Interview with Tom Cowan
"At my center, The Sanctuary of Sophia in Mount Kisco, NY, Tom's workshops were always profound. He has the mind of a scholar and the heart of a shaman."
- I think that on the mystical level all religions are the same. But the techniques are different. In Buddhism you're trying to empty your mind of everything, and in Shamanism your mind is very active, engaged with nature-your senses are always engaged.
- Another prayer I use that comes out of Celtic tradition is called a praise poem, but I use it after I meditate. I did this yesterday; I hiked a new trail and sat by a waterfall. The goal of meditating is to feel the presence of something like the waterfall, and then realize that the presence that you are feeling is the soul of that waterfall, it's not just a physical thing. The idea is to realize that there was a spirit who wanted to become that waterfall, so there's a spirit in the waterfall that's older than the waterfall. And finally, the goal is to get into peace and harmony with that spirit. In a praise poem you slowly start saying things like, Beautiful the falling water; beautiful too the rocks that it hits. Beautiful the green moss… The idea is to pair things up and acknowledge them all as beautiful, coming from that spirit. If you do it, and it works, you get a real sense of peace.
- Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of world religions and Shamanism, said that the Shaman is basically a technician of the soul, an expert in healing the soul. So a lot of the healing that a Shaman does is to strengthen or bring back the soul, or to extract harmful energy from the soul.
- There's no dogma in Shamanism. Basically, it's about techniques of healing and being whole and helping the earth. It's about honoring the earth based on the notion that everything is alive and conscious and has a spirit.
- We're here to enrich and deepen our souls with wisdom and all the virtues-love, compassion. But we're here to grow wise through all of our life experiences. And some people do grow wise, and other people get bitter, angry, whatever. But our basic goal and purpose is to serve the whole and to make our souls richer and more worthy to be part of the whole.
Ann: In which spiritual tradition were you raised?
Tom: I was raised a Roman Catholic in St. Louis, Missouri, a very Catholic city. My mother's father was a Baptist, but otherwise the whole family was Catholic as far back as I know. The Irish side has always been Catholic. My mother's side is English and German; the Germans were Catholic and my English grandfather was Baptist.
Ann: Did you feel any of the Baptist influence?
Tom: Not specifically Baptist, but we had a very ecumenical house; we weren't against non-Catholics, as so many Catholics are. My best friend was a Baptist when I was growing up. My family was very tolerant and open about religion.
Ann: Did you ever go to a Baptist Church?
Tom: Not because of my grandfather, he didn't actually go to church, although he had a sister who was a Baptist missionary for a while. But I did go to vacation Bible school with my Baptist friend, David, and occasionally I would go with him on Sundays.
Ann: How many years did you remain in the Catholic Church?
Tom: Until I was about twenty-five.
Ann: And what happened at that time that made you shift away from Catholicism?
Tom: I'm not sure. I was educated by the Jesuits (priests), and I was a member of the order for about four years. I left when I was twenty-three or so.
For a couple of years I was active in what we call the "underground church," or the Vatican II reforms-Pope John XXIII, and the Second Vatican Council, which ended sometime in the sixties. But then all the changes the council had proposed to the Church were being put into practice, and there was new emphasis placed on the involvement of lay people. I realized I didn't want to be a priest in the Church-I could be a layman in the Church.
I did a lot of draft counseling during the Vietnam era, while I was still kind of in the Jesuit environment of St. Louis University. Draft counseling was part of the social activism of the Church, and another part was getting women more involved in the Church. But it was really aggravating work, because change never happens as fast as you want it to. And then when I moved to Memphis to teach and left the Jesuit university environment, I just didn't stay involved in that kind of church-although I was teaching in a Catholic college.
Ann: What were you teaching?
Tom: American history. I loved teaching. I started teaching in 1970, and then I moved to New York in 1980 and I left teaching.
Ann: Now this change that happened-did you lose faith in "churchianity," in church but not in God?
