Broadly speaking, there are two paths of spiritual exploration and growth. They begin at the same place: an irresistible desire/need to know what is beyond physical reality. One goes to the right, the other to the left.
Imagine that the one to the right leads “down,” into the earth. It leads to the realm of plant spirits and medicines, the consciousness in rock and water, spirits, the reality of Gaia, and more. This is the path of shamanism. It encompasses all of Creation, from atoms to galaxies.
The path of shamanism begins as a juicy, sensual, earth-oriented, physical engagement with all that we see around us. It is about earth and animals and people and buds and rotting leaves. It is a doorway to joy, a practice and set of techniques and understandings that connect us with the earth and her children. Like the peoples who live close to the earth (including us of mainstream societies, not so long ago), on the shamanic path we come to know the physical world in a deeply personal way. This is the foundation of a spiritual relationship with all of Creation.
The second step of the shamanic path is connecting with the spirits of physical reality and beyond through ceremony, purposeful meditation, and altered states. As we develop spiritual awareness and integrate it with the physical learnings and skills, we recognize that shamanism is actually a path of compassion and healing. We engage both with the physical world and with non-physical energies and spirit entities. With practice, we reach higher levels of consciousness and explore the powers and wisdom that are available there. Always, we are motivated by the intention to bring the gifts we receive back to use in service of our people.
The left hand path is the path of mysticism. This path seeks to go “up,” to transcend the physical, to leave the limitations of emotions, mental striving, ego, and the desires and limitations of the body in general. It is a path of detachment, seeking to know the unknowable through an internal journey.
The mystical path takes us through stages of becoming aware of levels and forms of energies and perceptions beyond the physical. Awareness and releasing of emotional energy is often the first stage, followed by experience of larger and more subtle energies, and on to the energies of creation that are felt as a detached and universal Love of everything for everything. In response to Einstein’s question, we discover that the universe is much more than friendly.
The mystical path moves toward detached consciousness where physical reality is subsumed as a quality of a larger reality. Beyond that is the level of Oneness, where all that exists is seamlessly unified consciousness and the observer is merely an ephemeral spark that allows the experience to be perceived by the body.
The image of two paths, one going to the right and down and the other going to the left and up, is a convenient illustration of the differences between shamanism and mysticism. Each path has its own magic, its own challenges, and its own power. It might be easy to conclude that the differences are irreconcilable, that one must choose one or the other, or even that one path is true and the other false or at best deficient.
Both paths are true. They explore different aspects of consciousness, and after diverging to do that exploration, when they reach a certain place they converge again. The convergence occurs at the highest levels, levels at which the primary quality of both paths is recognized to be Love. At that point the experience of the mystic is of Consciousness or Supreme Reality, a vast impersonal Love that is the substrate of all existence. It includes the qualities of lovingkindness, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity. For the shaman, the experience is of being held in the ineffable love of the Creator, unbounded by the constraints of physical nature, time, or space. These experiences are one and the same.
In that place, detachment from the world is complete, but that is not the endpoint; from that place, the desire to engage (or to re-engage) with the world follows effortlessly. More about this in a future post.
April 29, 2021