Interview by Hillary S. Webb with Hank Wesselman Phd.
Adapted from Traveling between the Worlds: Conversations with Contemporary Shamans by Hillary S Webb, Hampton Roads, 2004.
Anthropologist Hank Wesselman has been described by his peers as possessing "the sober objectivity of the trained scientist with the mystic's passionate search for the deeper understanding." As is evidenced by Dr Wesselman's writings and teachings, when these two polarities unite, amazing things have a way of unfolding. When asked, Wesselman himself maintains that, "when these two sides of myself began to come together, my whole life changed a great deal."
Hank Wesselman's introduction to the spiritual traditions of the indigenous peoples began as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, during which time he lived and worked among the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, West Africa. In the 1970s, while doing anthropological research in southern Ethiopia, Wesselman began to experience spontaneous and dramatic expanded states of awareness that defied any scientific explanation. In order to understand these experiences, Wesselman began to investigate the time-tested methodology of traditional shamans. After moving to Hawaii with his family, Dr. Wesselman underwent a series of spontaneous altered states in which his consciousness merged with a man existing in an alternate world. Further exploration revealed that the man, named Nainoa, is one of Wesselman's descendants, living five thousand years in the future. His experiences with Nainoa are described in his autobiographical trilogy, Spiritwalker: Messages from the Future, Medicinemaker: Mystic Encounters on the Shaman's Path, and Visionseeker: Shared Wisdom from the Place of Refuge.
In the Introduction to Spiritwalker, the first of the series, Wesselman writes: "Scientists tend to focus on their goals within an exclusively scientific, intellectual view of the world. I am no exception. I mention this to show that I was in no way preprogrammed for what was to occur. In fact, my scientific training and prejudices would seem to have preprogrammed me against having such an experience."
Because of this, Wesselman, like many in what he calls the "transformational community," suspects that most of us are born with a "spiritual program" on our genetic code-our DNA. What we need to do, he says, is learn to "double click" that program to access states that can take each of us beyond the realm of ordinary consciousness. Wesselman now offers experiential seminars and workshops in shamanism at places such as the Esalen Institute in California and Omega Institute in New York State. His newest books are The Journey to the Sacred Garden: A Guide to Traveling in the Spiritual Realms, and Spirit Medicine: Healing in the Sacred Realms (with transpersonal medical practitioner and soul retrieval specialist Jill Kuykendall.)
Hillary S. Webb: You have said that you consider yourself to be a part of the current "transformational community." Explain what you mean by a "transformational community."
Hank Wesselman: I think of us as the transformational community because we are the people who are acting as a bridge between what was and what is coming into being. Spirituality, like everything else, is changing. My work in evolutionary biology, my ongoing research in Africa, and my meetings with remarkable people in the transformational community over the past thirty years have led me to suspect that there are countless numbers of evolutionary sleepers out there in the mainstream of humanity. These are people who may have an extraordinary biological energetic program on their "inner hard drive," which, once "double clicked," can reveal who and what we may all become as the human species continues its ascent towards the culmination of our evolution.
Evolution simply means, "change." And we're living in a time of great change. Increasing numbers of young people, mid-lifers, and elders are discovering that there are higher functions coded into the personal mind-body matrix. These can remain dormant throughout life, but once awakened, they can transform us utterly. The inner fieldwork of the Eastern mystics suggests that there are timing mechanisms that involve the ductless glands, the brain, and the heart, and once these centers are activated, they can enlighten the whole body, which in turn often undergoes striking changes. Current research has revealed that the actual physical structure of the brain, especially the cerebrum, can be changed in as little as fifteen minutes in response to a powerful altered state experience. Which means that the old adage that the brain is fully formed by the time you're three years old and it's "all downhill from there" is a myth.
Over the millennia, the shamans of the indigenous people developed families of techniques for altering consciousness in specific ways. These techniques constitute a form of technology. We could call it the "technology of transcendence," "technology of transformation," or even the "technology of the sacred."
