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Shamanic Interbeing

As you read through student and practitioner experiences and my thoughts in this website, you will frequently sense a kind of relationship between the person (or the shaman), and the world around them, a relationship that is very different than that found in much of the contemporary world between most people and the world they live in. The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh termed this relationship, 'interbeing', and noted it as an important aspect of Zen Buddhist consciousness. It is also a pivotal aspect of shamanism.

Now Zen may not be meaningful to you, but what interbeing tries to refer to, is that one's self and the world are embedded, one within the other in a fluid combination. Early western science, on the other hand, assumed a necessary division and separation, between oneself and the world. There was this, and that. One, and the other. It seemed obvious. 'I' ended at my skin, which was where 'everything else' started.

However, this purported separation is now thoroughly debunked by physics, biology and ecology. We breathe in, we breathe out... where does the air stop being 'other' and start being 'me?' When physics looks at solid surfaces up real close, all that is supposedly 'solid' drifts away into vague motion, The sense of solidity was just an illusion, and a gross misconception because of the crudeness earlier human observation.

Just as nothing in this Earth is truly separated from the rest, our self-conception as a shamanic practitioner and ‘world’ are deeply integrated and connected with one another in a way that is inseparably intimate.

This interbeing is also reflected in a psychological sense, as mind and World are also not separate, but are interwoven as one. This specifically points to the necessary unity between what we call ‘psychological’ and everything else. To grasp this actually takes an even greater radical leap than trying to grasp the interbeing of ‘self’ and ‘world’. With psychological/physical interbeing, we are recognizing that everything that is sensed must necessarily play out somewhere on the screen of mind.

This psychological/world interbeing might be conceptualized with the help of the symbol for infinity, which is a figure '8' on its side: one side of the '8' referring to the body and brain, the other side of the '8' referring to whatever is being sensed. The nexus, the point where the two ‘sides’ intersect, is the screen of the mind on which everything takes form. Living in this nexus is the field within which the shaman works. By traveling between the worlds, the shaman connects the two.

This interbeing has vitality, and in fact, everything has a life-force, a spirit, a ‘being-ness’. This idea of a 'living everything' has been given the term ‘animism’, which derives from the Latin ‘anima’, referring to ‘soul’ or ‘life’. However, a shamanic understanding of ‘soul’ is not the same as for instance, that of Christianity. Furthermore, ‘life’ in the shamanic sense is understood far more inclusively than that of popular biology. Both 'soul' and 'life' in animism point towards something else.

The interbeing of reality in shamanism also includes far more than what is physical. Actually, as suggested above, it is the fields of physics and chemistry themselves that have made it all too clear that what actually has been found to be not real, is the very idea of solidity itself! In other words, our concrete world is just 'seemingly solid enough' for the practical day-to-day human and animal matter of 'getting-by'. Apparent solidity is just surface appearance. In order to ‘get real,’ we accede to the ancient wisdom that science has now validated, that we can relinquish our grip on the illusion of solidity.

I have chosen a recent exchange between a student practitioner and myself that helps suggest how this interbeing gradually becomes recognized by a practitioner:

Practitioner: I’m in a beautiful part of the country, with towering mountains all around, and this leads me to appreciate, and spend quality time outdoors observing.

Steve: You are fortunate that these mountains showed up in your life, but you have also manifested brought them into being in your life. This is that interdependency and co-evolution that is shamanic.

Practitioner: I feel I was guided to meet (another person, name deleted). She is the artist who had a feather for me. Yesterday, I visited her at her home. I received the beautiful wild turkey feather, and she continued to share her passion for music with me… Before i came out here, I was wanting to find someone to help me learn to sing. In a way, I manifested this lady, but i also feel I was guided through searching for a feather.

Steve: Shamanism is deeply rooted in intention, and it is this that keeps us on our path, whatever that path is. For instance, the shaman has a specific intention when she or he travels through non-ordinary reality to find answers or bring healing. However, the spirits being independent as they are, may or may not help the shaman, and will do so in the way that serves best, not just in the way the shaman might believe such help should be provided.

Here, you are noting that you had an active role in manifesting this lady, and yet you were guided to her as well, and still thirdly, she was guided along her own path to run into you. Here is the complete interbeing, and interdependency of the whole. This interbeing between practitioner and world in ordinary reality, is similar to that interbeing that happens in nonordinary reality.

Practitioner: (She) also is a naturalist, and teaches me about all the local animals and happenings...As I peered out the window, there were five deer kneeling in the Douglas firs… they know they are protected on her property… There was also a big windstorm outside throughout the whole day. I love the wind; it was giving me energy too. The wind always makes me smile.

Steve: The wind and the deer: two of the voices of the natural world may well have been providing you in this case with confirmation that you were on the right path, both protected and energized. In any event, they were not there by ‘accident’. There are no accidents: everything has arrived where it is through a long and understandable journey.

Now, the shaman would go further with these situations, and perhaps journey to the deer to ask if they were there with a message, and if so, what this message is. As with this person you met, you manifested these deer, as you were also guided to them and as they were guided to you. Why? This is the relationship between the shaman and the beings around her or him.

Nothing is separate. Everything is integrated meaningfully.

Practitioner: Today, I was walking easily on the freshly frozen snow on the ground. I had an enjoyable walk, feeling where I should walk next. Nothing extraordinary happened, and I headed to go back to my home. Then i heard something approaching me from behind. With an excited feeling, i looked behind me. There was a big friendly golden lab running towards me. I've always had a deep love for dogs; they are so genuine and caring.

This dog brought me back to my childhood. I had a dog who never left my side. We had a special connection, and he could communicate with me via impulses which I sense in my ears. It was like the feeling of when you have a big yawn, the fuzziness that you can hear and feel. We could also communicate partially through telepathy. I was always open with this to my family, and they never down talked it, which I thank them for. Meeting this dog on my walk reinforced to me, that my dog was an integral part of my childhood, and what he taught me will carry with me through adulthood.

Steve: Excellent. This is truly being open to learning from the ongoing efforts of the natural world, and of yourself, to meet in the ‘middle’. It is this way with the spirits and with yourself… as you are preparing to meet them in your upcoming journeys, the eventual meeting will be as much a matter of their volition as it is of yours. The relationship between intention, manifestation, and the life course of the natural world around us is always whirling its way within an even larger tapestry of innumerable volitions and manifestations of their own that spread out in all directions, perhaps infinitely.

Practitioner: With these experiences, I'm learning to use my other senses more, and follow any small urge I might have to do something. Remembering my experiences with my dog expands my knowledge of my senses, and what shamanic senses entail. Any feeling or thought I have now is acknowledged, and followed through... I have nothing to lose.

Steve: Yes, and everything to gain! This is precisely the point where you should be: exercising and developing this listening/observing capacity, which is not limited to vision and sound, but is unlimited in nature. You are slipping into an interbeing, an integrated relationship with the world where ideas of division and separation are set aside, and information and healing appear in their place.