Tom: I never lost faith in God; it was more a question of having faith in the institution of the church and having a need for community. In the seventies I didn't need the community for my spiritual life. I did my own meditation and I kept a journal, and I also recorded my dreams and spent a lot of time in nature. All of that was my spiritual life. I really didn't find a lot of spiritual depth in church; it seemed like the time I spent doing church things didn't have the mystical depth that I was looking for.
Ann: During that time did you study other spiritual paths?
Tom: I've always read a lot about Buddhism. When I was in high school I started reading books about and practicing yoga, and at some point I started reading the Castenada (Carlos) books. But yes, I've always been kind of a seeker for divine truth, wherever it might be found.
Ann: Now your focus is on Shamanism, and particularly Celtic Shamanism?
Tom: Yes. Celtic spirituality, Celtic mysticism is very tribal and indigenous, very nature-based; it's almost animistic. So Shamanism and Celtic spirituality really go hand in hand.
Ann: If I remember, the workshop you lead was very different from all the other workshops I've done. I think you were trying to let people experience things rather than to teach them.
Tom: Yes, that's true. That's true about Shamanism.
Ann: Is there harmony in the spiritual paths you've studied? You have Catholicism in your past, and you're knowledgeable about Buddhism, and now you practice Celtic Shamanism. Do you see those paths weaving together, or are they in conflict?
Tom: Well, I think that on the mystical level all religions are the same. But the techniques are different. In Buddhism you're trying to empty your mind of everything, and in Shamanism your mind is very active, engaged with nature-your senses are always engaged.
Ann: That's always been a big question for me. Buddhists might say, "It's all illusion." To me-these are flowers that we're sitting in, and the birds are singing, and the cat's on the table! This is not illusion to me; it's the profound part of life.
Tom: The illusion part doesn't grab me. But things like compassion and mindfulness, being at peace or in harmony, the idea of big mind and little mind, big soul and little soul-those are common to Buddhism and Shamanism.
Ann: Even in Christianity there's a big mind-Christ within everyone-and then there's the smaller self. If you get the right teaching.
Tom: Yes, but you don't often hear that. I know that idea exists in Christianity, but I think most Christians would say that unless you know Jesus, unless you're devoted to him and give your life to him, you don't have that. But the Buddhists and the Shamans would say everybody's got it.
Ann: Certainly for fundamentalists that idea is very hidden. In The Road Less Traveled, Scott Peck writes about the religions people would pick at various levels of psychological development. He said the fundamentalist viewpoint originates from a lot of judgment and fear. Do the Shamans say anything about that?
Tom: Well it's hard to generalize, because Shamanism is so individual. Every Shaman in every culture has his or her personal view of things, with personal spirits. What I've discovered about people who practice Shamanism is that they tend to grow less fearful of the universe, and I think that's probably true of tribal shamans. I mean they know there are dangers, and we need protection from physical as well as psychic or spiritual dangers. But Shamanism is a system of using the power of the universe to heal and protect and safeguard. So I think Shamans tend to be less fearful.
Ann: You're taught to really hear nature and be guided and directed by it-so that you're not alone.
Tom: Right, you're never alone in Shamanism. The world is just too full of spirit and animals and elements. Even the ancestors-Shamanism is very closely connected to ancestors. We don't think that they're ever gone, as some other religions would say they are.
Ann: Do you really feel that your ancestors are here to support you and watch over you?
Ann: And do you feel that they're from different races and different cultures, or would they have to be Irish Catholic ancestors?
Tom: No, it's the whole world of the dead, the ones who have some interest in me, or in whom I have some interest. I don't think everyone in my bloodline is interested in me, and as a Shaman, you meet ancestral beings from other bloodlines. In some ways, all the people who have gone before us are our ancestors, and they're not lost. They're still interested and involved in our lives.
Ann: I've experienced that and it's quite profound. I have a sense of trust that I may get into trouble, but I'll be helped, and I'll learn from the trouble. Could that be Shamanic?
Tom: Yes, the idea that everything is meant for our growth and our teaching. Everything can bring wisdom.
Ann: In Shamanism, do you believe that we make the choice to come here? Because in some religions it's our choice to be here and this is a school.
Tom: Well, that depends on the culture. In some cultures Shamans believe that and in some cultures they don't.
