A Conversation with Daniel C. Noel


Daniel C. Noel has taught in the Religious Studies departments of Lafayette College and Bucknell University, and has been visiting faculty at Emory University, Syracuse University, the University of Colorado, and Naropa Institute. He is presently an adjunct faculty member in the Mythological Studies Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, California, and Visiting Professor of Liberal Studies in Religion and Culture at Vermont College of Norwich University, Montpelier,Vermont. Dr. Noel has published numerous journal articles on religion, myth, and Jungian Studies. The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities (New York: Continuum, 1997) is his sixth book.

    As far as we know, shamanism is the oldest of human spiritual endeavors, dating back at least 10,000 years. The shaman was perhaps the first to use human consciousness to enter states of "nonordinary reality," beginning the visual and performing arts, along with medicine and meditation practices. Over the millennia, as Homo sapiens migrated across the continents, their shamans created a rich spiritual tableau. By the Middle Ages, in the vast areas of Europe under its control, Christianity rooted out and banned these ancient traditions. By the 16th Century, its persecution reached as far as the Americas. In this century, the Soviet Union used the death penalty against shamans in Siberia and Central Asia. Yet the tradition has survived.

    In 1987, the anthropologist Michael Harner, who had received shamanic training with the Conibo and Jivaro peoples of South America, left his academic career to devote himself full-time to teaching what he calls "core shamanism," a boiling down of the myriad traditions to a few proven, and legal, non-sectarian techniques, such as using drums and rattles, to reach ecstatic states of consciousness. However, the quest for a contemporary shamanism is usually traced back to 1964, when Mircea Eliade's now classic Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, was first published in English. The Rumanian novelist and distinguished Professor of the History of Religions had written a book for scholars and non-specialists alike, one that sparked the kind of interest in the "technicians of the sacred" that D.T. Suzuki's books did toward the popularization of Zen Buddhism in the West.

    Four years after Eliade's book appeared, The University of California Press published The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, which introduced an old Indian sorcerer named don Juan Matus as if he were a real informant for a graduate student named Carlos Castaneda, and that the would-be anthropologist also became the sorcerer's student. It was still the sixties, the height of the psychedelic movement, and the book, published as non-fiction, besides making its author an instant myth, and eventually a millionaire, took us another step toward a practice that, instead of an Almighty God, puts us in intimate touch with Animal Powers and Plant Powers, who, in turn, initiate us into the underworlds and sky worlds of our imagination. Here we are also allowed to engage in a healing that, as Jeanne Achterberg, in her book, Imagery in Healing: Shamanism in Modern Medicine, says, "may not [result] in an extension of life." Anthropologist Joan Halifax adds that, unlike in Western medical ethos, "healing, for the shaman, is a spiritual affair, an experience which is indescribable because it transcends the subject/object relationship upon which our languages, grammars, and discursive through-processes are based."

    On the other hand, Daniel C. Noel, in, The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities, a history, critique, and exposition of what he calls "neoshamanism," contends that this contemporary shamanism is essentially rooted in the writings of what he calls "shamanovelists," and "shamanthropologists," along with the "active imagination" techniques of C.G. Jung, and soul-oriented musings of post-Jungians, such as James Hillman and Thomas Moore.


Joel Weishaus: Dan, your new book begins with the figure of Merlin, your ancestral psychopomp. You speak of "Merlin's disappearance and subsequent forest cries," then his reappearance in the "imaginal," which, in turn," draws us" to what you call "neoshamanism." Why this reconsideration of shamanism-in which, until recently, only anthropologists were interested-as an actual spiritual practice?

Daniel Noel.: Merlin doesn't signal the adoption by Westerners of some form of shamanism as a spiritual practice--at least not obviously. I make the connection myself between a resurgence of interest in Merlin and the potential for a more deliberately, mindfully Western version of shamanism than we have had thus far. I employ Merlin as an archetypal role model (given the shamanic characteristics he displays in some variants of his legend) or patron of the sort of Western neoshamanism I'd like to see and try to describe.

    What we have had thus far--the reconsideration you speak of--was initiated by the confluence of Carlos Castaneda's writings in the late sixties and early seventies with the hallucinogenic experimentation of the "counter culture." His works seemed to provide a mythic container, a structure of shamanic lore and practice, to give meaning to the drug tripping of those days. Michael Harner, Joan Halifax, and other neoshamanist writers and workshop leaders then came along in the eighties to provide means of emulating shamanic rituals and experiences during a later period when an "earth-based spirituality" like indigenous shamanism was an ecologically appealing option.

