Column: The Princess and the Shaman – Durek Verrett’s Vision of Shamanism

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When I moved from France to Norway some eleven years ago, I discovered what it was like living in a monarchy. Not everyone knows it, but Norway has been headed by kings and queens since long before recorded history. While I was originally not all that much interested in the royal family, studying Norwegian history made me aware of how influential the monarchy has been in developing a sense of national identity and cultural zeitgeist. As I gained more knowledge about the royal family, I discovered a number of fascinating stories, some having to do with the Second World War, some with love, and some, with religion. I also became aware of Princess Märtha Louise, the daughter of Norway’s current monarch, Harald V.

The princess, who is a trained physiotherapist and an accomplished equestrian rider, is maybe best known in Norway for being the foremost proponent of New Age theories and practices in the country. Since 2007, when she started collaborating with self-proclaimed psychic Elisabeth Nordeng, Princess Märtha has published a number of books, held talks, and even started an organization dedicated to teaching people about their latent psychic powers (Astarte Education, now defunct). Among her numerous claims, she has stated that she was able to see angels, communicate with the dead, and sense supernatural energy.

In Norway, a Lutheran-majority country where the king is, by law, obligated to be a member of the state church, having a princess that so openly embraced alternative religions was, to say the least, quite the scandal. While representatives from Norwegian New Age groups welcomed the fact that someone that high up in society had “joined their side,” a number of Christians voiced their opposition, with some demanding that the princess should leave the state church, if not the royal family as well.

If, for a while, Princess Märtha’s career as Norway’s best-known representative for alternative religions was the bread and butter of some popular publications, the “hype,” if one could call it that, had mostly died down by the end of the last decade. The princess returned to the limelight briefly in 2017, when it was revealed that she was to divorce her husband, the author and artist Ari Behn. But then, just last year, another media storm was raised when she announced that she had entered a relationship with a certain Durek Verrett. That man, also known as “Shaman Durek,” was, it appeared, a California New Age personality with an impressive list of contacts, including, among others, Gwyneth Paltrow.

Shortly after Verrett had been presented to the Norwegian public, he and Princess Märtha went on tour across the country to present their new spiritual relationship and ideas. This tour, unsurprisingly titled “The Princess and the Shaman,” generated both high ticket sales and a new wave of controversy. Once again, some personalities, including Crown Prince Haakon, the princess’ brother, started discussing whether she ought to use her royal title in such a context. When “The Princess and the Shaman” were due to hold a talk in a church belonging to the state church, they were denied after the local bishop condemned Durek’s spiritual healing practices.

All of a sudden, this story turned into one of the largest media circuses of the year. The flames of controversy only rose higher when some of Durek’s more extravagant claims – such as that he could cure cancer patients through spiritual healing – were due to be published in a book, leaked in the Norwegian press. When Verrett’s book, Spirit Hacking: Shamanic Keys to Reclaim Your Personal Power, Transform Yourself, and Light Up the World, was released in Norway in the fall of last year, most of these controversial statements had to be edited out.

As a Pagan based in Norway, I can safely say that I had only one wish when this train-wreck of a controversy took place: that it would go away as quickly as it came. If, in the eyes of some, more visibility for us “religious others” is always a good thing, I personally felt quite conflicted about this affair. Sure, challenging the might of the Christian institutions might be great, and having a royal at the helm of such a movement might be, in theory, a great opportunity, the way it unfolded made me doubt anything positive could be gained from all of this.

As someone who knows the local shamanic milieu, though, I knew that the type of New Age-influenced spirituality promoted by Verrett and the princess certainly had an audience here in Norway. Just by looking at local women’s magazines, alternative conferences, retreat centers, and the like, I would not be surprised if there were at least five times as many proponents of New Age spirituality as there are Pagans in the country. And while I tend to see people who engage in practices such as spiritual healing, angel divination, and such with a little perplexity, I admit that that they have more in common with us Pagans than with Christians and other Abrahamists. Still, why did Shaman Durek (as he is called here in Norway) make all of these claims, come on TV shows, and, quite frankly, make a spectacle out of his spirituality?

 

 

Now, several months after the worst of the controversy had passed, most have stopped caring much about the doings of Princess Märtha and her odd Californian boyfriend. I, however, have not been able to lay it completely to rest. If my initial reaction to this controversy was dominated by a towering feeling of exasperation, time made me reconsider my position.

After all, how would I be allowed to criticize Verrett as someone who identifies with the Old Religion? Aren’t Pagans of all types just as captivated with the supernatural, the unexplained, and the divine as New Age folks? Aren’t there any Pagans out there who have made somewhat fanciful declarations about their beliefs and practices? The question whether we really are all that different from people like Shaman Durek is something I have been pondering for a while now, even before this whole controversy unfolded. In the end, I decided to give it a go, and ordered Durek’s book. I set to read it from cover to cover and write down my honest thoughts about it.