Ann: And what's your own personal belief?
Tom: I believe that there was some choice-that there was some spirit who wanted to become me-but I don't believe that I chose every single aspect of my life. I think I chose to be born, but I don't know how much I knew. I believe-like Plato's theory-that when you're born, you forget previous lives, but you do choose certain major threads in your life.
Ann: Like being a teacher.
Tom: Yes, I think I definitely came in as a teacher, and I think I definitely came to rediscover Shamanism and animals and to be part of the movement to bring back these old ways.
Ann: Your writing is also a pathway in?
Tom: Yes, I have a real strong sense that I chose to be a writer and a poet.
Ann: I have that in my life too-motherhood and children and community and family. I can try to move away from that, and zoom… I'm right back into it. It's nice to feel those paths though, that direction. You don't know where it's going to take you, but you can feel the force of it.
Do you teach nationally, or internationally?
Tom: I teach in central Europe, Ireland, Scotland, and Canada.
Ann: So people have a great desire to learn about Shamanism now?
Tom: Oh yes, it's incredible. Thirty years ago, who would have thought that there would be this international network of people practicing Shamanism? The times need it. So many of the people who are practicing Shamanism were disillusioned by the religions they were brought up in. Although, some people are practicing Shamanism and are still involved in their churches too…it doesn't have to be a conflict. But I also think that the earth is crying out for people to take a more spiritual view of it: the spirit of the earth, the elements, nature.
Ann: Who have been your heroes?
Tom: I always say there are three. One was a Jesuit priest named John Walsh, who taught theater and drama and art. He taught a number of courses. He called them "God and Man": "God and Man in Contemporary Poetry," "God and Man in the Contemporary Theater," "God and Man in Contemporary Art." We always teased him that it was basically the same course year after year; he just changed the media…theater this year, and next semester it'll be poetry, next year it'll be novels… But his enthusiasm for teaching and for finding God in all these art forms-that's what excites me in the arts. In fact, even my interest in history was more about the history of the artist, the creative person, the poet, rather than political history. But John Walsh really was set on fire by the idea that God, and Christ, was in everything.
Then another of my heroes was Eddie Dillon, whose real name was Edmonia. She died in January of 2000, at the age of eighty-seven. I got the sense of service to a community from her. She and her husband ran this camp for underprivileged kids, and it was integrated back in the forties, before most things were integrated. I worked there for four years. Eddie said that she knew early on she wanted to spend her life working with likeminded people in nature for the good of children. She was very clear. And that idea of working with likeminded people in nature for the good of others has inspired me through the years.
And then the third person is a Cherokee medicine man named Hawk Littlejohn, who has passed on now. I spent some time down at his farm in North Carolina back in the eighties, when I was just learning Shamanism. And I think it was really through him that I learned how to be, in this world of spirits and nature called Shamanism. I didn't actually study Shamanism with him-I mean I went down to fast and to do sweats (sweat lodges) and just hear his teaching, hear his storytelling, watch his healing work. He wasn't teaching me…well that's the way they teach. You just hang out with them, and you watch.
Ann: It isn't a hierarchical setup?
Tom: No, and I wouldn't have been considered a student. But I learned so much from him about the worldview of the Shaman, which I was trying to incorporate into my spiritual practice.
Ann: And that was after studying as a Jesuit, where it's very organized and very detailed, and you have to feed it right back!
Tom: That's right; it really was a change from the way I was educated by the Jesuits.
Ann: Was there a lot of demand on you to do certain things? I mean it seems the Shamans more just give you what they have…how was it for your teacher?
Tom: Well, yes, they just present it, and then you have to take it. But I learned most of my Shamanism from Michael Harner, who still had a western, somewhat academic way of teaching, although he'd given up academia. So I learned it from somebody who knew how to teach the way I'm familiar with learning.
