Around 7:30 PM on a recent Wednesday evening, I stood spread eagle in the center of a circle of a dozen people on the sidewalk of 17th Street and 7th Avenue in New York, as a woman walked toward me in a striped, floral red-purple robe, hawk-feather headdress, and designer glasses. In one hand she held a fan that looked as if she'd ripped off the ass-end of a falcon, and in the other burning aromatic twigs. The woman drew up close to me and, as I'd seen her do with over a dozen people on the street before me, she blew out the flames on the twigs and began to wave and fan the smoke into my face, cooing and humming as she slowly circled my body.
The woman's name was ChokBar, a shaman originally from Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuvan Republic, a largely autonomous Turkic enclave in Russia, just north of Mongolia. But these days ChokBar is a resident of Edgewater, New Jersey, just over the Hudson River. And at the moment, she was in the City to smudge myself and 24 others, realigning our energies with smoke and the team of spirits that she claims work alongside her, before taking us through our shamanic paces.
She claims that the spirits control her as she smudges, so whenever she leans in suddenly to let loose a raptor screech at someone's sternum or left kidney, she can't explain why, save that her ethereal cohort has informed her that she needed to scare something internal straight. She also says that if we listen close enough and open our third eye, we might be able to see or hear the spirits working alongside her—but I suspect that would be hard even for the supernaturally-inclined, given the din of fire trucks racing by and the murmur of passers-by turning into iPhone-toting rubberneckers.
This is not some janky roadside vision quest. ChokBar was invited to perform these rituals by the Rubin Museum, ostensibly as part of its ongoing exhibit "Becoming Another: The Power of Masks." The display features shamanic gear collected from the Pacific Northwest to Tibet, highlighting the continuity and differences between cultural rituals intended to put practitioners in touch with, or even make them briefly a part of, a world of spirits living parallel to our own and influencing the trajectory of human life—a common belief across the big, global tent that is shamanism. But rather than just go on and on about the often fuzzy and flexible aspects of shamanism in a speech, she's decided to try to introduce us to the spirits directly, via a shamanic workshop. Before an audience of about 50 onlookers, she'll guide myself and two dozen others through ecstatic dance, deep meditation, and drumming to come face-to-face with our power animals, which are supposed to be accumulations of energy representing characteristics we need to foster in ourselves.
The ceremony began inside the Rubin Museum's basement theater, where we all stowed our yoga mats and deposited our offerings to the spirits on two candle-lit tables in the warm-red glow of the dimmed lights. ChokBar requested carrots, cheese, chocolate or candy in shiny wrappers, cookies, flowers, milk, rice, strong black tea, or white sugar. After presenting our gifts we had to step out briefly for the smudging, because the Rubin, no matter how hip and alternative it may wish to be, just can't do fire in a crowded theater, not even for taiga spirits.
The attendees are exceptionally diverse in age, race, attire, etc., but while the audience seems to have its fair share of skeptics and curious outsiders, most of the participants seem to be seekers of one sort or another, people eager to consume spiritual experiences to achieve some sense of connection or realization. They sit with the serene and knowing looks of people who believe that they can and will have a deep spiritual experience today—that there's something to the notion of other worlds and beings beyond the comprehension of science, to the abdication of control and surrender to mysterious forces.
I'm not a believer by any stretch of the imagination. While I'm not closed to the notion of things beyond human comprehension (I've got a few stories of existential dread), my own screwy brain and sensory perception have me convinced that most mystical experiences are totally explainable. Thanks to an essential tremor, I shake and spasm constantly. Thanks to some mild depression and poor sleeping habits, I'm familiar with nagging voices in your head, the feeling of black tendrils gripping your brain and squeezing as if something foreign has seized your being and wants to wrench it apart, and the occasional vision of something flashing just out of your range of vision. And thanks to chronic sleep paralysis, I often awake to find myself immobile, molested by vivid audio-visual-tactile hallucinations—black shapes crawling around the edge of my bed and feeling me up with hundreds of hands while whispering in eldritch tongues. I believe I understand the neurological basis from which these things arise, and I tend to describe my possibly paranormal experiences in terms of synapses, neurotransmitter receptors, and chemicals.
