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Plastic Shamanism, Gurus, and Plant Spirits

A Psychological Understanding from a Shamanic Perspective

This topic is likely to be controversial for many readers. I preface it by stating clearly that this represents my best understanding at this time. The essential arguments building such an understanding are included for your consideration. As always, I ask that you read this with discernment. Please don’t believe anything I – or anyone else says – just because it supports a convenient or comfortable preconception, but allow yourself to challenge the ideas, working together to develop the best possible understanding.

Plastic Shamanism takes many forms. The most obvious end of the spectrum is the westerner dressed in costumes, singing chants, and performing rituals that are not culturally appropriate to them, nor personally understood at any meaningful level beyond recitation; regardless of how ‘pure’ their intentions are. The other end of the spectrum is seen when tourism money enters a traditional community. Suddenly everyone with coffee skin and a hut near a river in the Amazon basin is an ayahuasca shaman, regardless of tradition, training, experience, or authenticity.

The issue is far deeper than it appears. The other side of the coin is populated with the misty eyed seekers of shamanistic purity. The “reverse bigotry” of the ‘Noble Savage’ concept plays directly into these charlatan’s hands. In the developed world, the popular concept of a shaman is of a spiritually advanced or enlightened soul leading his or her people with spiritual purity and love. The idealistic Noble Savage bias that defines a person by their race, or culture, as somehow more enlightened or more spiritually worthy is an unfounded recipe for disaster. The final catalyst is the stereotype reinforcement of Hollywood movies, popular literature, and the glowing and enraptured reports of others about how wonderful a specific leader is. [It is easy to be wonderful for a couple of weeks for visitors.]

From where this is being written in the highlands above Peru’s Sacred Valley, near Cusco, and as a practicing shaman with over thirty years experience under different traditions, certain contrasts and observations come to mind. The first is of the seekers who come to Peru. Regardless of motivation, with only a very occasional exception, the seeker is [often desperately] looking for external agency and validation. In the psychology of the street, people seeking external agency or validation are called ‘easy marks’ and ‘fresh meat’. They are primed for a guru to deliver answers to all of their problem in mystical sound-bites; to give their life direction, and to give them their purpose. The next observation is of the practitioner. They might be a trained shaman [rare], a plastic shaman [far more common], or even someone wearing the mask of the guru; but the one thing all plastic spiritual leaders have in common is that they offer answers and sound-bites. They deflect responsibility and guidance to an external agency. This might be anything from God to an instructive spirit of a plant.

Any spiritual-development practice, be it based on the Vedas, Buddhist scriptures, or other belief framework, always point towards enlightenment being an internal process. All real self-development and self-discovery that makes a substantive difference in one’s life arises from a process of internal realization and understanding. External coaching can offer a potential path in their most positive potential. Answers and soundbites given to impress can, at best, offer a new masking layer to whatever it was being applied. Any real teacher will direct the seeker inwards; offering them tools to find, build, and care for their own path. No real spiritual leader will say, ‘do this’. A real teacher will ask, ‘why do you think that is?’.

Whenever I hear someone report a vision as, ‘Spirit told me …’, I hear the report of someone still operating from an externalized ego who is fooling themselves; needing external agency and validation instead of the far more challenging task of bare naked introspection and deep personal internal exploration.

When a person looks at the world around them, they are absorbing around 5-8% of their surroundings (based on information availability versus physical hard limits in the brain’s sensory processing capability).The rest of the available input is being constantly lost and deleted by selections based on internal stories, expectations, and preconceptions. This means an optimist and a pessimist can literally see the very same environmental input totally differently. In a bar, for example, one person may hear music that’s too loud and be annoyed by flashing lights, while another finds excitement and engagement in the same environment. The physical environment remains constant, but they are perceived very differently be diverse individuals.

When a person takes psychedelic plant medicine, they are taking their mind into a state where those filters are removed; where pre-existing stories, expectations and preconceptions are less able to be held. A person becomes far more present (unless in psychosis), responding and perceiving their environment without their normal issues and perception maps in place. Many feel the need to attribute the things experienced in this state to an external agency, but it is not needed.

Example: One of the most common visions or experiences I had reported to me during ceremony is a participant saying that they felt this ‘amazing and profound connection with me’, seeing me idealized as all that they have been searching for – even resulting in a coupe of marriage proposals. My response to them is always that they were actually seeing themselves as they can be, but because their stories couldn’t accept it of themselves, it was projected to me in ideation. I will follow up and ask them to consider this, and return to their meditation place, and see in themselves all that they were seeing of me during their experience. This is also the same common vision that many plastic shaman use to professionally rape their participants, falling into the trap of manipulate for personal gain that which was seen by the participant. I have had this happen to a person very near and dear to me, where she was raped and led on [by a now ex colleague], causing her no end of harm in the long run. It is a far too common story that those practitioners without sufficient training even fool themselves into believing for a time.

A participant might ‘see’ hundreds of UFOs, the face of God, Jesus, Buddha, their dead relative during their experience. They might be seeing or feeling a loving acceptance deeper than anything they feel themselves capable of, so lacking any contextual representation, their mind produces a recognizable product that is as close to that idealized representation as is possible at the time. The original meaning of the title, shaman, is ‘one who is mad’, ‘one who sees’, or even, ‘one who knows’. The practiced and trained shaman has simply had more context and experience in identifying the real nature of these perceptions, and sees behind the face of a long dead grandfather in the deflection of self-love that it really represents. This is the greatest danger of the plastic shaman, and those sitting with practitioners not of their cultural references.

To my training, the worst thing that can happen is for a participant to leave an event convinced of the accuracy of their vision of God or Buddha giving them instructions. That engagement in external agency will hamper their growth and runs counter to all I was ever trained to consider positive shamanism. When a participant leaves an event understanding what has been seen is an internal potential, and has been given tools and techniques to pursue the development of those tools, I feel that they have been well served.

The participant who has received a week or two of spiritual soundbites or lore will quickly find their live returning to the state where it was prior to their experiences. The participant who has begun to examine their lives in an inward journey of discovery and responsibility, and is far more likely to make meaningful changes and find positive growth and understandings, becoming more present and authentic as a part of their process.