Sometimes it's very hard-just a couple summers ago Harner brought three Shamans from Siberia to the United States. And it was great spending a week with them, but it was so aggravating because they would never just tell you what they were doing or why they were doing something. You have to sit there and soak it up and know that whatever you're learning, you're learning. So I learned a lot from them, but I can't put it into words. It was that way with Hawk and with others too. But maybe this is part of why I was born, to experience both ways…to be rigorously educated by Jesuits, where everything is ordered and pretty rational, and then to spend the latter part of my life in this world where things aren't ordered and rational.
Ann: So you can make the bridge for people who wouldn't have the patience to just go and be. Because it's really hard for westerners, who have been trained to get to the point, to prove it and document it. I spent a week with a Native American teacher, and I had to leave, it was just too slow for me. I'm sure I missed a lot, but it was ten years ago, and I just couldn't do it.
Tom: In teaching Shamanism, I like the tension of trying to use both models. A certain amount of a workshop has to be the Jesuit model: saying, "Okay here's what we're going to do," giving notes, watching people take down their notes. But then there's also got to be that part that's ceremonial and ritual, visionary…the part you just can't put into words, get down on paper, explain to somebody else. You just do it.
Ann: I think so many people in our culture have lost that sense of real meaning, that idea that you can tap into something that is already within you. You probably have some great stories about people who've opened their hearts and their minds for the first time.
Tom: Yes, and it's strange the things that will open people's hearts and minds…things I wouldn't even have thought about in a workshop. After a workshop people will tell me that some little thing I don't remember saying or doing turned their life around.
Ann: You set the sacred space for people to make mystical connections.
Are there any experiences that have taken you to the edge of despair?
Tom: I don't think I've been through despair. As I think back over my life, it hasn't been that dramatic, or traumatic. There were two times in my life when I just felt trapped…I guess maybe depressed, for a couple months. Not severely depressed, I've never been in therapy. But I felt trapped when I was in the Jesuits and again when I was married. Both of these experiences were in my twenties, and they both involved vows. I took vows to be a Jesuit and then I left, and I got married and said those vows. And after roughly three years in each of those situations, I realized that they were not things I wanted to do.
I guess because I took vows seriously (not that I don't now, I just don't make vows anymore!) I had this tremendous worry or fear that if I stayed in the Jesuits, I would get to be forty or fifty years old and realize that I had made a tremendous mistake. And then I would have to either stay and be miserable or leave and think that I wasted half my life. I felt the same thing when I was married. And, of course, being gay too, I just decided I didn't want to lead a double life.
I think in both of those situations I went through a period of time, maybe a year, thinking, "Should I bow out or stay?" There were a lot of highs and lows. I would think, "Ah, I can do it," and I'd ride for a while and then think, "Oh God, I just can't do it!" And I felt a real sense of relief both times…when I left the Jesuits I had no doubts that I was doing the right thing, and when I got divorced I had no doubts. And it might just have been my age at the time too, because since then I've never had that feeling.
Ann: But those are the kind of struggles that I'm talking about…
Tom: I wouldn't use the word despair, I don't feel I was in despair. It was a time of tension and probably a lot of depression that I hadn't thought about before.
Ann: And where did that experience of struggle lead you spiritually? Because you found work right away, that wasn't a problem, right?
Tom: No, no, that wasn't a problem. When I left the Jesuits, I still had one more year to go to get a bachelor's degree, and then I was in graduate school. So it wasn't a question of finding work, and as I said, when I left, I stayed involved in the Church.
Ann: So you had a spiritual community, and a way to really express yourself, because you were doing outreach work at the time.
Tom: And the spiritual community was part of the academic campus that I was on. And then when my former wife and I got separated, I stayed on in Memphis, and then four years later I met my current partner of twenty-four years. But during that time, I had friends and lovers, and I was teaching. I had an academic community, colleagues, and good friends. It didn't seem to change my spiritual life.
Ann: Do you know what the forces were that brought you to Shamanism? Do you have a sense of those turning points?
Tom: Well as I said, in the seventies in Memphis, my spiritual practice pretty much consisted of meditating, praying, keeping a journal, following my dreams and spending lots of time in nature-hiking, camping. And when I moved to New York, in 1980, I was so cut off from nature living in Brooklyn that I started reading about it voraciously. It was right at the time when a lot of Goddess theology was coming out. And Starhawk's book on witchcraft and Harner's book on Shamanism were published, and native people were starting to teach. I got swept up into that world.
