SHAMANTALK:

A MEDICINE WAY OF LANGUAGE
 
Dan Moonhawk Alford
 
California Institute of Integral Studies

INTRODUCTION

THE SHAMAN AT THE TOWER OF BABEL

This afternoon's panel* has so far been ostensibly about shamans, which you may or may not think has anything to do with you. This paper, however, is about the shaman in you, and a shamanic attitude toward language which you sometimes have and could have more of--and what that would mean in your everyday life. It deals with something uniquely and personally yours: what comes out of your mouth each and every day, creating your verbal environment.

This human speaking, this way of making noises that differentiates us from all other life forms, where does it come from anyway? It seems to me to come from a plenum, a fullness and richness of nature communication, and not a void, from nothing, as seems commonly believed. Did it just appear full blown like Athena from the head of Zeus, or is there something common we share with all planetary life?

It's been instructive for me over the years, in considering the above questions, to pay attention to the ways by which nonliterate cultures have passed along their answers to the sticky questions of origins. And there are really two questions here: the origin of speaking at all, and origin of all the different languages on Earth.

In fact, one legend1 became very important to me for forming a multiple states of consciousness model of language2--a Cheyenne version of The Tower of Babel:

This Old Language view, affirming for humanity that direct communication with nature is a skill that may be forgotten but never disappears, was shared as well by the more isolated Natives of California, nearly half a contintent away: the Wintus claim that Wintu is actually their second language--their first is the old one shared by babies and coyotes and shamans who speak with spirits.3

So, perhaps surprisingly for some, the shaman becomes an important link to our deepest languaging abilities and their very origins, once "language" is imaged/imagined large enough to include the Old Language abilities for which we normally have cultural amnesia.

Now what is it that the shaman is doing, how is the shaman referred to by the Wintus speaking, that is different from, say, our normal everyday chattering?
 

THE SHAMANIC STANCE OF COMPLEMENTARITY

It is a truism in shamanic and consciousness studies that a shaman stands with a foot in both worlds. Let's examine this foot in both worlds business in a special way and tease it apart for what it really means. The cognitive trick here is that to understand it, you have to think of two things equally at once--the worlds of say matter and spirit--separate but united, kind of like stereo sound.

Visually, the image of the Tao is an ancient spiritual technology teaching this valuable cognitive methodology, called complementarity 4 by our modern physicists. Like stereo, complementarity stresses interdependence: picture the Yin-Yang symbol with major white and black areas, and inside each is a small dot representing the other, its complementary opposite. This is a 1-99% range of grays rather than black-or-white, 0 or lOO%, since neither exists without the other.5

Although "stereo" is a noun, stereo is not a thing--it's a relationship, a relating, a process. The notion of stereo involves what Gregory Bateson6 calls a multiplicative instead of an additive relationship between the channels. So what does that mean? For that we'll have to look at some postmodern arithmetic.

What is stereo? Not simply two channels in a plus relationship, one plus one equals two. Imagine two AM radios next to each other, each tuned to a different station; in human terms, this is like two strangers sitting next to each other in a bus stop, each thinking different things and not communicating. Stereo physically LOOKS like two channels, but they are in a multiplicative relationship to each other: one times one equals one-squared, which is One, but this new One is different from the previous ones separately. In human terms, an older married couple sitting next to each other in that same bus stop is a One, in fact we even say a couple, not a two like the strangers--and in a times relationship with each other. Whenever we engage in these times relationships, new realities are inevitably created.

So when we say that a shaman stands with a foot In both worlds, we mean that both worlds are equally present and united in the shaman so that a new consciousness is born--a kind of squared or stereo consciousness encompassing both worlds at once, in a passive sense; or perhaps a coherent consciousness like that of a laser beam, in a more active sense, that reaches out to create new realities.

This is undoubtedly what the Dogon people are depicting in a ritual7 where they place on the ground one basket, cube-shaped with no top, which represents the earth and the material world, and onto it bring a cone-shaped basket representing the sky, energy and ideas; then they tie the two together with a palm frond, creating a new object different from either of the others--and in the Dogon language they call that palm frond "The Word."

The Word creates a new stereo reality encompassing heaven and earth, matter and energy. And now it's a new One, in which the two are no longer separate but are in a times or squared relationship.
 

A PERSONAL LOOK AT E = MC2

Now let's use the Dogon legend to look at this more active sense of coherent consciousness I mentioned a moment ago, where the shaman--and the shaman in us--transforms energy and matter through the application of consciousness, creating realities with our words.

There's a personal way of looking at Einstein's famous relativity equation which is just slightly different from the usual physics way, using again our postmortem arithmetic, that can bring its relevance and importance home to you in a very personal way.

e=mc2. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Let's pretend we know what energy and mass are: What's the speed of light, and what is it when it's squared? I don't think I'm begging the question too much to ask you to allow me to substitute consciousness for light, since mystics have been equating the two for millennia (and besides, it begins with the right letter!).

