Céline Baron interviewed by Mikis Wesensbitter
Shamanism brings images to mind of sweat lodges, bone dances and Native American feathers in one’s hair. Where are you with regard to all of that?
I feel both close to and distanced from it.
Let me give you a couple of examples. They’ll reflect my opinion about it.
When we’re talking about traditional shamanism - as strange as bone dances and Native American feathers may sound - these images make sense in this context. Naturally, they’re conveyed this way in the psyche.
I’ll begin with the sweat lodge. It represents one of the most important ceremonial sites in healing. And this site represents our cosmos. It’s where the four cardinal points and the four elements intersect - the great teachers of the shaman. It’s no surprise then that the sweat lodge plays a central role. Nevertheless, I don’t lead sweat lodge ceremonies.
About the bone dances and Native American feathers in the hair: you’re familiar with the black-and-white photos that portray old shamans in their traditional costume. Here we see them: the famous feathers, bones, claws, teeth, pieces of animal skins and metal, bronze mirrors, all kinds of symbols and so many other things that I can’t begin to list them all. That’s the way it should be. These implements represent the shaman’s helpers, and I personally think it’s wonderful to realize that they’re endless. Nevertheless, one can choose one’s favorites.
To be precise, when you have an eagle’s feather, you’re inviting the eagle’s spirit to join you. The feather embodies - to use another kind of vocabulary - the characteristics of the eagle: its ability to recognize structures, to quickly zoom in on details, to maintain distance from a situation, to act without emotion. The following law applies: a part of the whole calls up the whole. So when the shaman begins his “bone dancing,” when he begins to pray, to move, he’s calling - in the truest sense of the word - his helpers. Without them, the shaman cannot work. They’re the ones that lead him and offer orientation in the other worlds.
I know because I was allowed to experience how powerful these implements can be. I experienced how loud the call of metal is, how intensely the bear’s fur can support a ritual, or how magical the effect of a raven’s feather can be.
But what does my reality look like? I’m a townsperson, or even big city person. I come from Paris, live in Berlin. I don’t live in Siberia or in North America. As such, I don’t maintain a close relationship with nature. I hardly draw from that in my practice. My environment is the city. My vocabulary, my habits, my way of living are those of a person in the 21st century (whether that’s good is another question). I do not want to forget it, however. I should not forget it. I would feel unworldly. And as attractive as these images may be to our minds, they don’t necessarily correspond to our daily lives. They’re sources of inspiration. The focus of my work is to draw from and translate ancient knowledge. Then I share my acquired knowledge and teach it. It should be adventurous. Nevertheless, I strive to be understood. I talk about concepts; I integrate them and don’t necessarily - or not systematically - require a representation of them. As you can tell, I’m not a fetishist.
Children are still very receptive to spirituality. As an adult, the rationality of school and everyday life see to it that spirituality fades away. What was that like for you?
I was still a child when I asked myself for the first time whether there is a God. As you can imagine, I did the most natural thing in the world: I went to my parents and asked them about it. The answer was short and concise: “There are wars. People die as a result. Hence, there can be no God.” You probably suspect it - my parents were anything but religious and, with their world view, gave me what was a very logical and rational answer for a child. For a few years that subject was no longer of interest.
Time passed. I was a teenager. My fondness for books brought up the great metaphysical questions once more. I loved literature; most of all, our French surrealism and the Theater of the Absurd. One day I found myself holding The Hermit, the only novel written by the playwright Eugène Ionesco, and, as far as I can remember, the hero wonders whether between himself and the chair, between himself and the table, between himself and a fellow human being there was something, something that he can’t easily perceive. I followed some of his thoughts to the heavens, through the universe, to what was discoverable beyond. How should I say this? It was the starting shot. From that moment on, these questions were on my mind - not continuously, no. But they were always in the background, somewhere. They were waiting... and I studied literature.
Could one describe your work as “big city shamanism,” which speaks to people looking for ways to find their place in the (new) structures of modern life?
Yes! As you can see, my answer is short and sweet. With “big city shamanism” I am not inventing anything new. Others long before me have defined and recognized themselves in it. I assume that these people have or had a similar intention: to implement archaic techniques in the present. As for me, I think about working with trance and the performance of rituals, among other techniques. Shamanic practices have perpetuated themselves for centuries and are therefore still used today. Besides, it makes their implementation in the here and now even more vital. In my eyes, these techniques are timeless, yet also contemporary.
What do I use them for? Mostly to accompany people who are searching for their potential, for their strength, for their place in our modern society. For those who have questions and would like answers. For those whose curiosity and thirst for discovery need to be quenched. Playful and light. My approach is only one of many possible paths to discover life in a different way. What I reveal are possibilities. And possibilities should not confine but rather broaden one’s horizons.
Do your workshops function according to the teacher-pupil principle, or is it more an exchange of experiences in which all participants can play a part?
Do my workshops function according to the teacher-pupil principle? In a certain sense, yes, even if the fundamental difference to this principle is, firstly, that my work should be understood as an invitation and not as an obligatory event and, secondly, that I don’t teach generally accepted truths but rather offer possible ways of seeing the world.
But to come back to your question: To what extent is there a teacher-pupil relationship? Perhaps as a matter of course, because I allow for a certain structure, decide on a particular framework and convey the bulk of knowledge in the moment. I create the sequences, thus leaving little to chance. I know where we - teacher and pupils - are going together. At the core of my teaching are challenges, time, space, unleashing one’s own potential, intensifying one’s own power and possible healing movements. And as great as exploring and uncovering love can be, experimenting should be just as safe and relaxed. It’s my responsibility to make sure it is.
