Over the past 18 years, it has been my very good fortune to meet, study with, travel and live with South American shamans from Brazil and Peru. During that time, I have witnessed the steady raveling of shamanism and its outreach beyond traditional communities and boundaries, and have mused about what shamanism is becoming.
The various mind/body disciplines that emerge over time from their secluded mountain eyries or forest enclaves always morph when they hit new cultures. Theravada Buddhist meditation practice is different now in the West than it has always been in Southeast Asia, and it flourishes and blooms in a manner that is more accessible for us here. Yoga, in its multifarious forms, has emerged like the thousand-headed Vishnu in a multitude of new forms, from a practice rooted in guru/disciple ashram tradition to something available at the local YMCA. In some cases, the changes that occur dilute the practice and frankly dumb it down. Yoga that is all about a flat tummy and a nice butt misses the point of body/mind/spirit integration and realization entirely. Yet many people initially discover yoga in a book or class (or are discovered by yoga), and go on to develop deep and vibrant life-transforming practices.
Any practice or path that is viable will change over time, or will eventually be relegated to the dust-bins of history. Each person who takes up yoga, meditation, or shamanic journeying makes an impression on the practice itself, and that impression modifies the practice, at least to some extent. Those who engage in mystic practices discover new gems, angles, nuances and ideas that percolate and add to the mix. This is life, constantly growing, shifting. Those who practice yoga in urban condominiums or drink ayahuasca in the deep canyons of New York City are engaging in methods and ways that have stood the tests of time, in places that these practices never previously occurred. Is it okay to drink ayahuasca in an apartment building and later on take the subway home? It's a far cry from a ceremony in a rustic malocca in the jungle. Yet many people experience profound healings and transformation. So none of us can say exactly how far this can go. Perhaps someday every astronaut will carry a thermos of ready-to-drink San Pedro cactus for extra-orbital tripping. This could happen.
So in a way, Hamilton Souther's Modern Shamanism is an inevitability, born out of shamanic tradition, yet shaped and sculpted by a lanky Southern Californian who just happens to be a talented and well known ayahuascero. Souther ventured into the Peruvian Amazon in 2001, studied with two very capable shamans to become an ayahuasca shaman in his own right, and the founder of the much-celebrated Blue Morpho Ayahuasca Retreat Center on the Nauta Road, outside of the Peruvian Amazon city of Iquitos. With the able aid of his partner in all things shamanic, the eclectic and multi-talented Malcolm Rossiter, Souther has developed Modern Shamanism, which includes a current tour of in-person workshops, though it's mostly rooted in online course work. His claim is that through the study of Modern Shamanism, you can create a sacred space in cyberspace for practice using your computer, develop real traditional shamanic skills, and re-enchant your life. Pretty heady stuff.
Hamilton exudes confidence and sincerity, and his experience cred is undeniable. He has led over a thousand ayahausca ceremonies, and is fond of saying "I've never left anyone behind." Good thing. Nobody wants to be lost in the mysterium tremendum. I caught up with Hamilton recently in New York City at one of his weekend Modern Shamanism workshops, where he explained the course to me, and where I experienced first-hand this new expression of an archaic tradition.
Hamilton's goal seems to be to create a practice based on shamanism that accommodates modern life, a practice that is stripped of traditional cultural trappings. "The idea of Modern Shamanism is to see if we can birth a spirituality rooted in modern society, and based on the themes of today. To get to that, I had to look at the core architecture of shamanism and how that is expressed in different traditional societies. That expression is that people are not physical beings first, but spiritual beings, that the ability to communicate spiritually is within all of us, that it doesn't require tremendous extension beyond the normal to make that kind of connection, that spirituality isn't some extra-ordinary concept but something that is common in everyday life, in essence because we are originally spiritual. The physical and spiritual worlds coexist simultaneously, the nature of our minds and psyches is inherently spiritual, and if you look at different societies, they take that core spirituality, and then create practices and traditions through the trappings of their own societies. I realized that it would be possible, if you take the core of shamanism to any culture, that people would be able to create their own shamanic tradition."
