Advice for the vestigial shamans among us
In 1912, inventor Franz Reichelt repeatedly petitioned the Parisian government to allow him to test out a new design for a suit that would allow pilots to survive falls from high in the air. After he was granted permission, however, the officials were shocked to discover that he did not intend to use a dummy for the experiment. After numerous attempts to dissuade him, Franz jumped from the first platform of the Eiffel tower and—after the suit failed to deploy—plummeted down to his death on the ground below.
Unlike Prometheus before him, his death was captured as a macabre silent snuff film for our viewing pleasure: right now you can watch on YouTube (accompanied, of course, by the moonlight sonata) Franz’s small, haunting hesitations before he tumbles heroically, foolishly, into the unknown.
New designations are constantly invented to help us communicate why some of us feel so special in a world filled with so many human beings. Is your IQ off the charts? Kegan level over 9000? Are you a liminal thinker? A highly sensitive person? A multipotentialite?
I read a zine once when I was in art school where the author simply described it as “it”. She noticed that she had it, and that her math teacher had it. There is something that undeniably sets some people apart, even if they never really get the chance to put that itness to good use.
Most of these people who seem marked out for greatness are left waiting for a call to adventure that never seems to come. They wear their mark like a scar, live out their invisible lives, and die the same below-average ducklings they always were.
The Death and Resurrection Show
Back at the beginning of 2020 when I was still enrolled in clown school, I received an illicit pdf of an out-of-print book colloquially known as the “clown bible”: The Death and Resurrection Show by Rogan P. Taylor. This book argues, among other things, that modern showbiz is a direct extension of indigenous shamanism.
Some random person on Amazon called the book “well-researched”, but a friend of mine with a degree in Anthropology said “I’m not loving the essentialism”: so really, who am I supposed to believe? I would hazard a guess that some essentialism is probably inevitable when talking about something as varied and poorly documented as indigenous religion as a unified thing.
The part of the book that traces the history of shamanism, kept alive through the analgesic effect of “civilization” by bands of traveling nomadic societies, through to modern-day rock and roll, is actually the boring part of this book. The part that really got me jazzed when I first read it was right in the first few chapters: where they described the role of shamanism in ancient cultures, and how these cultures identified young people destined to become shamans.
The shaman’s journey follows roughly four steps:
1. Shaman’s Sickness
In indigenous cultures, shamans were considered very desirable to have around. They acted as doctors, historians, entertainers, and religious leaders. There were certain signs to look for to see if someone is going to be called to shamanism:
Are they quiet, sensitive, depressed children?
Do they daydream: are their heads always stuck in the clouds? Do they have a sleeping disorder?
Do they have unusual flexibility? Do they have any physical deformities? Were they born with extra bones? (this was considered a very good sign).
Have they experienced severe trauma? Are they chronically ill? Have they experienced hard times?
Are one or both of their parents dead? (“the death of one or both parents certainly throws a child prematurely into the real world”)
Do they come from a long line of shamans?
Of course, none of these are a guarantee: they are simply suggestive of the possibility.
In some cultures, it was a very honorable thing. In others, becoming a shaman was one of the worst things that could happen to a person. Regardless, you don’t have any choice in the matter: it either is or is not going to happen, no matter how much you want it or want to avoid it.
The shaman potentiate has some sort of near-death experience and enters the spirit world.
(Now, as far as I can tell from a more materialist perspective, this can either be describing psychosis or a literal near-death experience—such as battling severe illness, falling into water under the ice and developing hypothermia, etc—that involved hallucinations.)
Once in the underworld, they learn about the specifics of the different disease spirits and topology of the characters there. They are torn apart by hellish forces, but they are reassembled into something new, and through their wit they are able to negotiate their own release. They ascend to the upperworld of gods to obtain special healing powers. Then, finally, they return to the human realm transformed.
Through a strictly Christian lens, this would be like battling your way through hell, ascending to heaven, and then returning to earth blessed by god. This is Joseph Campbell's hero’s journey in its true, non-metaphorical form: you literally enter the spirit world and return with literal new powers.
After their journey (as it happens there is a huge emphasis on the fact that this can be any sex, and that people often come back from their journeys having changed sex or sexuality—very unusual for a book written in the ‘80s) the young person is sent to live and work with an existing shaman.
