Ecoshamanism: A Talk with James Endredy
I hold the most archaic values on earth; the fertility of the soil, the magic of animals, the power-vision in solitude, the terrifying initiation and rebirth; the love and ecstasy of the dance, the common work of the tribe. –Gary Snyder
Night. You crawl into a grave dug with your own muscles and anointed with your own sweat. For months you have prepared to bury yourself in the earth so you can die and be reborn. Your stomach feels queasy and your head cloudy, but you know the living Earth has called you down and there is nowhere you would rather be. You will spend the next twelve hours in a dark tomb smelling of pine needles and wet leaves, surrounded by soil, worms, branches, and thousands of insects whose names you will never know. Your only link to the world above is a small hole through which you get precious oxygen and a glimpse of a small fire in the distance.
You are participating in the Embrace of the Earth rite, part of James Endredy’s emerging tradition of ecoshamanism – ecological shamanism. Shamanism is perhaps the oldest religious practice in the world, and involves contacting spirits in trance for purposes of healing, acquiring power, and mediating between the human world and the larger visionary, ecological field. The word “shaman” comes from the Tungus language of Siberia and means “one who knows,” while the word root “eco” comes from the Greek oikos, which means “house.” For James Endredy, the practice of shamanism is incomplete unless it includes a reciprocal, familiar relationship with our primordial home, the green earth. Endredy’s vision of a modern, relevant ecoshamanism emphasizes the importance of the local landscape, the significance of everyday lifestyle choices, and the possibility of developing a genuine rapport with the spirits of nature.
Endredy, a writer, activist, and teacher based in Sedona, Arizona, is a man with a big mission: to help you save the world. He has spent his adult life studying the earth-based spiritual traditions of such Mesoamerican tribes as the Wirrarika and the Huichol and working to make the essence of their practices available to denizens of the modern, capitalist world. Endredy founded the Earthspirit Foundation to help people become aware of the spiritual significance of the natural world and support them as they create new rituals and durable culture in connection and service to the earth. In his books Ecoshamanism and Earthwalks for Body and Spirit, Endredy discusses a variety of transformative practices and ceremonies that fulfill modern psychological and spiritual needs while fostering meaningful relationship with a wider ecological tribe.
It is Endredy’s belief that much of our modern depression, confusion, and violence comes from our lack of intimate connection with the multidimensional web of life that surrounds and sustains us, what Mayan shaman Martin Prechtel calls our “indigenous soul.” Prechtel explains, “Like all indigenous people today, the indigenous soul of the modern person has either been banished to some far reaches of the dream world or is under direct attack by the modern mind.” Endredy celebrates this indigenous soul, and believes that, consciously or unconsciously, all people crave “direct communication with the living intelligence of the natural world.” For Endredy, ecological awareness and sustainable lifestyle choices are nothing less than religious issues. He believes that spiritual energies suffuse the natural world, and sees the natural world as the ultimate guru, providing a profound, exhilarating curriculum “not dependent on human concerns or concepts.” Endredy suggests that people desperately need simple, basic encounters with the natural environment in which they live and usually take for granted, not more technology, fanatical ideology, or exotic encounters with other cultures. He guides people to galvanize their deadened perceptions and sensations and recognize the wild yet humanizing energies that exist all around them, especially in their own neighborhoods and local landscapes.
Endredy teaches a series of exercises he calls counterpractices, which are intended to break the spell of the techno-consumer dream of control and denial, and open awareness to something more subtle and deep than the usual thought patterns coursing through the anxious, grasping mind. Counterpractices are not quick, overnight fixes for our personal or collective woes, but small steps consciously taken to disrupt the relentless cultural pressures to distract ourselves, consume more things, and construct an ever-more solid and aggressive ego identity. Counterpractices are the foil of high-speed, image-focused, consumer culture. They ask us to make meaningful sacrifices: to shed layers of possessions and beliefs we don’t truly need so we can feel our ineluctable connection with the infinite, mycelial network of life. At times, with enough practice, we may be lucky enough to feel the universe as a vibrating, conscious whole, recognize (re-cognize) our mind stream as a thread in a larger, universal fabric, and sense our identity with the mystical flesh body of Gaia.
One simple counterpractice involves sitting quietly and still in a tree ten feet off the ground for hours at a time. This ritual gives people the chance to gain first-hand knowledge about the life of a forest and regain a vibrant perception of depth lost from spending too much time looking at screens or through a windshield. Sitting in a tree may seem boring when compared to the razzmatazz of television, computers, ipods, and the glossy temptations of the urban landscape. But sitting in a tree, even for a few minutes, can lead to a profound sense of connection with something real and a remarkable insight into one’s own psyche (which interpenetrates deeply with the psyche of the earth). It takes humility to try to connect with a tree, but troubled times demand radical solutions in which we go to the primal roots of our perception and knowledge. The radical essence of all Endredy’s counterpractices is to break our usual modes of awareness in which we think ceaselessly and feel ourselves to be separate from everyone and everything else.
