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Shamans, Saints, and Sages: What is a Spiritual Hero, and What Does it Take to Become One?

This article was written by Roger Walsh
posted under Shamanism

"Only if we know that the thing which truly matters is the infinite can we avoid fixing our interests upon futilities and upon all kindsof goals which are not of real importance."
Carl Jung
Throughout history, certain extraordinary individuals have lived, loved, or excelled so well that ordinary mortals have regarded them with awe and bewilderment. These are humankind’s heroes, the healers, helpers, saints, and sages who exemplify our untapped potential. Ordinary mortals have wondered and puzzled about them, venerated or even worshiped them, and often felt that they must be more than merely human, even when the heroes themselves made no such claims.

“Are you a God?” they asked the Buddha.

“No.” he replied.

“Are you an angel, then?”

“No.”

“Then what are you?”

Replied the Buddha, “I am awake.”

The mythologist Joseph Campbell collected diverse accounts (legends, myths, biographies) of all types of heroes—warriors, healers, saints, and gods—and distilled the stages of life that they pass through. Campbell’s genius lay in recognizing the common thread that runs through these many lives, and in unifying them into a single grand story.

But this grand unification comes at a price, and that price is the obscuring of differences. For while it is true that there are similarities between the journey of a saint and a warrior, there are also major differences, and Campbell tends to elevate them all to the same transcendent status.

Our focus here is on spiritual heroes. These are the shamans, yogis, saints, and sages whose lives’ aim and game center on the quest for enlightenment, liberation, salvation, or awakening. It is a quest which began untold thousands of years ago with shamanism, our earliest and most enduring healing and spiritual tradition.

The book The World of Shamanism examines this ancient tradition in the light of modern medicine, psychology, neuroscience, consciousness disciplines, and religious studies. What becomes evident is that shamans were our first forebears to develop a “technology of transcendence:” a set of practices capable of inducing altered states of consciousness (ASCs). In these ASCs, shamans were able to experience themselves as free “souls,” engage in “soul flights,” and to use these experiences to learn, help, and heal. As such, they became humankind’s first spiritual heroes, first adventurers in consciousness, and first master game players.

The “master game” is one name given to the quest for enlightenment and awakening. It is the game of exploring and mastering, not the of the outer but the inner world of one’s own mind and consciousness. Its ultimate goal is no less than to recognize and dissolve into one’s true nature, and to delight in the greatest of all possible discoveries: the ecstatic realization that this nature is inseparable from the Divine.

Different traditions express this discovery in different ways, but the message is clearly the same. In the great monotheistic traditions we find:

  • The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. (Jesus, Christianity)
  • Those who know themselves know their Lord. (Mohammad, Islam)
  • He is in all, and all is in Him. (Judaism)

Centuries earlier, similar words were already pouring from ecstatic Chinese practitioners:

  • Those who know completely their own nature, know heaven. (Mencius, Confucianism)
  • In the depths of the soul, one sees the Divine, the one. (The Chinese Book of Changes)
Indian traditions also offer the same gift, the recognition that, in their words:
  • Atman (individual consciousness) and Brahman (universal consciousness) are one. (Hinduism)
  • Look within, you are the Buddha. (Buddhism)
But this raises a painfully obvious question. Why do most of us sleepwalk through life oblivious of our true nature? In his book The Master Game, Robert DeRopp explains that the basic idea underlying all the great religions "...[i]s that man is asleep, that he lives amid dreams and delusions, that he cuts himself off from the universal consciousness….To crawl into the narrow shell of a personal ego. To emerge from this narrow shell, to regain union with the universal consciousness, to pass from the darkness of the ego-centered illusion into the light of the non-ego, this was the real aim of the Religion Game as defined by the great teachers: Jesus, Gautama, Krishna, Mahavira, Lao-tze and the Platonic Socrates."

Emergence, reunion, and enlightenment are the aim of both spiritual heroes and the Master Game to which they devote their lives.

The World of Shamanism shows how the Master Game progresses through five major stages, which are:
  1. The hero’s early conventional life
  2. The call to adventure and awakening
  3. Discipline and training
  4. Culmination of the quest
  5. The final phase of return and contribution to society


Conventional Slumber
The normal adjustment of the average, common-sense, well-adjusted [person] implies a continued successful rejection of much of the depths of human nature.
Abraham Maslow
At first, the hero slumbers unreflectively within the conventions of society like the rest of us. To a large extent, the culture’s conventional beliefs are accepted as reality, its morals deemed appropriate, and its limits seen as natural. This is the developmental stage of conventionality, where most of us languish unquestioningly throughout life. Conventionality is an essential stage of life’s journey, but it can be a stopping point or a stepping stone. Since our culture rarely recognizes further possibilities, most people settle here and die here. But if there is one point on which Master Game players agree, it is that though conventionality may be a necessary stage of life, it is definitely not the highest.

In fact, the conventional way of being and state of mind are considered as suboptimal, clouded, and inauthentic. In Asia, this clouded state is described as maya, illusion, or dreamlike. In the West, existentialists label it as automaton conformity, everydayness, or inauthenticity. Likewise, psychologists describe it as a shared hypnosis, a collective trance, or to use Freud’s term, “the psychopathology of the average.” Whatever its name, the painful implication is that most of us sleepwalk through life, ignorant of our potential, and unaware of our clouded trance because we are born into it, we all share it, and because we live in the biggest cult of all: cult-ure. The hero’s task is to go beyond these conventional limitations.


The Call to Adventure and Awakening
At some point the hero’s conventional slumber is challenged by a crisis, an existential confrontation that calls previous beliefs and ways of life into question. The call can come from within or without. Outer physical crises may take the form of sickness, as with some shamans, or suddenly staring death in the face.

An inner call may take the form of a powerful dream or vision, or of a deep heartfelt response to a new teacher or teaching. It may also emerge more subtly as “divine discontent:” a growing dissatisfaction with the pleasures of the world or a gnawing question about the deeper meaning of life. No matter how this challenge arises, it reveals the limits of conventional thinking and living and urges the hero beyond them. In our culture, this may appear as an existential or mid-life crisis. Tragically, the deeper causes and questions of the crisis are rarely recognized, its potential rarely fulfilled, and one of life’s great opportunities is then missed.

As Jesus said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Indeed, few choose to even recognize the call. And no wonder! For those who hear the call now face a terrible dilemma. They must choose whether to answer the call and then venture into the unknown realms of life to which it beckons, or deny the call and retreat into their familiar cocoon. If the call is denied, then there is little choice but to repress the message and its far-reaching implications. Only by such repression can non-heroes fall again into the seductive, anesthetic comforts of conventional unawareness, suppress the sublime, and sink into what the philosopher Kierkegaard so aptly called “tranquilization by the trivial.” The result is a life of unconsciousness and conformity, which existentialists call inauthentic living and alienation.

But the call never really goes away. It lurks in the unconscious, alienated, and repressed, but periodically sending into awareness bubbles of vague dissatisfaction and disease that demand still more defenses and distraction. No wonder that a potential shaman who refuses the call is said to be at risk of sickness or insanity.


Discipline and Training
For the next phase, a teacher is essential. The teacher’s job is to assess the would-be hero, and then tailor an appropriate training program. This program will inevitably include at least some of the seven central practices that all the world’s major religions regard as central and essential for anyone who would live fully and awake. For a description of these practices and practical exercises to use them, read Essential Spirituality: The Seven Central Practices, and for a conceptual understanding of such practices see Paths Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision.

Physical disciplines train the body as well as disrupt the ordinary physiology and state of mind, and thereby open the mind to new possibilities. These disciplines include fasting, sleep deprivation, physical exertion, or exposure to extremes of heat or cold. Rhythm is a powerful adjunct and may involve singing, drumming, and dancing. Spiritual practices may involve meditation, yoga, ritual, or prayer, often combined with periods of quiet and solitude. Social disciplines may incorporate compassionate service to cultivate generosity or menial tasks to instill humility.

Whatever the method, the aim is the same. It is to work with body, heart, and mind so as to reduce the compulsions of greed and fear, to strengthen capacities such as will and wisdom, and to cultivate emotions such as love and compassion. The final goal is to develop the seven qualities of heart and mind that each of the great religions regards as central and essential to anyone who would live fully and awake in their spiritual identity.


The Culmination of the Quest
For successful players, years of discipline culminate in life changing breakthroughs. These may take the form of visions, insight, or experiences of death and rebirth. There may be a sense of dissolving into the Absolute, of union with Spirit, God, or the Tao. The potential experiences are numerous and the names many: salvation and satori, enlightenment and liberation, moksha and wu, fana and Ruach Hakodesh, death and rebirth, to name but a few. But whatever the name, the result is similar: a realization of one’s deeper nature and a resultant self-transformation. For Master Game players, such breakthroughs represent their life goal.

With the great quest complete, the seeker has become a knower, the novice a shaman, the student a sage, the pupil a potential teacher. But there is one more phase before the journey is complete: return and contribution. With one’s own questions answered, the world’s confusion begs for clarification; with one’s own suffering relieved, the pain and sorrow of the world cry for healing. The desire to contribute becomes compelling and the direction of the journey now reverses. Whereas one had formerly turned away from society and into one’s self, now the hero turns back to society and out into the world.

There are numerous metaphors for this return. In Plato’s parable, after escaping from the cave the hero reenters it to help others make their escape. Zen’s famous “Oxherding Pictures” portray in exquisite images the stages of spiritual life. In the tenth and final picture, the enlightened one “enters the marketplace with help bestowing hands.” In shamanism, novices first tame their spirits and then use them for the benefit of their tribe. For Christian mystics this return is the final stage of the “spiritual marriage” with God—the stage of “fruitfulness of the soul.”

This phase completes a cycle that historian Arnold Toynbee called “withdrawal and return.” Spiritual heroes withdraw from society to wrestle with the fundamental questions of life, find insight and inspiration within their own depths, and then return to help, heal, and teach.

Of course the spiritual hero’s journey can be, and usually is, played out less fully and dramatically. Many set out on the path but few attain the greatest heights. Nor do the stages of the soul always constitute a single great circle of withdrawal and return. Rather, the journey may consist of a series of circles, like a spiral in which one returns again and again, but each time to a higher vantage point.

Fortunately, the hero’s journey is not limited to saints and sages. It is available to us all to greater or lesser degrees, depending on the sincerity and intensity with which we undertake it.

Roger Walsh
Roger Walsh, M. D., Ph.D. (California) is a professor of psychiatry, philosophy, and anthropology, and also adjunct professor of religious studies at the University of California at Irvine. His publications include the books The World of Shamanism and...  Read more

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