I’d Rather Be a Fish in the Sea

Alexander Beiner recently wrote an interesting article titled Indigenous Narcissism: Social Media, Belonging and WEIRDness. He points to the problems the peculiarly individualistic, often narcissistic, WEIRDos (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic folks) face in negotiating society. Modern Westerners seem to have lost “the ties that bind” and hanker after the sense of belonging and community characteristic of traditional indigenous cultures. This compels them to seek out online communities by “voluntary association”, which partly explains the emergence of cultish movements such as the much-commented on “Woke” secular religion.

I was at the Medicine Festival last summer and saw Alex there. In his article he describes his discomfort at the contradictory mismatch between the touted “indigenous wisdom” of the Amazonian shamanic cultures and its WEIRD fans. How can this work in practice? How can it be more than playing Cowboys and Indians? The key question, though, is this: what is the sickness that we want the Medicine to cure?

The obvious response is to list the usual litany of mental health problems besetting modern urban Westerners, depression, anxiety, addiction, etc. Fair enough. The media interest in the Psychedelic Renaissance is all about the potential for these plant medicines to alleviate acute and chronic human suffering, which can only be a good thing. However, could it be that these conditions are actually symptoms of a deeper malaise? Could it be our culture that’s making us sick?

Or could it be less about what our culture is than what it isn’t? You can’t live on burger and chips without getting sick at some point, because you won’t get all the nutrients you need. Likewise, modern culture, dominated as it is by the (predominantly American) mass media and mass entertainment industries, is fine in itself, but lacks the essential nutrients we need to stay healthy and sane.

What are we missing then? What have we forgotten? The Medicine Festival is an important clue. We have lost our own indigenous shamanic tradition. We have forgotten how to be in our bodies, to be in nature, to have our feet planted on the earth and our roots in the soil. We have forgotten how to stomp, how to drum, how to dance (TikTok doesn’t count).

The indigenous traditions of the Amazon basin, of the Andes, of Native Americans, of Australian Aborigines, of Africa and the African diaspora, of Rastas, can teach us shamanism. We need their music and their wisdom because we have lost touch with our own. If you are worried about “cultural appropriation”, you’re missing the point. This is not a game. We’re not playing “identity politics”.

Not only have we lost our shamanic roots, and so need to borrow from other traditions (to be “grafted onto the vine” in the language of St. Paul) but we have lost our spiritual roots. But first things first. First we need to establish our earthy shamanic roots before we can establish our heavenly spiritual roots. We need to borrow some shamanism to establish our foundations. Once they are laid, however, what we build on those foundations need not be imported. We already have what we need in our own Western tradition.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole of it. We have also lost our mystical, unitive, nondual intuitions. To recover this, seekers have in the past few decades turned to the East, to the mystical elements in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism. Although there is a strong Western mystical tradition, it has become increasingly obscured in our increasingly materialist, rationalist culture. Its expression in Eastern religions is much clearer to us, free as it is from our own cultural baggage.

My contention is that WEIRD culture is missing three things fundamental to our physical, mental and spiritual well being, namely, shamanism, religion and mysticism. This is why I promote Shamanic Christian Zen as true medicine for our deracinated modern existence. I have identified six key archetypes which can help orient us towards these missing elements: the Mystic, Shaman, Warrior, Monk (or Nun), Philosopher and King (or Queen). These align naturally with the three broader categories of Shamanism, Christianity and Zen, and point to the qualities we need to develop in order to truly “be the Medicine”, in the forms of the Warrior Shaman, the Philosopher Monk and the Mystic King archetypes.

It is not enough to keep ourselves moist with the contact of other fish floundering in the tub of consumer culture on this ship of fools. I for one would rather be a fish in the sea, even if it means I have to swim alone.