This year’s winner of the SSP Eagle Feather Award is Bhola Banstola, a 27th generation medicine person from Nepal. For many years, Bhola has taught extensively throughout the world. Recently he has turned attention toward making ethnographic and shamanic healing documentaries to preserve his traditional ways and to educate those who are interested. This interview was conducted through email over several weeks.
The SSP Eagle Feather Award is given annually to an individual or group of people who are doing innovative and effective work of expanding the recognition and understanding of indigenous wisdom in the world. The recipient receives a one-time monetary gift of $5,000, as well as being featured on our website. Nominations from SSP members for the 2018 recipient will open in May, 2018. The award will be given in August.
Jaime Meyer: Shamanism is growing worldwide, and it brings up big questions about people appropriating indigenous traditions, or combining very different practices together. Even using the word “shaman” is problematic. For example, in my own work, I draw on Celtic tradition because that’s my ethnic ancestry, and I’ve found great beauty and power there, but in the last three years, because of working with the Shipibo people in the Peruvian Amazon, tobacco has become an important plant ally in my healing work and daily prayers. Tobacco is not present in the Celtic tradition, so I combine these disparate traditions. All Europeans and Americans are emerging from a broken shamanic lineage, so all of us must reconstruct our own traditions and draw from living wisdom teachers in other traditions. (Even in “my own” Celtic tradition, there are arguments over Americans of Scottish ancestry appropriating ancient Scottish traditions.) As someone born into a tradition, and actively working to preserve it, and as someone who teaches “foreigners” frequently, do you have perspective or advice on this topic?
Bhola Banstola: We all are natives and indigenous to the places where we are born and brought up carrying to some level our ancient lineage traditions and cultures. Due to many reasons, the earth-based ancient spiritualities like Shamanism have been either forgotten or cast aside. This might have been due to voluntary religious conversion or state-forced mechanisms. It may have been because the strict dietary or cultural regulations and many years of training one must undergo. In some cases, the elders may have had reservations about disclosing or transmitting traditional wisdom. Lastly, through migration and displacement – either voluntary or forced – many have interrupted the continuity of cultural practices.
With the influx of tourism and increased number of spiritual seekers worldwide, people are working to discover what suits them best. I believe that people are not drawn to shamanism only for fun or to appropriate indigenous traditions. When the seekers don’t find answers in the tradition and culture in which they were raised, they will naturally look for resources beyond their culture to fill in the gaps. In these cases, not only the essence of teaching is taken home, but the whole package.
Cultural appropriation often means taking on the outer trappings of the teaching rather than allowing the inner shifts of the practices to transform. What happens to us inside is much more important than what we put on our outsides. Having attended dozens of international gatherings of shamans and conferences on shamanism, I have seen people drawn to the most exotic robes and presentations rather than to the essence of the teaching. So when these people visit a traditional shaman they adopt the ceremonial gown and headgear in an effort to reproduce the experience. Knowingly or unknowingly, they are attempting to fill up emptiness inside. It is not necessary to change our outer looks, but rather we have to find ways to evolve ourselves so that while maintaining our own traditions of birth we can be better individuals and humans.
Jaime Meyer: Your phrase “filling up the emptiness,” hits deeply for me as a western/urban white guy. Psychology and philosophy sometimes say that the emptiness -“existential anxiety”- is just a natural part of being human. The emptiness my people (urban westerners) feel is full of grief over what we have done to ourselves and to the planet. That grief can display itself as anger, and as hunger, and as many other things. Do you have any advice for how we can deal with the grief inside the emptiness?
Bhola Banstola: There are many types of grief. The grief from the loss of a dear one leaves a complete emptiness. The grief of lack of self-esteem and vitality; grief of not having clear vision of our spiritual path; grief of lack of cultural or traditional or spiritual roots; these all produce a feeling of emptiness. As we deal with the emptiness of grief, we have to evaluate our faith in the intangible spiritual realm with a reference to a particular spirit, godhead or a cultural hero and also develop how much self-trust we have.
Whether through meditation, prayers, relaxation, quiet time or self-reflection; we identify what it is that we have or want to have faith in. Then we evaluate our life, look at the past and see how things have been unfolding for us. We ask ourselves what it means for us to have faith; how we can implement it to lift our spirit up; and what it can do to regain our heart’s peace. At the end, we learn to do things that positively impact others, engage in meaningful and creative activities, make time for our self-reflection, pay attention to our senses and enjoy simple things with full attention.
Having frequent visits to teachers and communities; engaging in shamanic type of spiritual works without judgment; recognizing our passions and what we can do and learning to discover new things in life and focusing on one particular spiritual path, then walking that path – these can all be helpful to heal our grief and emptiness.
Jaime Meyer: There is a phrase that floats around on the internet: the “plastic shaman.” It’s used to describe (white/European/American) shamanic practitioners who are not authentic. In your view what makes for an “authentic” shaman?
Bhola Banstola: Yes, I have also seen these derogatory words and phrases used in social networks. The interesting fact is that it is a discussion brought about by our Western friends. I have not seen any non – Westerners participating on these discussions. As the underlying concern of this question is more focused on creating clients, apprentices and dependence, these terms are usually used to suggest that they are somehow more authentic or knowledgeable than the others.
The way these two terms “cultural appropriation” and “plastic shaman” are used, they go hand in hand. Today everyone likes to present themselves as unique and different from others. This process of external evolution provides sensory and aesthetic satisfaction only. A person or practice becomes authentic when it is well-grounded, ethical and humane. Spirits do not differentiate ethnicity, race, color or nationality; they can manifest in anyone.