So I think what pulled me strongly in that direction was the absence of nature. I started reading, and then I realized that there were many spiritual traditions based in nature. In 1983 I met Harner and started studying Shamanism. I often wonder whether I would have discovered Shamanism if I'd stayed in Memphis, in an academic community-where I had to keep most of my study and reading focused on history, and I had plenty of nature around. I probably would have, but in a different way and probably later.
I came to Shamanism really out of desperation-a real hunger for nature that was no longer in my life. And I think for a community that was no longer in my life. When I moved to New York with Jack, I was a freelance writer from the start, working at home. So I had no one to work with, I was isolated. Not that I didn't enjoy it, I really liked the freedom of not having to go to an office or grade papers. But I was also seeking a community of people, and I found it in the so-called New Age.
Ann: Which spiritual practices do you use now to help you follow your path?
Tom: I try to drum three or four times a week and journey while I'm drumming. Every morning I do my prayers to the four directions and the land. I spend an awful lot of time out there. Every morning I have my little rituals to the Earth. I'll put out lavender or milk or cookies for the fairies and the spirits, and pray to the four directions. And I still keep a journal, and I also write. A little over a year ago, as part of a bardic training program I was in, I began to write nine lines of poetry a day. I did that every day for a whole year. Now I just do it three or four times a week. I'm still in the program, but we're doing other things now. I use different kinds of divination tools on an almost daily basis-pulling a card or a rune to get an image from the spirits as to what's important for that day. I'm also part of a drumming circle that meets every other Tuesday. There are nine of us; we're a real strong group and we do a lot of work together. And I consider the time I go hiking in the woods or spend by the river to be part of my meditation. I never do anything like that without being aware of the spirits, of the sacredness of that time in nature.
Ann: Now, when you say meditation, is it just a time of quiet to be with nature, or do you use any kind of chants or mantras?
Tom: Sometimes it's just quiet, sometimes it's singing songs.
Ann: Are there Celtic chants?
Tom: There are a lot of prayers, incantations, and blessings. There's a prayer that I say a lot; I vary the words, but one version is, "I thank You, oh Great Being of Life (or God, or whoever you want to pray to), that I have risen again today, and to the great rising of life itself. As the morning mist scatters from the crests of the hills, may all ills and worries clear from my soul." And I'll change it, I'll say, "I thank You, oh Great Being, that I am once again sitting by the river, and by the great river of life itself. As the sunlight sparkles on the water, may love and hope shine in my soul." This is a formula, and when you know the formula and what each line is doing, you can just change the prayer as you need to.
Another prayer I use that comes out of Celtic tradition is called a praise poem, but I use it after I meditate. I did this yesterday; I hiked a new trail and sat by a waterfall. The goal of meditating is to feel the presence of something like the waterfall, and then realize that the presence that you are feeling is the soul of that waterfall, it's not just a physical thing. The idea is to realize that there was a spirit who wanted to become that waterfall, so there's a spirit in the waterfall that's older than the waterfall. And finally, the goal is to get into peace and harmony with that spirit. In a praise poem you slowly start saying things like, "Beautiful the falling water; beautiful too the rocks that it hits. Beautiful the green moss; beautiful too the ripples in the pool. Beautiful the sunlight on the moss; beautiful too the shadows in the cracks. Beautiful the mist in the air; beautiful too the breezes and the wind." The idea is to pair things up and acknowledge them all as beautiful, coming from that spirit. If you do it, and it works, you get a real sense of peace.
Ann: Do you teach those specific things?
Tom: Yes, I teach those things.
Ann: And your workshop is on the weekend or on Sunday? What do you do?
Tom: I have two, three and five day workshops. The tour to Scotland is ten days. It varies depending on the situation. Shamanic workshops are a combination of training and retreat. Some people want to learn techniques for doing healing-praying and things. Other people come more to be in a sacred space, to do a spiritual retreat for a weekend or five days. So workshops tend to be a combination of those things.
