Opinion: Scientists, our new shamans?

Published: 5/22/2022 9:02:07 AM
Modified: 5/22/2022 9:00:12 AM

Jean Stimmell, retired stone mason and psychotherapist, lives in Northwood and blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.

“Stories and myths are the connective tissue between culture and nature, between self and other, between life and death,” writes Joan Halifax, a prominent Buddhist teacher, anthropologist and ecologist.

If she is correct, which I believe she is, how do we come to terms with the two very different stories circulating in America today, only one of which will determine our future?

The first is our dominant myth, based on Christianity, asserting our right to control nature as God decreed in the Bible: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28)

Over time, this myth has resulted, aided and abided by Capitalism, in desecrating our natural resources, polluting our planet, and causing the greatest species extinction in history from disruptive climate change. In a word, this myth is leading us directly toward death.

The alternative myth, practiced from time immemorial by Indigenous people, is based on the belief that all of creation is alive. As Jack Forbes has described in Daedalus, “the most important aspect of Indigenous cosmic visions is the conception of creation as a living process, resulting in a living universe in which a kinship exists between all things.” Mother Earth is a living being in this story, as are the waters and the Sun.

Central to Native American belief is gratitude, a feeling of overwhelming love and thankfulness for the gifts the creator and the Earth have bestowed upon them, giving rise to deep feelings of indebtedness.

Black Elk, the legendary Lakota shaman, expressed these sentiments in eloquent terms:

“The Great Spirit made the flowers, the streams, the pines, the cedars—takes care of them. . . . He takes care of me, waters me, feeds me, makes me live with plants and animals as one of them. . . . All of nature is in us, all of us is in nature.”

The choice is clear: if the Indigenous myth is based on renewal while our current Western narrative is steering us toward death, we must choose life. Toward that end, I see hopeful signs coming from an unlikely quarter. When science first arose in the 19th century⁠, it was part of the problem, reducing a reverence for nature into quantitative materialism.

But the worm started to turn with the emergence of Albert Einstein, the genius who, concocting revolutionary new theories, ushered in quantum physics. His initial insight didn’t happen in a state-of-the-art laboratory but from riding his bike in the countryside while performing what amounted to a shamanic trance; Imagining his bike was traveling faster than the speed of light.

In the quantum world, events are unpredictable leading to spooky behavior worthy of a shaman. Examples include counter-intuitive phenomena that defy common sense, like quantum entanglement, which has proven that once two particles interact, they will forever act in unison even if on opposite sides of the universe. And string theory which posits we may be living simultaneously in up to ten parallel worlds, nine of which we can’t see.

Like the shamans of old, this new breed of scientist relish exploring spooky worlds. In the process, I’m hoping they can rekindle our sense of awe at the sheer mystery of the universe, including, of course, our own precious Planet Earth. Scientists have already stepped up to the task. 

Look at the “aliveness” of the following quotes by scientists, celebrating the first image ever taken of the black hole in our galaxy.

Astronomers announced on Thursday that they had pierced the veil of darkness and dust at the center of our Milky Way galaxy to capture the first picture of “the gentle giant” dwelling there: a supermassive black hole, a trapdoor in space-time through which the equivalent of four million suns have been dispatched to eternity, leaving behind only their gravity and violently bent space-time.”

The black hole is not a static entity: It is “gurgling.”

Scientists are so in awe of what they have seen that they are speechless. “It is unknowable,” said Vincent Fish, a research scientist at MIT. “They are the most mysterious objects in the universe.”

To my way of thinking, these scientists are our new shamans, worshipping a living and breathing world, just as Indigenous people always have.

What we need now are good storytellers to make this story so compelling that it will morph into a new dominant myth, a narrative capable of filling us with the same gratitude and indebtedness that Black Elk felt.

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