I’m a shaman and a mindfulness teacher. You may not think that these two identities are at odds, but I’m here to tell you: they are.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a shaman, “is a man or woman who is regarded as having direct access to, and influence in, the spirit world which…empowers them to guide souls, cure illnesses, etc…” Shamans divine—”divine” here in the verb sense of the word. Shamans practice divination, meaning that they receive truth from divinity. Shamans light sacred fires, peering into the dancing flames. They gaze into the fathomless depths of an obsidian disc. Or perhaps they sift through the dregs of a holy brew and channel hidden messages. Shamans receive truth from the beyond.
In contrast, we mindfulness teachers are continually pointing folks back to the here and now: to this body sitting in this chair, sipping mint tea as the birds start to sing on this particular drizzly spring morning…Mindfulness, in other words, guides us back to our own ordinary experience: to this collection of skin and bones and intestines and hormones, moods and thoughts, burps and belches, eyelashes and fingernails and tastebuds.
Shamans channel truths from elsewhere. Mindfulness practitioners bring loving, non-judgmental attention to the world all around us. Shamans reveal—unveil the hidden. In mindfulness we just point: look here. It is what it is.
Shamans try to fix things, cure things, manifest new outcomes. In the ancient world, kings and commanders sought to win battles, gain wealth, woo their women with shamanic help. For every Stannis Baratheon seeking the Iron Throne, you had someone like the Red Women divining and spellcasting at his side. Heck, even Nancy Reagan had her astrologer, Joan Quigley. Nancy brought Joan into the White House after John Hinckley’s failed assassination attempt on the President. She hoped a shaman like Joan could save Ronnie’s life—preserve his power—and shape the future of the free world.
In mindfulness practice, however, we’re not trying to shape anything. As I tell my students: nothing is broken, nothing needs fixing. Let’s hunker down in life as it is—noticing what’s already here and all around us. This is the path to accepting ourselves and to finding our way home. This is not about power, exactly. This is about peace.
Shamans offer power and influence from beyond. Mindfulness offers peace and humble self-acceptance right here.
How can I be and do both? Shaman? Mindfulness teacher?
In my book Mindful Tarot, in fact, I make a sharp distinction between a “mindful Tarot” practice that points us to the world right before us—and a prophetic or shamanic practice that looks for answers from a world beyond.
But, I’m also living proof that when we deeply investigate what it means to be mindful—what it means to bring loving, accepting attention to the world all around us—then that’s precisely when the world of shamanic magic begins.
I learned this truth at a silent Zen meditation retreat a few years back. I was the retreat leader, and part of my job was to figure out where everybody would sit. It sounds easy, but people were coming and going all week long—and since meals were being served in silence, in formal Zen style, right at our seats—my job included a complex game of meditation hall Tetris.
Do you remember Tetris? That video game where you manipulate falling blocks so that they slide neatly into place? At this retreat, I needed to figure out how to arrange the room throughout the week. I had to keep all the gluten-free people in one corner of the hall, and all the vegans in another. And where would I seat Sally, who had to avoid legumes at all costs? Could Billy take her place at mid-week, or would his life-threatening allergy to onions and garlic confuse the cook and the food servers too much? In this complex culinary choreography, how could I make sure everyone got safely and promptly served throughout the week?
I remember sitting during a meditation period one day and instead of bringing my attention mindfully back to my breath, I couldn’t stop obsessing over a mental map of the room. I focused my mind’s eye on an internal image of the hall, picturing how I might move chairs and mats around as the week unfolded and participants, with their nut allergies and such, came and went. In my mind’s eye, I kept shuffling the pieces of the puzzle around, trying to map the perfect flow of bodies. I was trying to fit everything into place.
The effort was exhausting! My mind couldn’t stop churning.
And suddenly it dawned on me: this is what we do with all of the pieces of our lives, every day. We create mental maps, as it were, of places and people and things of our world—and then we try to maneuver the parts so that everything fits.
We do this in ways both subtle and obvious. At the more obvious level, I might imagine my drive to work, picturing how the traffic flows at 7:35 a.m. and trying to plot the perfect, quickest, easiest route from door to door. At a more subtle level, I might worry about a difficult conversation I need to have with my boss once I get to work, and I might picture all the things I could say and all the ways she might respond—trying in advance to control the dialogue and achieve a favorable outcome.
But the fact is, when we play Tetris with the world, we often lose. We all know how easy it is for our mental maps to be wrong, and for our calculations to fail. Traffic patterns often defy our expectations, and difficult conversations often go sideways. The truth is, it’s hard to maneuver our lives. All too frequently, the world pushes back. Life usually refuses to slide neatly into place.
That’s why I love the Tarot so much. When I draw the cards and lay out a spread, the pieces of the puzzle fall precisely where they fall. My job as reader requires that I interpret the pattern right in front of me. I don’t get to move things around—to return that pesky 10 of Swords back to the deck, or to move the 9 of Cups into its place. I can’t play Tetris with Tarot. The cards I’ve pulled are precisely what I must work with. Anything else would feel like a cheat and a dodge. If I’m going to get serious about Tarot, I need to make sense of whatever cards I pull, learning to interpret them in their own terms, right here and now.
Indeed, Tarot teaches me to accept the hand that I’ve been dealt.
What a metaphor for life! How often do we take a long deep look at what is—at the cards we’ve been dealt, in life—and accept them without hesitancy or reserve? But such is the work of mindfulness, where we bring open and kind attention to our present-moment experience. Mindfulness asks us to take our time, to open our heart, and to accept the patterns of life just as they are.
In this mindful decision to play the hand we’re dealt, we also find the origin of shamanic empowerment. The shaman’s insights emerge from the patterns that the world provides, whether she consults the wheeling constellations of the sky, the spread of the cards, or the reticulated swirls of a crystal quartz.
Because the insights of the shaman can seem profound and life-changing, we tend to think their source lies beyond mere appearances, beyond the everyday. But indeed, the shaman’s true strength precisely derives from the everyday. She refuses to turn or twist things around. She sees, deeply, the ordinary patterns that others bypass. Her power lies in her ability to examine the world unwaveringly, in its truest form. She really looks at the world, precisely as it appears, here and now.
Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt once called mindful contemplation, “a long, loving look at the real.” Mindfulness requires gentleness and love, and a deep willingness to encounter reality.
Being a shaman requires the same love, the same extended embrace of our lives. If shamans have the power to cure and transform, this power begins in love.
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