Ecoshamanic counterpractice encourages us to see through the perspective of entire systems, and even to regard objects and patterns from the perspective of nature itself. At the most profound level, we are not isolated, separate selves, but are related in countless ways to other people, to our ancestors, and to the creatures, objects, and vegetation with whom we share the planet. The “Seeing in Systems” counterpractice challenges us to look closely at the myriad objects of our everyday life to see what they truly are. For example, when we buy an apple, we spend time investigating where exactly the apple came from, who grew it, and under what conditions. We learn not only about the orchard where the apple tree grows, but also about the long-distance, agribusiness system of transportation that brought the fruit to our grocery store or market. We research the wax that that covers the apples to make them keep their shine, and find out what chemicals, if any, were part of the apple's growth cycle.
Endredy’s systems analysis of his own tennis shoes revealed a long, meandering trail of goods, labor, and transportation. The uppers of the shoes came from Texas cows and were shipped to Korea for tanning, where they were treated with calcium hydroxide and other strong processing chemicals. The cushioning, he found, was made of ethylene vinyl acetate foam derived from “synthetic chemicals distilled from Saudi petroleum refined in Korea.” The Indonesian workers who finally assembled the shoes made about 25 cents an hour. The purpose of this inquiry is to take a journey with the objects and processes of our lives to see that even our most simple actions ripple out widely across the world. This sort of counterpractice requires some time and effort, but results in a finely tuned sense of how large systems function and the ways in which we are inseparable from our environment. We can’t truly change our way of thinking and living and connect more deeply with the world unless we feel how multifaceted and interdependent even our simplest life habits and possessions are.
The modern world is in the grips of some kind of mass hypnosis or madness – what Endredy calls the techno-consumer wasteland – imprisoned in the human-centered realm and drowning in the hungry ghost fantasy of endless growth. Technology and consumer capitalism have brought us many gifts, but have also brought the curse of disconnection from our true nature. This deep, dehumanizing wound – simultaneously psychological and physical – is much larger than the problems of climate change or polluted lakes. This collective trauma comes from the loss of wilderness, countless species, and open spaces in the city as well as the loss of vital soul connection with the wide world and of what has been most primary and instinctual in our feeling and imagination for the last hundred thousand years. The root of this ecological trauma and crisis isn’t just ignorant human behavior, but also the skewed Cartesian conception that matter and the natural world are dead and without spiritual importance, and that soul is only found within humans and not out in the world. Western science, religion, and philosophy have long derided tribal, animistic ways of knowing as primitive, inferior, and superstitious. This arrogant, anthropocentric worldview of the modern world has led to the loss of vital, primordial forms of knowledge and awareness that we desperately need to reawaken if we are to survive the next century with our souls and planet intact.
The Embrace of the Earth ceremony, in which participants spend an entire night in a grave they dig themselves, amplifies spiritual and sensory awareness and provides gut-level experience of the physically invigorating and psychically restorative energies of the earth. This modern version of the archaic death-rebirth initiation, described as “a combination vision quest and full-body meditation,” provides participants with the chance to clarify their life intentions and purge the past while opening to new possibilities for the future. Endredy explains that we are taught our whole lives to strive to be big, assertive, successful, and self-reliant, but that we need to become small and humble if we are to open to the “flowing force or stream of power that spontaneously arises during prolonged entry into heightened states of consciousness.” The Embrace of Earth ceremony encourages people to face their fundamental limitations, unlock their forgotten edges and abilities, and surrender to the more-than-human powers upon which they truly rest. After undergoing this ordeal, one participant noted, “So even as I had the sensation of losing myself into the earth—in effect, dying—the peace I was experiencing and the feeling of being transformed into the living soil made the transition from life to death seem more like a transition from life to life.”
