Shamans of the Soul

We have this articulated space we can all discuss, and outside of that we have something that is more akin to a dream that we are embedded in… And in that dream, that is where the mystics live, and the artists, and they are the meditators between the absolute unknown and the things we know for sure. And if those two things are out of sync, if our articulated knowledge is out of sync with our dreams, then we become dissociated internally….And that produces a kind of sickness of the spirit. And [in that sickness] people turn to ideologies, which I regard as parasites on an underlying religious substructure to try to organize their thinking, and then that is a catastrophe. That is what Nietzsche saw. He knew that when we knock the slats out of the base of Western civilization by destroying this representation, this God ideal, let’s say, we would destablize and move back and forth violently between nihilism and the extremes of ideology…. And we have been oscillating back and forth between left and right ever since, and with some nihilism and despair thrown in. That is the situation of the modern Western person.(8:30 mark)

The Bible … exists in that space that is half into dream and half into articulated knowledge. And going into it to find out what the stories are about can aid our self-understanding… If Nietzsche was correct and if Dostoevsky and Jung were correct, without the corner stone that understanding provides, we are lost. And that’s not good because then we are susceptible to psychic pathologies. People who are adamant anti-religious thinkers seem to believe that if we abandoned our immersement in the underlying dream, we would all instantly become rationalists like Descartes or Bacon, intelligent, clear thinking, rational, scientific people. I don’t believe that for a moment, because I don’t think there is any evidence for it. I think we would become so irrational so rapidly that the weirdest mysteries of Catholicism would seem rational by contrast, and that is already happening.(44:00 mark) – Jordan Peterson

These quotes are from Jordan Peterson’s first lecture in his course on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories. It is an amazing lecture, in which he puts his finger on why spirituality matters in society.

At root religious fundamentalists and ardent atheists make the same mistake: they assume that a rationally articulated understanding of the world is, or can be, the basis of human experience and society. The religious fundamentalist claims his favorite religion and culture for the role of that rational articulation. The ardent atheist claims a clear-headed scientific awareness for that role. But what both show thereby is a naive understanding of human psychology.

It also highlights the limits of philosophy as traditionally understood.

Human consciousness is rooted primarily in deep story telling. A sense of where one came from, and where one is going. Of who we are, and why we are going through this thing called life, and how best to go through it.

This story telling resonates with us when it comes from the depth of our being, from the space of, as Peterson put it, our dreams. From beyond the control and guidance of our conscious awareness.

This captures both what Rorty got right, and what he got wrong. He was right that a fundamental role of philosophy is to tell stories, intellectual stories. But he was wrong in that the stories can be told mainly from the level of the intellect. They need to come from deeper within us. They need to come from a space and point of being and consciousness in us where we have let go of our conscious crutches and fears and anxieties and ideas, and give ourselves to a deeper energy.

Ancient texts such as the Bible or the Vedas were many things. Science, philosophy, literature, culture. But at bottom, beyond all that, they were telling deep stories at the level of our deepest consciousness, so as to awaken within us to that deeper, higher form of consciousness.

Since the time of those texts, science, philosophy, literature and so on have gone on to be modes of activity on their own. They are not done in one text. And that’s great. That allows us to explore the different dimensions of life and world without running them together. Science doesn’t have to be beholden to literature or moral needs. Similarly, with literature and so on.

But there is still the need for deep stories which tap into the depth of being and have a kind of unifying and guiding structure.

Peterson is totally right that political ideologies on the right and the left have their appeal because they mimic these deep stories of spirituality, and for the people who get pulled into them, they feel like the deepest stories they know. Hence debate goes nowhere between proponents of different ideologies. The appeal of the ideology just is that it speaks to a realm of consciousness within us much deeper than that of debate. And so “debate” becomes rather just a way of fighting about which deeper realm is better. This is what happens on cable news, facebook, twitter, etc.

As was evident in the 19th century, nationalism in politics is a particularly powerful deep story. As are trans-national stories like communism, or the spread of capitalism and freedom, etc. Nowadays we can add these the deep stories of multi-culturalism, feminism and so on.