In traditional ancient practices, ancestors play the highest role in community, lineage, family and individual evolution. So, anyone can develop a close relationship with the ancestors, elemental beings, and the spiritual keepers of the locality where one lives. From my point of view, shamanism can be practiced by anyone who is called either involuntarily by the ancestors and spirits or voluntarily by choosing a human teacher. It is not necessary to change one’s name, form or outer appearance!
Jaime Meyer: When it comes to developing a close relationship with the ancestors, elemental beings, and the spiritual keepers of our land, what is the first and most obvious practice people should do to develop these relationships?
Bhola Banstola: Self-trust and conviction are the initial steps. Then we need family support or support of with whom we live or share most of our time. It is not important that members of the family or close friends follow the same path but their appreciation and recognition is important. Then, create a small sacred space inside or outside the house and start with simple ceremonies to express gratitude and thanks to the ancestors with what is available or what your intuition says if you are not following any fixed tradition.
Secondly, in order to create relationships with the elements it is important to have the altar contain representations of the elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether: some rice kernels or grains in a plate; a container or glassful of water; a candle; feathers of birds to represent the air element and sing songs or melodies accompanied by the drum as ether element.
Having created this sacred space it is important to know the mountains or hills; rivers; sacred plant species; special landscapes of rocks and caves; to know if people in the past had some kind of references to sacred places created in the nature and more of and around the place of our residence. While visiting these places we feel the presence of spirits. Where we feel the most, we make simple offering of rice kernels and grains and we can offer colored strips of cloth or hang a fairy bell. The spirit/spirits of these places become our protectors, guardians and source of inspiration.
When we do daily simple ceremony at home or for the community we sing the songs to honor the spirits of these sacred places and we make frequent visits to empowerment and spiritual renewal whenever we can.
Jaime Meyer: For those of us studying shamanism, and for those who are trying to become ever more useful healers, what are the most important things for us to know?
Bhola Banstola: Crisis and companions change the course of our life. During a time of crisis, we all look for ways and resources from different angles to find solutions, whether spiritual or non-spiritual. During this course of time we encounter tangible and intangible resources. To accept these guidelines and messages there is a need for “self-trust.” Only by trusting can we develop relationships with spiritual beings and human teachers or reliable friends. So, self-trust, trust in the helping spirits, teachers and ancestors is the most important basic principle for our spiritual, emotional and social evolution. This also means becoming more resourceful, skillful, creative and helpful to others. To heal others requires understanding oneself and in turn being able to help others.
The three most important ethical guidelines for manipulating the spiritual world are:
- Surrender to the spirits;
- Combat spirits that are not beneficial to bring them under control; and
- Walk the path of the spirits as a renouncer of artifice and ego. To be at the service of others, either as a healer or as a social worker, is a gift and an art. It is not something that everyone can do!
Jaime Meyer: Can you offer any basic practices to help people “Surrender to the spirits; combat the spirits and bring them under control; and walk the path of the spirits as a renouncer”? What does it mean to combat the spirits? And how is one to know how – or –what- to renounce in order to walk the path of the spirits?
Bhola Banstola: In a traditional path, we use the term surrender to represent our devotion and dedication to the beneficial ancestral spirits, spirits of the nature or the spirits transmitted by the teacher that are compatible with us on the path. Once we surrender and create trust in them, they become our principal supporters and sources of healing power.
Sometimes the spirits that possess a promising initiate are aggressive and demanding. In this case, the shaman-to-be has to combat them, put them under control and create a working relationship with them. These types of spirit beings are important in healing spiritual possessions.
Walking the shamanic path as a renouncer also means to be like an ascetic or to live more austerely for a time. Eliminating the abundance of external stimuli provides more time and space for self-discipline; visiting sacred places and teachers in far off lands helps to build soul power; enhances power to heal; generates confidence; helps to understand sufferings of others and how to live with minimal resources; helps self-assurance; etc. This does not mean that one has to be a renouncer to become a good healer to serve others, but being detached from the family and society either for a period of time helps in self-evaluation, dedication in practice; learning to trust in self, helping spirits and preserving one’s traditional path.
Jaime Meyer: What is your shamanic understanding of the seemingly increasing chaos in our daily world? What can each of us do to survive or thrive in these chaotic times?
Bhola Banstola: Time seems to spin ever faster. In my own experience, I feel last year is like yesterday. In this fast spinning wheel of time with the challenges that are predicted in future, our everyday lives have become chaotic. We have gone beyond the principle of “here and now” and the fears of an uncertain future about work, family life and relations have started taking deep roots in our lives. To truly thrive in these chaotic times we need to honor the past and appreciate the present with deep gratitude.
If our everyday schedule permits, we need to focus on inner journeys by performing simple rituals with or without drumming and chanting; by going into nature as much as we can; by creating cordial and reciprocal relationships with our neighbors and family; by creating community gatherings and conducting ceremonies; by healing and reconciling with our past events and situations; by honoring the glory of our ancestors and lineage protectors; by recognizing our limits and shortcoming; by not judging others and most importantly by knowing and fully being who we are.
Jaime Meyer: Thank you so much, Bhola for this brief dialogue, and for the work you are doing in the world.
Bhola Banstola: Warm wishes and greetings to you and all those in the SSP community. Namaste.
You can learn more about Bhola Banstola in this video interview.