    On a deeper level, as I show in the book, the neoshamanism movement as these figures conjured it, with references to the authority of Mircea Eliade's big book on shamanism as a phenomenon of the history of religions, translated into English in 1964, was an unconscious cross-cultural fantasy drawing on the power and process of imagining. Castaneda's writings were fiction marketed as fact, Harner's "core shamanism" was a Western imaginative construction, Joan Halifax contributes her own syncretic blendings that exist in no single traditional culture, and even Eliade's scholarly text is skewed by his preoccupation with centering and ascensional flights to the relative exclusion of underworld journeys. So the neoshamanism we have had is all about fantasizing around certain insistent and evocative themes of late-twentieth-century Western culture; the longings are sincere but the spiritual practices that are followed to fulfill them are simulated, with the danger of neo-colonialist misappropriation of indigenous cultural property and delusions of "direct access" to such indigenous wisdom.

    That's the bad news about this Western "reconsideration." The good news is that a mindful approach to the fantasy and imagining process itself is possible which can make for a more honest and viable neoshamanism in the future.

    I've just given you the headlines of my assessment of how this movement got started and my critique of its limitations. The second half of my book proceeds to lay out the resources for the "imaginal shamanism" I believe the West can validly develop.

J.W.: As old xenophobias are still present in many, if not most, societies, could you address some of the social blisters your book may be raising?

D.N.: In the (growing) subculture I inhabit there's an admirable level of mutual tolerance--perhaps because we're too theologically slack-minded to get irritated.
    Let me add that along with hallucinogens and Earth Day, other expressions of the fantasy that coalesced around Castaneda, Harner, Halifax, Eliade, and their successors have been the lure of the ancient/archaic--Eliade's book was subtitled "Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy"--or the lure of the "primitive"/primal/primordial, preferably from far away in the jungle or the outback.

    I already mentioned the fantasy of direct access to such purer wisdom from "then and there," but I should emphasize the power of supposed "immediate experience" as opposed to "armchair reading and theorizing"--all this being a theory obtained by reading, and thus a sort of self-contradictory fantasy. One could also mention the apparently non-hierarchical, democratic access to the sacred offered by the shamanic model--as much apparent as real, alas, to judge by the ethnographic literature.
    Such fantasy elements, alone or in combination, are shared by other spiritual traditions (probably even Russian Orthodoxy), some more mindfully, some less so. Neoshamanism is pagan, however you construe it.

J.W: This Anon-hierarchical, democratic access to the sacred," it seems to me, is not only in opposition to organized religions= offices, but also to traditional shamanism, which often worked along patrilineal lines. Yet, as with all movements, as, perhaps, neoshamanism is becoming, do you sense a hardening into schools, or power structures? Harner=s Foundation for Shamanic Studies, for example. What kind of dangers to do see ahead in this direction?

D.N.: It would be interesting to do a short social history of the Harner efforts to proliferate workshops, spread his core shamanism model vs. the "authorized" indigenous representative model of Brant Secunda (Huichol) and Alberto Villoldo (Inkan?). Why did Michael Harner move from Norwalk CT, to Mill Valley CA, within the past year or two? Who is his heir apparent? I don't know the answers to such questions, but aside from institutional hardening I'm very interested in epistemological hardening. The denial of the movement's basis in fantasy--especially its roots in the Castaneda hoax--has parallels with fundamentalism. Is Harner producing true believers in firsthand contact with the "spirits" shamans are supposed to encounter? I hope not, but the allure of exotic realities with which one can literally--and safely, simply, quickly--communicate is powerful medicine in a fact-worshiping culture whose need to believe is exacerbated by the approaching millennium.

 J.W.: Your thesis, as I understand it here, and as elaborated in your book, is that neoshamanism conducts itself in the work of "shamanovelists," such as Carlos Castaneda, Lynn Andrews, and Mary Stewart, palmed off as a genre of reality. You approve of this, in so far as it stimulates the imaginal, thus countervailing the dis-ease of Fundamentalism. But this  path can also lead to entertaining simulations of reality, instead of a radical inquiry into it; as, for example, meditational practices demand.
    Is this a fair, if truncated, reading?

D.N.: Pretty fair, though Mary Stewart is definitely a very different  sort of shamanovelist than Castaneda or Andrews: she's not writing about shamanism except very indirectly, and she's not pretending not to be writing novels as they are. Still, she (Stewart) shows us the "literary lying," the overt shamanovelizing of any fiction writer (she also refers to Merlin, which has its own reverberations), and thus helps to school  our imaginings, demonstrating the power and process of imagination which are the unconscious source of the neoshamanism movement. I want to relate to that source more openly, consciously, intentionally. This will avoid the simulation of literal reality to which neoshamanism has been limited so far, and so move beyond its delusions and the other major ill of its unconscious fantasizing: the misappropriation of indigenous wisdom.

