Guttershaman – The Authentic Shaman, part 2 – Body and Soul, Sweat and Coin

21 November, 2009

Where there is money, you have cheats. The two go together.” Eric Cantona

Send lawyers, guns and money – the shit has hit the fan.” Warren Zevon

Previously on Guttershaman…

I was looking at how modern Western ‘Shamanism’ is a mix of ideas borrowed from various native traditions (often without either respect or understanding). I also noted that sometimes the matter of ‘authenticity’ to an existing tradition was not the most significant point – that there are people who seem to have a genuine call to serve their tribe/culture/whatever and attempt to honour this vocation as best they can with the tools and ideas they have at hand. Authenticity to this impulse, if done sincerely and thoughtfully, can matter more than devotion to tradition. The question of how all this becomes even more complex when adding commerce to the mix, I left to examine at a later date.

In between then and now we have had a tragic example of how badly that mix can go wrong.

The story of how three people died and dozens were hospitalised as a result of taking part in a ‘spiritual warrior’ sweat lodge held by James Arthur Ray has been heavily discussed, both within the occult community and outside. (A good primer on this can be found at the Wild Hunt blog and the Wikipedia biography of Ray is also of use.) There’s been an awful lot said about Ray’s particular variation on the New Age Guru – much of it perhaps better left for the legal apparatus.

What is extremely clear, both from reports of those who were involved in the fateful sweat lodge itself and Ray’s own words (on his website – to which I will not directly link – and in his many media appearances) is that his primary focus is money. What’s also clear to me is that his ‘theology’ emphasises something I consider to be one of the nastier habits of many mystical systems – that the soul is far more important than the body.

I think those two points are deeply related.

The idea that spiritual purity and earthly success reflect each other – whether one calls it the Law of Attraction, Prosperity Theology or what have you – may seem to contradict the idea that the soul is more important than the material world. I think that it’s an inevitable result of how soul/body dualism is usually expressed in the West.

The idea goes:

“Money is power. If I have money, I am powerful. If there is a God or spiritual force, then surely my power and position show that God favours my endeavours? If not, surely I would be poor and powerless?”

Add to this the concept that the soul is immortal and thus above/better than the body… and you get the justification for an awful lot of cruelty and privileged behaviour.

“You’re poor? That means your soul is weak, that God does not love you.”

Then, up steps the Guru.

“I can make your soul better. I can bring you wealth in this world and the next. But in order to show you are ready, that your are committed enough to begin this process, you have to make an offering. A sacrifice to the coming purity of your soul and the inevitable favour of God.”

“That’ll be ten thousand dollars, please. Here’s your receipt.”

If you’re the Guru and your prime interest is making money, it’s quite an effective sales technique – and provides a lovely example of just how powerful the Guru’s mojo is. After all, look how much money he has! He must be good at this!

…and if you should fail at the various little tests at the weekend spirit warrior workshop…

…if you can’t break a board with your hand after an hour of preaching (rather than ten years of martial arts training and physical conditioning)…

…if you can’t stay conscious in a sweltering hut covered in plastic tarps with no water or ventilation…

…if you die while under the Guru’s tender care…

..well, that’s a shame. At least your soul learned something. Better luck next incarnation.

This is not to say that it isn’t possible for mystical pursuits to have an effect on the material world – I wouldn’t be much of a magician if I believed that. I also know that spiritual development can demand a heavy toll on the body of the practitioner, that the shamanic path often relies on stress, shock and fear as methods of altering consciousness. But it infuriates me when Gurus and teachers blithely assume that a purified soul is worth any cost to the body.

(It’s exactly the same attitude which leads to exorcisms resulting in the injuring or death of the subject – as long as the ‘demon’ is driven out and the immortal soul saved, it’s considered a price worth paying. As someone who strove to protect in every way those under his care as a professional exorcist and curse-breaker, it disgusts me when the supposed pursuit of spiritual purity is used as an excuse to torture, maim and kill.)

Ray is an especially clear example of how modern conceptions of the shaman are far too often expressed. His publicity makes a great deal about his experiences with several ‘authentic’ native traditions, but also borrows heavily from the layman’s version of quantum theory… while showing a painfully superficial understanding of both. There’s a lot of lip service to concepts such as (one of my all-time favourites) becoming a ‘spiritual warrior’ without actually having any martial training or combat experience whatsoever. There’s also the classic come-along of his Deep Inner Knowledge of Mighty Secrets of Power which he will share with you… for a hefty fee.

And what he’s selling is such a superficial version of wisdom, a weak dilution of knowledge. Shamanism For Dummies.

He, like so many New Age gurus, sells the illusion that someone can become a powerful magician/shaman without actually putting in the work – the months and years of practice, study and trial it takes to develop yourself. This isn’t just cheating his clients, it’s insulting to those who actually have done the work. It also gives a dangerous impression that Ray and his ilk are far more competent in these matters than they actually are. Ray claimed he was an expert, an authority in this field and as a result people trusted him with their lives and souls – and he wasn’t even able to work out that people in hot rooms need to breathe.

I think the thing about Ray that stood out for me most is how utterly plastic and shallow, how inauthentic in every sense, he seems. He comes across as nothing so much as Tom Cruise in Magnolia… I can picture Ray running around a stage, his little wire microphone stuck to his head, declaiming “Respect the cock! And tame the cunt!”. No master of the occult arts – just a salesman.

(An effective salesman, though. Bear in mind he’s still open for business and people are still going on his retreats.)