I wondered how Hamilton, as an ayahuasca shaman of repute, would transition into a non-ayahuasca-based practice. "At Blue Morpho in our practice of traditional Amazonian shamanism, we have always looked at shamanism and the healing practices of shamanism as being independent of ayahuasca. When we made reference to the medicine, or La Medicina, it was something, a channel, found within ayahuasca itself. So with Modern Shamanism, the idea is to utilize the innate healing power found within ayahuasca, independent of the plants themselves, and to transcend both geographic boundaries and legal issues surrounding the use of ayahuasca."
What about the workshop? "If you come to the entire workshop on Friday and Saturday, Friday is an overview of Modern Shamanism, and a little bit about how the course works and how it can start to transform your life. Then on Saturday we get into fundamentals of the practice. So even if people don't necessarily wish to continue studying further, in the workshop they are presented with specific life tools that are immediately applicable upon leaving the workshop."
When you talk about transformation, what does that mean to you? "A transformative experience is something that's going to take you from the entire foundation that you consider to be your normal reality and then add something to it that changes that definition of normal, everyday reality. In terms of Modern Shamanism, that intent is set by the practitioner, which is you."
I showed up at the Modern Shamanism workshop with my wife Zoe and three friends, all of whom were keen to try out this new approach. One of the first surprises was the introduction of Wendy Souther, a willowy singer and yoga instructor who is newly married to Hamilton. As he puts it "I'd been seeing visions of her for years. She showed up at Blue Morpho, we fell in love, and got married." That was in late August of this year, 2011. Wendy made introductions for the workshop and hosted parts of it. The Southers are on their marital shakedown cruise, figuring out the interplay between them as Modern Shamanism rolls its way across the United States. She is Shakti to his Siva, and they are working out their own lila, divine play.
In presenting workshops that promise integration and transformation, Hamilton is a long way from his camp in Peru. In New York alone on any weekend, you can find Tibetan lamas, accomplished yogis, mystics, self-help gurus, shamans and well-seasoned presenters who make similar promises, and who deliver very well. There is nothing new about Modern Shamanism in terms of its promise of integration and transformation, but there is something very new and exciting indeed about how it delivers. And Hamilton, who has received lavish media exposure for his ayahuasca work at Blue Morpho, is unquestionably the lynchpin of the whole thing. His success and expertise in his own shamanic work give backbone to the credibility of the promises made on behalf of Modern Shamanism. Additionally, he can draw upon a deep well of people who have attended ten years of shamanic tours at Blue Morpho, and thus has a built-in audience.
The introductory workshop in New York took those of us who attended through several exercises that did indeed provide us with delightful tools for accessing trance states and modifying our consciousness quickly and easily. Hamilton and Wendy flowed back and forth in their presentations, and even though a yoga part of Modern Shamanism seemed hastily stitched on at the end of the workshop, it was a welcome addition and went very nicely. One of the best parts was when the newlyweds sang mysterious and spell-binding icaros -- ayahuasca songs. Hamilton is a seasoned and nuanced spirit man when he sings, and Wendy has an amazing voice. Is there a CD in the future? One can only hope.
The Modern Shamanism workshop was satisfying and worthwhile, and delivered on its promises of enabling us to experience various states quickly, and providing practical, take-away tools. As a set-up for enrollment in the online work, it definitely stirred great interest among attendees, most of whom eagerly signed up for the cyber course. Hamilton is confident in this work, and offers the first six weeks free, no payment info required. I found that a clean and high way to go. If people get the results they seek, they will continue on for a full year of online immersion.
Hamilton Souther is wisely not hanging his hopes entirely on cyber course work. He is also offering Modern Shamanism immersion intensives in Peru at Blue Morpho, with one ayahuasca ceremony included to rocket attendees into the shamanic spirit landscape with the full aid of the plants. As someone who does not wish to spend one more second on a computer than necessary to complete my income-bearing work and correspondence, this appeals to me. But two of my friends have dived into the deep end of the online course, and are very excited about what they are learning.
Will Modern Shamanism gain a foothold in the body/mind/spirit transformational landscape? I'd say yes to that. The methods are sound, the approach is well thought-out, and the times demand easily accessible work of this nature for those who either cannot or will not travel to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca, puke in a bucket and wrestle with spirits. In the great and vast uncontrolled experiment that is human life on planet earth, Modern Shamanism is bound to find its place and its adherents.
For more information, go to ModernShamanism.org .
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