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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Machine Age: Gary Daniel mans the EURO, the machine he invented to alter consciousness, while partner Debra Corrington enjoys a brief shamanic respite.

Enter the Shaman

Strange journeys on the edge of the new frontier

By R. V. Scheide

When I was 17, I had a dream in which I forgot my own name. A question bobbed to the surface--who are you?--and just like that, all sense of what is commonly referred to as identity or the self vanished. I heard my name called, but did not recognize it. I saw my own face, but it was unfamiliar. The sounds and images faded into an infinite void from which no frame of reference could be drawn, self or otherwise. I had ceased to exist. Yet the sense of existence persisted. I instinctively understood that what was once me was now an indivisible part of this existence. This was how life would go on. The instant I pondered how I could possibly know this, since I had ceased to exist, I woke up.

I've never forgotten that dream, and the memory of it has served me well. When I read French existentialist Jean Paul Sartre's assertion that "nothingness lies coiled within being like a worm" in his classic philosophical text Being and Nothingness, I knew exactly what he meant. Jung's collective unconsciousness? Been there. Nietzsche's eternal return? Done that. All of these examples seem like valid interpretations of my experience.

But was my experience valid?

Until relatively recently in the Western world, the answer was no. Back in Galileo's day, 400 or so years ago, dreams, hallucinations, souls, spirits and other metaphysical phenomena were cast out as objects of legitimate scientific inquiry by the Church, which didn't want anyone else cutting in on the God business. What originally evolved out of religious intolerance--scientific method--ironically morphed into its own dogmatic secular religion, nowhere moreso than in the medical sciences. If it can't be measured with instruments-- and so far, no one has built a device capable of detecting, say, a soul--it doesn't exist, as far as Western medicine is concerned. We're living in a material world.


Enter the shaman. For thousands of years, individuals with specialized knowledge of both the natural and the supernatural--sometimes referred to derogatorily as witch doctors, wizards, warlocks and witches by us moderns--have practiced the healing arts. From indigenous tribes in North and South America to practitioners of 3,000-year-old traditional Chinese medicine, such healers approach health problems from physical as well as spiritual perspectives. Now the West, blinded by science for a half a millennia, is finally catching on. Shamanism now pervades everything from complementary medicine to quantum physics. It may even contain the meaning of life.

Since the 1960s, anthropologists like Michael Harner, founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Mill Valley and author of The Way of the Shaman, have helped reintroduce the Western world to the shamanic healing traditions of our distant past. These traditions, still practiced by intact indigenous tribes and other non-Western cultures around the world, take a decidedly different view on reality; namely, that there are at least two sets: "ordinary reality," which we experience in our normal waking state, and "nonordinary reality," which occurs in dreams or induced trances.

"One of the distinguishing characteristics of the shamanic practitioner is the ability to move back and forth at will between these realities with discipline and purpose in order to heal and help others," writes Harner in his article "Science, Spirits and Shamanism." It seems that my dream of 27 years ago qualifies as a quasi-shamanic experience: I crossed into nonordinary reality and returned with knowledge that has proven quite useful to me in ordinary reality.

Unlike Western scientific method, shamanism validates such experiences, believing them to be the stuff that ordinary reality is made of. The shamanic technique of flipping back and forth between realities has proven to be a powerful metaphorical tool for understanding diverse complexities ranging from interpersonal relationships to quantum mechanics. Its use has gone decidedly mainstream. The Four Agreements by San Rafael author Don Miguel Ruiz, who trained as a Nagual shaman in the Toltec tradition of his native southern Mexico, remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years.

From Harner to Ruiz and beyond, there is no shortage of shamans in the North Bay. Despite a reputation as the woo-woo capital of the planet, more than a few genuine masters are in our midst. Some of these practitioners guide the curious through group ceremonies that emulate Native American shamanic tradition, combining dance, percussion and chanting to create a trancelike experience. Others take Harner's "discipline and purpose" to the limit.

Dr. Gary Daniel, a Santa Rosa-based motivation and behavioral specialist with 20 years of experience and Ph.Ds in hypnotherapy, hypnotic anesthesiology and transpersonal psychology, approaches shamanism from a more Western perspective, merging sound, light and computer technology with shamanic healing traditions to create a new modality of treatment: techno-shamanism.