It’s not that I don’t think there’s a place for teachers of mystical knowledge – or that they shouldn’t be compensated for their time and services. As I said about the appropriation of native techniques, it’s about not taking the piss – not getting greedy, not assuming that everyone has the same strengths and abilities, not caring how hard you push the bodies of those under your tutelage as long as your idea of the soul is satisfied. When you think like that, it’s easy to forget that a person is mind and body and soul together – and that their existence does not come with a price tag.

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Further reading:

Although their focus is mostly on the mysticism of the Indian subcontinent, the Guruphiliac blog has an excellent perspective on the money-grabbing (and ass-grabbing) side of so many alleged spiritual masters.

I also strongly recommend the two-part post at “Thoughts from a Threshold” which gives excellent advice on safety in ritual spaces, which is one of the few positive benefits to come out of the Ray affair.

Pt 1

Pt 2

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Next time on Guttershaman – more on money and Newage, tricksters and con-men. Possibly even Rainbow Unicorns.



Postmodernism in modern banking

5 March, 2009

Hmm… is this becoming a series of posts on ‘posts’?

(Not a bad idea… lends me to fond recollections of Julian Cope and I backstage at one of his gigs, both utterly stoned as could be and him looking me deep in the eye and describing my wives and I as “the most post-christian family I know”. Good times.)

No, this one is about modern banks and how their decline and fall started as a modernist movement, but soon fell into post-modernism as it got non-linear…

The original conceit comes from a New Yorker article (found by Letter From Here blog),

Melting into Air – Before the financial system went bust, it went postmodern.” by John Lanchester

Have a toke on this… it’s long, but satisfying.

There’s something almost nineteenth century about Buffett’s writing on finance—calm, sane, and literate. It’s not a tone you’ll readily find in anyone else’s company reports, letters to shareholders, public filings, or press releases. That’s because finance, like other forms of human behavior, underwent a change in the twentieth century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts—a break with common sense, a turn toward self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English. In poetry, this moment took place with the publication of “The Waste Land.” In classical music, it was, perhaps, the première of “The Rite of Spring.” Jazz, dance, architecture, painting—all had comparable moments. The moment in finance came in 1973, with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Political Economy titled “The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities,” by Fischer Black and Myron Scholes.

The revolutionary aspect of Black and Scholes’s paper was an equation that enabled people to calculate the price of financial derivatives based on the value of the underlying asset. Derivatives themselves had been a long-standing feature of financial markets. At their simplest, a farmer would agree to a price for his next harvest a few months in advance—and the right to buy this harvest was a derivative, which could itself be sold. A similar arrangement could be made with equity shares, where what was traded was an option to buy or sell them at a given price on a given date. The trade in these derivatives was hampered, however, by the fact that—owing to the numerous variables of time and risk—no one knew how to price them. The Black-Scholes formula provided a way to do so. It was a defining moment in the mathematization of the market. The trade in derivatives took off, to the extent that the total market in derivative products around the world is counted in the hundreds of trillions of dollars. Nobody knows the exact figure, but the notional amount certainly exceeds the total value of all the world’s economic output, roughly sixty-six trillion dollars, by a huge factor—perhaps tenfold.

It seems wholly contrary to common sense that the market for products that derive from real things should be unimaginably vaster than the market for things themselves. With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English, and in which there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense. It is difficult for civilians to understand a derivatives contract, or any of a range of closely related instruments, such as credit-default swaps. These are all products that were designed initially to transfer or hedge risks—to purchase some insurance against the prospect of a price going down, when your main bet was that the price would go up. The farmer selling his next season’s crop might not have understood a modern financial derivative, but he would have recognized that use of it. The trouble is that derivatives are so powerful that—human nature being what it is—people could not resist using them as a form of leveraged bet.

And then, once the results of all these leveraged bets became clear (an awful lot of basically useless financial instruments and toxic debts) it all went a bit… postmodern.

The result is a new kind of crash. The broad rules of market bubbles and implosions are well known. They were systematized by the economist Hyman Minsky (a student of Schumpeter’s), in the nineteen-sixties, and their best-known popular formulation is in Charles P. Kindleberger’s classic work “Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises” (1978). Tulip bulbs in the sixteen-thirties, railways in the eighteen-forties, and Internet stocks in the nineteen-nineties are all examples of the boom-bust cycle of a mania leading to a crash. As Morris points out, however, a credit bubble is a different thing: “We are accustomed to thinking of bubbles and crashes in terms of specific markets—like junk bonds, commercial real estate, and tech stocks. Overpriced assets are like poison mushrooms. You eat them, you get sick, you learn to avoid them. A credit bubble is different. Credit is the air that financial markets breathe, and when the air is poisoned, there’s no place to hide.”

The crisis began with defaulting subprime mortgages, and spread throughout the international financial system. Thanks to the new world of derivatives and credit-default swaps, nobody really knows who is at risk from the wonderfully named “toxic debt” at the heart of the trouble. As a result, banks are reluctant to lend to each other, and, since the entire financial system depends on interbank liquidity, the entire financial system is at risk. It is for this reason that Warren Buffett was doubly right to compare the new financial products to “weapons of mass destruction”—first, because they are lethal, and, second, because no one knows how to track them down.

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect. Anyone invited to attend a meeting of the G-8 financial ministers would be well advised not to draw their attention to this.

Give the whole piece a read, it’s quite illuminating. And while you’re there perhaps you can answer one of the great mysteries of our time – why are the cartoons in the New Yorker so uniformly shite?