Shamanic Life Worlds: The Interplay of Individuality and Unity
Updated: May 2, 2019
It is in relationship that the shaman lives – with their community, with the plants, animals, and land, and with the realms of spirit.
If we are to look at the reality of the shaman, then we must look at the life world in which they exist – a reality that is quite different from the life world of the Dominant society. We could say that we need to look at life from the “shamanic point of view,” but as will become apparent, such a statement arises from the Dominant society, and is not accurate when speaking of shamanism.
To look at the life world of the shamans, we must become aware of our own life world, which today is Dominated by the cult of the individual. Our society teaches us we are all islands of consciousness; beings that must interact with one another, but which are ultimately separate entities; each whole and unified within ourselves. This personal individualism springs from a specific perception of reality at large: Life is made up of separate objects, each complete in itself.
There is of course another necessary part to this perspective: The separate objects which we perceive are constantly interacting with one another – the trees are moved by the wind, just as our words are heard by those listening. While the Dominant life world places the emphasis on these separate objects – the speaker and the listener – the shamanic life world places its emphasis on the relationship between the speaker and the listener. It is the relationships themselves that become highlighted, and therefore the importance of the necessary interactions between seemingly separate objects.
So it is in relationship that the shaman lives – with their community, with the plants, animals, and land, and with the realms of spirit. Shamans serve as the intermediary between their communities and the unseen realms, and as such they must be in relationship with that community, otherwise they have no purpose. This contrasts with the monotheistic path of the mystic or renunciate as they often exist today, who reject their society in order to individually search for a singular God. The shaman, on the other hand, stays within their society to discover God within relationships.
Through the Dominant society’s emphasis of our individuality, the mystic or renunciate individually searches of a monotheistic God, a God that is overarching and all-inclusive. The seeker does so in a life world of separate objects, and their “experience of God” is a mystical experience of Unity. This experience is indeed a “revelation,” because in a life world of autonomous objects, the experience of Unity is revolutionary. In the life world of individuality it is the Oneness that is elusive.
The concept of individuality – of separate objects – necessitates a concept of Unity. We cannot have one without the other. For us to make sense of a life world of separate objects there must also exist their opposite – a Unity. Therefore the Dominant sense of individuality requires a monotheistic God – an all-inclusive, unified divinity. But because this Unification is so far from our everyday lives, it is “transcendent.”
But what of the shaman, whose life world is one of relationship? The shaman stays within society, and perceives their community as a whole, and the inherent relationship between the people, nature, and the realms of spirit – shamans live within this Unity, in the same way in which those of the Dominant society live within individualism.
There is a constant interplay between concepts of unity and division. In the perspective of the individual looking at separate objects, each object is seen as unified in itself. From a perception based in unity, such as that of the shaman, objects are seen not as a singular entity, but as being made up of many parts. A tree is found to contain its roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and spirit. And where do the roots end and dirt begin? When the shaman looks at a person, they see their varying emotions, personalities, and soul parts. The shaman does not assume a singular self, as the Dominant monotheistic society does, but a poly-self.
Therefore, it is the Individuation that eludes the shaman and is their God, in the same way in which Unity is the God of the isolated individual. While the unified reality is taken for granted in the shamanic life world, the inherent individuality – so obvious to monotheistic life world – is absent in the shaman’s polytheistic life world.
We can see, then, that the conception of separate objects and the relationship between these objects is present both in the individualized perception (now Dominant) as well as the relational life world (that of the shaman). Where the contemporary mystic or renunciate sails through an ocean of objects for an individual, personal experience of Unification, the shaman wades through a unified relational world, being forever eluded by Individuality – an experience of perceiving something’s foundation, its base. Where the mystic assumes Individuality, the shaman assumes Unity; as the renunciate seeks Unity, the shaman seeks Individuality. The difference is in emphasis and experience, but the process is the same: Existing in the life world of Individuality, the mystic or renunciate creates balance by forever discovering Unity; existing in the life world of Unity, the shaman creates balance by continuously discovering Individuality. But these discoveries are fleeting, and encourage the mystic, renunciate, and shaman forever onward.
For the shaman, the process of creating balance is one of journeying through themselves, expanding their parts. When looking at themselves, they see their ancestral soul parts (expanding into the past and future), their animalistic body (moving horizontally through the physical world), and god-like spirit (flowing vertically upward and downward in the spirit realms). Each of these elements further sub-divides, and while there are all tied together, that which unites them is absent – it is simply because of the relationship between the parts that the notion of the self arises.
In the Dominant society God is considered to be the uniting factor, and as such our monotheistic concept of self attempts to create a unified life world: Everything should fit into a set of concepts and/or values that do not contradict one another. In this way, Unity is sought after. The shaman, however, accepts contradiction: One realm may have laws or morals that directly contradict that of another (for example, the law of gravity in the physical world does not hold sway in the realms of spirit).
Able to abandon the laws of any given realm, the shaman is able to move between realities. In doing so, they build relationships with beings of various realms, such as ghost, ancestor spirit, natural spirits, plant spirits, animal spirits, deities, and gods. They have found that some beings are closely tied to physical manifestations – mountain spirits, forest nymphs, water spirits, etc. Other beings have become attached to points in space and time, and these we usually call ghosts. Some beings have their primary consciousness in other realms, and partially manifest in the physical as plants or animals. Yet other beings live entirely in spirit, and may be able to move between some of these spirit realms. And still other beings can manifest themselves through all levels of reality, from dense physical realities into all the spirit realms, whether they be hellish or heavenly. In journeying to various realms, meeting and interacting with these beings, the shaman does so on behalf of their community. As the community is inherently connected, the shaman does so as their community.
These journeys are not without purpose. Discovered in the inherent relationship between humans and other beings of the cosmos is the ability of other beings to affect our physical and psychic lives – indeed they are part of us, as we are all in relationship; we affect them as they affect us. The shaman’s journeys to these realms and relationships with the beings there facilitate healing, interaction, and change amongst the shaman’s community – change amongst our poly-self. And when the people lose their sense of relationship with the cosmos and collapse into either a false sense of individuality, or dissolve into an illusion of unity, it it’s the shaman’s duty to restore balance – the balance of the self that exists as a unified singularity, and in a relationship of separation.
We began by saying that to say we were going to looks at the shaman’s “point of view” would be incorrect. Now we can see that a “point of view” requires an individual object that has a “view” from a specific “point.” But the shaman lives not in this singular “point,” but moves through aspects of self, through a relational field that does not include a fixed “point.” Their life world is a movement of varying realms, beings, and contradiction. Yet through this movement, this journey of building relationship, they bring balance – between beings, within our poly-self, and in doing so create a notion of a mono-self, forever journeying, never fixed.