At this particular time, the human species as a whole has not experienced the triggering of these higher functions. There are those rare individuals out there in the mainstream who have stand before us as signposts, as prototypes of what humankind may become when the whole population awakens and crosses an evolutionary threshold to become a new species.
This is not fantasy but rather a very real phenomenon known to students of evolution as "speciation." When it happens quickly, it is called "punctuated equilibrium." It may be that we are currently approachin that threshold where we could make the jump.
HSW: Will we recognize this evolutionary leap when it happens? Has evolution speeded up so much that we will be able to step back and really see where we were compared to where we are now? Evolution is usually such a slow process.
HW: This is a time of ever-increasing change. When we went from the second millennium into the third, a lot of people took stock of who they are, where they're at, what's not working in their lives, where they'd like to be, what's coming up, and so forth and so on. And this is encouraging change.
In the late 1980s an anonymous Gallup Poll proclaimed that as many as one out of every two of us has had an involuntary paranormal experience at some point in our lives. This also reveals that as the population awakens from the consensus slumber of culture at large-in which everyone is anesthetized by television and hypnotized by the glitter of our gadgets-our life experiences can change dramatically. It is then that we can begin to engage in a true hero's journey, one that can lead us into direct experience of Spirit. And as most of us discover, this experience becomes possible mainly through the doorway of the heart. The key is to connect with the energy of compassion.
HSW: Looking at our current world situation it's hard to imagine that we have really come closer to that kind of universal compassion and understanding that you are talking about.
HW: That's only because the media does not regard it as newsworthy. Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson have written a book called The Cultural Creatives: How Fifty Million People Are Changing the World. Fifty million people represents more than twenty-five percent of the population. These are people who hold a very different system of beliefs and values than those out there in the mainstream.
These cultural creatives are the transformational community, and they know that there are alternate realities, and that it is possible for individuals to learn how to go into these alternate realities to accomplish various things, initially on behalf of themselves, and then increasingly on behalf of others. They believe in the existence of the spirit helpers and spirit teachers that indigenous people know so much about. Curiously, although most are moving away from our organized religions in droves, they all acknowledge some kind of cosmic consciousness or higher God-like being. In addition, Jesus of Nazareth is viewed as an important spiritual teacher whether or not the believer is psychologically Christian.
In addition, the transformationals, like the indigenous peoples, believe in the existence of a field of power that is highly dispersed throughout the universe, that is present within everything and that is densely concentrated in living beings as life force. This is the mana of the Polynesians, the chi or the qi or the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese traditions. Perhaps part of the reason that the Star Wars trilogy was so popular is that we all knew that The Force was real. In anthropology, belief in this animating power is called animatism.
Now, this perception leads to a very strong conviction that everything is connected to everything else, which, in turn, leads to an almost ritual comprehension and understanding of Nature. "Nature" has a capital "N" in our book, and virtually all in the transformational community are deeply concerned with stopping corporate polluters, reversing greenhouse warming, and finding the limits to short terms gain so that we can discover the long term ecological sustainability on which the future of our civilization and species depends. We transformationals are very environmentally savvy.
HWS: You'd have to be. If one acknowledges that there is no distinction between Nature and us, that all is one, then one must also accept that what we do to the natural world we likewise do to ourselves.
HW: And of course this brings up the whole arena of relationship. In the transformational community, relationships are viewed as being more important than material gain. We tend to have a deeply humanistic perspective. We are concerned with the issues of women and children, the issues of minorities, and the issues of the elderly. We are concerned with the well being of everyone everywhere on all levels of society. We watch what is going on in our current world situation and are aghast at what is happening. We are aware that what we've really got on our hands is a crisis of leadership at every level-in the corporate system, in our political system, as well as in the military. It could be observed that our spiritual and religious leadership could definitely use a sweeping general upgrade as well.
HSW: Tell me, do you think that this modern mystical movement is signaling an end to "Rationalism"?
