Fall and attach a price to it.

There are not many of us caring about what goes on in the Other-World. This is a time when that work comes front and center for me. We’re like forest rangers for a forest nobody around us believes exists. We setoff into that world, sometimes stumble into it ourselves waking or dreaming, to work with the spirits there, to heal to bring balance, to remember soul in life. I suppose in a way, thats special. But sometimes I think it shouldn’t be.

I remember a young man I had lunch with, attending his first advanced workshop related to shamanism and ritual. He was amazed by all of the spiritual work going on around him, feeling like he had nothing to offer and that perhaps he was in the wrong place. I realized in talking to him that once he focused on his own experience, he was in fact having very profound contact with the spirits. The cult of the special was holding him back from feeling the embrace of spirit that surrounded him.

Sometimes its just baffling to me when people bring up “special” in relation to shamanism. Its like we’re all standing at the same amusement park and someone is handing out free tickets. A few of us are saying “sure I’ll take some free tickets” but most people are saying, “no, I’m not special enough.” Shamanic work is not a free ride to be sure, and realizing suffering in its many forms is part of the entrance fee, but sometimes “yes” is the only thing that makes us special.

Yes is free, yes does not cost anything, except giving up your fear.

Did the Selkie, the Dragon, and the Shaman all become special because they were simply a rare breed not destined for the modern world? No, what seems more likely is that they were first outlawed as our native cultures were destroyed, and finally enshrined in safe containers that our children could play with, and ultimately used to sell detergent. Sadly we’ve all grown up with those toys, and it blinds us to the reality of spirit we live in.

There are many people chosen by the spirits for shamanic work, and that is indeed special. But as Michael Harner once told me, “the spirits are opportunistic.” They are handing out free tickets, and right now the world needs us all to take a few risks, to be willing to say “Yes.”

When so many young people are getting hung up on the notion of special its a sign of something, a yearning they have for something deeper that can carry us all forward. How can they be a part of something if they’re not special enough, if they don’t feel called? We have unfortunately focused on how shamanism has functioned in some cultures, not really understanding the larger invitation it offers to us all. Journeying, learning to open up and say yes to the spirits, is just the beginning. Shamanism is just a way some of us are coming to embrace the Other-World, to put on our ranger boots and get out there to do the work of the world.

Special? Meh … I’d rather have more people joining me on the trails this Samhain.

See you there?

%d bloggers like this: