Two Roads Converge in a Yellowing Wood—Shamanism, Science, and Climate Change

Apr 9, 2015 by

Early one high summer evening in Virginia Beach, sick Virginia, ailment during the late 1960s, click I spent time with a Shashone Medicine man, Rolling Thunder, and helped him set up a healing ceremony. It involved two teenage boys both with serious unhealed wounds. Along with about 50 other people, a large percentage of whom were physicians, I stood in the mostly unpaved parking lot behind the lecture hall of the Association for Research and Enlightenment, the organization built around the work of Edgar Cayce. We were gathered in a circle around a massage table and watched as a boy was brought out on a rolling gurney from an ambulance, and lain upon the table. The dressing on his leg had been taken off, and it was easy to see he had a serious wound, deep into the muscle. I had seen such wounds as a medic in the Army.

Holding the breast and extended wing of a crow, Rolling Thunder made stroking movements over the boy?s leg, flicking the wing towards a piece of steak that lay on the ground at the head of the table at the end of each pass. Never touching, just an inch or two above. I understood that the crow wing was a healing totem consistent with his Native American healing tradition. That was singular, but it was what happened next that changed my worldview in several ways. As he made those passes, I and others saw a mist form around Rolling Thunder?s body in the summer twilight, extending about 6 to 18 inches out. It grew in intensity as his hand with the crow?s wing moved over the boy?s wound. It was mesmerizing and, when he was finished and stepped back from the table, we could see the large open wound had closed and looked as your skin does when the scab comes off, taut, smooth, and pink. It defied what any of us doctor or layman understood about the human body, but it could not be denied.1

At the time I was immersed in studying the peer-reviewed literature on parapsychology, and everything I knew about research suggested that this was a genuine consciousness phenomenon brought about through a shamanic technique.

After it was over, I stood in the parking lot staring at the empty massage table replaying in my mind what had happened when I noticed that the steak on the ground was withered, as if decayed. Since I had bought that Porterhouse, and it had just come out of the cooler, I had no idea what to do with that. Nor with the wolf, but it was obvious Rolling Thunder was completely focused on what he was doing. So it involved some kind of intention process, the validity of which was demonstrated by what happened. It taught me like a slap in the face that as I sank into science not to be dismissive of ethno-historical empirical wisdom.

To see what others thought, I got into conversations; it was interesting to observe the physicians. Far better trained about the healing processes of the human body than myself, they came at it with a more expert eye. And what they saw was very disconcerting. They knew from the workup of the attending physician which had been made available, what the boy?s condition was, and what had been tried. What they had just witnessed did not accord with any of that, and it made a number of them very agitated. Reality Vertigo. Confronting an undeniable experience that should not be possible.

At a personal level, the experience played a significant role in my own decision to study the nature of consciousness including the process of therapeutic intention, what most would call “healing.” It also channeled my interest through an anthropological lens. I am the last living founder of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness of The American Anthropological Association. It is largely because of what I witnessed that evening that throughout my career I have pursued parallel lines of research: experimental science, and a cross-cultural study of shamanic, religious, and spiritual traditions, paying particular attention to where they and objective science converge.

I go into all this because I think the same world that came to understand that level of healing might have something else to say, to which we ought to listen. The world of Rolling Thunder is an ancient one of empirical wisdom, developed and refined through years and generations of close observation and passed down through ritual, apprenticehood, and experience. If Rolling Thunder had a hero, it was 19th century Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph, the brilliant tactician who out-maneuvered one of the great battle generals of the U.S. Army, General William Tecumseh Sherman. For Chief Joseph the world was a single living unity. Even artfully retreating from pursuing cavalry, he was observed to stop and get off his horse to “inspect and smell a flower that was new to him.”1 Rolling Thunder mirrored these sentiments and when he began to have a lot of contact with the non-Native American world, often asked psychologists and physicians he came to know, why it was that the ongoing destruction of the Earth was not seen as a psychiatric disorder? He saw the exploitative physicalist worldview as a form of mental illness. And he had a rather bleak view of the future because of the growing imbalances, to which he was witness, in the great systems of Nature as a result of exploitation and pollution.

And in the generation before Chief Joseph, there was Chief Si’ahl (Seattle), a chief of the Duwamish Tribe whose tribal ancestral homelands are in part where the City of Seattle exists today. In 1854, he was recorded as saying, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”2

This same indigenousness sense of the web of life is not particular to North American tribal cultures.

The Kogi—it means jaguar in their language—are an indigenous people who live in unusually remote and isolated mountain range that runs through the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The Sierra Nevada is the world?s highest coastal mountain range. They live quite consciously choosing to remain apart from the general Columbian culture. The believe that one of the mountains in the rane, Pico Cristóbal Colón, is “The Heart of the World” and that they are the “Elder Brothers” and we the others outside their culture are the “younger Brother.”

