Michael Harner 1929-2018

shamanism story

What do you say about someone who returned you to your souls own native spirituality? What can you give someone at their passing, who, seemingly effortlessly, held open a door for you that led everywhere? If I had every day, for the rest of my life, to walk down the many paths that open door made available to me, I wouldn’t even begin to explore the potential that is there.

Michael Harner was not a guru, that was clear. He was just a man, gifted in some very important ways, but not given to levitation or made from a miraculous birth. He would say the spirits are the teachers, the spirits are the gurus. He was of course right. Being right, being true about all things related to his understanding of shamanism, was one of his gifts. Humor was another.

I have an affinity for people who have taught in academia, having grown up with a Father who was a law professor who loved to open his home to the many faculty members I called Aunts and Uncles. Michaels way of thinking was familiar to me, his special devotion to truth and discernment made me feel at home. Perhaps thats why I appreciated so much that he did not yield his academic integrity in favor of his spirituality or vs. He found a way to make each a handmaiden to the other. Another gift.

I had the great fortune to study with Michael Harner, first during an introductory workshop, then as a student of his Three Year program, and finally as a teacher in training. My first residential workshop was a five day intensive on Shamanic Counseling (a methodology for teaching others to journey) lead by his wife and partner in Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS) work, Sandra Harner. Later I sat with Sandra as a fellow student, as she watched over his return to teaching after a stroke.

I came to the work of the FSS a broken young man. My life had collapsed in upon itself, I had run too long from deeply buried problems. I tried therapy, various other spiritual disciplines, but none seemed to help that much. In hindsight I now see its because none of those disciplines knew how to heal and support the soul. That is a knowledge lost to most of us, likely burned out of our culture by the politics of the many bloody ages our civilization has passed through.

Those initial healings were incredibly transformative, my life coalesced around me as I integrated the soul doctoring I received. I soon became a student myself, immersing myself in the practices of Core Shamanism. As many people report upon coming into this work, it truly was like coming home. Not because I saw myself as some great healer, just because working with the spirits, journeying, dancing, all felt so right. This was just me.

The practices and initiatory process offered by the FSS are too numerous and nuanced to go into detail about here. Additionally many of them retain part of their transformative power by being taught live, by FSS staff with their details held as closely guarded secrets. As many cohorts have said, after years of training, and many more years of practice and teaching on my own, I know I could still learn so much from going through all of it again. My work has grown to include other teachers and traditions, but always I find that the best of what I learn is supported by the knowledge and practices developed by Michael and the FSS staff.

Michael offered so much more to the world than his cultivation of cross-cultural practices of healing the soul and working with helping spirits. He had a broad understanding of history, and brought that knowledge to bear when considering shamanism. He understood the historical significance of shamanic work, and what might happen to a culture that had lost its shamanic capabilities as ours has. He extended this knowledge beyond tribal communities, to more complex civilizations. We have written out of history the importance of the spirits, be they malevolent, benign, compassionate or a mix of all.

I caught a glimpse of that breadth during a Council Meeting. He was questioning Larry Peters, an expert on Tibetan Shamanism, about a specific, wrathful spirit who had recently been located by Tibetan Buddhists in a higher level of the upper world. Michael commented that the FSS did not associate wrath with spirits that had ascended to the upper world, essentially moving beyond the suffering of this world. The implication of this is that the Buddhists were working with spirits that though they purported to have transcended this world, were actually of this world, possibly motivated by the same selfish motivations all of us in this world are potentially subject to.

“If thats true, then what about Yahweh of the Old Testament?” Larry seemed a little put off by Michaels evaluation.

“Exactly.” Michaels one word answer spoke volumes. Its possible that some of the most influential spiritual moments in the West were the result of malevolent spirits representing themselves as God.

I’ve shared this story with many people, some guffawed, astounded at Michaels apparent arrogance. Of course we can’t critique the Buddhists, they thought, we can’t judge the people of the old testament, everything being relative. But Michael had seen beyond that knee-jerk response, which is inherently blind to the presence of the spirits. His vision of history included the reality of the spirits, taking seriously the many stories of spirits misrepresenting their origins and their purposes that can be found in almost all cultures. Priesthoods have gladly formed up around powerful beings promising the ultimate power or the ultimate truth. Perhaps Michael was especially sensitive to this as trickster beings relating grandiose proclamations were featured in his first Ayahuasca experience.

Michaels academic training allowed him to see beyond the polite habit of not questioning other traditions most of us adhere to religiously. His years of experience had taught him that the spirits were real, he took their historical significance with great seriousness. Had he been an historian, perhaps his work would have taken a different path. But he was not an historian, he was an explorer, one of the greatest in my experience.

I remember asking him why his most recent book, Cave and The Cosmos was not a comprehensive tome, detailing the many ways shamanism had flowed throughout history, touching on things like the worlds major religions. “Because I’m an explorer,” he said. I remember sitting with the other FSS teachers, looking around the room I realized so many of the people sitting in that room were explorers themselves. Thats the kind of people he attracted to his inner circle, because they recognized the explorer in him.

Maybe thats why I still have this strange feeling I first got when he passed. I think it feels different when an explorer, who accomplished so much goes. They leave you not with a feeling of loss so much as an invitation to carve your own path into new worlds. Their life says to us, this is how far I got, now see how much further you can go.

Michael brought me to the head of this incredible trail. Already my path has diverged from areas he might have thought to explore. Still, thats the point, isn’t it?

Now, where will his vision take you?

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