Archives For neo-shamanism

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Margaret Mahy (Photo: David Hallett)

Margaret Mahy (Photo: David Hallett)

That’s it for now, have a great day! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

I’m out of town today, attending a doctor’s appointment in Ashland, Oregon, so I don’t have the time to do my usual exploration and analysis of news of interest to the Pagan community. Instead, I’d like to offer some links from across the Pagan media world that have drawn my attention. So enjoy, I’m hoping to hit the Oregon vortex on my way home!

That’s all I have for now, have a great day, I’ll be back tomorrow.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

The blogosphere is abuzz over the news that two people died, and several more sickened at a retreat held by New Age huckster, “Secret” booster, and two-time Oprah guest James Arthur Ray. The deaths occurred as a result of the careless use of a large plastic “sweat lodge” that held 64 people at the time of the incident (you can hear the 911 calls, here), and was the culmination of  a 9695.00-per-head “spiritual warrior” workshop.

In all, 21 of the 64 people crowded inside the sweat lodge Thursday evening received medical care at hospitals and a fire station. Four remained hospitalized Friday evening – one in critical condition and the others in fair condition … Among those sickened were a middle-aged man and a woman who were unconscious, according to a 911 call, and a third person who was found not breathing. “It’s not something you’d normally see at one of the resorts there, and it’s unfortunate regardless of the cause,” D’Evelyn said. Investigators were working to determine whether criminal actions might have been a factor in the incident, D’Evelyn said. The Angel Valley Retreat Center sits on 70 acres nestled in a scrub forest just outside Sedona, a resort town 115 miles north of Phoenix that draws many in the New Age spiritual movement. Self-help expert and author James Arthur Ray rented the facility as part of his “Spiritual Warrior” retreat that began Oct. 3 and that promised to “absolutely change your life.”

Well it certainly did change several people’s lives, two it changed rather permanently. It makes Chas Clifton wonder if you can sue your shaman, especially if you signed a lengthy liability-release form beforehand. Meanwhile, Gus diZerega and Kathryn Price NicDhana point out the dangers of this kind of ignorant appropriation.

“The newage, pyramid-scheming, scam artist crammed 21 people into a plastic sweatlodge. In the hot, wet dark with the man who had no idea how to lead an Indian ceremony, and no connection to any culture that could have taught him how (or told him this was a really bad idea), they sweated for two hours… till two were dead, three were unconscious, and everyone else went to the hospital.  Hazmat teams and crime scene tape now surround the site. Native American ceremonial people from the area are saying that, by imitating a ceremony he was not trained to perform, this newage plastic shaman killed these people. I agree. They used materials in this fake ceremony that should not be used, they used things that were physically and spiritually dangerous. They payed $9,000 for a sad death at the hands of a greedy con man.”

The Beyond Growth blog, a longtime critic of James Ray, points out that these “large group awareness trainings” often push people past their safe limits through peer pressure and the fear of failure.

“I know several people who have gone to the hospital for various reasons after “large group awareness trainings” such as Ray’s “Spiritual Warrior Event.” … It’s time we brought these gurus to justice and demanded that personal change workshops be safe for all. When something goes wrong in such a seminar due to it being overly intense and dangerous, usually the victims are blamed for “not taking 100% responsibility,” thus dodging the responsibility of the seminar leaders. Personally, I think we should hold James Arthur Ray 100% personally responsible for the death of these two seminar participants, up to and including going to jail. Seminar leaders are responsible for making their workshops both effective and safe for all.”

Beyond Growth’s post also has a screen-shot of Ray’s creepy death-haunted Twitter posts made before and during the event, since deleted after the sweat-lodge debacle. I highly recommend reading his follow-up post “The Dark Side of The Secret” for more insight.

This mixture of cultural appropriation, magical thinking, New Age brainwashing, and a success at all costs mentality ends up creating unsafe environments for those merely looking to improve themselves. I’m not sure his liability release forms will protect Ray (not to mention Michael and Amayra Hamilton, who hosted the event) from the coming storm of inquiries, litigation, and increased scrutiny that are sure to follow. Lets hope this tragedy opens the eyes of those gulled by the Secret-peddlers and Plastic Shamans interested only in improving their bank-accounts, not your life.

You have to wonder if Slate.com is getting somewhat hard-pressed to find subject matter and writers for their regular “Faith-Based” section. How else to explain them getting journalist Robert Wright, author of several game theory/evolutionary psychology-boosting books, including his recent “The Evolution of God”, to write about Neo-Shamanism? Wright, who seems to be a proponent of the outmoded and inaccurate idea that monotheism is a more evolved form of belief than polytheism (Publishers Weekly points out that he uses a “naive and antiquated approach to the sociology and anthropology of religion”), is so eager to debunk popular myths about shamans that he makes some rather sloppy assertions right out of the gate.

“The quotes come from Leo Rutherford, a leading advocate of neo-shamanism, which is a subset of neo-paganism, which is a subset of New Age spirituality. But the basic idea—that there was a golden age of spiritual purity which we fallen moderns need to recover—goes beyond New Age circles.”

While there is certainly some significant overlap between modern Paganism and Neo-Shamanism, the latter isn’t a “subset” of the former. Nor is modern Paganism a subset of New Age spirituality. These are all distinct religious/social movements with different starting points, ideologies, and goals. Wright is confusing the overlap of practitioners and subcultures (and the tendency of some academics to lump them together for the sake of convenience) with some sort of neat nesting-dolls order of New Religious Movements. Meanwhile, before Wright talks about all the indigenous shamans who were fakes and confidence men, he wants us to know that he isn’t trying to offend.