HW: You've asked a big question. I read an interesting book written by a historian named Richard Sellin called The Spiritual Gyre. He has proposed that the idea that Western Civilization has developed in a linear fashion is an erroneous one. He believes instead that our civilization has developed in cycles that have tended to repeat themselves every two thousand years or so.
The first great cycle was the Neolithic period-a cycle in which shamanism was the practice and animism was the dominant form of spiritual awareness-the belief that everything, both animate and inanimate, is vested with its own personal supernatural essence or soul. This cycle came to an end with the emergence of the first city-states among the Sumerians in which a new form of spiritual awareness took form--polytheism.
This next cycle was dominated by the Akkadian Empire which included the Babylonians, the Hittites, and the Assyrians, as well as the Egyptians to the south, the Persians, Anatolians and Greeks in the north, and so forth. In this cycle, polytheism was the predominant religious form with the first stratified organized religions dominated by many high gods and goddesses. This cycle ended with the collapse of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago. What is interesting is that at the end of the last cycle, a new religion came into being: monotheism.
Its three major expressions-Judaism, Christianity and Islam--became the dominant religions in the West for the next two thousand years-the same cycle that is winding down right now. Sellin describes the first stage of our current cycle as a "Theocratic Phase" in which truth was determined by divine direction from God, then interpreted through a politicized and beaurocracized priesthood. This first phase lasted about fourteen hundred years and came to an end with the Renaissance. That's when the next stage kicked in, a "Secular Phase" in which religion was generally discredited and truth was redefined within a new mythology: scientific rationalism. This phase has lasted for about three hundred years. The current spiritual reawakening emerging in the West suggests that it has come to a close.
With the dawning of the age of Aquarius, we have now moved into the third and final stage of our two thousand-year cycle: a "Spiritual Phase" in which science and spirituality will be woven together in an attempt to transcend both previous phases.
HSW: And then?
HW: I think that it is highly probable that history will repeat itself and that a new religion, or perhaps more accurately, a new form of religion will emerge in the West.
This means that many if not all of the world religions may to cease to function within the next hundred years or so. The new religion will then become the dominant form of spiritual practice for the next two thousand-year cycle. That's why what you and I are doing is so interesting. We are spreading the seeds of it, so to speak--seeds that may take root as the next religion.
This next religion, in my opinion, will not about organized anything. If there is one thing that people in the transformational community don't seem to like it is organized religion! What they want is the direct transformative experience of the sacred that defines the mystic. It will no longer be about belief or about faith. The new religion will be about direct experience.
As the Oglala elder Black Elk predicted 50 years ago, with the ending of the current cycle, the primordial spirituality will reemerge, and the cycle of ages will begin again. The current resurgence of interest in shamanism in the Western world seems to bear this out, doesn't it?
HSW: When you explain it like that I can really see how science and spirituality come together. Up to this point we have had to be content with basing our spiritual beliefs on faith, while "rationalism" and science demands empirical evidence. To bring those two together is tremendous.
HW: The philosopher Ken Wilber has proposed that the four levels of spiritual unfolding are belief, faith, direct experience, and personal transformation. The work that you and I are doing is really about the third and fourth levels, because we have gone beyond belief and faith. You can have mythic beliefs, magical beliefs, scientific beliefs, and rational beliefs, but beliefs usually fail to transform us in the end. They fail to carry us. After ten or fifteen years, nothing changes.
That is where faith steps in. Faith soldiers on when belief fails to compel us anymore. And faith can take us in one of two different directions. In one, it can spiral us back down into belief-into religious fundamentalism, the dark side of religion, in my opinion. In the other direction, when faith is doing its job, it takes you to the third stage of spiritual unfolding: direct experience. And when you have had direct experience of Spirit, it moves you immediately into the fourth and final stage: personal transformation.
And that is the goal. Once people have been brought into direct connection with their inner sources of wisdom and power, they change because it is then, precisely then, that they experience authentic initiation.
HSW: You write that the goal of the spiritual quest is "not about clearing up the mystery, it's about making the mystery clear." It's a wonderful line. What exactly does it mean?
