There was a long buildup to this visit – it took forever to find out whether the shamanic circle was even going to meet last weekend. First I heard yes. Then I heard maybe and, then, again, call back later, because, maybe. My contact seemed unsure whether the guest-star shaman was going to show up at all. I called back the very day the shamanic circle was supposed to happen, which was a Friday, and was finally given a confirm, that yes, the shaman was coming, the newbie-friendly Open Circle was going to happen.
I had actually wanted to go to the Saturday session led by this guest shaman, wherein they were going to summon Ipupiara (a fresh-water dolphin) from the Ureu-eu wau-wau (the people of the stars) tribe, who was going to “share with us for the first time the concept and healing methods used in his native Amazon to remove evil spirits, evil eyes and attachment of bad spirits.” However, I was told that this session was not for beginners, and in any case it would cost $120. So I settled for the open circle.
The circle met at an elementary school in Tribeca, in a regular school building. I walked up to the main door, saw there was a receptionist, and thought to myself “Am I really going to ask this harried receptionist where the shaman is at? Is she going to think I’m totally out of my mind?”
I was tempted to just leave the building, but I have committed to my new religion-hunting hobby for better or for worse, so I had no choice but to ask. The woman was juggling three phone lines and a whole lost-looking family standing in front of her, but she immediately nodded and pointed toward the stairs. “Third floor auditorium.”
“Oh, good, an auditorium,” I told the Companionable Atheist. “This means we aren’t going to have to, like, interact.” I imagined the two of us sitting peacefully in the back of a large room, behind a couple of very high backed wooden chairs, as the shaman performed his art for a quiet, appreciative audience.
Instead, the third floor auditorium turned out to be a gymnasium, with fans blasting at all the windows, and mats laid out in a gigantic circle (a square, really) on the floor. About 40 people were already there, sitting cross-legged or kneeling on the mats. In the middle of the circle lay a stretched out sheet with a pile of ritual objects on it: candles, wooden rattles and drums, flowers, sea shells.
Though the room was mostly full, I walked over to the nearest mat, confident that people would scootch over and greet me with open arms, as they had greeted me basically everywhere else I had ever gone.
“Is someone sitting here?” I asked the closest woman. The woman stared up at me blankly. “Yes. See the handkerchief?” She turned away.
I backed away awkwardly and tried another gap on the other side of the room. “Excuse me, is someone sitting here?” Another blank stare. “Yeah.” I couldn’t believe it. I tried my adorable pathetic look. “Do you see anywhere around here I could sit? I’m having a hard time.” She shook her head. “No, I really don’t.” And again, she turned away.
Finally I just decided I was going to sit down whether they liked it or not, and if a spirit needed to move me, I would just move then. The Companionable Atheist and I squeezed onto the corner of a mat and I checked out the crowd, which included people of various ethnicities, in normal garb, with a touch of the hippie (a guy in a button-down shirt with a foot-long ponytail; a woman in a pastel cardigan with big seashell earrings). Some of them were super-hippied out (dreadlocks and batik overalls) but the rest were decidedly normal looking. In other words, it was no stranger looking a crowd than your average subway car contains.
A few minutes after we sat down, people started banging drums and hitting their rattles, in a pretty fast unison beat. I stole two rattles from the center of the circle, and was not yelled at for doing so. The banging went on for about 15 minutes, reminding me a little bit of the construction that is currently underway in my office building. I briefly worried that the entire 90 minute service would just be drumming, but eventually the drumming stopped and we got a “welcome everybody." The guest star, a shaman from Brazil, got a special welcome, and he gave a thoughtful nod of acknowledgment.
We passed a candle around the circle and said our name out loud, and the whole group repeated our names back to us. The shaman, a middle aged Brazilian guy with long hair, decent English, and a little bit of a paunch, told us, “Once a circle like this is created, it exists forever.”
The Companionable Atheist and I looked at each other. We had already resigned ourselves to becoming Mormons in the afterlife (since they believe that people can be converted after their deaths), so the thought that we were already going to be claimed by a shamanic circle for eternity kind of threw us for a loop. “Can I be a Mormon and be in a shamanic circle?” I asked. I don’t know how anyone could find the answer to this deeply modern theological question, but somebody really ought to look into it.
Then four volunteers got up, lit big seashells full of some kind of spruce-smelling incense, and held them in front of each person in the circle. The people waved the incense onto their bodies like they were washing themselves in it, or swimming in it. I studied the gesture as it was passed around the room (maybe there’s a certain number of times you’re supposed to wash your head, and then your body, and then your head again), but I’m not sure I got it right. The volunteers didn’t care. They were nice, and they were patient with everyone’s different needs for incense bathing. I found this energy-clearing to be very enjoyable.
Then we cleared our energies with sound. The same volunteers came around and shook seashell rattles above our heads, in front of us, and in circles around us. This was also pleasant.
Then we faced in each of the four directions and at the request of the Brazilian shaman, repeated the Brazilian name for each direction. He himself was cool as a cucumber, but he got a little bit into the MC shtick here, telling us we weren’t reciting the names loud enough.
Then the drumming started again, and everyone started dancing, skipping or shuffling in a circle around the pile of ritual objects. Kind of a freestyle session, I guess. People were singing, howling, or chanting in monotone whatever they felt like saying. I stood and watched, and got kind of looked over by everyone as they passed me in their circle dance. Most of these looks were much friendlier than the freezing cold reception I’d gotten when I came in. Still, the scrutiny was intimidating, and the circling mob was starting to disorient me.