To guide their culture, the Kogi have developed a shamanic nonlocal consciousness corps called Mamas. The Kogi identify male children at birth and put them in a cave system where they spend the first nine years of their lives, attended only by their mother and the priests. They are taught deep meditation and focusing techniques, that opens them to nonlocal consciousness, which they characterize as a Great Mother they call Aluna. It is a system not unlike the temple attendants at the Delphic Oracle in Greece the Talking Idol of Sihwa—a specially trained temple attendant speaking through a physical idol—in Egypt or the conceptually similar Mayan oracle of Ix Chel on the Mexican island of Cozumel. When they are brought out of the cave and introduced into the larger culture, their role is to open to the nonlocal report what they see about the future, or individuals, or the community. Like Rolling Thunder, Chiefs Joseph and Seattle and many other North American shamans, the Mamas of the Kogi, see Earth as a living network, in which consciousness is fundamental and physical reality, space time, its manifestation. By 1990, just as the first scientific articles about climate change were coming out, the Mamas had become so concerned about what “Younger Brother” was doing to the planet that broke their isolation and reached out. Alan Erira, a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentarian, was given unique access to the Kogi, and the result was the documentary The Heart of the World: Elder Brother’s Warning. If you have not seen it, I recommend that you do so.

The Aborigines of Australia tell a similar story and have similar concerns. What is interesting about these paths is that although they arise in many geographical areas and have different cultural symbols, they have a common worldview: Behind the physical world is a domain of consciousness, a matrix of life inter-connected and interdependent. An interactive world where the individual is both informing of, and informed by this domain of consciousness. In this worldview, humanity does not live independent of the world, in dominion over it, but enmeshed in the matrix. Although couched in symbols that have been largely made clichés as the result of Caucasian co-option, conceptually it is a very sophisticated worldview in which consciousness is primary.

Such views are ridiculed by the materialist science model. In that worldview, the consciousness of each individual is isolated within their physiology. The Earth is a dead resource to extract or dominate. Consciousness has no real role. Gilbert Ryle, Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford, coined “The Ghost in the Machine,” in his book The Concept of the Mind, as a way of criticizing what he saw as Descartes? absurd mind–body dualism. Since then the nature of consciousness has been largely explored only from the assumption that it was an as yet not understood neurophysiological process entirely resident in the organism. Its inherent physicality became an ironbound axiom. However, a growing body of experimental research now challenges this, reflecting a view much more consonant with that of Chief Seattle, Chief Joseph, and Rolling Thunder.

Science is always about change but rarely about a change in paradigm. However, such a change is underway in science. Still a minority position, it is nonetheless the trend direction in a wide range of disciplines, from medicine to biology to physics. Whole new sub-disciplines have emerged driven by the results of this research since Ryle?s dismissive words. This work is pushing toward a new paradigm, one that is neither dualist nor monist but rather one that postulates consciousness as the fundamental basis of reality. Max Planck, the father of Quantum Mechanics, framed it very clearly in an interview with the respected British newspaper, The Observer in its January 25, 1931, edition. Context is always important, and Planck understood very well that he was taking a public position, speaking as one of the leading physicists of his generation, through one of Britain?s most important articles. He did not mince words: “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

For Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal of England, it looks this way, “In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it.”3

Science and shamanism have converged. Science now tells us, as the empirical worldview has been saying for millennia that we do not live on the Earth, we live in the Earth, centered in a cocoon that extends several miles below the Earth?s surface. Worms have been found several miles deep into mines, and in 2013, were found 11 kilometers (6.8 miles), into the Earth’s crust at the bottom of the sea.4 And far above us spacecraft experience atmospheric effects beginning 120 kilometers (75 miles) out. And beyond that lies the protective veils of the magnetosphere. Just as the empirical wisdom of ancient peoples describe, we are embedded in a vast interlocking system in which consciousness plays a powerful role. From the perspective of this matrix, wellness at every level from individual to planetary suddenly becomes the most desirable state, and of primary importance. At this point, both science and shamanism are of one mind.

So it is worth looking at Rolling Thunder?s vision for the future and seeing how it and science compare. As friends who spoke with him record, “Rolling Thunder frequently pointed out that the sickness of the natural environment is a reflection of the sickness of human beings. That Europeans exploited Nature rather than working with Nature.”5

In early June, 2012, a group of scientists who had each spent years studying the earth?s biosphere from many different aspects felt compelled to come forward with a very clear warning: all the life forms on earth faced a human-created planet-wide tipping point whose consequences would be difficult at best, but catastrophic without adequate preparation and mitigation. Their article in the 6 June number of Nature said:

“Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state to another when they are forced across critical thresholds. Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence.”6

A confluence of trends: overpopulation; the continuing destruction of both terrestrial and marine ecosystems; and climate change—they are described as all inter-linked—are creating a world very different from the one in which we live today and the epoch in which recorded human history has taken place, 18th century mini-ice age and all.