This is presumably where you would learn the specifics of how to be a witch doctor. You’d learn about plant medicines and foraging, how to run healing ceremonies, and the oral history of the tribe.
4. Demonstrations of Power
To mark the end of the training, and the emergence of the potentiate into a true shaman role, a ceremony was held where the young shaman would perform a dramatized version of their descent into the spirit world: including feats of performance magic and demonstrations of the healing powers acquired there. This is what Mr. Taylor calls the Death and Ressurection Show.
All sickness was thought to be the result of meddling underworld spirits, so what better credentials are there for a young witch doctor to demonstrate that they’ve been down there, learned the lay of the land, and know how to negotiate? Of course they can heal others, they’ve already healed themselves.
There was apparently at the time very little distinction between performance and medicine: even things like surgeries were performed in front of an audience, with the additional side benefit of healing the audience. That term too is misleading: the “audience” was as much an active part of the ritual as the “performers” were.
The reason why this all was shocking to read is that this description of “initiation” pretty accurately describes my subjective experience of when I was in psychosis for three months at the end of 2016.
Like, really almost exactly: Negotiating with evil spirits, ascending and convening with gods. Some of the finer specifics were definitely informed by modern culture stuff (I was thinking a lot about Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” series, that show “The Magicians”, tech company surveillance, state warfare, time loops, and reality tv), but you’ll have to take my word for it: the shape of it was incredibly similar.
It threw into perspective for me how psychosis must have been viewed in those times, before medicalization: a potentially valuable journey of growth and transformation, rather than just like, “well that sucks”. I was basically told by the medical system that I was never going to recover the ability to think clearly, and that I needed to scale back my expectations for my life and accept the fact that I was going to be a burden on society.
In the early ‘80s a man named Malidoma Patrice Somé left his indigenous African tribe to study on a scholarship at the Sorbonne in Paris. Later, after continuing his studies in America, he visited a psych ward and was shocked to discover that almost everyone there was a shamanic potentiate, who instead of receiving training and support were being warehoused and written off:
So this is how the healers who are attempting to be born are treated in this culture. What a loss! What a loss that a person who is finally being aligned with a power from the other world is just being wasted.
The book goes on to say that with the advent of agriculture and the beginning of “civilization”, these proto-religions apparently transformed into what we now think of as religion today. The state of ecstasy was downplayed and slowly replaced with quiet obedience to serve the needs of emerging hierarchical power structures. But these death and resurrection shows were quietly carried on in a disguised form by nomadic outsider cultures, and were transformed into what we today know as the performance arts.
It goes into a lot of detail about how this dynamic played out over the course of history, but like I said: it’s a little boring and I don’t feel like summarizing it. It’s still definitely worth reading, particularly to understand just how clowns fit into this picture… but still.
I will, however, leave you with this weird thing:
I recently stumbled onto a website outlining something called “CAPS” (aka CYP21A2 Mutation Associated NeuroPsychiatric Spectrum), which is a medical theory proposed and advanced by a psychiatrist named Dr. Sharon Meglathery.
Briefly, we know that the RCCX genes are unique in that mutations can be inherited together and they mutate often. There is a collagen matrix/hypermobile gene (TNXB) sitting next to a stress response gene (CYP21A2), sitting next to an autoimmune/CVID/schizophrenia gene. Doctors often see combos of these illnesses in families and individuals at a rate far higher than by chance alone.
It claims that if you have one of the following conditions it is likely you and blood relatives have others:
“Giftedness” (unusual abilities in music, maths, arts or abstract thinking)
5/5 of the “Major Psychiatric diagnosis”: Autism, ADHD, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, and Depression.
Hypermobility/Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (aka double-jointedness)
Sensory processing issues
Anxiety, Cutting and Eating disorders
Autoimmune disorders, Asthma, Allergies, Mast cell activation disorder
Gender dysphoria, fluidity, Same-sex attraction
Sleep disorders, Chronic fatigue
… and loads of other random stuff.
It apparently makes you “wired for danger”, and so overly stressed by the normal world that many have brain wiring identical to PTSD patients despite having lived relatively tame lives. Perhaps there's something to all of this talk about “trauma” after all. People with these qualities seem to be drawn to one another, so you might even find evidence of this lineage on both sides of your family tree.