Ann: Do you do specific work on healing? Are there particular prayers?
Tom: In Shamanic healing, there are three or four basic things; one is extraction work, where you pull out the energy or the spirit that's causing a person problems and you send it back to the universe. Then you bring power to the person in the form of animals or the elements. And then there's soul retrieval; if a person's problem is due to soul loss, the Shaman knows how to retrieve the soul and put it back in. All of these require continuing work on the part of the client-these aren't quick fixes. So sometimes the client has to stay in touch with me, or whoever the Shamanic healer is, to integrate.
Ann: I don't use that exact term, but I really try to do that. You can see when there's something that's really hurting and blocking the person; it's three-dimensional, or dimensional anyway. And there's a way to relieve that, but then the person is kind of open, right?
Tom: In a sense you need to fill up the emptiness. You need to remove what's blocking or hurting or harming the person, send it on, and then refill that emptiness, that gap in the person's life. And I think probably most Shamans would say that being healthy and well requires a strong connection with the spirit world and nature, and usually the problem is that a person has lost that connection. Through ceremony and ritual practices, the Shaman knows ways to strengthen that connection to nature.
The Shaman works a lot with the soul. Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of world religions and Shamanism, said that the Shaman is basically a technician of the soul, an expert in healing the soul. So a lot of the healing that a Shaman does is to strengthen or bring back the soul, or to extract harmful energy from the soul.
Your soul is vulnerable. It might be hurt, or even lost. But there's a way of preventing soul loss when you're going into a situation that's threatening. An example I use when I'm teaching-because everybody can relate to it-is when you have to spend time with your parents, or sometimes with your children. They push your buttons, and you lose your temper, you lose your patience, you get aggravated. On some level, your soul is affected by that-it's not growing, or it's harmed in some way. If people hide those parts of their souls before they have to visit their parents, they discover that they really do get through a visit better-they find they have more patience. But whether they lose their patience with their parents or not, they have more energy to put into the visit-energy that they would have been using to protect their soul. After a visit they can retrieve the part of their soul that they hid. I just started teaching this a year a two ago, and people have been writing me to tell me that it really works. This technique can also be useful before going into the hospital for an operation. You hide the part of your soul that feels threatened, that could be hurt, and then retrieve it after the operation.
Ann: The term "soul retrieval" implies that you've lost your soul?
Tom: You've lost part of your soul.
Ann: And how would you get it back?
Tom: Well, you journey into the other world to find out where that soul is hiding or lost or stolen. Sometimes people steal each other's souls; parents steal their child's soul, or a divorcing couple will steal one another's souls. Sometimes when a person dies, the person who survives will say, "I feel like part of my soul went with him when he died."
You can tell by the way they talk about it…
Ann: They're living back in that other time, they're not even here.
Tom: When people have memories of abuse, they might say they don't remember their childhood. If they have great gaps of memory, it's a good sign that the soul left during that period of abuse or trauma and didn't return. People who have been in head-on collisions in cars will tell you they don't remember the last five seconds of accidents, because their souls left. Sometimes the soul doesn't come back, and then they feel lost or empty or incomplete. So the Shaman knows how to journey into the other world to find that part of the soul.
Ann: Does the Shaman actually see the soul?
Tom: Yes, and brings in back. There's a tribe of people in the Yukon, I don't remember what they're called, but when they leave their summer fishing quarters and go back up the river to their winter quarters, they all know that their souls want to stay in the summer camp. So when they get out in their boats, the last thing they do before they actually start up the river is perform a soul calling ritual; they call their souls to come back and join them. So their souls don't stay in the summer camp. I've found that people who are moving sometimes need to do that, especially if they don't want to move. We need to do some kind of soul calling so they don't leave part of their soul behind.
On the other hand, it's not always wrong or bad to leave part of your soul. Part of my soul is still in Missouri, in the Ozarks, where I have a power spot, where I've done vision quests. It's one of the places where I really learned how to see the spirits in nature, and I feel like part of my soul has stayed there. But that's a good spot for it to be. I journey to it, and I don't feel like I've lost it there-it's empowering me, even thought it's not with me.