The fact that these deep stories get a grip on us means that they are deeply right about something. They speak to something deep in us. Trying to debate which of them is right never succeeds because the realm of debate cannot move by itself the deeper currents which make the deep story appealing in the first place.

Hence what is produced is what thinkers have long noticed, since the time of Socrates, Buddha and Lao Tzu, that there are forms of debate which are mainly unproductive. They have merely the form of understanding and engaging with the other side, but which are really just expressions of an already accepted and unshakable worldview, and which the debaters have no intention of changing or giving up.

If not through debate, how do we deal with the conflicting deep stories in our lives? If not debate, what can bring some structure and peace?

Deeper deep stories. Much, much deeper deep stories.

Nationalism, communism, post-colonialism, feminism, religious fundamentalism, combative atheism – these have the form of deep stories, and they evoke the passions and identifications which come from below our more ordinary, surface awareness. And one can identify the ups and downs of each view – and yet not really move the needle much.

There is only one way to engage with and move beyond a deep story: to tell a deeper story. To go even deeper into the human consciousness, to be more courageous, to forgo the surface ego and rational consciousness more, to be more fearless and less self-protective. To dive wholesale into the ocean which is the human psyche and to trust that the more you immerse yourself in that psyche without fear, the more our shared human psyche will speak out deeper deep stories which move us and open up new avenues of awareness and action.

In our world of science, philosophy, politics, literature and overall modernity and clear-sightedness, there is still a deep need for shamans of the soul. 

Not the kind who embrace an irrationality which is sub-rational. But ones who plumb the depths of the consciousness in a supra-rational way. Who embrace all the insights of modernity and rationality to such an extent that they self consciously recognize the limits of modern rationality itself, and who give themselves to the mysteries of the deep unconscious to lead the way.

Isn’t this a recipe for chaos? If we don’t hold on to the rational mind, how do we know which stories to follow and which to reject? How do we tell the stories of a Hitler apart from those of a Gandhi? Or stories of sensible people from those of lunatics?

There is a way. And it doesn’t require the policing of the rational mind. Nor guidelines of what constitutes good thought, and how to avoid bad thought. It doesn’t require guidelines at all.

It is: Peace. Stillness. Faith. Trust.

The deepest of the deep stories evoke the peace at the eye of the hurricane. The deep stories of people who have reached that space, or near there, move people without people debating whether it is good or not. The goodness of following those stories and of giving oneself to them will be evident in the very peace and harmony and love which they raise up in one’s consciousness. It is self-evident in the transformation not just of one’s ideas or hopes, but of one’s being from its very core.

Outer peace is only possible in human life when all humans are self-reflective enough to be able to be aware of that consciousness of peace within themselves, and so able to tell the deepest stories from within their own awareness. Lacking that ability to hear those deepest stories within their own consciousness, people look outside themselves for stories which will move them, and so they are susceptible to stories which have only a surface depth.

To really overcome shallow deep stories, there is only one way.

Dive deeper into your consciousness. Listen to the stories coming from the innermost depths of peace within yourself. And if from there you feel so moved, speak those stories and be their mouthpiece with love and compassion.

History of Spirituality

In earliest human communities, spanning from 50,000 years ago to the present for some communities, spiritual experiences were a group phenomenon, achieved through group chanting, dancing and reenacting mythological events.



Then as communities started to become bigger, shamans arose. Shamans were the spiritual brain of the communal body, and they channeled the energies of the world and how best to thrive as human beings.



Then with the earliest human civilizations, about 6,000 years ago, societies became vast groups of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of people. It was no longer possible for all the engage in group rituals at once, or even to be guided by a single shaman in close proximity. This led to divine kings. The emperor as shaman for the whole civilization.



With the vast empire and the divine kings, there had to be a spiritual beauracracy, which led to the priestly classes. “Beauracracy” is not meant as a demeaning or triviliazing word. Rather, a shaman in a group of 150 people was at once the leader, the spiritual guru, the medicine man, the forecaster, and so on. With the rise of empires, all of these tasks couldn’t be done by one person. Most people still lived in small communities, and there had to be a link between the emperor God who ruled over 100,000 people, and the people who still lived for the most part in family or local groups. Priests were the local shamans in this vast infrastructure.