Fast forward a few weeks and a global pandemic later, and I can safely say that I did not expect this book to turn out like it did. I have read my fair share of Pagan books by a variety of authors. But Spirit Hacking was a completely different beast altogether.

Following a rather puzzling (and somewhat self-congratulatory) foreword authored by a coffee startup owner, we are introduced to Shaman Durek as he tells the reader how he once died – and came back to life – in his shamanistic quest for enlightenment. Following this rather intriguing hook, he introduces himself, his lineage, his experience with shamanism, and his understanding of the spirit-world. As it so happens, Verrett is presented as having had extensive schooling in pretty much every religious tradition in existence, as well as personal contact with a wide array of spirits (ranging from pelt-wearing Vikings to Martin Luther King Jr.), with no small thanks to his very magically-inclined family. As this introduction comes to an end, the reader is met with a glossary of somewhat esoteric words which, together, represent the core concepts expressed by the author throughout his book.

The following first chapter of the book (“The Blackout”) then presents Verrett’s main thesis: while the world is the creation of an all-loving deity (“God”) who wishes all to have lives filled with absolute, unabated love, prosperity, and growth, humanity is currently in the midst of a cataclysmic spiritual event known as “the Blackout.” This event is characterized by pretty much everything that’s wrong with the world today: war, hatred, environmental destruction, racism, mental health problems, and more. This “Blackout” is created, as Shaman Durek explains it, by a dimensional realm he calls “the Darkness,” which is especially prevalent in our universe due to the presence of massive quantities of cosmic dark matter, which can suck an individual’s consciousness and lead them to spiritual misery. This “Darkness,” in turn, works through what is called in the book “the Matrix,” a loosely defined kind of spiritual network expressed through society’s rules and institutions that enslaves people and limits their abilities to reach true love and happiness.

While this first chapter, and introduction, of Spirit Hacking might only make up less than 10% of the book’s 300 pages, it nevertheless encapsulates and presents Durek Verrett’s vision, message, and style very well. Throughout the remainder of the book, he does not veer much from the formula established in these first few pages. In terms of content, Verrett mixes up personal anecdotes from his childhood, his formative years, or his more recent work as a spiritual counselor, together with grand declarations about the nature of the universe, society, and the divine. Pretty much every chapter and subchapter introduces a spiritual issue faced by modern society, before issuing guidance aimed at growing past it (“Dream Greater”, “Take Responsibility”).

In terms of tone, the author repeatedly switches between somewhat syrupy proclamations of universal love, often worded in very general ways, and more callous attacks targeted at those who oppose his message of almighty, universal, undying love. If the former sections can sometimes be a bit dull to read, his more opinionated declarations let the reader peer into the mind of the author, a man who, as it surfaces throughout the book, has it all figured out. If Shaman Durek duly acknowledges numerous times that his past was all but saintly, the teachings he currently promulgates do not leave room for much doubt or interpretation. It’s his way or the highway. Over and over again, the reader of Spirit Hacking is reminded about the power the spirit-neutering “Matrix” has over the simple-minded sheeple (“bobbleheads” according to Verrett’s glossary) and how critical it is, in an almost cosmologic way, to break this spell and awaken to “the truth.”

But what is exactly this truth championed by Shaman Durek? Where does it comes from, and what arguments does he make in its defense?

The North American edition of Shaman Durek’s Spirit Hacking [L. Perabo]

If Verrett routinely pokes fun of “New Age types” in his book, it must be said that, at its core, Spirit Hacking, is closer to a more middle of the road New Age worldview than anything truly Pagan or shamanic. While Shaman Durek decries religions in general as “tools of the Matrix,” and prefers to present his version of shamanism as a spiritually-infused “way of life,” he nevertheless goes on and on about the numerous religious traditions he has studied over the years (Kaballah, Catholicism, Sufism, as well as the traditions of countless third-world nations). The general idea behind Verrett’s spirituality is that, while religions are bad, all spiritual traditions hold a piece of the puzzle that link God and man.

As far as how shamanism really is defined in the book, the reader would be hard-pressed to find any kind of authoritative source in its pages besides Shaman Durek himself. As he regularly repeats throughout Spirit Hacking, Durek Verrett comes from a powerful line of shamans of various origins (African, Haitian, Blackfoot, Norwegian) and was destined, from very early on, to be guiding people towards a new age (which he calls “the Giant Age”). In addition to his lineage, his personal experiences with living-and departed-shamans and other spiritual eminences are pretty much the sole basis for any one of his claims.