Ann: You don't have to actually go to the physical spot, you can just go there in a vision.
Tom: Yes, but I also go to the spot physically. I try to get back every four or five years, whenever I can. But if part of my soul stays there, it's actually empowering me.
Ann: I work a lot with young women who have experienced incest, and you can tell that there's a whole aspect of their being that's just on hold. I spend a lot of time talking to people about energy, and there are some people you know are not in their bodies at all. They're living somewhere externally, and there's something there, otherwise they wouldn't be able to function, but there's no real pleasure in life. I think we really need our bodies, we need to be connected to the earth in order to get the pleasure of being here. It's very difficult to be just a spirit hovering around.
Tom: That's right, that's a very Shamanic way to put it.
Ann: Is there a God in Shamanism? Do you name it as God?
Tom: It depends whether you're talking about African Shamans or Siberian or Arctic Circle or Aboriginal. A Shaman works within his own culture, so if it's a culture that has a creator God or creator Goddess, or Spider Grandmother, then there is a God figure. When I taught Shamanism to two Benedictine monks, it didn't change their faith in God or the Virgin Mary or the saints, they just began practicing Shamanism.
Shamanism is a technique; it's a spiritual technique like fasting. You can fast in any tradition. The only thing difference is that if you didn't believe in them before, you end up believing in the spirits that exist in nature. I think you start to believe that there is a consciousness and divine light in nature.
Ann: Is there a unifying force though, in that nature?
Tom: I believe there is.
Ann: You don't have to?
Tom: No, no. There's no dogma in Shamanism. Basically, it's about techniques of healing and being whole and helping the earth. It's about honoring the earth based on the notion that everything is alive and conscious and has a spirit.
Ann: My next question was whether you can hear God answer you-clearly you can hear spirits answer.
Tom: Yes, and God answers too. I believe every spirit and every piece of life is an aspect of the divine, of God.
Ann: And what if it's a dark spirit?
Tom: That's part of God.
Ann: Do you use the word "evil?”
Tom: I don't, personally. It's too dualistic, and Celtic spirituality is very non-dualistic. There's a place for bad things to happen or harm to occur.
Ann: So things like rape or incest or killing…
Tom: They're bad, they're harmful; we work against them and try to prevent them. But the people who do those things do them under some sense that they're doing good. And again, this just goes back to Plato, it's not really Shamanism-we all seek what we perceive is good. Some people perceive the wrong things as good and some people hurt other people. It doesn't mean that people who do those things are not good; they're pursuing their good as much as I'm pursuing my good. It's just that what they think is good is dreadful, violent, sadistic. It needs to be stopped.
They're driven by their desire for goodness, their desire for God, but it's so dim. Platonists like to use the image of the light: In some people the divine light is so dim, so turned down, they don't realize that what they think is good for them is really harmful. Hitler was doing what he thought was good-for his party, the German nation, the race. And yet what he did was dreadful-evil, if you want to use that word. But I want to try to avoid the idea that there's a good force and a bad force warring against one another, and it's iffy which one is going to win. Or the idea that they're warring for my soul-I'm not sure I ever quite believed that part of Christianity.
The problem I have with the concept of evil is that if you say there is such a thing as evil, then I think you've got to say that there are certain people who have no good in them. And I can't say that; I believe strongly that there's good in everybody, and that that can be nurtured. If I say, "So-and-so is evil," I would have to say, "Well there's no spark of goodness in him, there's no spark of God in him." And that's not how I feel; there's God in everything.
Ann: So we covered a little bit the question of why bad things happen to good people…
Tom: And my answer is that bad things happen to all people! It's part of life. And again, that's kind of a Shamanic and a Celtic view. Somebody once said jokingly, "What do you think of death?" And the other person said, "I'm in favor of it."
Ann: There's always renewal; Mount Saint Helen's erupted-and then all sorts of trees grew, the seeds had been hidden. In Shamanism, aren't you always looking for the birth?
