This is a letter I wrote to the moderators of “New Age Frauds & Plastic Shamans,” a forum that looks to denounce spiritual teachers who are in some way fraudulent. Being that many of my own Shamanic teachers are criticized on this forum, I decided to respond to a query made about my own work, stating that I claim to be a ‘Hawaiian’ teacher and ‘yogi.’ Following is my response.
Firstly, I would like to say to you that I appreciate the work you are doing and find a lot of value in aspects of your forum. I am one hundred percent in agreement that spiritual leaders who prey on women or charge outrageous amounts of money or use Native traditions as their own should be called out. And this should be the case for native and non-native leaders worldwide. There is a pathology to that which is linked to our violent histories, colonization and the greedy and ignorant nature of humans in general.
A few years ago I used your site during research for my book entitled “Reiki Warrior” as I attempt to do my best to be aware of cultural appropriation. Of course, like any human I am flawed, have blind spots and overlook different perspectives; thus the use of your site. “Reiki Warrior” is a look at the connections between Reiki, shamanism, and Buddha dharma. Ultimately I realized those subjects are too disparate, I am not a recognized Buddha dharma teacher and that it wasn’t the right thing to publish. Perhaps you wish to check out the notes on my healing work and preface here: http://katalinkoda.com/my-journey-on-the-healing-path/
During research for my book “Reiki Warrior” I came across your site many times as it references several teachers that I have studied over the years including Carlos Castaneda, Sandra Ingerman, Michael Harner, White Eagle and Brooke Medicine Eagle. These people, however ‘fraudulent’ they may seem to you and the members of your site, have been helpful to me at times on this curious path that is called life. Some of them I have met in person. Some of their work has helped me and some of it I do question. Others I have been inspired by, studied and received teachings from include Malidoma Patrice Somé, H.H. the Dalai Lama, H.H. the Karmapa, H.E. Tai Situ, Kumu Ehulany Stephany, Jill Walton and Harry Uhane Jim. I do understand the cultural sensitivities however, and there are a lot of questions to be asked and I can see that your forum is raising them.
I myself struggle with the word shaman but have used it to describe my work for lack of a better term. Shaman, evolved from šaman, is a Tungusic word from the Evenki peoples, and, as you know, has rapidly grown into an umbrella term for a great many things and indeed pulls quite a bit out of cultural context. Curiously there are also links found connected to the Chinese term, sha men which translates to mean “Buddhist monk,” and the Prakrit term samaya, and Sanskrit sramana-s meaning “Buddhist ascetic.” I have always been very clear about this with my students and clients, that this word is from a particular people and is being used in a different way among the New Age.
Over the years, I have felt uncomfortable at times meeting spirits, becoming a healer and then charging money. However, it is a tricky situation because from my experience the spirits are also very helpful and I can see that people benefit greatly from the healing work. From a basic approach, laying hands on people stimulates their immune system; connecting to our intuition helps us to make better choices about our relationships; listening to the drum can deeply relax us. I have been (somewhat reluctantly) going along this path with opportunities continually presenting themselves to help people. Although I do charge money for healings (at various rates) and sometimes ceremonial work, I also have given hundreds of sessions for free and have led hundreds of ceremonies without charge and continue to do so. However your post brings these questions that I struggle with back to light. See here for more: http://katalinkoda.com/2015/04/new-age-frauds-and-plastic-shamans/
As a child, I experienced spirits and mostly these experiences were terrifying as I had little or no context in a modern western setting. I had a head surgery as an infant and my scalp was cut open, I faced cancer at 19, and the death of a baby girl at 26 along with a multitude of continued spirit encounters. All of these life situations have been full of difficult challenges as well as profound blessings and also inevitably led me further along the healing path. When certain spirit situations became overwhelming, thankfully I was guided by the Tibetan traditions and took refuge with a Tibetan Buddhist teacher. These practices, which have connections to the ancient Bön lineage, bear many protectors and I am better able to navigate this path. My teacher is a very beautiful being, a living Bodhisattva and I take comfort in attempting to work with the practices as best I can. One approach to keep in mind is Right Motivation which I believe helps one in all aspects of life and I continuously check in with this when doing healing work.
I have also connected with teachers from various other traditions and am passionate about story and myth and how this reflects in cultural context. In my own blood line, I am half Hungarian and within that culture are the Taltós, the Hungarian word for shaman, who may be born without any training or initiation. I have no idea if I am connected to Taltós yet this does intrigue me and makes some sense to me.
As for your post, I would like to clarify a few things you have written. I am not claiming to be a ‘Hawaiian’ teacher nor a ‘Yogi.’ I have been fortunate to study with a Hawaiian Hula Kumu (teacher) Ehulany Stephanie who has been recognized as a Kahuna (master) and herself holds lineages from more than a dozen Hawaiian teachers. When I first arrived in Hawaii (after living seven years in India), I was moved by the people, land, waters and spirits there and asked her for guidance in the correct way to make offerings, chant, etc. She has shared with me a great many things and also taught me how to follow the Aloha in my heart.
As for being a Yogi, I’m not sure what you are implying here. I have received my certified Yoga Teacher Training from the Sivananda Ashram in South India, a veritable and recognized organization in India. If you were to identify me as a Yogi, the proper term would be Yogini for a woman and is actually viewed by some lay people of India as similar to ‘witch’ or ‘dakini’ rather than someone who teaches or practices Hatha Yoga. I would not personally call myself a Yogi or Yogini.