"Shamanism Plugs into the Wall," is how Daniel describes it in an essay recently published in the collection The Heart of Healing, edited by Dawson Church and featuring contributions from such luminaries as Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil. Daniel is co-inventor of the NEURO (short for "neuro-imaging optimization") system, a computerized biofeedback system employing vibration, sound and optical lasers. "We're just using high technology to do what the Indians did with drums and fire," he says. "This takes all the guesswork out of it."

The real trick to shamanism is the moving back and forth between the two realities at will. An altered state is required. Shamans from many indigenous tribes throughout the Americas used hallucinogens to induce such states, but that's a little impractical in the legally prohibitive 21st century. Fire, drums, dancing and chanting sufficed for other tribes. The NEURO system claims to get the job done more quickly than either of those methods, and is totally legal to boot.

The system is the featured attraction at Allura du Jour, a high-tech mind and body spa founded by Daniel and partner Debra Corrigan. Stepping inside is kind of like diving down that rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. Plush, overstuffed sofas squat like giant mushrooms. Columns and pedestals are finished in a powdered cocoa color that looks edible.

And in its own separate dark chamber sits the NEURO, a sculpted human-form-fitting chair with a bank of computer monitors and equipment, twin lasers perched on a pedestal in front of the chair and duplex cables snaking across the floor connecting everything together.

The chair is lined with a latticework of miniature speakers that transmit auditory vibrations through human bone. It also contains sensors that monitor the body's vital statistics, translating the data via computer algorithm to approximate the subject's brain-wave pattern on a screen: alpha, beta, theta or delta. Daniel manipulates NEURO's vibration, sound and light elements to achieve the desired brain state.

From previous experience, I know that I'm one of the 20 percent of the population who is relatively easy to hypnotize, so eagerly accept an offer to "test drive" the system.

Encased in the NEURO chair, I close my eyes and laser spirograph patterns flicker across my eyelids. My breathing slows. The light seems to penetrate my visual cortex. The "sounds" of wind blowing and waves crashing throb through the chair and up and down the length of my skeleton, making it feel as if my body is levitating on an invisible cushion of sonic energy like a puck on an air hockey table. My breathing, the throbbing sounds and the pulsing lasers seem to synchronize and I slip into the deepest, purest trance I've ever experienced.

A prerecorded voice not unlike Stuart Smalley's, the character played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live, begins reciting first-person positive affirmations: "I have the power to take control of my life. I am a creative person. I will reach my full potential."

It doesn't seem silly at all. In fact, I believe every word with every vibrating molecule of my being. As Daniel eases off of the machine, an effect he calls "fractalization" kicks in: I am floating in a sea of what looks and feels like television static. It's the closest I've ever come to experiencing that same infinite void from my dream. Perhaps it was psychosomatic, but my mood is elevated for weeks after that 12-minute session.

"I knew that light and sound have a tremendous effect on the body, and I knew there had to be a way to synthesize it," Daniel later explains. He's used the system to treat clients ranging from creatively blocked professionals to hardcore nicotine addicts. Believing in the process, however, is a major hurdle to overcome.

"The shaman somehow tapped into their subject's ability to believe in the shaman's power and create a true healing event," he writes in "Shamanism Plugs into the Wall."

"Today's healer must overcome the fear from acquired wisdom in the subject by overloading the subject's consciousness and thereby opening the mind at the subconscious level to new ideas and possibilities."

Like Gary Daniel, Allen Hardman began his shamanic explorations as a hypnotherapist. A chance encounter with Four Agreements author Miguel Ruiz led to nine years of study with the Toltec Nagual. With the master's blessing, Hardman last month branched out with his own shamanic workshop, the Lucid Living Intensive. Computer-savvy and modern, Hardman is often jokingly referred to as the "high-tech Toltec."

"I'll often take people into essentially a hypnotic trance, to give them the sense of the mindless divinity, to experience what they perceive mindlessly," he says. Sensing the mindless divinity--an apt description of my original dream experience. Such insights, from dreams or induced trances, can open up new, less distorted channels of perception.