Tom: Right, the rebirth, and the cyclic nature. There's life and death and then rebirth. Constantly. The whole idea is of time as circular, and seeing the nature of reality in a seed-you've got to have winter, you've got to have night, you have to have storms, you have to have death so that new life can come.
Ann: And that just deepens your perception of life and the meaning of life. What do you think is our place in the world? Are we here for a specific reason?
Tom: I think we're here to build our souls…"soulmaking" as John Keats put it. We're here to enrich and deepen our souls with wisdom and all the virtues-love, compassion. But we're here to grow wise through all of our life experiences. And some people do grow wise, and other people get bitter, angry, whatever. But our basic goal and purpose is to serve the whole and to make our souls richer and more worthy to be part of the whole.
Ann: You've spoken about ancestors. When we die we could become ancestors who help people; we might take on that role. But could we choose to come back if we want to? Is that really a choice?
Tom: I don't think the same thing happens to everybody the minute they die. In the Catholic version, they all go to Heaven or they all go to Hell. I think there are probably as many things to do after you die, as there are to do in this life. Some people come back, some people become part of nature, some people may go to a heavenly place, and some people may disappear.
I often think that if so many people believe that you just end when you die, they must have some insight into something. Maybe there's a time after a number of lives, maybe even just after one, when those people are just going to go back into the godhead and be no more. I don't feel that for myself, I really feel I'm still going to be around. And I know certain people in my life who have died who are still around. But maybe the people who say there's nothing after life have insight into what's going to happen to them next.
I don't know if I'm answering these questions from a tradition-it's more my own tradition!
Ann: But I think there is a hunger in everyone to develop their soul, and some people just don't know how. What you're doing is giving people an opportunity to step out of classic American culture.
Tom: I just read the book Tuesdays with Morrie, and he says if your own culture isn't working for you, then you have to have the guts to just drop out of it. I'm at a point where my spiritual path is so eclectic and involve so many bits from different traditions; I can't speak as a representative of any one of them. I've been a Shaman practitioner for seventeen years, that's consistently been my spiritual practice, but my beliefs are a real hodgepodge.
Ann: But you're radiant, you're filled with light, so it's working for you!
You've written a book, Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit, and then after that you wrote another book…
Tom: I've written books called Shamanism as a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life, and The Pocket Guide to Shamanism. And then my latest one is The Way of the Saints.
Ann: About Catholic saints?
Tom: Yes, all Catholic saints. I did it because I was asked to, the publisher wanted a fresh look at the saints.
Ann: It's interesting that you would do that when Shamanism is really your heart. Was it a good study for you?
Tom: It was; I was trained as an historian, and I enjoy going back in history and looking through people's lives. And I like writing short biographies. I created a prayer and a spiritual practice based on each saint's life. And the prayers and the spiritual practices are not traditional Catholicism; in fact, all my so-called Pagan friends really like those prayers and practices! They're rooted in the earth; they're Shamanic practices.
And I did not emphasize what is traditionally emphasized in the lives of the saints. I tried to emphasize something that modern spiritual seekers would find interesting. For example, Saint Patrick-I didn't emphasize the fact that he was a big missionary to the Irish, I emphasized the fact that he had a spirit guide named Victor who appeared to him at key moments in his life. Some biographies say it was an angel, but in his autobiography he doesn't say who it was. So I didn't emphasize the traditional Catholic stuff. And I treated the saints as ancestors: Here are the spiritual seekers who lived before us. What in their lives might inspire us? It wasn't like going back to Catholicism, although it obviously deals with Catholics.
Ann: Did you get any flack from the church?
Tom: Actually the Catholic Book Club made it their book of the month, so I guess it's working.
Ann: Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Tom: Just that it's important to have a spiritual practice. Do something daily that roots you and grounds you in the spirit; God and I would say nature-the spirits, the seasons, the weather. Whether that's prayers or meditations or rituals.
Ann: And it's all right to experiment?
Tom is a shaman, author, poet and master teacher who teaches nationally. His three books are: Shamanism- A Spiritual Practice for Daily Life, Fire in the Head-Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit, The Way of Saints-Prayers, Practices and Meditations.