The Door Man

I studied the ritualistic use of psychoactive plants in Peru for a number of years, and took on an apprenticeship to become a shaman. So people sometimes ask me the question, “What is a shaman?”

Generally I take that as my cue to begin waving my arms about dramatically for several minutes while delivering an oration on the subtleties of the terminology, the pitfalls of the shamanic path, the nature of free will, and the mercurial line between good and evil cutting through the heart of each man (and especially each shaman), which is a term still yet to be properly defined. Eventually I’ll notice that my audience’s eyes have glazed over, and so I finish my rant by saying something unsatisfying like, “Well, I guess it’s complicated.”

And it is rather complicated.

Consider the following: Each of these characters I met over the years labeled themselves as shamans. A Huichol Indian sitting beside a fire in the mountains of Northern Mexico eating Peyote buttons and singing to the spirits through the starry night. A barrel chested mestizo man in the city of Quito who made divinity readings by slicing open guinea pigs and analyzing the manner in which the furry critters innards spilled out onto his dirt floor. And a ponytailed Los Angeles millennial holding a satchel of essential oils and an acoustic guitar. 

The word shaman is a much broader term than say, carpenter. If you know that someone is a carpenter, you can be pretty sure they know their way around a hammer. But if someone is a shaman, well, who knows what they might be up to.

Some shamans are in the business of healing people. These are sometimes referred to as curanderos, and I’ve found them to be, by far, the most sane lot and with definitely the biggest smiles. I try to hang around them.

But there are many other varieties of shaman, the majority of which are vying for power, and these guys and gals are kind of like the sorcerers you see in Disney movies with hunchbacks and twisted smiles and mad eyes from staring into crystal balls for extended periods of time. Some of these, the ones keen on power, are in the business of making inter-dimensional deals with unseen entities. They feel a bit like Moroccan carpet salesmen. For you my friend, I make very good deal, two entity removals for the price of one. 

Other shamans are simply failed musicians who dawn feather headdresses and dose their audience with something strong enough to keep them glued to their seats for an evening of acoustical guitar riffs. Others are nothing more than drug dealers wearing white robes. And many more are financially-crippled yoga instructors with Messianic complexes, also wearing white robes. 

Folks, it’s the Wild West out there. 

When you meet a real shaman, though, you’ll know it. And one of the only points of agreement about shamans, the real ones, is that they are “a bridge between worlds.” That sounds pretty cool, but what does it mean?

Well, a shaman is the bridge between the ancient traditions and the modern world. The bridge between ordinary 3D reality and that space of ecstatic, supernatural communion with the Other, or the Divine. The bridge between this world and the world of spirit. When experiencing authentic, plant-based shamanic ritual it becomes readily apparent that there is a greater depth, a deeper connection that somehow the shaman facilities access to. A thing happens which does not while tripping acid on the couch and blaring The Dark Side of the Moon.

So this is all well and good, but there are pitfalls of finding yourself as said bridge between the worlds. You see, the beauty of shamanism, in its pure form, is that it is mysticism and not religion. It’s a methodology of putting one into direct communion with the Divine. It’s a technology which forgoes the middleman and just puts you on the line with God and lets the two of you hash things out.

But if you conceptualize a shaman as the bridge, it would be easy for this character to then slip in and leverage that position, charge a nice little toll to cross the bridge. If you can convince people that you’ve got the only bridge in town, well, time to wheel in the harem and start collecting Rolls Royce’s. Yes, spirituality will probably wrestle with this cult leader phenomenon until the end of days. 

What’s more is that if your shaman is a bridge between worlds, it begs the question: To what world, to what outcome, to what state of being are they the bridge? Do they act as a bridge to health, understanding and wisdom. I’ve come across more than one shaman who seemed only a bridge to insanity. These folks were certifiable themselves, and their clients were well on the path. Under the watch of these cowboys, you may well find yourself running through the streets naked and quite convinced the star people of Andromeda have chosen you to be their extraterrestrial ambassador. 

I refer to this type of shaman as a reality dismantler, and well, they are so terrifying that I’ll need to dedicate an entire piece of writing to them one day.

Anyways, reader, that’s the short version of my arm waving diatribe that I deliver when asked, “What is a shaman?” I told you it was complicated. It’s also kind of a bummer. But then one day I finally understood how to answer this question in a much simpler way. I finally understood what a shaman is, or at least what the type of shaman that I am interested in is.

Are you ready for it?

I originally caught sight of this perspective from Don Howard Lawler, renowned Huachuma Maestro, when he referred to himself as a “set-up man”. As in, I’m just here to set things up but this is between you and the plant, this is between you and God, my friend. 

Being a set-up man removes all the complications of being a bridge that I pointed out earlier. In my estimation, it is shamanism in its purest form. And while a set-up man is a good way to phrase it, one might confuse that with being a con artist of some sort, and so my preferred term to keep things even clearer would be this: A shaman is a door man. 

At this point I’ll just turn it over to Samuel Moor Shoemaker, who was not a shaman. He was a pastor. Still he wrote what is, to my mind, the definitive poem on what it means to be a real shaman and it goes like this:

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out.
The door is the most important door in the world-
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There's no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only a wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it...
So I stand by the door.

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