“But before I start, I want to stress two points: 1) I think it’s great for people to find spiritual peace and sound moral orientation wherever they can, including neo-paganism; 2) I don’t doubt that back before Western monotheism took shape there were earnest seekers of a “holistic vision” who selflessly sought to share that vision.”

So big of him, don’t you think? Despite admitting that some shamans may have indeed been honorable and wise, he still wants to point out that some were not. As if human nature hasn’t taught us that some people, no matter how exhaulted their status, can still take part in some very real moral failings and abuse their power. In fact, Wright pretty much admits that there may be some real value to various shamanic ideas and practices (he “praises” them by comparing their worldview to followers of early Abrahamic religions), he just wanted us to take off our rose-colored (shamanic) glasses.

“I’m for that! In fact, I once did a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat that gave me just that feeling. And there are traditions within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that are big on oneness. I recommend trying one of them—or trying neo-shamanism. But if you try neo-shamanism, don’t be under the illusion that you’re helping to recover a lost age of authentic spirituality. Religion has always been a product of human beings, for better and worse.”

So to sum up, Neo-Shamanic adherents (who are a subset of Pagans, who are a subset of New Agers) need to remember that some indigenous shamans were fakers and frauds, but really, there is some  (early Abrahamic-esque) wisdom and good stuff to be found there. Heck, “ordinary consciousness could use some transcending”! So I guess now that the Neo-Shamans (not to mention the traditional indigenous shamans) have been taken down a peg by Wright, those crazy diamonds can all shine on. I have to wonder, was there really a point to this article? Did Slate.com actually pay him to just ramble on about animal bladders full of blood and how often shamans got lucky? Of all the topics he could cover, why was Robert Wright writing about Neo-Shamanism?

Looks like there may be some trouble in the shamanic community. Simon Buxton, author of the book “The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters” is being accused of fabrication and having the book ghost-written. This might not be a big deal if it was from a disgruntled fan, but the accusations are (allegedly) coming from his former writing partner and fellow shaman Ross Heaven. Heaven, author of “Vodou Shaman: The Haitian Way of Healing and Power” (more on that in a moment) has posted (or allegedly posted) a review claiming he wrote most of the book.

“I notice some questions here from reviewers about whether this book is a true story or not. Since I actually (ghost)-wrote most of it for Buxton, allow me to answer the question and advise potential purchasers categorically that if you choose to buy this book, you will purchasing a work of dramatic fiction which, furthermore, was largely unwritten by Buxton himself. Buxton’s major contributions to the book as I recall them, in fact, were his accounts of how to keep bees and if that is what interests you then you should enjoy this book. Other parts of the story, however…came directly from my imagination…I am disappointed, therefore, to see Buxton presenting this book as a work of his own and, moreover, describing it as a non-fiction book of his personal shamanic experiences. Had Buxton pitched this as a fantasy novel or a work of shamanic fiction, it wouldn’t have made a bad read. Had he presented it as a semi-fictional account which included the dramatic embellishments of a ghost-writer or even a ‘collaborator’, it would be accurate. But he did neither.”

Buxton’s book, which won an award from Ash? Journal and the praises of pop-star Tori Amos is the current heavyweight on the neo-shamanic scene. It should be interesting to see how Heaven’s allegations play out. Depending on the ghost-writing deal (if that is indeed the case) Heaven may be prohibited from legal action regarding the work, and there is always the possiblity that this is a case of sour grapes (or bitter honey if you prefer) since he isn’t pulling in a percentage of sales and isn’t credited on the book.

Heaven himself isn’t free from controversy however, It seems there is an ongoing dispute between Heaven and Mambo Racine an American convert to Haitian Vodou who makes money performing initiations in Haiti for curious seekers (including Heaven at one point). Racine posts the following in the review page of his “Vodou Shaman” Amazon page.

“Helllo! I am Mambo Racine Sans Bout, the same Mambo Racine about whom Ross Heaven has so many nice things to say in his book, “Vodou Shaman”. It is with some regret that I must warn the prospective reader that most of what is in this book never actually happened – Ross is willing to say anything for a buck, apparently. He never let me see what he was writing until the book was published, and I never imagined he would make up so many stories! Now that I have refused to support his activities he is very angry with me, but the fact remains that this book is 99% BUNK.”

Another reviewer named “AE” on the page calls Racine a charlatan and re-posts a scathing letter from Heaven about Racine.

“Kathy [Mambo Racine] has been spouting for 2 years, without proof, that I revealed djevo secrets in my book, Vodou Shaman. And for 2 years I’ve been saying the opposite and asking for evidence. None has ever arrived…what happens in spambo’s djevo (all these “great and mystical blessings of Guinea” that spambo keeps spouting about), is a big fat boring zero. What you WON’T get are the proper passwords (and, yes, there are more than one), be shown how to call or control spirits, taught any liturgy (or why Vodou is the oldest religion, according to spamflaps), prayers, or songs, shown any magic, the correct use of the asson (or passwords for it) – or, in fact, receive anything of use or value – and no further teachings will follow (I’ve received nothing else from spambo – apart from BS – in the 5 years since I initiated with her). What you will do is lie on a dirt floor, bored, for the best part of a week and maybe if youre un/lucky (depending on your perspective) spambo may drop by a few times if she’s not too stoned to bore you still further with BS. If you’ve got a spare $2,500 lying around I cant think of a better way to waste it.”

Strong stuff. There are two ways you could look at this. Either Ross Heaven is a man of integrity who keeps getting mixed up with charlatans and con-men, or, he is a canny opportunist stirring up controversy to inflate his own status. Considering how little I know of these various controversies I’ll refrain from making any final judgements in the matter. Here you thought our Witch-Wars were bad!