About 3,000 years ago, with the axial age, there arose spirituality without communal ritual. With vast empires including people with diverse communal ritual traditions, it was no longer possible for one physical divine king, or even one priestly institutional structure, for everyone.

In the broader historical context, what is striking about the axial age religious founders is their spiritual consciousness is not a group achievement. They are solitary figures finding divine inspiration through a psychological transformation. Through personal Divine revelation. Like with Moses and the Buddha.



Christ and Socrates are in a way the most striking here. Their ultimate spiritual revelation and achievement is depicted while they are being killed – not as in ritualistic sacrifice, but from not being understood. How far things have come from spirituality being a communal experience of ritualistic dancing of the whole group!



The axial age de-ritualizes spiritual experience. It still involves great personal effort and focus. But it is no longer one which is assumed to be shared with all or even most people around oneself. It is not completely solitary, as even the axial sages were parts of communities of similar minded people with whom they shared their spirituality. But that similar minded community is now usually just one group among others within the broader society.

The de-ritualization of spiritual experience also renders moot the sharp distinction between sacred and profane physical spaces. With communal activity no longer the primary or essential locus of spiritual activity, where one is when being spiritual no longer matters so much. What matters more is how one is no matter where one is.

One could be on the cross or in prison. Or on the battlefield against one’s own family like Arjuna. Or homeless, living in the streets, flaunting social conventions and talking down to emperors like Alexander, as with Diogenes. Or riding on a ox away from society like Lao Tzu.



Is this the end of our history? Some humans discover personal spirituality and that is the pinnacle of human life? Not quite. Life moves on, pushes on, in new ways.

The axial age sages are just a few people, with some hundreds of initial followers. The majority of the world is still wedded to ritualistic spirituality – with their awareness of the vastness of the world mediated through communal activity.

So many people, including into our present, interpret the non-ritualistic awareness of the axial sages themselves in ritualistic modes. In particular, in one or all of three modes.

First, institutions. Temples, churches and schools come to be the ritual space for spiritual awareness. People who didn’t found any institutions or write anything themselves – Buddha, Christ, Socrates – soon became the figure heads of institutions. And the institutions mark which spaces are more sacred or more enlightened than others.



Second, sacred texts. The sayings and the memories of the axial sages get transformed into written texts, which then become a locus of communal activity. And which then mark which words are more sacred or rational than others.



Third, gurus. At the heart of the ritualistic awareness is the sense that spirituality is to be found in activity directed towards something or someone outside oneself. Temples and bibles are the somethings. Gurus are the someones. They mark the sense that some people are more sacred or realized than others, and that aligning to their consciousness is the way to align one’s own consciousness to the Divine and the infinite.



To highlight institutions, texts and gurus is not to belittle them, or the people who see their own spiritual growth through them. It is only to state a fact of how the majority of the world are not like the axial sages. The majority of the world – theists and atheists alike – are more like earlier humans in seeking a communal or shared awareness of the higher ends of humanity.

Nor is it to say that the gurus are only seeking recognition and are not like Christ or the Buddha. For the gurus might be, if they are especially inspired, like Christ and the Buddha, seeking nothing other than their inner link to the Divine. And sensing this, others congregate around them. There is no point in outwardly criticizing the guru or the followers. To do that would be to focus one’s own consciousness on other people, as if one cannot align with the Divine until other people see the light. That is yet another mode of the ritualistic consciousness.

There is no one true mode of spirituality. Is the Buddha more correct than the early humans who experienced the Divine through communal ritualistic dances? Or is a  current Buddhist meditating by himself more enlightened than people who seek the Divine through communal chanting at a temple?

Is someone who walks or bikes by oneself better than someone who takes the train with thousands of other people?

There is no one time we live in. Our current world includes traditions and modes of activity and ways of human consciousness from thousands of years, layered one on top of another, and also alongside one another. Like a forest with different kinds of vegetation growing wild in many layers and directions.