J.W: As a major role of the traditional shaman is that of physician, is the task of healing also allotted to the contemporary shaman? And, if this is so, with modern medical science in mind, where does the enhancement of imagination make its contribution?

D.N: The traditional shaman was not primarily a "physician" in our medical sense--there wasn't our medical sense available. So any healing role assigned to the contemporary shaman (I would say neoshamanist) doesn't need to be medical either. I disavow the medical connection because the enhancement of imagination operates psychologically, not medically. By psychologically I mean the "imaginal psychology" of James Hillman and company, which is resolutely unscientific about these matters of "soul"--of which shamanism, as we can partially replicate it in the late-modern West, is one.

    Writers like Jeanne Achterberg , in Imagery In Healing, try to make a case for the medical benefits of work with inner imagery. That's fine as far as it goes, but it isn't the kind of image work I'm interested in. I contrast images as domesticated animals with images as wild animals (an approach stemming from Jung's method of "active imagination"). Jung started as a medical doctor, but his ideas more and more departed from the medical model in the direction that Hillman, et al. have continued and elaborated.

    It is their non-medical psychology of/with imagination that I see as the resource for a Western version of shamanism. Through what Hillman calls "pathologizing," and work with dreams, and "waking dreams," as developed by Mary Watkins, healing, or self-healing, can be a by-product of the process of this imaginal shamanism.

J.W.: Healing, then, as opposed to the Western medical model. Dreams, as opposed to Dramamine. Which brings up the question of drugs.

    Many traditional shamans use psychotropic drugs, prepared from local flora, to induce their visionary journeys. Such drugs, interestingly enough, raise the paranoia of American politicians to a fever pitch, maybe responding to a fear of losing the illusion of control over themselves, and over people who have entered a different mind set. For whatever reasons, these drugs are almost universally illegal. Although there are many other techniques that shamans can and do use (rattling, drumming, dancing, chanting...), at least one root of neoshamanism was germinated by Carlos Castaneda=s description of his psychotropically induced imaginings. What is your take on the place of these drugs?

D.N.: Of course, like everything else in his books, Carlos's account of his psychotropic exploits with Mescalito and other figures was almost certainly fictional--which is why I promote the notion of "fictive power" as the hidden teaching of don Carlos.

    My take on drugs is that before we can "turn the soul" (psycho-tropics) we need to recover it, which I propose doing by way of post-Jungian insights into the imaginal as the (drug-free) basis for a Western neoshamanism. But I do have the ongoing worry that Castaneda's and Harner's nonordinary reality--or, as I'd go at the matter, imaginal reality--isn't going to be fully experienced by Westerners when there's always the hermeneutical "out" that the chemicals were causing it, not the confrontation with an Other cosmology. And drugs for most of us are too trendy and quick to be soulful, their dangers aside.

J.W: While most spiritual Ways follow direct ancestral lines of practice, which include moral precautions, neoshamanism is derivative of disparate cultures, many of which are alien to contemporary Western societies and their codes. Seemingly a symptom of postmodernism's strategy of fragmentation, along with its free-wheeling styles of creativity, as this eclectic, if not erratic, path of shanamism progresses, what are some of the signs of which we should be wary?

D.N.: A good and difficult question. One possible danger may be a backlash against fragmentation: a feckless universalism that wants all traditions, all shamanisms to be the same. Harner's "core shamanism" drifts in this direction. Postmodernism, in stressing difference, at least honors the uniqueness, the particular integrity, of various cultures and their shamanic legacies.

    Neoshamanism is built on a cross-cultural fantasy that we can borrow eclectically and then homogenize the borrowings into an option Westerners can practice safely, quickly, and simply. Of course, the kind of neoshamanism I want to see develop is one that is less acquisitive toward "alien" cultures and more focused on possible Western resources, drawn on deliberately from an imaginal perspective growing out of Jung's Western psychology.

    It's interesting that Jung, a Protestant; James Hillman, a Jew; and Thomas Moore, a Catholic, have launched this imaginal orientation I draw on in psychology. Whether there is a "Judeo-Christian" ethic lingering in their work--which is often presented as polytheistic/pagan, and certainly as aesthetic rather than doctrinal in its approach to the Western biblical tradition--is unclear. Hillman speaks of "the morality of the image," and my version of neoshamanism follows his reliance on the image, though I haven't developed an explicit moral theology or formal ethics, and his remarks are quite sketchy. So it's an area for further reflection.

Works Cited:

Achterberg, Jeanne. Imagery In Healing: Shamanism and Modern Medicine. Boston: Shambhala, 1985.
Castaneda, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.
Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1964.
Halifax, Joan. The Fruitful Darkness: Reconnecting With the Body of the Earth. San Francisco: Harper, 1994.

© Joel Weishaus 1999