According to Endredy, connecting with nature is not just important for outdoors enthusiasts or hippies. He contends that healthy identity development requires “prolonged exposure” to the elements of sun, fire, water, air, and earth. He makes many practical suggestions for connecting with these vital forces of life. We can reduce the time we watch TV or surf the Internet and replace it with pleasures such as rubbing the bark of a tree, sniffing a decaying maple leaf, or exploring our neighborhoods and picking up trash with our senses alive. We might learn about local flora and fauna of our local bioregion. If we live in the city we can learn about the diet of squirrels or the nesting patterns of crows. We can investigate where our sewage goes after we flush the toilet. We can make a shrine to earth spirits in our backyard or our local park. We could go alone into the wilderness to meditate and dream with other living beings. We can make our own gourd rattles and bone whistles. We may speak to the elders in the area about the way our neighborhood looked when they were younger. We can go on a long, walking pilgrimage to an important natural place and sing a song to the landscape. We will see that devotion to the earth calls us to perform service tasks: to give and complete compassionate cycles of exchange. With this attitude, says Endredy, we “experience birds, trees, rivers, mountains, and even stones as living and communicative presences.”
Endredy warns, “The spirits of nature that rule our world will not wait much longer for us to change our ways.” The lifestyle changes of ecoshamanic practice may in and of themselves seem insignificant when we consider the frightening scope of global pressures and crises. But without fully re-animating our experience of everyday life and grounding ourselves in the ensouled, sensory world, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to effectively transmit the urgent message of individual and collective transformation. In order to realize and plant the seeds of a new worldview, our bodies and souls need more than the human world. They crave the ancestral wisdom of the earth, the sensation of hands plunged into rich soil, a felt kinship with the land and creatures all around, and nighttime in which they only hear the rush of wind in tall grass. Ecoshamanism calls for passionate devotion to the land and the spirits of nature, no matter what happens to our present societal structures. Of course, we can’t do this important work alone or solve global problems through simple willpower or force. But we can be willing conduits for archaic yet fresh sources of intelligence that are greater than our own limited reason. Endredy reminds us, “The only powers stronger than man’s technologies of mass destruction are the forces of nature and the underlying spirit of life that animates all life on earth.”
Interview with James Endredy
RS: How did you become interested in the world of shamanism, sustainable living, and earth-centered spirituality?
JE: Awareness of death and strong bonds with Nature fostered as a child were probably the two main circumstances that led to my relationship to what I now call ecoshamanism. Growing up I had thousands of acres of wilderness as my backyard, so I spent most of my time outdoors. Although I didn’t consciously realize it at that time, I was having intimate experiences with, and being directly taught by, the Spirits of Nature. These spirits manifested as trees, birds, deer, snakes, and everything around me that was wild. That was an amazing and happy time in my life.
Then, when I was 14 my best friend, who happened to be my father, developed brain cancer and passed away. I was devastated and began my life-long journey to find the meaning for my life and why we are all here. It was in this period that I started studying books and practices of many of the world’s religions and spiritual traditions. But the demands of growing up in modern society, such as school, work, family, etc. slowly started to sever my deep connection with Nature. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I experienced a series of near-death experiences that woke me back up to my connection with the Spirits of Nature. As I look back now I realize clearly that those near-death experiences (an almost deadly car crash, a rock climbing fall, an extreme dose of peyote, among others) were the Spirits way of waking me up to my true path in life.
I was led to Mexico and for five years worked with Victor Sanchez, a Mexican shamanic researcher and anti-anthropologist. Through Victor’s numerous connections I was able to experience the shamanic worldview of different indigenous tribes and I began my 20 year relationship with the Wirrarika shamans who live hidden deep in the Western Sierra Madre. Living for long periods of time with the Wirrarika completely altered my view of the world. And it was during my first two week long pilgrimage to the sacred desert of the Wirrarika that the spirits of the Grandfather Fire and the Grandmother Growth spoke to me and gave me the task of helping to awaken our industrialized society from the hypnotic state caused by losing our connection with the Spirits of Nature and creating a reality based strictly on human affairs. Since then I have dedicated my life to developing shamanic techniques and practices for people in our society to realize a numinous connection with the Spirits that then encourages reciprocity, and healthier, more sustainable lifestyles.
What kinds of knowledge and practices from indigenous cultures and shamans are most important for us to consider in this tumultuous, unbalanced age?
It is important not to simply copy the practices of indigenous shamans; that’s the first thing. My indigenous shaman mentors live without roads, plumbing, or electricity. Their lifestyles revolve around farming and hunting. And so do their rituals. But most of us are not farmers and so our shamanic practices need to pertain to our lifestyles or else they have little meaning. Now, the shamanic worldview however, is open to everyone whether you live in a primal or modern reality. It is the shamanic worldview, a worldview of interconnection, reciprocity, balance, equality, and one that doesn’t place human concerns above all others, that can help us to solve many of our current crises.
What are small, modest exercises and practices you recommend for people who want to learn about the ecoshamanic worldview and lifestyle?