When the stress accumulates past a certain threshold, something called 21hydroxylase overwhelm is triggered, and it brings about near-death illness, life-changing burnout, and/or psychosis.
“I myself have CAPS and prior to becoming sick, I was gutsy, extroverted, adventurous (back-packed around Africa and Asia alone), creative, smart and outspoken, although I was a worrier ('brain wired for danger"). After becoming sick, I became introverted, cautious, physically anxious and haunted by the past. This is a trajectory I have seen many times with CAPS and it is just one way it can go.”
…now, if you squint, doesn’t this all sound a bit like shaman’s sickness?
I have heard whispers of something called the “Shamanic Hypothesis”, which (I think) is an evolutionary psychology idea that mental illness is far too common to occur as a genetic defect, and that it must have served a purpose in early humanity.
Some form of CAPS could be as high as 10-20% of the population, benefiting those people with increased creativity, and “psychotic disorders” (such as Schizophrenia or Bipolar I) affect roughly one per Dunbar number.
The Dunbar number is the maximum number of people one person can hope to know personally, or approximately the size of one indigenous tribe.
The Job Description
So, according to the Death and Resurrection Show book, a shaman would have been responsible for maintaining the oral history of the tribe, facilitating the religious rituals, and would have acted as a doctor. What actually ties all of these functions together, and why is that useful?
One theory I’ve heard (ht @eigenrobot probably) is that they essentially curate the “shared reality” of the tribe.
Now, bear with me, I’ve heard these “shared realities” called a variety of things in different contexts. If you’re familiar with any of the following it might help to get us onto the same page here:
Venkatesh Rao refers to them as “Escaped Realities” or, earlier, “Manufactured Normalcy Fields”.
Occultist Gordan White in his book Chaos Protocols refers to them as “holograms within holograms”, while insisting that scientific materialism is only one possible such hologram. (Do I believe this? Well, we’re not talking about me here)
The artist Ian Cheng refers to the process of generating them as “worlding” (and heavily implies that they are related to Carse’s idea of infinite games).
They’re essentially the map part of all that “the map is not the territory” business, in the sense that they are the way we understand reality rather than reality itself.
If not, no need to worry of course. Everyone is familiar with Scooby-Doo. So let’s take Velma: she, famously, as she repeatedly informs us, cannot see without her glasses.
The raw sensory data available to Velma, through her terrible eyes, is incomprehensible to her. She is unable to form a picture of the world around her as she stumbles around. In order to make sense of the incoming light, Velma needs to filter it through the lenses of her glasses. Without these lenses, she is practically blind.
Likewise, we are not actually able to directly perceive reality. Our minds are always generating a simulation of reality based on incoming sensory information that is filtered through our expectations.
No matter how hard you try to perceive a leaf on a tree, your eyeballs are only sending extremely noisy sensory data to your brain. Your subconscious mind creates a mental model of what is happening, and continuously updates it. It needs to filter, smooth, and distort the new incoming sensory information to fit the model, so that your conscious mind is able to make sense of it. If you see something that violates your mental models too extremely, it literally becomes the case that you can’t believe your eyes, and you are left stumbling around, Velma-like, in search of a new mental model of the situation.
Through a handy invention called “language”, human beings are able to share mental models with each other. These models are on a continuum from “metaphorical” (as in stories, myths) to “literal” (as in folk theories, scientific hypotheses). These shared mental models all come together to form a worldview, which is at the heart of what we call “culture”. This allows the tribe to understand the world and each other.
The shaman’s job, then, is to:
Understand the tribe’s existing mental models
Update shared mental models over time to reflect the changing environment and evolving needs of the tribe
When spooky shit starts happening that falls outside of the “shared reality operating system”, it is the shaman’s role to debug.
The shaman’s primary qualification for this role, therefore, actually is that they have experienced some sort of psychosis: here this can be understood as a true exit from this shared reality, if only temporarily. Seeing things that aren’t there (hallucinations) and/or believing things that aren’t true (delusions). This gives them, in a deep sort of way, the understanding that the worldviews we share are constructed, and believing in them is a choice. Psychedelics, of course, are another sort of “shortcut” to achieve this understanding, and thus were one of the shaman’s main tools.