How one aligns to the Divine is not important, as long as one aligns to the Divine. The relevant issue isn’t: are they – others – aligned to the Divine in the right way? It is: Am aligned to the Divine, whether through an institution or a guru or by myself?

Find your link to the Divine, and you will see the Divine in all, everywhere, in all modes of human activity. Just the way the early humans saw when they danced with the Gods, and the way Christ saw on the cross, and the way Buddha saw under the tree of Enlightenment.

Work of Consciousness

Is religion good?

Three things we might mean by religion:

1) The spiritual practice of the founder of the religion (say, Christ)

2) A community for people as they individually practice what Christ practised

3) A group identity of a we which is experienced as the most advanced and best mode of life because it has the right answers.

(1) is great. Contrary to deflationary views, which claim that someone like Christ was just a good person, (1) invovles the personal journey of each person to develop their cosmic awareness. This is not simply being nice. It is to expand and evolve one’s consciousness.

(2) is good. Humans are social beings and sharing the ups and downs of one’s life practices and goals is healthy and healing. This is church at its best.

(3) is bad. Nothing worthy about it. And is in fact just the kind of group awareness (1) is meant to grow beyond.

Most arguments about religion, between atheists and theists, focus on (3). Nothing is gained from participating in such debates. It only keeps one’s consciousness rooted at the level of group identity.

Focus entirely on (1). At times, if you feel the need, engage in (2) as an aid to (1). Forget about (3), and forget about getting into debates re (3).

Transcend the mode of a we set against another we. Starve that impulse within oneself. Dedicate your self entirely to (1).

Be with christ. That is more important than debating the value of this or that religion, or religion and atheism.

Abstract debate doesn’t mean one has transcended to a higher conscisousness. Usually it is a more refined form of a lower consciousness.

Move beyond debate. Do the personal work of consciousness.

Roots of Spirituality

Spiritual consciousness is rooted in mammalian consciousness. Spirituality is, at heart, just a very sophisticated way of being a mammal.

In mammals, a mother takes care of her young. This means the mother and the child have modes of shared consciousness as long as they are inter-dependent. For the mother, the child’s welfare is her welfare. For the child, the mother is an extension of himself.

So a mammal has two kinds of awareness: ego awareness, where the animal strives for its own individual well-being, and communal awareness, where the animal experiences well being as fundamentally communal – including itself and members of its group.

This is the basic tension implicit in mammals. Not only in mammals. It applies to social animals, such as bees for instance. But it is a central feature of mammals.

For most mammals, this tension between ego and communal awareness is resolved by biology.

Once hominines, such as with homo habilus about 2 millions years ago, started to use tools and so started to have culture, the duality in mammalian consciousness between ego and communal awareness starts to be connected to culture.

Tool use – seeing how others are using tools, replicating them, seeing tools as communal property – is essentially tied to communal awareness. A group succeeds insofar as it’s members are able to do two things: 1) pass on tool use through fostering communal awareness, and 2) keeping ego awareness, which is hard wired into every living organism, in check so that it doesn’t undermine communal awareness.

By the time of the Neanderthals about 100,000 years ago and the Cro-Magnons about 40,000 years ago, we have the beginning of culture beyond tools: burials, jewelry, cave art.

All of this proto-mythological activity was part of the way these communities balanced ego and communal awareness. The more sophisticated tool use became, the more activity there has to be for communal awareness in order to instill the skills required for sophisticated tool use and community activity. These were enabled through communal rites like dancing, early chanting and singing. Seen from an ego awareness perspective, these actions seem bizarre: why would someone do that? But seen from a communal awareness perspective, group dance and rituals are no different from bees building a hive together or rams engaging in battle dances, etc.

With the rise of agriculture about 12,000 years ago, tool use and cultural practices became so sophisticated that humans now effectively live in a cultural world. Their activities are no longer like others animals plus some tool use. Now they start to have identities as defined by their roles in the social world.

An identity is a self-awareness which balances ego and communal awareness. A farmer. A blacksmith. A cobbler. These identities define a person’s place in society, and imbues them with an awareness of the sacred importance of those identities. If those identities collapse, that means individuals care more about their ego needs than the needs of the community.

