O Books, 2008

ISBN 978-1-84694-121-4

Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain


A main thrust of GreenSpirit is the ‘re-membering’ of ourselves in Nature, the awakening of our sense of belonging to Earth and the deep connection with the more-than-human world that our ancestors probably had and which we, in our fool’s paradise of modern, consumer society, have largely lost.

We can learn much from looking back and noting what has slipped away from us, as GreenSpirit member Barry Cottrell does in the first part of this book. Paradoxically, however, the way to reverse the alienation process is to move forward – forward through our scientific discoveries, our sharpened intellect and our deepened understanding of the Universe. This comes through strongly in Cottrell’s unusual and stimulating discussion of shamanism, past, present and future.  As he points out:

A ritual, and the level of consciousness which it expresses, is very much married to a time and a place, and to the needs of the people in that culture. But life and consciousness are always evolving.” (p.89)

In other words, study the past, learn from it, and then by deconstructing it, use its raw materials to create a new future. Which is what he does, here,  with shamanism.

The book is in three parts.  First, Cottrell takes a new look at pre-history, presenting some interesting ideas about the nature of early humans and their modes of awareness.

It bothers me whenever, in his enthusiastic depiction of the Neanderthal people as differing in consciousness from homo sapiens, he strays dangerously close to presenting speculation as fact – a hazard which anyone seeking credibility for non-mainstream theories needs scrupulously to avoid.

But I find his Part Two excellent. First describing the role and training of the traditional tribal shaman, he goes on to examine the surge of interest in shamanism recently apparent in our own culture. Myself a once-avid reader of Castaneda (1970s) and graduate of Harner’s shamanic training (1980s) I particularly appreciated his clear, thoughtful differentiation of these two approaches and their applicability – or otherwise – to current ecological dilemmas.

Cottrell then shows us, in Part Three, how shamanism’s deconstructed elements can be re-shaped into tools for assisting the birth of that new consciousness that we now know is essential if we are to avert global ecological catastrophe.

The ‘way beyond the shaman’ is found not by attempting to graft on to our culture the totems and rituals of other peoples and other times. Not by seeking power, either, or by feeding romantic mysticism to our greedy egos. But by turning towards our own pain, our own vulnerability, our own dark, inner chaos and, in true shamanic fashion, finding the path there. And above all by immersing ourselves, as shamans have ever done, in relationship with the Earth. For as Cottrell so eloquently says:

‘When you truly regain your sense of belonging to Earth, this elemental awareness automatically brings with it a gentleness and humility towards all other expressions of life. When this sense of belonging is fully experienced, there can be none of the arrogance that characterizes the Western mind still today, the arrogance of the superiority of intellect. And while this may be a book about shamanism, it simply cannot teach more than a minute fraction of what can be experienced, learned, and understood through that greater openness towards the messages in the sky, in the clouds, in the whispering of the winds, in every utterance coming from each manifestation of life around you. When you allow your eyes to see and your ears to hear, you will wonder how you could have relied so much and for so long on the words written in books……’ (p.107)