Because the current modern worldview is so radically different from an ecoshamanic worldview, many of the practices I suggest to start with have to do with counteracting our habitual modes of thinking and acting. I call these counter-practices. There are 18 counter-practices explained in the third chapter of my book Ecoshamanism. Some of them include practices for altering perception by extending the depth of our auditory, visual, and intuitive senses, engaging in the flow of Nature, spending time in an impermanent structure, rewiring the cognitive maps in our mind, and counter-practices involving sustenance, our physical body, and food.
Along with counter-practice I always suggest working directly with the sacred forces of creation that rule our world: Fire, Air, Water, Soil, Sun, Moon. There are many shamanic practices that we as modern people can engage in that enable us to experience a direct connection with the complex energies that sustain life, but that we too often simply take for granted. Fostering a relationship with these energies can significantly boost our physical, mental, environmental, psychic, and spiritual perception and awareness.
Can you talk about the Earthspirit Foundation and the kind of work you do?
We are still in the process of forming this non-profit foundation which is dedicated to teach, revive, and preserve earth-centered spirituality and sustainable culture. The initial goals of the organization are to:
• Offer educational opportunities so that people can experience and share the healing and personal growth applications of Ecological Shamanism.
• Develop programs specifically to help revive and preserve indigenous knowledge, culture, sacred sites, and languages throughout the world.
• Continue research into how ancient earth-centered practices can help resolve modern crises, and ways that modern people can reciprocate by helping heal indigenous cultures from encroachment and assimilation.
• To get involved in this project, people can email earthspirit [at] jamesendredy [dot] com.
Could you tell us a little about your soon-to-be published book, Beyond 2012?
There is little doubt that the human enterprise is at a crucial juncture in its development. Many of our greatest minds are now looking to the time period leading up to the year 2012 as maybe the most significant age we have ever seen. Scientists are calling this the “tipping point”, many religions and prophesies point to this as the end of the world, or at least the end of the world as we know it. I was invited by my publisher to write a book on this topic. Although I do begin the book by discussing the science and prophesies relating to the 2012 time period, the main crux of the book is shamanic in nature because I felt while writing the book that our human perceptions and ideas were not supplying adequate answers to our problems. So I consult throughout the book with Grandfather Fire and Grandmother Growth. The insights and knowledge gained from them are not only surprising but also very positive as long as we can wake up from the hypnotism of society based on never-ending economic growth. It is an uplifting and hopeful book that also includes many shamanic practices that people can do to wake up and begin to flow with creation.
Some native and non-native people express concern about non Native American people using native spiritual traditional practices and not giving anything back. How do you feel about this issue and how can non-native people create a modern shamanism that is respectful of indigenous traditions?
This is an important subject that could be discussed and debated ad nauseam. Concisely, I would make a couple important points. The so-called “Native American” people that are my friends, teachers, and colleagues, do not want to be called Native American because it is insulting to them. Their people were here way before this land started to be called America. “Americans” decimated their cultures and they want no part in having the name American to describe them. The way that we can help these people is by supporting and creating efforts to help them preserve their traditions and even to revive lost traditions.
Every indigenous tribe has unique spiritual practices based mostly on the geographic location of the tribe and the unique history of the tribe. If we are not a part of that tribe why would we want to use their practices? The answer for many people is that we have no traditional practices of our own so we search elsewhere for practices that give meaning to our lives. What I suggest to people, and what I have been doing for more than 20 years now, is to create together spiritual and shamanic practices that are appropriate to who We are, where We live, and what We want to accomplish. Have I learned from indigenous shamans and spiritual leaders? Absolutely. But what they ultimately taught me is that We create our own reality. We have to create our own practices from our own vision, intuition, and connection to the numinous. It is time for us to grow as a species, share knowledge and understanding, show tolerance for each other’s views and traditions, and create together a new holistic paradigm for humanity’s future.
Are there any other ideas about ecoshamanism and earth spirituality that you would like to share with Reality Sandwich readers?
Our task right now is to get back into the flow of creation. What that means at a practical level is this: Ask yourself throughout your day this question – Is what I’m doing right now flowing with creation or am I involved in perpetuating anti-creation?
We flow with creation when we live lightly, sustainably, and when we use our energy to work at solutions that can help our society transform into flowing with creation. We anti-create when we support in our work or in our purchases the anti-creative actions of taking from the earth at a faster rate than the earth can create. Harvesting trees, oil, and coal at a rate faster than they can be created are a few big examples. Anti-creation is a cornerstone of our modern civilization. But it doesn’t have to be. The most important thing I can share is that the time for blame is over. I believe we humans have developed technologies of anti-creation so that we can now evolve into more kind and caring people. This is our initiation into adulthood. I believe we will pass through it. Do you?Tweet