In a medical context: we go about our day and expect our bodies to act a certain way. When something goes wrong, and a mysterious black liquid starts oozing out of your nose, you go to a doctor to fix the problem because what is happening is beyond your understanding. In a time before established medicine and “germ theory”, the shaman was forced to rely on their skills of reaching beyond current understanding to search for practical solutions.
There is also the account, which FWIW people seem very motivated to dismiss as a myth, of indigenous people being unable to perceive the importance of European ships when they first arrived:
Joseph Banks’s recorded the indifference of the Aboriginal people to the arrival of ‘Endeavour’. On 28 April, 1770, as the ship sailed into Botany Bay, he wrote: “the ship passd within a quarter of a mile of them and yet they scarce lifted their eyes from their employment”.
On 15 May, as Endeavour sailed along the coast near Mount Warning, Banks wrote, “Some people were seen, about 20... we observd them with glasses for near an hour... Not one was once observd to stop and look towards the ship; they pursued their way in all appearance intirely unmovd by the neighbourhood of so remarkable an object as a ship must necessarily be to people who have never seen one.”
A little later the ship anchored opposite a small village of six or eight houses. Women and small children were on the beach. They often looked at the ship, but expressed neither surprise nor concern. In a while the four fishermen returned to the village, hauled up their canoes and went about their business, again totally ignoring the Endeavour which was anchored just half a mile away.
Whether or not it’s true, we can at least say that it would be well within a shaman’s duties to notice things like these ships, passing unnoticed to normal people’s perception, and to point them out.
(And then, of course, there’s always this)
In the context of a tribe, a shaman is obviously very important. But the Dunbar number is actually not that big: it’s only 150. I went to a high school with 700 kids, so easily 4 or 5 of us would probably have been qualified for the shaman role.
Our society now, due to an endless supply of organized religion and mass communication, simply doesn’t need nearly as many shamans to get the job done. The shared belief systems that we rely on to operate are created by the elites at the top of the food chain: these popes and kings and pharaohs of our world. An additional small percent are able to make their way as writers and rock stars, but the vast majority are just misfits.
In the last few years our elites haven’t been doing a great job with this sensemaking stuff, and in many ways our shared reality feels like it’s coming apart at the seams. But there’s really not much you or I can do about that, now is there?
Potential Career Paths
Youtube recommended me an interesting TED talk about indigenous shamans recently, but basically my only takeaway was that shamans also had day jobs.
Um, excuse me, what?
I thought the whole point of this was that I didn’t have to do any real work. Why would I have to herd goats when I’m doing so much important work for my tribe? I guess that, at least in the ancient world, it turns out that everyone had real responsibilities.
Given just how useless the majority of so-called “shamans” are to modern society, I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out exactly how people like me are supposed to fit in to the world today. What sort of roles should people who have received the call to this non-existent vocation be looking into to support themselves?
Here is a list of the best that I’ve come up with so far:
Gutterpunk Pop-Can Collector
East Hastings street in Vancouver, where I lived for a brief time in a hostel, offers many amenities to its mostly homeless residents: $2 full meals at the Carnegie hall community kitchen, church groups distributing free bags of candy and plates of spaghetti or soup, discount stores, and easy access to drugs or stolen goods. You can busk without a permit, or put up a funny sign asking for beer money, so long as you can stake out a corner for yourself: folks are territorial out here.
Steve Jobs was clearly... shamanic.
Weird Quack Doctor
At the beginning of the 20th century there was only the requirement of an 8-month crash course to become a doctor in America. This, of course, produced a lot of idiots. They overcorrected to a 4-year degree, which has over time (due to rent-seeking behaviors) ballooned into a 12-year education requirement.
This is too much time. We are busy people. Wouldn’t you rather just learn how to do rainbow faith healing, or DIY plant medicine? Perhaps you could become a bro-scientist on TikTok, learning which compounds lead to the biggest gains. Or you could peddle nootropic stacks to lazy tech workers, to help them become even more singularly focused on improving their productivity (to the benefit of other people).