HW: I got it from a Zen master named Robert Aitken Roshi. I was at a sesshin in Hawai'i back in the 1980s where he said "Our job is not to clear up the mystery, it is to make the mystery clear." You see, it is all a mystery. The entire thing. The universe, the galaxy, you, me, talking over the telephone-it's all a part of an incredible mystery. And this is what intrigues us. This is what draws us. This is what fires us up to continue on the quest.
HSW: But what exactly is the difference between "clearing up the mystery" and "making the mystery clear"?
HW: Let me put it this way. When I present at conferences, there are individuals who love to get up on stage and wow people with their power point presentations. What they are trying to do is to "clear up the mystery." They like to get inside people's heads and move things around. They've become today's evangelists in a sense. I don't try to move things around in people's heads. What I want to do is double click that program on their inner hard drive and get them involved personally in the mystery. That's what it is all about. When we experience the mystery directly, we make it our own.
HSW: Are we are at a level of consciousness where we can "make the mystery clear"? I mean, are we really able to comprehend the true nature of reality and our place within that framework? Doesn't it usually end up being an individual projection, as if we are looking into a deep, dark pool and seeing only the reflection of ourselves on the surface?
HW: When we practice discernment, we can comprehend it. As we've said, we are living in a time of ever-escalating change. This change is being facilitated by a worldwide communication system and a high technology the likes of which has never been seen before. I think the possibility for personal as well as societal transformation is absolutely enormous. As we approach critical mass, everything will begin to shift in new directions.
When people dwell overly on the negative and start saying "Woe is us," I like to tell them: Look--all the negative stuff that you read about in the newspapers everyday and see on the news programs on television every night-all the embezzling and stealing, raping and molesting, pillaging and plundering-is being generated by only two percent of the world's population. Ninety-eight percent of the world is not involved in practicing murder and mayhem. They just want to have a good life, raise their children, have enough to eat, have enough possessions so that they have what they need, and so forth and so on. It's the two percent that seems to be duking it out, with all the rest of us paying the price. And of course this is what the media regards as newsworthy.
Yet he full awareness of what is really going on is surfacing in the public awareness, and as it sinks in, this is going to move things. There is just no way it's not going to.
HSW: You place a high importance on this idea of awareness. In one of your books-I can't remember which one right now-you even say that existence itself is defined by the patterned flowing of three elements: matter, energy, and awareness. Why is awareness so important?
HW: That's a big question, one that I have attempted to address near the end of my first book Spiritwalker. I was shown a vision of the Big Bang, the creation, in which the primordial source expressed itself into the manifested universe in three forms: matter, energy, and the awareness that each had of the other. That's how all that we know came into being. It reveals that consciousness is a field of existence, just like matter and energy.
The important question to ask is, how will society change when the awareness that consciousness, not matter, is the primary ground of all being takes hold?
This awareness is inextricably interwoven with spiritual experience, and this, in my opinion, is most easily accessed by using the shamanic method. When we as individuals personally experience connection with the unlimited power of the force and when we perceive the presence of a mysterious God-like mind within the all, higher evolutionary functions seem to be triggered within us and some sort of predetermined schedule is set into motion. I don't believe this schedule can be given to us by any outside agency. No holy books, no secret ceremonies and rituals, no leaders or gurus of faiths can do this for us. This is because each one of us has already has it.
HSW: Which takes us back to the beginning of this conversation, doesn't it? Talk about cycles!
HW: And of course, this also brings us to the central theme of your book-shamanism. By using the shamanic method, each person is gifted with their freedom, their sovereignty, and their right to develop spiritually. In the process, each of us becomes our own teacher, our own priestess or priest, our own prophet, enabling us to receive spiritual revelations directly from the highest sources ourselves.
This is an appealing proposition to Westerners, and virtually everyone in the transformational community knows that it is possible to connect with the realities in which all the mysteries, great and small, may become known. This is why the shaman's time-tested methodology will serve as the center around which the new religion coming into being will take form.