During my seven years living in India, I have to say I never came across the kind of hostility that is being hurled on your site when I told people I did healing work. India is full of just as many hucksters and charlatans and predators as well as true spiritual teachers and healers. On your site, I see many healers, teachers and leaders attempting to explain their path as I am doing here, and to be met with more anger, more hostility does not seem like a way to create solutions to these issues. I also see native peoples standing up fiercely for their culture and spiritual ways that have been exploited, robbed, ripped away, exposed, destroyed, and changed.
Although I agree with you that charging exorbitant amounts is ridiculous, I also strongly believe that ceremonialists, even if they are inventing ceremony straight from the land, today, with no tradition, deserve to be honored and paid in a way that supports and nourishes them (as long as they are not doing ceremony which claims to be a tradition that they are not).
My experience in India and Nepal is that you give an offering for ceremony; this is naturally woven into the context of the culture as perhaps it was once with native peoples here. Giving an offering is called dana and is an important aspect of any kind of ceremony or healing in east Indian, Tibetan and Nepali culture. Dana is both a Sanskrit and Pali word that is usually translated as “generosity.” Several accounts of the curanderos, curanderas and other people in South America is similar, that indeed a form of money is involved.
However, in the modern western culture we do not have that context and people would not know to bring an offering, so charging an amount that equates the work going into the facilitation seems reasonable. In the few Peyote meetings and sweats I have attended we brought and offered both tobacco and money. And, on a side note, I found it very curious indeed that at one of the Peyote meetings, led by a Guatemalan man and a Lakota man, we prayed to Jesus Christ. I later discovered that peyote originated in Mexico with the Huichol people. It seems if you research any native lines, you find a great blend of cultural influences in individual races as well as groups and spiritual lineages.
To me, modern day artists are akin to ceremonialists. Musicians are paid money, so are artists, doctors, nutritionists, and massage therapists. Workshop leaders, retreat facilitators, and yes ceremonialists should be compensated for their work they are offering to the world. Ceremony is food for the soul and as probably everyone on this site knows, creating a full ceremony requires quite a few resources and the creator and facilitator should be supported. If we could find more people who are working with ceremony in an even and approachable manner, I think this work also helps people to connect more with their impact on the earth, create a more sustainable life, clean up a river, plant more trees. Who does not need more healing and attention than the earth right now?
To be clear, I am not talking about people who are doing a traditional sweat lodge, charging huge amounts of money and saying they are a part of a nation they don’t actually belong to or are recognized by; that is a pathology unto itself. A student must check in with that person’s teachings and teachers. At the same time, I think a lot of this confusion stems from the fact that people are so thirsty for ceremony, feeling lost, over-medicated, anxious and confused in our world. The earth is at a state of crises. Time and time again I have seen people come to life in a way that is so profound through the simplest of ‘ceremony’ and make healthy changes in their life. In that way, I do respect the work of Michael Harner.
I know that the people on this site have a serious amount of distrust, anger and outrage towards Harner and ‘his bunch’ and the work he is doing. I agree that people need to be educated about what Harner is really offering and I was disturbed to learn that it seems they are taking specific ceremonies out of context without proper offerings. I would be preaching to the choir to note that this is another example of colonization in the realms of spirituality. Clearly, there are a lot of issues with spiritual tourism, false traditional claims, stealing ceremony and promoting it as a false teacher. I have found this to be evident among both native peoples and non-natives in several countries.
For myself, the practices from the FSS gave me a kind of container for the things I was already experiencing and found it beneficial. I also see that Harner, as an anthropologist, is working towards preserving shamans and shamanic cultures around the world including Nepal and Tibet and I have gratitude for that. Personally, I found him to be very straight forward, no nonsense and they do not charge huge fees for their workshops. In my experience, they never proclaimed to be of any sort of tradition nor did we do any practices from a specific nation or tribe.
For all the well thought out questions raised on your site, there does seem to be a lot of hostility, mudslinging about race, nation, etc. that also goes on. As a self identified queer woman, I was surprised to find people taking issue with the term ‘two spirit.’ Every person I have met who calls themselves two spirit is a native person. For such a marginalized group, being native who are then also marginalized by being queer (by both non natives and natives alike), I find it odd that you would have fault in this especially knowing how hard it is as a native person and the work you do.
The word ‘native’ itself is an Old French or Latin word and its oldest meaning is ‘raw’ or ‘unspoiled.’ Later meanings, from the 15th century is a ‘person born in bondage,’ and ‘woman born in slavery.’ Queer’ is a Low German word that is defined as ‘deviating from what is expected or normal; strange,’ and later is also ‘worthless’, ‘questionable’,’ suspicious’ and ‘often disparaging : homosexual .’ In the last twenty years, the gay community has reclaimed this word as a means for identification. We have to use words to bridge divides and make sense of who we are. The entire forum you work with is word and concept based; it ultimately has nothing to do with the methods or practices that encompass spiritual practices from the heart and soul. These are incredibly complex issues and I truly believe in the spirit of open communication and dialogue as a better means to solving problems than questioning or attacking people for the terms that are using for identification.
Many people today do not have the opportunity to receive oral teachings and I value your traditionalist approach, but I hope the energy of this forum continues to create dialogue and build bridges. In all my extensive research on myths from various nations around the world, time and time again we find the stories to be about bringing the world back into balance. People in the past, native or not, have always been going out of balance and the spirits have always been there to remind us how to find a way back to balance.
I wanted to share some thoughts, feel free to publish on your site. I have no preference whether you take the inquiry down or not, but, for the record, I am not claiming to be a Hawaiian teacher or Yogi nor do I claim to be any other kind of ‘traditional’ teacher. I feel strongly in my heart that all people who use the English language have the right to use ‘ceremony’ and regardless of color, nation, gender or any other such identity, in the end, we are all indigenous to the earth. Every single one of our bones will be buried in her soils soon enough.
Thank you for the work that you do,