I am not a doctor, and this is not medical advice, but have you considered…
Starting a Literal Cult
Manic Pixie Dream Girl
So here’s the plan: you swoop in with your magical perspective on life, and teach the male protagonist how to feel alive again while he helps you like… file your taxes or something.
Ideally he has a stable job and can support you and your many hobbies.
A particularly attractive path for the manic pixie dream girl who happens to also be serviceably attractive is to become a pop star.
Grimes is a prime example of this archetype:
“I had this thing where I was 'vegan' and I had this thing where I was like, the only reliable food was spaghetti. So I was only eating spaghetti for like a year or two years. Then I was just like so sick and my hair actually stopped growing and I went to the doctor and the doctor was like, you are actually malnourished from not eating vegetables or meat and just eating spaghetti for two years.”
Oops, wrong quote. Or maybe extremely right quote. Whatever, you get it.
But let’s be real: this probably applies to every successful musician with any sort of staying power. Name me one that it doesn’t. You have to have the X-Factor, right?
One way to drum up some cash is to just start looking weirder and weirder, and then get into the “background extra” circuit. A man I knew doing this had a waist-length beard, and he couldn’t shave it off if he wanted to because his whole book was him with a long beard.
Fill in the gaps with a little disability money and you’re set.
Start a Podcast and Become Like This Dude
I purchased an almost identical fur garment before this whole debacle occurred, and now I simply cannot wear it out anywhere. It’s a crying shame really.
Maintain Open-Source Software Packages
Everyone knows that in order to be a 10x programmer you have to be a little bit… “visionary”. Many extremely vital pieces of our digital infrastructure are apparently maintained by strange wizards living in caves.
Work at a Dry Cleaner by Day and “Revolutionize Philosophy by Going Back to First Principles” by Night
I once stayed at an Airbnb which was just three single blow-up mattresses on the floor of a studio apartment: two of which were rented out, and one was where the host slept.
The host was a Harvard student who had spent the past 8 years studying at the institution without having earned an undergrad degree, and he was about to get kicked out but did not seem to care in the slightest. He took me on a tour of the classics department’s study hall, where we were definitely not allowed to be, and told me that he had found a fundamental flaw in... Aristotle's reasoning? idk.
He had apparently spent a number of years tracing that through all of its implications and was set to revolutionize the field of psychology. I got him to send me a copy of what he was working on later, but despite trying to read it a number of times it was truly incomprehensible to me. I even physically printed it out, a sign of true desperation, but to no avail.
You know, Einstein did do it. And maybe he will too, if he really is onto something. Godspeed my friend.
Clown School Instructor
I noticed that almost every single person I went to clown school with was brought there one way or another through a series of events that were a lot like mine.
I don’t get the sense that this is a particularly lucrative calling, but perhaps this is close to what I’m interested in: helping other people land on their feet.
Ok, I think you can see the picture I’m painting here.
If you feel like this describes you, then all jokes aside it’s not all doom and gloom. You can still live a nice life: just remember that the traditional life scripts that are out there may not be the best fit for you. Here is some (unironic) advice from my experience:
Try to allow yourself to live a creative life: you should try to create every day, and allow yourself to be proud of the work you create. It doesn’t have to be the main way you make money though, and in fact, the constraints of commerce might mess up your flow. Your value doesn't come from the things you create, and you have no moral obligation to create, but you should do it anyway. Even if you never show anyone.
Your value also doesn't come from being clever, or from being strange. Human lives, actually, have a quiet dignity of their own that doesn’t need to be validated at all. You really don’t need to hold yourself to the same standards as other people, because the rules don’t actually apply to you: Fuck ‘em.
Be happy for other people’s success. Their success is not your failure. But also, don’t suppress your emotions. Be seethingly jealous of your friend’s successes, but ultimately try to cultivate a positive feeling about it. Or don’t I guess. Whatever.
Collect interesting people on your travels and try to keep up with them.
Don't let yourself get overwhelmed by stress. If you are reaching your limits, just… quit. Take care of yourself first. Don’t bully yourself (or other people, for that matter). Don't let yourself become jaded.
Don’t retreat into fantasy worlds. And, if you get lucky and do find success, try not to rub it in people’s faces.
Learn to live cheaply.