Once the context has been set, a lot of free space and freedom of movement is created of its own accord. It sounds contradictory, after I’ve described how structured my approach is, but it isn’t. Starting with the moment in which the frame is determined, I become a companion. I still play a role but not “the” role. Every student has his or her own very individual experience. Whoever wants to can talk about it and have an exchange about their experience. There is no single truth but rather various world views. When it comes to trance work, for example, who is supposed to decide what is right or wrong? Who can say whether that which someone else has seen exists? Everyone is invited to share his or her own perception. For me this represents enrichment par excellence. I learn more. I’m inspired. I also become a pupil, and the principle of teacher-pupil suddenly vanishes.
According to the clichés for shamanism, green and black must appear dominantly. Or is there no particular color that overrides, and instead all colors are allowed to be present?
You’re confusing me with that question. I have to admit that I didn’t know that the colors black and green should appear dominantly.
In shamanism, as with many other practices, you can approach very different areas of life. That’s why it’s difficult to imagine that the palette is reduced to two colors. Nevertheless, I work according to a model that’s defined by six colors. They’re fundamental colors that still allow for - or rather, include - all other nuances of color.
The model is a wheel of the four directions, also called a medicine wheel. On the one hand, it serves as a map and offers orientation like a compass. On the other, it describes the cycles - that is, the cycle of days, years, life or otherwise. The wheel is comprised of four quarters, and here’s where we get to the colors: yellow stands for the East, red for the South, black for the West and white for the North. In the middle is a green inner circle, which represents the earth, and along the edge is a blue outer circle, which stands for the heavens. My teacher Daan van Kampenhout has this wheel and its four fundamental colors from his teacher, the Lakota medicine man Wallace Black Elk. The inner and outer circles appeared to him in a dream. He thus adapted the wheel to his work. Depending on the tribe, the wheel can be made up of totally different colors.
Each person has his or her own model and traditions. Nothing is better, nothing is worse; it is simply different. In a natural step, I have taken on Daan’s model.
What at first glance appears to be merely a two-dimensional circle with six colors becomes, for those who have cultivated its use for years, the concrete representation, the existence of the four great teachers: the four cardinal points, supported by the heavens and the earth. In each part of the wheel is another wheel and another wheel and another wheel. A never-ending image with countless nuances of color that mix with each other...
We’ve now given shamanism colors. But how does shamanism sound? Is there a certain kind of music, or is this individual as well? I’m imagining a man with a long grey ponytail, pounding on a drum and dancing. To be honest, I don’t like this image. How do you feel, and which sounds do you hear?
What role do sounds play? How do I perceive them?
At the beginning there is the voice. It’s the instrument that opens a path and determines direction. Words and tones express my intention. It can be melodic. It can be poetic, and animal, earthy, confusing. Depending. There are musical recordings in which you sometimes hear shamans communicating with their helpers, and then how they cry like their power animals. You hear how the horse-skin drum is beat. It symbolizes the horse on which the shaman rides when he is on a journey. The drum is obviously the means of transportation. This the point at which I appreciate the image of the old man with long hair, playing, dancing, traveling, and also the drum he must beat. In this case, I let the world of sounds and tones simply have their effect on me.
Even when it seems theatrical, these “stagings” fulfill very specific purposes. I’ll give you another example. The traditional shamanic costumes are often decorated with various pieces of metal. Some elements are supposed to keep the evil spirits at bay, others stand for the invitation to the helpers. The varied sounds of metal create their own, unique music. Protective prayers or chants were spoken aloud during the forging of the glowing red pieces of metal. When the shaman or the smith together plunged the metal parts into the cold water, the prayers were “locked in.” And so there seems to be an individual and ritualized style of chanting and music that can in turn be universal, determined and passed on.
As you can tell, my answer to your question - whether there is a specific kind of music - is not categorical. Is not the world of sounds and tones as varied as that of colors - even in a shamanic context? I wouldn’t permit myself to reduce them all to just one. Personally, I let the music come to me. If it’s there - not always, I must say - I sing it, and if not, then I don’t. It shouldn’t be forced.
Let’s look an another entirely different aspect: Is shamanism actually erotic?
“Actually” in what sense? Yes, of course, a lot of things are possible. Let’s get to the root of it. According to Greek mythology, Eros belongs to the primordial deities. Born from the void, he has neither mother nor father. He represents unity. He is the origin of all things. He integrates and unifies contrary principles.
When I look at one of the central ideas of shamanism, I see the integration of our versatile aspects. This is where eros and shamanism meet. Imagine a ritual that deals with your life energy, your creative power, you as a whole person. Imagine that it deals with your male and female sides, how you feel connected to them, how you experience their potentiality in your life. Isn’t that erotic? Let’s agree on the fact that shamanism can most certainly be sensuous, very likely erotic and even sexual, when it wants to be very close to life.
Is shamanism in all of its facets rather serious, or are there also aspects that allow for humor?
In answer to your question, I’d like to mention three points with regard to humor. Firstly, humor can be understood as cultural and as serving various social purposes. I want to talk here about the kind of humor that can be used in difficult situations in life. It should make it possible for people to gain distance to their own experience. This aspect can really support the shamanic work and bring about a lightness.
Secondly, it is scientifically recognized that humor and its immediate result - laughing - has a positive effect on one’s health. It relaxes the muscles, reduces the stress hormones, bolsters the immune system, and eases pain.
Why shouldn’t humor be used as an aspect for strengthening and healing? It’s a conscious decision to use it or not. Accordingly, I would say that humor is more dependent on the shaman than on shamanism.
The third point is missing - I almost forgot it. Thirdly, humor is a gift and as such is not given to every shaman.
To be continued…