“It really will be a new world, biologically, at that point,” warns Anthony Barnosky, professor of integrative biology at the University of California—Berkeley (UCB), and lead author. The data suggests that there will be a reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including, for example, fisheries, agriculture, forest products, and clean water. This could happen within just a few generations.

“My view is that humanity is at a crossroads now, where we have to make an active choice. One choice is to acknowledge these issues and potential consequences and try to guide the future… or throw up our hands and say, ‘Let’s just go on as usual and see what happens.’ My guess is, if we take that latter choice, yes, humanity is going to survive, but we are going to see effects that will seriously degrade the quality of life for our children and grandchildren.”7

And the day after the Barnosky et al. article was published, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a report saying that for the period of March through May 2012 it was the warmest it had been in the contiguous United States since record keeping began in 1895.8

The 2014 climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made our situation very clear: Climate change is almost entirely due to human culture. It is our fault, and we may have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by the end of this century if we are to preserve something resembling the civilization we now have.9

In October of that year, Rajendra K. Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said to the Opening Session of the 40th Meeting of the IPCC: “Much has been made of the growing peril of delaying the hard choices that need to be made to adapt to and mitigate climate change. I do not discount those challenges. But the Synthesis Report shows that solutions are at hand. Tremendous strides are being made in alternative sources of clean energy. There is much we can do to use energy more efficiently. Reducing and ultimately eliminating deforestation provides additional avenues for action. This is not to say it will be easy. It won?t. A great deal of work and tall hurdles lie ahead. But it can be done. We still have time to build a better, more sustainable world. We still have time to avoid the most serious impacts of climate change. But we have precious little of that time.”10

In the world of climate change, the only remediation is to change those behaviors that are creating the problem—or die. As Science Daily reported, “In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive.”11

Psychologist Keltner, co-director of University of California—Berkeley’s (UCB) Greater Good Science Center and author of Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life explains it this way: “Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others. Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.” Rolling Thunder and the tradition from which he arose have been trying to teach us a lesson we finally are beginning to hear. We live in a matrix of life.


1Schwartz S. The Mist Wolf in The Voice of Rolling Thunder. Jones S, Krippner S. Bear & Co, eds. Rochester, VT; 2012: 41–46. [See also The Mist Wolf. Parabola. Spring; 2009: 6–11.]

2Chief Seattle. California Indian Education. ? Accessed November 23, 2014

3Sir Martin Rees. Quoted in: Quantum enigma: physics encounters consciousness. Bruce Rosenblum and FredKuttner, eds. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2006: 193.

4Yong E. Life found deep inside earth?s oceanic crust. Scientific American. ?; 2013. Accessed November 25, 2014.

5The Voice of Rolling Thunder. Jones SKrippner S. Bear & Co, eds. Rochester, VT; 2012: 262–267.

6Barnosky, A.D., Hadly, E.A., Bascompte, J. et al. Approaching a state shift in earth?s biosphere. Nature. 2012; 486: 52–58 ( [PMID: 22678279])

7Sanders R. Scientists Uncover Evidence of Impending Tipping Point for Earth University of California—Berkeley. ?; 2012. Accessed June 6, 2012

8State of the Climate. NOAA Satellite and Information Service. ? Accessed June 10, 2012.

9Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Climate change 2014 synthesis report. ?; 2014. Accessed August 19, 2014.

10Statement by Rajendra K.Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, to the Opening Session of the 40th Session of the IPCC Copenhagen; October 27, 2014.

11Social Scientists Build Case for ?Survival of the Kindest?. Science Daily. ?; 2009. Accessed December 9, 2009.

Stephan A. Schwartz is the editor of the daily web publication The Schwartzreport (, which concentrates on trends that will shape the future, an area of research he has been working in since the mid-1960s. He was previously the Senior Samueli Fellow in Brain, Mind and Healing at the Samueli Institute. For over 35 years, Schwartz has also been an active experimentalist doing research on the nature of consciousness, particularly Remote Viewing, healing, creativity, religious ecstasy, and meditation. He is the author of several books and numerous articles, technical reports, and general audience articles on these topics.

The Schwartzreport tracks emerging trends that will affect the world, particularly the United States. For EXPLORE it focuses on matters of health in the broadest sense of that term, including medical issues, changes in the biosphere, technology, and policy considerations, all of which will shape our culture and our lives.

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