So let's talk instead now about consciousness-squared, or more precisely speed-of-consciousness squared. We've seen this squared before in our stereo example with one-squared. Perhaps you will even allow me to equate speed of consciousness with a more verby and interactive notion of consciousness, shall we call it consciousing, rather than just "consciousness" as a thing.

And what then could consciousing-squared mean? Let's look at it, for instance, in terms of left-brain and right-brain, or perhaps our cortex and old brain, or even our human consciousing and our animal consciousing acting in stereo, or in what we also call holistic and complementary ways.

Back to the formula: So energy (e) equals mass (m) in a times, not plus, relationship to complementary or holistic consciousing (c2). This is how we create atomic explosions, and this is equally how shamans go c-squared in order to transform matter and energy as they speak and create new realities. And out of this shamanic stance comes shamantalk.
 

PRINCIPLES OF SHAMANTALK

Shamantalk becomes a shorthand way of referring to what I call a medicine way of speaking, a shamanic stance toward languaging. It's a way of talking and at the same time it's an attitude toward talking. And it's about you and the way the shaman in you speaks your lived realities.

Speaking in the medicine way, you speak as if your words create reality all the time. This attitude toward language is one of many choices available to us in our culture, but it has been adopted by most preliterate peoples in the world as the only sane way to deal with the problematic of reality creation.

These principles, this medicine way, is known to indigenous peoples around the world, and has validation from various high cultures as well.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF SHAMANTALK
TO HEALTH AND DIS-EASING

Where all this matters most, perhaps, is in your relationship to your own body, your own processes of health and dis-easing. I'd like to bring home this medicine way of language, in contrast to our normal cultural chattering, with a personal anecodote.

I saw a book title recently proclaiming, "Your subconscious hears every word you say." I agree with this; I'm not even sure how or why anyone would or could disagree with it. And it suddenly reminded me of a journal entry one of my students8 at Integral Studies wrote for our anthropological linguistics class.

The entry concerned her own mother, who some time back had noticed that her eyesight was getting worse and went for a complete eye exam. The doctor came out to her afterwards and told her that he was sorry, but she had been hit with not one but two eye diseases at once, either of which would be terrible but together they were catastrophic and irreversible. She took the news well, considering, and instead of just giving up, she mustered her courage and discipline to revive some therapeutic tools which had fallen into disuse in her life: affirmation, visualization, and meditation. It was in the course of one of her meditations that she realized that she had been contributing to her own eye disease: it hit her like a ton of bricks that for years she had been habitually saying the phrase, "I just can't stand to see that!" as if such words didn't matter. As she began taking the shamanic stance toward her own speech, her eyesight began clearing up again: so much so that she made another eye appointment with the same doctor. After the exam he admitted to her that he didn't understand how, but her conditions were reversing.

Here we have a fresh postmodern paradigm which is applicable in various ways to us all, demonstrating how ancient human concerns about the power of language to create realities are still appropriate in todays world. It suggests that a kind of verbal vigilance is important to one's health, and that we are actually more in control of our own lives than our Western culture, fixated on the written word, has led us to believe. Our speech can create realities when we are consciously and coherently focused in the shamanic stance, and can equally create realities through the repetition of fairly unconscious habitual speech patterns.

If it is true that reality randomly reinforces creation of the spoken, what realities would be created with the following random daily expressions:

INVITATION

In closing, I invite you to take some time in the next few days or weeks, perhaps in reflective contemplation or even in your dreams--I wouldn't presume to tell you when or how--to learn for yourself how your own words are creating both intentional and unintentional realities in various aspects of your life; to learn how you may be contributing to your own ease or dis-easing.

And, with that awareness, I further invite you to explore the ways in which reality shows up to you when you, like the shaman, make a habit of speaking in a medicine way.


FOOTNOTES

* A version of the following was originally presented as the final part of a panel called "ShamanMind/ShamanTalk" for the 1992 Annual Spring Meeting of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, in San Rafael, CA. back

1. I heard this from James Youngblood (Sakej) Henderson in the late '70s. back

2. This MSOC model is described in Alford, "The Origin of Speech in a Deep Structure of Psi (1979)," "The Effects of Literacy on Cognition and Being in the World (1980)," both in Phoenix, New Directions in the Study of Man, and "Chin Music, (unpuplished presentation for Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, 1989), available from author. back

3. The alert reader has noticed by now that, these legends from indigenous America are decidedly more upbeat and optimistic than their Middle Eastern and thence European counterparts. back

4. Out of which comes such wonderful terms as wavicle, which in its very construction demomstrates the 20th-Century insight of complementarity that particles are what waves are being when they aren't being waves. back

5. Complementarity, along with a number of other physics insights the hottest topic around the intellectual circles of the 1920s and '30s. Academics in many disciplines began usimg it as a higher level of thinking which transcends mere polar dichotomies. back

6. Mind and Nature, page 12. back

7. I first discovered this information at an exhibit in the Lowie Museum in the late '70s, U.C. Berkeley. back

8. Trudy Lervolino, Masters student in Social and Cultural Anthropology. back