But I've joined the crowd for this workshop because I'm fascinated by shamanism. That's actually a pretty broad taxonomical term. Shamanism is a catchall for spiritual traditions active to this day on every continent (even in secular, modern Europe where some try to keep traditions like Bee Mastery alive) cooperating with some spiritual realm to influence the lives and especially the wellbeing of humans. Some shamans use psychotropic drugs, others furious dances and terrifying masks, and others still psychic surgeries, making real or fake incisions and sucking out impurities from a believer's body, to help people overcome anything from emotional troubles to mental illness to physical disability.
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I've spent a good amount of time puzzling in the past about how much shamans believe in their own magic, how much belief-based placebo effects are at work in seemingly miraculous cures, and what the place of shamanism is in modern life and medicine. I'm always trying to figure out just how similar shamanic experiences of spirit worlds are to my own skewered and excessively rationalized naturally altered states. And I'm endlessly fascinated by the adaptability of shamans, who tailor their traditions to fit modern sensibilities, like how ChokBar stresses shamanism's populism and its clear differentiation from organized religions (she calls it pre-religious), specifically addressing typical Western-liberal apprehensions about spirituality. And every now and then I like to get my hands dirty and see if I can open myself to a crossover experience.
But ChokBar has a warning for people like me. She was herself once a hyper-rationalist skeptic, to hear her tell it (born Larisa Koronowski, a translator for the Tuvan government for ages), dubious of the shamans who still outperformed psychologists in popular Tuvan medicine. But eventually the spirits seized her and forced her to confront another world, telling her that her name would be All and None (Chok is Tuvan for nothing, negative, while Bar is to have, affirmative). This is actually a prototypical shamanic origin story in the modern era, where most claim they accept their duties reluctantly—I can never figure out whether they believe this honestly, or whether it helps them generate trust with wary folks of similar backgrounds. And it's especially hard to tell with someone like ChokBar, who looks from a distance like a chic middle aged New Yorker, with vibrant lipstick, trendy blue frames, and a flowing peasant skirt and slimming black blouse, but whose face up close is a mask of disarming kindness and serenity.
"Shamanism is not about intellect or mind," she says. "It is about heart and body."
She goes on to talk about living in the experience and removing our social masks to explore the spirit world with honesty and an open heart. The crowd murmurs while I squirm. I'm all in for trying to strip away biases and see the world from new and hyper-honest perspectives. I'm all for the disintegration of the ego, like ChokBar advocates. But I question whether I'll ever be able to experience what the people around me claim to experience just because of my personal cosmology. Even though I'm not dismissive and like to think of myself as inquisitive and open, maybe the fact that I can't help but try to rationalize and explain everything is a fault somehow.
It gives me a sense of perverse pleasure, then, when ChokBar gives the believers a warning, too:
"Those of you who came with agendas to see power animals, drop it."
Those grasping for experiences probably won't get them, she's implying, or will just get what their minds wish to see and manufacture for themselves. It's a nice rebuke to often overly twee pop-spiritualists.
But it's also a classic shamanism move. It's fairly common, as far as I've seen in my limited experiences, for shamans to argue that because the spirits are in control they can't guarantee anything. If you didn't have a revelation, that's because your heart wasn't open and the spirits could tell, or because the spirits were interested in giving you another experience. The embrace of superhuman, predestined, and erratic agencies is delightfully un-provable, offering the perfect escape valve to forgive disappointments without eroding the faith of those who've come seeking help. It can even push some desperate for experience deeper into shamanic realms.
When ChokBar has finished talking about her experiences with shamanism and offering warnings about how to approach the remainder of the session, I stand with the others for our free dancing. ChokBar dims the lights, turns on some new-agey shamanic soft rock (it sounds a little like she gave a shaman an electric guitar then asked Sigur Rós to mix the results), and asks us to close our eyes and flail our limbs about as the music moves us. So I do, dropping my usual self-consciousness and making all efforts not to peek, checking how the middle aged women sitting on either side of me might now be reliving their 20s in this sanctioned moment of abandon.