"Light carries the message perfectly, but our normal channels of perception distort the message," he stresses. By focusing or "channeling" individual awareness in nonordinary reality--a process known as "lucid dreaming"--distortion is ideally cut to zero, permitting experienced Toltec shamans to take control of the dream or trance, a useful tool for exploring still more channels in nonordinary reality. But Hardman prefers focusing his advanced student's awareness toward ordinary reality, a process called "lucid living," and a fairly radical paradox occurs: as the distortion clears, students realize ordinary reality is but a daydream. That means, just as in lucid dreaming, ordinary reality can be controlled.

Since light seems to play such a significant role in a wide array of shamanic traditions, it is perhaps not surprising that quantum physicists--the scientists who study quarks, the tiny packets of wave/particle that seem to oscillate between matter and energy at the subatomic level--are interested. As psychiatrist and physicist Arnold Mindell demonstrates in his seminal book Quantum Mind: The Edge Between Physics and Psychology, there appears to be a profound relationship between the mathematics of quantum mechanics and the ordinary and nonordinary realities of the shaman.

The equations used to describe wave motion in quantum physics utilize complex numbers, a combination of real numbers and the so-called imaginary numbers based on the square root of -1. If you didn't make it this far in high school math, don't worry. Mindell proposes a fairly simple hypothesis: the real numbers are analogous to ordinary reality; the imaginary numbers are analogous to nonordinary reality.

"We have seen that the patterns found in the psychology of perception in shamanic experience are consistent with patterns found in math and now in physics," Mindell writes. "This consistency points to the unified field, the dreamlike substance of experience, which is basic to life, to psychology and physics, to electrons and their observers, to all of us as we live and grow."

Not coincidentally, Mindell compares the way physicists think about imaginary numbers with the shamanic concept of lucid dreaming. "When you multiply a complex number by its conjugate [mirror image or reciprocal], the result is an entirely real number," he writes. In other words, the equations describing energy waves appear to correlate with the shamanic notion of a mindless divinity from which both nonordinary and ordinary reality arise.

Could the shaman's mindless divinity and the so-far-undiscovered unified field be the same thing? Perhaps. Physicists from China, where traditional Chinese medicine or qigong (pronounced "chi-gong") has been practiced for the past 3,000 years, have speculated that chi, the energy or life force that flows through the body, emanates from the unified field or a similar structure in theoretical physics known as the quantum vacuum.

A rich tapestry of overlaying traditions compose qigong, including martial arts, acupuncture, natural medicine, diet and a system of movement similar to the yoga, in which special poses, mimicking spiritual animals such as the turtle, crane and bear, help channel the flow of chi through medians and other conduits of the body.

Chi itself is most often compared to electricity because it is thought to flow through these medians and conduits like electrons through a wire. Skilled practitioners such as Grand Master Jin-sheng Tu, a Taiwan native and one of the foremost qigong practitioners in the United States, claim they have the ability to "emit" chi as a healing power.

Master Tu speaks little English and doesn't call himself a shaman, but in his self-styled qigong garb, he certainly looks like one, a bandana covering his long, thick black locks, tight breeches tucked into thigh-high lace-up boots with pointed toes that curled over on the tips like an elf's shoes. When I first met him, he was balancing on eggs in his bare feet while painting a fairly accurate watercolor of Bodhidharma, who brought Zen Buddhism to China.

"Where does chi come from?" I asked through an interpreter.

Rather than speaking, Master Tu held up his left arm as if he were waving goodbye and made a little clutching motion at the air. He pointed his index finger straight up, like he was testing the wind. Then, through the interpreter, he asked me to hold out my right palm. He lowered his index finger to the precise center of my palm, and when we touched, a jolt of energy lasting five seconds or so passed into my hand, not unlike this shock you'd feel if you touched your tongue on both terminals of a 9-volt battery.

Master Tu had given me a fresh shot of chi.

He never really told me where chi comes from, but I think I've got it figured out by now. It comes right out of the air we breath, flowing back and forth between ordinary and nonordinary reality, occasionally making itself known to those who are willing to do the work in its purest form: the mindless divinity, that infinite void from which no frame of reference could be drawn that I dreamed of so long ago.

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From the July 14-20, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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