Shaman, Scientist – Scientist, Shaman

Last week my wife Judy and I had flown to Albuquerque, New Mexico to visit my son David and my daughter-in-law, Candyce.  After spending an enjoyable weekend with them, we drove up to Taos to see the Earthship project, an ingenious and practical way of building partially earth-buried and solar powered dwellings that is one of the waves of the future.  Making our way south again on the 16th, we stopped in the main plaza in Taos for lunch and looking around, we weren’t in a hurry, where Judy bought some gifts for our children in a small store that specialized in local crafts.  While she was looking at various items, I was fascinated by the many handheld drums, presumably crafted by local Indians, many of them with particular animals, a buffalo, a bear, an eagle, a beaver, e.g., painted on them.  They were the style of drums that are used frequently by shamans all over the world, held by grasping leather cords on the back, leaving the other hand free to beat the drum with a drum stick.  I have one of those styles of drum in my study, although I almost never use it, bought after attending some of Michael Harner’s seminars on Core Shamanism back in the 70s, when I thought I might want to try practicing some shamanic techniques.  Harner’s  1980 The Way of the Shaman:  A Guide to Power and Healing is the classic guide to the essentials of shamanism. 

I was fascinated by the various drums, and repeatedly had an urge to pick one up and tap out a brief rhythm on one of them, as a gesture of respect to the shamanic world view, as a gesture of respect to the almost miraculous thing Harner has accomplished in reviving shamanism in the modern world, and to respect the feeling I have occasionally had that if my life had taken a very different course, probably in a quite different cultural setting, I might have become a “shaman,” rather than a scientist.  I wanted to do that, but at the same time felt it was probably quite inappropriate.  If I was going to make a gesture of respect to the shamanic worldview, I should do it in a proper state of mind and in the proper ceremonial way, not semi-publicly and casually in a store.  In the end I didn’t do it, my wife finished buying her gifts, and we continued on our way south.

This occasional feeling that I could’ve been a shaman is something I almost never talk about to people, as it is, to put it mildly, not part of the image we scientists cultivate!  Scientists are cool, detached, rational people, usually operating within a completely materialistic worldview.  Shamans represent what is seen as a more “primitive” worldview, one where higher and lower spirits and spirit realms are an important part of life, and the shaman is “gifted” to sometimes journey into those spirit worlds and be able to affect things that then have effects in our world, such as healing the sick, finding lost objects, etc.  As a scientist I have  been quite successful in my scientific career.  Now, largely retired, I might be able to get away with expressing an intellectual interest in shamanism, or even of having dabbled in it slightly by attending some of Harner’s workshops, but if I had admitted anything like that earlier in my career I would’ve faced even more rejection and irrational opposition than I did for daring to be interested in the paranormal – and there was quite enough of that as it was!

We returned to our home in the Bay Area a few days later, and what was waiting for me in the accumulated mail?  Michael Harner’s new book, “Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality.”  Looking at the postmark, it had been mailed the day before my experience of thinking about shamanism and wanting to do a little drum work, so it was on the way while I was looking at the drums…

Harner Caves book cover


Coincidence is a major category in orthodox science work.  It’s certainly true that some things coincide for no particular reason and we are mistaken to think there’s a connection when there really is none, and it’s also a convenient intellectual excuse for being able to ignore events or experiences that don’t make sense to you and don’t fit into your ordinary worldview.  I don’t think the word coincidence is used much by shamans, who see the world as much more connected, particularly in ways that are real but invisible to those of us limited to ordinary conscious perception.

So maybe it was just a coincidence that I got thinking and feeling strongly about shamanism the day after Harner’s new book was mailed to me, and perhaps it was a Coincidence… A reminder of sorts.

Indeed I just remembered that three nights after that I was talking to a new acquaintance about psychic experiences, and mentioning that while sometimes I can imagine why a particular psychic experience was meaningful to a particular person, given who they were, their needs, interests, etc., sometimes I could imagine no clear meaning of that sort, and I suspected some psychic experiences were simply the universe’s way of “rattling our cage,” deliberately grabbing our attention and puzzling us as a way of reminding us that we get too settled into too narrow a worldview, we should remember to widen our view.  So perhaps this was specifically meaningful because Michael Harner had been thinking of me just the day before mailing the book, which “telepathically” got me thinking about shamanism – he wrote a very nice personal dedication in the book to me – and/or maybe the universe was indeed reminding me that my worldview was getting a little too narrow.

Among scientist colleagues who I think are pretty stuck in a materialistic worldview I would stress the ordinary coincidence approach in talking about this, but in terms of my personal growth and satisfaction, it’s more interesting to think about the possible shamanic aspects and hints here.  (I noticed, as I watched my own psychological state that the word “possible” popped up in the previous sentence  because the scientist in me likes to be cautious about how I interpret things.  Not a bad characteristic all in all, but dangerous when it becomes automatic.)

Now I’m looking forward to reading a very interesting book!

Will I move more toward shaman than scientist?  I doubt it.  In this lifetime, the scientist route has worked out too well for me and I feel satisfied in what I’ve been able to contribute to building some bridges between genuine science and genuine spirituality, but who knows what the next lifetime might bring?

And then there’s a whole other level where some scientists are already filling aspects of a traditional shaman role.  I don’t have time to discuss that here, but I think I played it strongly in 1993 when I was asked to give a lecture on science and religion at the Second World Parliament of Religion in Chicago (Tart, 1993).  My wife had mentioned to me that it would probably be a very colorful event, with representatives from all the world’s religions there in their traditional costumes.  That set me thinking, what was the archetypal scientist “costume” I should wear?  What “holy icons” and symbols?  It was very interesting to note the audience reactions when I stepped on to the stage to lecture wearing a white lab coat, carrying a clipboard, with an identification badge clipped to the lapel of my lab coat and a calculator in my other hand…


Reference:  Tart, C. World Parliament of superstition?  Scientific evidence for a basic reality to the spiritual.  Second World Parliament of Religion, Chicago, September 3, 1993.


  1. Hi

    I always wanted to be a shaman too but found myself to be a bit too rational to even begin… I tried to study Shamanism in the early 90s – but ended up reading Altered States instead 🙂 .


    I think on the contrary that people are mistaken to think that is no connection between things when really there is one. 🙂


    1. (of course, I am also somewhat of a fan of David Bohm’s “Science, Order and Creativity” and “Causality and Chance in Modern Physics”)

    2. Becoming a shaman is very difficult in contemporary society, because we have so many beliefs, backed up by important people, that shamanism and any kind of psychic practice is all nonsense. You have to have strong personal motivation to work on it in spite of that.

      I recall the first time I attended one of Michael Harner’s workshops on basic shamanism. As he was telling us various things to image, I was analyzing them, criticizing them internally, but then I thought “I’m here to try to experience something of the nature of shamanism, not to prove to myself that I am a clever thinker. So I think I’ll just agree with myself that I am a brilliant thinker, but I can afford to take a vacation for a little while now, and if I want to tear all this work to intellectual shreds, I can do it after this session is over.” I often give similar advice on various experiential work I do with people, as well as continuing to use it myself, and it can be very helpful.

  2. Very interesting info !Perfect just what I was looking for! “If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.” by Rotarian.

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