When Shaman Durek presents his rituals (“Spirit Hacks”), or makes any authoritative statement, he never goes beyond a very brief mention of what tradition it supposedly originates from. On no occasion does he quote any kind of scripture or sacred text and nowhere in his work is there any kind of reference to any other book, organization, author, or specific spiritual tradition. Everything is kept incredibly vague. When Shaman Durek talks about the magical practices of Indonesian water shamans, he leaves it at that, and never even mentions who they are, what nation they belong to, and where and when he was exposed to them. When he talks about how a dog he had as a pet was revealed to him to be a spirit animal by a Lakota elder, he gives no details either. No specifics are given at any time, and no subject or concept is developed longer than a few paragraphs at a time. For someone who might want to grasp the concepts introduced by Shaman Durek head on, most of Spirit Hacking would probably prove to be a frustratingly limiting read.

Despite these literally substantial shortcomings, one thing Shaman Durek has going for himself is his style. He writes short chapters (20-30 pages), and even shorter paragraphs and sentences, which makes it easy for even the weary reader to go through a few more pages whenever they have the time or desire to do so. The way he uses words could also be lauded as being very easy to comprehend. Notwithstanding the near-constant use of his very own jargon, Verrett writes rather plainly and clearly, and makes use of a lot of idioms more conventionally reserved for day to day speech. Prudish readers beware, as they will find plenty of F-bombs in this book, as well as a lot of other current, almost internet-y language (“Words got skillz;” ”How to manifest like a motherfucking shaman;” ”My lineage is mystical AF”). This kind of language is so prevalent that, at times, I was not sure if I was reading a book about shamanism and spirituality, or perusing some sassy twitter feed about the latest internet drama.

Shaman Durek clearly wants his teachings to be relatable and easy to get into. His use of language is just one aspect of this approach. Another one is the way he channels the glamor of personal growth to ground his message in the more immediate and tangible world of financial success. According to Verrett, everyone is fully responsible, not only for their own actions, but for their own happiness. Afflictions such as sadness, financial instability, and even sickness are truly just the result of one’s lack of self-love, which goes against what God has designed for mankind. Only through following the radical loving truth presented by Shaman Durek can one go beyond these kinds of woes and become what he calls a “quantum creator” who can reach a new level of personal growth and prosperity.

As Verrett sums it up himself, “money is not so evil,” and he certainly spends quite a bit of time explaining that, as a spiritual guide, being wealthy is just a reflection of his own spiritual practices and his deep understanding of the ways of the world. In addition to this specific chapter on financial and spiritual growth (“Dream Greater”), Shaman Durek does not waste an occasion to mention his numerous millionaire and billionaire friends, clients, and contacts all throughout the rest of the book. While I certainly am no expert in modern American Evangelical Christianity, this all sounds a whole lot like another version of the gospel of prosperity. Regardless, this idea that willing success and happiness is everything one needs to make it happen fits in the rest of Verrett’s worldview like a glove.

Throughout his book, Shaman Durek sometimes goes off on various tangents and starts discussing his own experiences with adversity and how, through various shamanistic encounters or rituals, he was able to brush them all off and grow higher. However, this kind of philosophical optimism is sometimes taken to some baffling extremes. When discussing his own abusive upbringing, which, according to him, was marked by both physical violence at the hands of his father, as well as sexual abuse from his babysitter, he goes on a tirade against the idea of forgiveness. Not because forgiving people who have engaged in demonstratively harmful acts against you is wrong, but because forgiving implies seeing such abusive acts through a binary lens of good and evil, and assigning blame.

In chapter six, “Take Responsibility”, Verrett mentions how some individuals let their pain define them, and thus refuse to take responsibility for their own happiness. He gives two examples. In the first one, he talks about a client of his who suffered trauma after being stabbed. Shaman Durek’s advice for dealing with this pain? To tell his client to be “grateful to the man who did the stabbing,” as following the incident, his client switched careers towards something she seemingly was best suited for. In his second example, Verrett discuss his own experience as a victim of child molestation and the positive outcomes that came from it:

“When I look back at the experience of being molested as a kid, in spite of the many ways it distorted my character through alcoholism, and drug addiction, and homophobia, it also heightened my energetic sensitivity in a really practical and applicable way, what with me being a shaman and all. To have been so consistently sexually charged at such a young age activated my sensorium and allowed me to start attuning my energetic sensitivities from a unique perspective/ entry point […] That early sexual stimulation is what allowed me to start working with such subtle sensorial energetics all those years ago and has definitively contributed to my shamanic mastery. So, while I don’t condone what happened to me, when I look at the experience from a shamanic perspective, I can say that the molestation was a blessing.”

While I don’t want to tell anyone how they should deal with their own personal trauma, I could barely believe my eyes when I first read this paragraph. And yet, it was not the first, or the last, time Shaman Durek had written something polemical in this book. At regular intervals, in between the grandiose monologues about universal self-love and fulfillment, the reader of Spirit Hacking will find some rather odd statements about a variety of subjects Shaman Durek feels strongly about. There, the tone shifts from considerate and welcoming, to berating, if not outright hostile. A rather odd turn of event coming from someone who also states that shamans should not judge.

