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Editor's Note: Varieties of Transformative Experience 

click to enlarge DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid

I first encountered shamanism in the early '90s when I came across Carlos Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan while idly fingering the spines of a fellow student's books. (I thought it was a guide to picking up women.) Having recently taken psychoactive drugs for the first time and had my psychic skull cracked open by the blinding white light of the potency of the universe—these types of experiences are hard to explain—I was, shall we say, at a receptive point in my spiritual evolution. The book, supposedly documenting Castaneda's apprenticeship with a Yaqui Indian shaman in Mexico, is a record of his use of psychotropic plants under the watchful eyes of the master. (Castaneda submitted his manuscript as his graduate thesis at UCLA. It was the Sixties after all.)

The book fascinated me with its philosophy of awareness and the way Don Juan seems connected to that potency of the universe I had previously glimpsed. The Zen-like simplicity of Don Juan's portrayal by Castaneda and the gnomic certainty of his utterances—"For me there is only the traveling on the paths that have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge for me is to traverse its full length. And there I travel—looking, looking, breathlessly."—were catnip to a fledgling seeker like myself, who was looking to be transformed into just about anything slightly more actualized than the kid from the suburbs that I was.

Castaneda lost me, however, when he related his more intense peyote trips, one of which involved taking the form of a bird and ending up hundred of miles away at the end of the trip—as if he had actually flown there. Two thoughts I had on this: Castaneda is pulling my leg. Or, if Castaneda is not pulling my leg, then I actually want no part of this shamanism thing, because I don't wish to be turned into a spirit animal, or be involved with any type of transformation that would scare the bejeezus out of me (as it did Castaneda, who was advised by Don Juan to marvel at the universe and ignore the fear. Easy for him to say.) I returned the book, the buttoned-up kid from the burbs vanquishing the seeker of self-actualization.

Current Shamanism
Not all shamanic transformations require psychoactive drugs (though I have heard there are groups using ayahuasca right here in the Hudson Valley). This month, Wendy Kagan visits with some local shamans about how they are translating the millennia-old spiritual and healing practices of ancient cultures into the present day ("Soul Retrieval"). Their work centers on making the spirit world more present and connecting with the spirit of consciousness, the energy embodied in all things. "Modern medicine ignores the spirit, the soul," shamanic teacher Tom Cowan says. "More people have come to realize that we need a more integrative and holistic approach."

Urban Renewal
Some transformations take a long time. Take Newburgh, for example. The city has been tagged as one of the worst places in America for many years now. A federal judge recently described it as "the most pathetic place in the State of New York." And while we have been decried as pollyannas in the past for keeping the dial on positive in our coverage of Newburgh, we can't help but see its potential. For those who wish for constant reminders of the city's many woes, buy a subscription to the Times Herald-Record. The newspaper faithfully records every drug bust, political misdeed, and triple homicide. But there's another story to be told, of a city in chrysalis. "If we keep focusing on what we want, not on what we don't want, eventually we'll create what we want," says Mayor Judy Kennedy. And as Jennifer Gutman reports ("Clear Eyes, Full Hearts"), locals and newcomers alike are envisioning a change in Newburgh that may be years in the making, but is arcing toward profound transformation.

Eat, Sing, Mate, Die
The most mysterious transformation taking place this month is one we have much evidence of but can't completely explain: the emergence of the 17-year Magicadas. We know the cicada nymphs have been underground since 1996, feeding on the roots of trees. We know they will emerge very soon, when the ground temperature reaches 64 Fahrenheit. They will then sing their cacophonous song, mate, and reproduce, beginning a new cycle that will culminate with their appearance again in 2030. We just don't know what causes "such a great inscrutable rhythm" as David Rothenberg describes it in "Seventeen-Year Itch", an excerpt from his latest book Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise. And perhaps that's as it should be. Instead of our constant human desire to explain away the mysteries of the universe, every time these critters come around to replenish some of the wonder we've lost in the ensuing 17 years, we're offered the opportunity to be transformed as well.

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