After ten minutes, during which I can hear ChokBar shuffling around, but have no idea what she's doing, the music ceases. ChokBar tells us to unroll our yoga mats and lay atop them on our backs in what is essentially shavasana, or corpse pose. She asks us to close our eyes once more, repeating a meaningless silently mantra in our heads to help us push all other thoughts out of our heads as they arise, and begins to pound her drum, slipping in and out of rhythms she says she does not plan or understand. Some people later tell me the music became polyphonic and deafening for them, but to me it was just a constant drone on top of my fleeting thoughts.
At first, I keep thinking of my ex's hands. I'm not sure why, but the memory is very tactile. I can feel her fingers, the way they used to wind about with an insectile fluidity and precision. I push this thought out of my mind again and again because it's not something I want to think about right now. Then I see a wolf just sitting in the black field of my mind, looking at me dully.
If I have a third eye, it probably rolled a few dozen rotations at this. The wolf, especially in Turkic regions like Tuva, is such a cliché shamanic symbol that I think I must have been primed by the situation to think of it, even though I'd never associate myself with a wolf. But then again, it does make a bit of sense. I'm a man who loves to be alone—that's how I know how to live. Yet while I wish to retain my independence, I believe my greatest shortcoming to be my ever-increasing social ineptitude, which drives me to cower in the corner at parties, sometimes fleeing with my heart racing into the safety of some quiet back room. Wolves, it occurs to me, are pack hunters, social at the same time as they are solitary and calm. They are a good manifestation of the things that I wish to change in myself, even if I didn't know it at first.
Afterward, we all arise and speak to each other and ChokBar about our experiences. Most other participants had far more visceral and moving visions than my own, and of far different animals: bears, egrets, and jellyfish, to name a few. I can't help but feel that we were all conditioned to think of animals and then to overlay introspection on top of them unconsciously. I can't help but feel that this energetic experience was just a good way of stripping away some of our inhibitions by convincing us that we were in a safe space beyond the strictures of our own anxieties in the everyday world, allowing us to explore our own needs and fears honestly through symbolism. But when I speak to ChokBar, I don't ask her about this, because I don't want to pop the bubbles of so many people around me, nor do I want to get led around in the circles of shamanic reasoning to come out at a mystical version of my own explanation of this ritual, nor do I feel inclined to pick a fight with a woman who seems so honestly concerned and kind.
Instead, I tell her that I saw a wolf, and that I think I know what this power animal represents, but that I'm not sure how to achieve the confidence that I lack. I ask her if she or any of her spirits know what's standing in my way. She tells me that I don't love myself. And she's right—I know that my distaste for myself, bordering on self-hatred, is at the root of most of my numerous character flaws. I just don't know how to overcome it, and ChokBar has no answers on that point save to give me a line straight from the mouth of Yoda: don't try to love yourself; love yourself.
This doesn't help me all that much. Mainly, I suspect, because I can't believe fully in my experience or in ChokBar, so this insight doesn't land profoundly in my heart and soul. Maybe if I had belief, if I'd been able to inhabit the experience, I'd be able to take this call for self-love onboard and change who I am. But I can't, because I'm now convinced that ChokBar's serenity and flexibility are a mirror. I've always thought that shamanism is the traditional means by which we break down the messy artifices of self and dissect the pieces, taking this deconstruction as a nearly divine experience and so absorbing it wholeheartedly. This experience just confirms it for me.
To those who can embrace it, it's probably more useful than the highly self-aware and self-explaining field of psychology. But to someone like me, it just feels like I'm grasping at potential out of my reach. I feel like I've robbed myself as an avenue for healing through my mild but insistent rationalism. I feel like my loving embrace of modernity may have swindled me out of just as much as it's given me. I feel like maybe ChokBar's living proof that humans need to be tricked, or to be capable of being tricked, with benevolence in order to navigate the world around us. And I really want to know how I can trick myself into a space of action and transformation.
Maybe, I think as I depart the theater to a now darkened and vacant 17th Street, I should look into trying some ayahuasca. I hear that stuff's great at breaking down even the sternest barriers, bringing even the direst skeptics into a purportedly magical spiritual realm. But for now, I'll see what I can to do for myself with the memory of a self-created spirit wolf dancing in my head.
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