Early myths are the groups narratives of these identities. Gods are the beings who excel at those identities – hunting, weaving baskets, maintaining fires, etc. Gods are the exemplars of a skill. So individuals aim to be like the Gods, in that they aim be skilled at the activities of the community.

The shamans and the priests – their identity is to keep the myths going, to channel the Gods and the divine realm of pure communal consciousness so that the society doesn’t break down into ego consciousness.

As communities grow and get bigger, new narratives of communal consciousness are needed to balance ego consciousness and communal consciousness. This is the history of mythology of societies.

When communities were small, there were select people whose identities were to let go of their ego conscisousness and channel group consciousness. Shamans, priests, divine kings.

But as communities became civilizations with hundreds of thousands of people, with empires filled with people of many different cultures, communal consciousness was no longer channeled only through priests or kings.

By about 2,500 years ago societies were so complex that some people had to cultivate their own communal awareness themselves. They could not simply focus on farming or being a warrior and expect the priests or the kings to channel the communal consciousness for everyone.

A new ideal started to form: each person has to deal with their ego awareness themselves and choose the divine, communal awarneess. This was the axial age revolution of Zoroaster, Abraham, Buddha, Socrates, Christ and Lao Tzu. By this point in history, nature by itself couldn’t balance ego and communal awareness. Nor could culture by itself. Over and above nature and culture, each person had to choose communal consciousness over ego consciousness.

This choice was being born again. Of dying to the ego consciousness and submitting to the communal consciousness, which would harmonize all of one’s being into a whole and provide peace from the rift within oneself between ego and communal consciousness. This choice was not a physical or an intellectual act. It was a transformation of one’s being, a change in body and mind at the deepest level.

One can’t achieve this by going to Church or learning physics, by affirming religion or by denouncing religion. The Axial age sages were clear about this. There is only one way: find the root of communal awareness within yourself, and submit to that heart and soul until your ego consciousness starts to burn and melt away; and keep holding to the communal awarenes even as the ego awareness screams and shouts, tries to deceive and trick you into holding on to it.

The journey of that path is spirituality. It is part of being a human mammal living in a vast civilization.

Science and Spirituality

Are science and spirituality compatible?

Yes. The way they are compatible is so simple that it is hilarious that normally we forget it and lose ourselves in “big” debates.

Science, in the broad sense, is the study of big history, the history of the universe. It tells us:

  • the big bang happened 13 billion years ago
  • the earth formed 4.5 billion years ago
  • Life on earth started 3.5 billion years ago
  • Mammals appeared about 250 million years ago
  • Hominines appeared about 6 million years ago
  • Homo sapiens appeared about 250,000 years ago
  • Humans discovered agriculture about 12,000 years ago.
  • The first major civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt began about 7,000 years ago.
  • The axial age of modern religions like Judaism, Hinduism and Confucianism and also science began about 3,500 years ago.

This is what science – physics, geology, archeology, anthropology – tells us.

Spirituality is living life with the constant awareness of the vastness of life and having that awareness infuse so deeply into your consciousness that it transforms your day to day interactions with others into a mode of increasing peace and lessening of emotional conflict.

One way of being spiritual is to bring the vastness of the scientific awareness into everyday human life. The cosmic awareness of science and the cosmic awareness of spirituality can come together and enforce each other.

Poof! The apparent conflict between science and spirituality disappears.

How then does the appearance of conflict arise?

That too is simple: when one forgets cosmic awareness, but still lays claim to it. Be it the scientist who mistakes his scientific identity as cosmic awareness, or the religious person who mistakes his religious identity as cosmic awareness.

Two people who forget the vastness of the world and lose themselves to their identities and so presume that the fight of their identities defines the world – that is the source of the apparent tension of science and spirituality.

The tension disappears when one holds to the cosmic awareness of the real, deep vastness of the world, and sees that science and religion as social practices, institutions and identities are only a few thousand years old. A mere few seconds in the time of the universe.

The clash is not between science and spirituality. Nor even between scientific and spiritual identities. It is between misunderstandings of scientific and spiritual identities.