Spiritual Energy

on November 23, 2010

Tens of thousands of years have passed since the first cultural visions were deployed, and most components of those early visions have long since been superseded, discarded, and all but forgotten. If it were not for the few archaic peoples who still maintain their ancient kinship systems, for example, we would have no notion of the elaborate social constructs which once governed every detail of our ancestors’ lives.

But certain aspects of those visions have proved far more durable. The practical knowledge of how to chip a stone axe or seek the approval of a potential mother-in-law may have faded, but the philosophical structures established in those long-ago times are still with us.

I suggested some while back that every partnership between two dominant visions gives rise to a philosophical system that integrates elements of both in an intellectually compelling synthesis. This kind of tight integration is particularly apparent in partnerships between a scientific and a social vision, which draw upon the ordered structures that humans build into their societies as a model to explain the natural world.

In the mid-20th century, for example, the emphasis that had always been placed by the democracy vision on “government of laws and not of men” was projected outward onto the cosmos, and the universe came to be seen as ruled by simple scientific laws that were even-handed and allowed of no exceptions.

The equivalent philosophical synthesis of 80,000 years ago appears to have been based on interpreting the natural word as the manifestation of a system of simple dualities, all ultimately arising out of the dichotomy between male and female: hot-cold, dry-wet, day-night, sun-moon, fire-water, and so forth.

These dualities clearly reflect the aspects of the natural world that were central to the transformative vision: the mysteries of human reproduction, the alchemical transformation of minerals and plants through the use of fire and water, and the regular alternations of day and night, summer and winter, and dry and rainy seasons.

However, the habit of mind which made it possible to theorize that interactions between a male principle and a female principle were the basis for all these very different transformations just as clearly grew out of the kinship vision, in which an elaborate schema of social relationships began with the simple distinctions between mother and father, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles.

This most ancient of intellectual systems is found in archaic cultures worldwide, from Africa to New Guinea to Siberia to the Americas. Everywhere it appears, it divides the universe into two opposite but complementary principles whose coordination give birth to all things. And although it has been largely set aside in more modern societies, it has never entirely vanished. In the Chinese pairing of yin and yang, for example, the old dualities remain a vibrant part of a sophisticated philosophy of change and balance.

But there’s yet another aspect to this ancient system, and that is belief in a fundamental spiritual energy which — like the Chinese chi — is intimately related to the male-female dualities.

Unlike the dualities, however, this concept of a spiritual force does not seem to be philosophical in origin. Instead, it appears to have grown directly out of the experiences of the earliest shamans and their characterizations of the extraordinary energies they generated within their bodies.

The San of southern Africa — popularly known as the Bushmen — are the people genetically and linguistically closest to the human root, and their culture is frequently taken as a model for the earliest human institutions. They are well acquainted with this spiritual energy, which they call n/um or n/om and associate with the belly and the spine, as well as with an “awakening” of the heart.

As described in Wikipedia:

The Bushmen trance or healing dances are spectacular affairs. … In her book, The Harmless People, Elizabeth Thomas observes that the women sit in a circle around the fire with their babies on their backs and sing the medicine songs in several parts with falsetto voices and clap their hands in a sharp, staccato rhythm. Behind them the men dance one behind the other and circle around slowly taking very short, pounding steps in counterpoint to the rhythms of the singing and the clapping. …

Lorna Marshall, who conducted six expeditions to the Kalahari for the purpose of studying the Bushmen, says that as the dance intensifies, the n/um, or energy, is activated in those that are healers, most of which are the dancing men. …

Katz also says, the singing of these powerful n/um songs helps “awaken” the n/um and “awaken” the healer’s heart; their heart must be awakened before they can begin to heal. The healer undergoes a transformation, which comes after a painful transition into an enhanced state of consciousness, called !kia. This connects the healer and their spiritual healing power, and the community. When healers are experiencing !kia they can heal all those at the dance. !kia is a very special and extraordinary state. …

The transformation experience was described to Richard Katz by an experienced healer, Kinachau, in the following quote: “You dance, dance, dance. Then n/um lifts you up in your belly and lifts you in your back, and then you start to shiver. [N/um] makes you tremble, it’s hot. . . . Your eyes are open but you don’t look around; you hold your eyes still and look straight ahead. But when you get into !kia, you’re looking around because you see everything, because you see what’s troubling everybody . . . n/um enters every part of your body right to the tip of your feet and even your hair.”

Even with the Bushman as an example, it is impossible to know exactly how things went at the very beginning — but I feel fairly confident in drawing certain conclusions.

For one thing, the enduring association between spiritual energy and the system of male-female dualities should not be taken to mean there was ever a complete concordance between the spirit vision and the transformative-kinship partnership.

I believe the original relationship would have been akin to that between the holism vision and the democracy-chaos partnership in the 1980’s. On one level, holism both influenced and was influenced by the philosophical image of an improvisational universe which grew out of the synthesis of democracy and chaos. But on another, the environmentalists and computer pioneers who were the primary devotees of the holism vision — people like Stewart Brand and Richard Stallman — were dedicated idealists who had only contempt for the political side of democracy-and-chaos.

I’m convinced that the shamans of 80,000 years ago were people of much the same stripe as Brand and Stallman — intense visionaries who were willing to accept what was useful from the philosophical toolkit of the transformative-kinship partnership but who otherwise held themselves somewhat apart from it, even mocking its follies in the trickster stories they swapped back and forth.

The second point I see, however, is that this degree of separation and purity could not last. Just as holism today is already far more mainstream and establishment than it was 25 years ago, so the spirit vision that was wild and untrammeled throughout the Old Stone Age would have lost much of its original intensity as it moved into a position of social dominance during the Neolithic.

As it did, it also took on a number of unsavory accretions. The idea of spiritual energy as something generated in the shaman’s own body and used for the good of the community gave way to the concept of a kind of power that could be exploited and manipulated by those who had no understanding of its true nature. As a result, practices such as headhunting, cannibalism, and human sacrifice developed among early agricultural societies. The god-kings of the first civilizations even went so far as to claim a near-monopoly for themselves over the use of spiritual energy, reducing the common folk to mere spectators.

But the third point is that although the spirit vision ultimately became repressive and decadent and was rejected, what was best and purest about it has survived as part of the world’s great mystical traditions.

The great 13th-century Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi, for example, has to be seen as a true spiritual heir of the shamans of 80,000 years ago. Born in what is now Tajikistan, which lies just north of Afghanistan, he may have tapped into the shamanistic traditions which at that time still lingered in Central Asia. He founded the order of the so-called “whirling dervishes,” who employ music and dance as a form of mystical practice in a manner comparable to the Bushmen. And he also wrote of the necessity to awaken one’s heart:

There are many whose eyes are awake
And whose hearts are asleep;
Yet, what can be seen
By mere creatures of water and clay?
But he who keeps his heart awake
Will know and live this mystery;
While the eyes of his head may sleep
His heart will open hundreds of eyes.
If your heart isn’t yet illumined
Be awake always, be a seeker of the heart,
Be at war continually with your carnal soul.
But if your heart is already awakened,
Sleep peacefully, sleep in the arms of Love,
For your spiritual eye is not absent
From the seven heavens and seven directions

Many of Rumi’s metaphors — from the “seven heavens” to the “carnal soul” — were drawn from the visions that were dominant in his own day. But his central image of awakening the heart would have been as clear to the shamans of 80,000 years ago as it was in the 13th century.


A listing of all my posts on deep prehistory can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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