In the chapter “Get Realer”, Verrett speaks against identity politics and the pigeonholing of identities, taking the “gay” identity as an example: “Like, the second someone comes out of the closet, and identify themselves as ‘gay,’ they have to put a rainbow sticker on their car, and vote Democrat, and listen to show tunes, and wear crop tops, and do crunches – unless they are taking the Bear route.” In “Connect Some More”, he develops his thoughts on the feminine and masculine energies that power humankind, and especially so in the “You’re Not a Dude, Babe” subchapter, where he states that “One of the great downsides of the feminist movement was that it convinced women that the best way for them to survive in this world is to act like men.” Later, he comments on the energy of “nature codes” that ought not to be disrupted, citing for example transgender hormonal treatment as something unnatural (“people have to learn how to work with these energies, and how to manage these energies, because people are forcing their bodies to function in ways their bodies were not actually designed to function”).

Such passages are few and far between, but they nevertheless leave a strange impression, as if they had been unintentionally misplaced. But in truth, they fit very well with the general tone of the book, which is one of unconditional certainty and authority. After all, if Shaman Durek is right about the spirit-world (and he is, at least according to himself), his judgement of seemingly more benign issues surely must be correct as well. At its core, Spirit Hacking is about what is correct and what isn’t. On several occasions, Verrett even makes use of the term “incorrect thinking,” which is a rather odd concept in my eyes. Still, while on a few occasions he might make somewhat astute observations, these are immediately counterbalanced by other proclamations that, frankly, would sound absolutely preposterous to most people.

The worst example of this one-sided authoritative guidance can be found towards the very end of the book, in the aforementioned “Connect Some More” chapter. While there, Verrett starts off in a very mellow fashion, discussing the importance of nature, and that humans connect with it, his tone soon shifts to more objectionable territory. For a dozen or so pages, Shaman Durek engages all of his verve and forces against modern Western medicine. Taking his philosophy of self-love and individual responsibility to its paroxysm, he goes on to write that the root of diseases lays not in the body, not in the cells, but in a person’s mental environment (“emotional stress, emotional toxicity, environmental pollution, mental pollution, mental discord […], the house they live in […], the people they hang out with […], their job, their partner”). These in turn activate genetic codes, ultimately creating diseases.

Essentially, people don’t become sick because of biological reasons, but because they are unhappy and have strayed from the path of divine self-love. At least, this is how Shaman Durek sees it:

“When I go to hospitals and I work with people who have cancer, the first question I always ask is: “Why do you want this cancer?” That upsets some people. Kids, however, are not burdened by these kinds of hang-ups. When I work with children, and I ask them why they want their cancer, they tell me straight up: “Because I don’t want to be here anymore.”

It is this incomprehensible denunciation of modern medicine that made me almost quit reading Spirit Hacking. Not only does Verrett condemn modern western medicine for focusing solely on the body, and not the soul, but he goes on some of the most unhinged rants I have ever read to close the chapter, attacking doctors who dare to dismiss the value of his shamanistic practices (“So what I want to say is: shut up, doctors”). All in all, this penultimate chapter left a very bad taste in my mouth. If it had only been for the past 250 previous pages, I would probably only have concluded that Durek Verrett’s brand of shamanism just failed to ignite any kind of interest in me. But this absurd tirade, the last of many, in fact, made me more than uninterested; it made his entire message and persona nothing short of repelling.

While Spirit Hacking is not solely comprised of provocative statements, judgmental criticism and violently anti-scientific rhetoric, its less grating aspects do not make up for an otherwise bizarrely antagonistic pamphlet that wishes itself to be authoritative, all the while providing very little content to the bewildered reader. Sure, once in a while, Shaman Durek does make a half decent point, and some aspects of his message could even be seen as having the potential to inspire some degree of positivity in some people. Yet I cannot brush off the feeling that Durek Verrett, for all his Hollywood prestige and celebrity clients’ worth, does not have all that much to bring to the table when it comes to shamanism, spirituality, and self-love.

It is sad to say, but I guess that my initial feelings towards the man were not all that unfounded. What Princess Märtha sees in his message, I unfortunately cannot see. I just hope that, for all my misgivings, neither Shaman Durek nor his book will cause any lasting damage to anyone person, or, for that matter, any one royal house.

Verrett, Durek [Shaman Durek]. 2019. Spirit Hacking: Shamanic Keys to Reclaim Your Personal Power, Transform Yourself, and Light up the World. New York: St. Martin’s Essentials. Hardcover. US $ 27.99.


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