So I started cracking up. The grin that I always get when somebody starts telling me about energies came and parked itself on my face, and it wouldn’t go away. The harder I tried to restore my solemn Exploring Other Cultures face, the harder the grin came back. And soon, I realized it was hopeless. The freestyling was about to end, the journeys would start, it would get really quiet, and I’d be laughing uncontrollably in the back of the room. This would be embarrassing for me and offensive to the shamanic devotees. My energies would screw everybody up, and the healing dolphin would not arrive.
I got up and basically ran out of the room, with the Companionable Atheist (who had dutifully maintained his own poker face) in pursuit.
And that was the end of Exploring Other Cultures for that evening. I went home and had a couple of drinks, regretting that I’d missed the journeys (guided meditation), but glad that I’d left before anyone had to throw me out.
I don’t know why the shamans got to me so badly. I think it was the change in format – at most religious events I’ve been to, I’ve been able to sit in the back and watch (and pass judgment) on everyone without being watched in return. This won’t fly in a shamanic circle. Everyone watches your face, and I was positive that all the shamanic devotees were reading my thought bubble of “you guys are all crazy.”
Then again, I’m also fighting against the feeling of being part of a group, which is of course a very seductive feeling. If there are 45 of them, and only one of you, and they’re all doing the same thing and feeling the same thing and you’re not, their group behaviors, which would seem lunatic in any other context, create a powerful gravitational pull. But I couldn’t do it, just like I wouldn’t have been able to take communion. Ritual behavior has its own logic. If you do it - if you're part of the circle - that means you are it, and you are helping to create it. And I just couldn’t. I don’t believe in cleansing energies. I don’t believe that a shaman can see a cancer or summon a dolphin or cure an ailment. I couldn’t even stand watching people who did believe these things. The cognitive dissonance was just too great, even though if I met them in any other context, I might like quite a few of them.
It’s funny, I was recently taught about a text where the ancients are arguing this same point. In Yehuda HaLevi’s Kuzari, there’s a passage where the rabbi tries to convince the king of the Khazars that his religion is the only true one. He does so essentially by telling the Khazari king that he isn’t going to try to convince him, because there’s no point. His own people have received God’s revelation, so he believes it. He says:
“If thou wert told that the King of India was an excellent man, commanding admiration, and deserving his high reputation, one whose actions were reflected in the justice which rules his country and the virtuous ways of his subjects, would this bind thee to revere him?
The Khazar king retorts,
How could this bind me, whilst I am not sure if the justice of the Indian people is natural, and not dependent on their king, or due to the king or both?
The rabbi reasons,
But if his messenger came to thee bringing presents which thou knowest to be only procurable in India, and in the royal palace, accompanied by a letter in which it is distinctly stated from whom it comes, and to which are added drugs to cure thy diseases, to preserve thy health, poisons for thy enemies, and other means to fight and kill them without battle, would this make thee beholden to him?
Certainly. For this would remove my former doubt that the Indians have a king. I should also acknowledge that a proof of his power and dominion has reached me.
How wouldst thou, then, if asked, describe him?
In terms about which I am quite clear, and to these I could add others which were at first rather doubtful, but are no longer so.
In this way I answered thy first question. In the same strain spoke Moses to Pharaoh, when he told him: 'The God of the Hebrews sent me to thee,' viz. the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For Abraham was well known to the nations, who also knew that the divine spirit was in contact with the patriarchs, cared for them, and performed miracles for them. He did not say: 'The God of heaven and earth,' nor 'my Creator and thine sent me.' In the same way God commenced His speech to the assembled people of Israel: 'I am the God whom you worship, who has led you out of the land of Egypt,' but He did not say: 'I am the Creator of the world and your Creator.' Now in the same style I spoke to thee, a Prince of the Khazars, when thou didst ask me about my creed. I answered thee as was fitting, and is fitting for the whole of Israel who knew these things, first from personal experience, and afterwards through uninterrupted tradition, which is equal to the former.
On its face, this passage seems perfectly reasonable. If you experience something – if its truth is proven to you directly – you should believe in it. But there’s a hole here, of course – through most of its history, Israel knew of God’s miracles through tradition rather than direct experience. Uninterrupted tradition, okay, that’s great. But doesn’t “tradition” kind of foul up the notion of proof?
The rabbi feels such a kinship, such a sense of peoplehood and of oneness with his ancestors that he believes whatever they tell him must be true. At first I thought that here was the difference between the ancients and the moderns – there is no group of people with whom I feel such a sense of kinship that I’d take whatever they told me on face value like that.
Then I figured out that wasn’t true. Most of the ludicrously implausible things that I believe have been “proven” (subatomic particles; the solar system) I am actually taking entirely on faith. Dave Barry has this great bit about how subatomic physicists actually spend their gigantic government grants on booze, then lie around, get drunk, point at their multibillion dollar equipment and shriek “There goes another one!!!” I believe whatever those guys tell me. My prophets are Google and the New York Times. Am I really better than the shamanic believers here here?
Then again, they believe that a magical person can heal their bodies by touching them and reciting things and talking to invisible, imperceptible beings. So, yes, I am.
Then again, throughout history, most people have believed in magic, in miraculous healing and in supernatural powers. Today, 73% of Americans believe in miracles, and 68% believe in angels. I look at these numbers and feel the “rational” world kind of dropping away. Robert Orsi recently wrote an essay in the American Scholar that argued that historians needed a new vocabulary to describe human interaction with the supernatural, which is, after all, the norm in human experience rather than the exception.
This is the language I’m groping for, too. “True” and “false” aren’t quite holding up to the challenge. Particularly in an elementary school gym, heated to 90 degrees and scented by incense, staring at two miracle-working shamans and the 45 shuffling, dancing, ululating, perfectly normal-looking New Yorkers who love them.