THE SHAMANıS JOURNEY: ASCENDING THE SOUL MOUNTAIN
Leslie R. Marini 8/2/02
In 1987, Chinese playwright/author/artist Gao Xingjian left his native China for a D.A.A.D fellowship in Germany. Recovering from the creative restrictions imposed upon him through the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1967-1976, Xingjian had carved out a respectable name for himself in Chinese literature and theatre, and many of his books, plays, and essays had been published in China and translated into different languages. As Xingjianıs creative outlets began to multiply, he became more and more immersed in the creative process, and Xingjian vowed never again to let another entity, person, or government restrict his expressions. Despite Xingjianıs success in China he still found much of his work regarded as controversial by the conservative Chinese government. When Xingjian left Beijing for Germany in 1987, he never intended to return. Accompanying him on his escape was the manuscript that would later become one of the 20th centuries major novels, and a Pulitzer Prize winner for Xingjian. Titled "Lingshan," in Chinese, the manuscript was eventually translated into first French, then Swedish, and finally, in 1995, in English, where it is titled "Soul Mountain."
"Soul Mountain" is at once an adventure story, a journey of healing, a travelogue, and an autobiographical account of contemporary Chinese culture, standing between the Old World of the Communist party and the New World of western economics. Woven between these worlds is the ever-present thread of the Chinese people themselves, whose innovative, advanced culture has expanded over three thousand years. Xingjianıs journey to the Soul Mountain is one manıs reflection of this culture in metamorphosis; yet at the same time it is a journal of a Sacred Journey. "Soul Mountain" has the unique quality of interpretation at many different levels, all of them equally valuable. Of all of the traits represented in "Soul Mountain," one of the most provocative is the story of the Shamanıs Journey, which generally encompasses the element of Healing at its core. Perhaps no other 20th century writer, walking through a multitude of experiences, with the prognosis of crisis at his back, has captured so eloquently this universal spiritual principle as Gao Xingjian has in "Soul Mountain."
Who is the Shaman?
The shaman is the exceptional individual in primordial cultures that represent the mystery of life, death, birth, and all that transpires in between. Sometimes the Shaman is a healer, or "medicine man/woman," sometimes the shaman can be the political leadership arm of a tribe or village. The Shaman represents several key qualities: Power, Rebirth, (Transformation), and Knowledge.
Many 20th century readers first became aware of the Shamanıs journey through the works of Carlos Castaneda, whose "Don Juan" books reached their peak in the late 1960ıs and 70ıs. As indigenous cultures gained their own voice among the modern, urbanized cultures of the late 20th century, the fable of the shaman came to be recognized by many individuals as a viable, human, journey, which transcends both time and cultures. Anthropologists and archeologists, long acquainted with the elements of shamanism, began to publish their findings for a general audience, interested in shamanism as a way to connect with their ancestral past, and as a method of spiritual healing that offered something more inspirational than traditional allopathic methods of psycho analysis or medicine. The Shamanıs Journey became an important, symbolic metaphor for many people seeking answers in the wake of divorce, shattered dreams, illness, and disaster. As an important part of our collective, instinctive, psyche, the Shamanıs Journey need not be shrouded among the cobwebs of "new age" trendiness. At one time or another in our lives, we are all faced with the Shamanıs Journey ourselves.
Elements of the Journey:The Crisis:
The Shamanıs Journey generally begins with a Crisis. The Crisis in modern times can be anything that disrupts our present course, particularly divorce, death of a spouse, parent, or child, the loss of professional status and income, or the diagnosis of a disease, most often something that the individual will have to live through, such as cancer, Parkinsonıs disease, muscular dystrophy, or an accident that forever restricts movements and creates new physical limitations. The Crisis forces the individual into a new position, where he/she must choose between imprisonment, confinement, or power and freedom. In the wake of the Crisis also comes Loss. The Shaman, faced with the Crisis, must leave behind the present existence in order to find his/her place in the new world created through the dynamic of the crisis. He/she must say goodbye to family, friends, position, career, a limb, an activity, and a way of life. This is the moment when the physical journey begins.
For Gao Xingjian, this journey begins with an ancestor, his own fatherıs death from lung cancer, when Xingjian was at a highly productive and creative period in his life. Although many of the restrictions imposed upon authors, artists, playwrights, etc had been eased in the early 1980ıs in China, recovery from the Cultural Revolution was slow, and Xingjian had been under government examination for his controversial works. While facing a possible prison sentence for his achievements, Xingjian had a routine health check up and was diagnosed himself with lung cancer. Xingjian resigned himself to the verdict and prepared for death. Later, the diagnosis was mistaken, and Xingjian, now faced with a new dynamic of life, left Beijing and traveled secretly throughout Chinaıs Sichuan province and down the Yangtze River. By the time the "oppose spiritual pollution" campaign had ended, and Xingjian could return to Beijing, he had logged over 15,000 kilometers of China, in a period of five months.
In the spirit of the chaotic energy of the Shamanıs journey, Xingjian finds himself in an extraordinary position. While the idea of a death from lung cancer has itıs own properties, death itself is inevitability; and one that Xingjian had accepted as the natural outcome of life. What he didnıt expect to happen was to find that the original x-rays had been mistaken. In a matter of a few weeks Xingjianıs consciousness must deal with a new dynamic; instead of welcoming the releasing, final, embrace of death, heıs literally forced back into his own body where he must continue to live again. On top of his return to the physical body, a possible prison sentence hangs over his head for practicing the work of his soul, his writing and painting. It is this element that not only begins the Shamanıs journey for Xingjian but also confirms itıs otherworldly elements. Faced with the prospect of life that could be worse than death, Xingjian starts out on the journey towards Soul Mountain. Traveling secretly through the Chinese countryside, down the Yangtze River, Xingjian takes the first steps on a very unknown path. Like death, the journey is a mystery from which all men must ultimately traverse, but unlike prison, and a creative life censored by a repressive government, the future will be determined by the individualıs choice.
This is the first discovery made by the Shaman, it is sometimes called a Gift, and it has to do with the quality of Awareness, and Clarity. As Xingjianıs priorities changed from life to death, then back again, his Awareness encompassed a whole new realm of possibilities that he had been unable to see before. At this stage of the Journey, the Shaman accepts his/her own Power as the Power of Choice, or Free Will. He/she becomes a "co-creator" in the Universe, thus able to effectively, almost magically, change his/her environment simply by altering oneıs perceptions. This is a powerful and necessary phase of the Journey. It is an acknowledgement of the individual Self, something which is generally alien to the traditional Chinese cultural ideal.
The Shamanıs Journey: Encounters with the Collective
Throughout Xingjianıs journey, he makes numerous encounters, some with individuals, and others with collectives, such as the time he spends in the Daoist retreat on Qingcheng Mountain. At the monastery, Xingjian seems somewhat uncomfortable by the previous images fed to him regarding the life of a Buddhist monk, with the realities he finds instead. He is told by the Venerable Master, who is represenitive of the Transformed Soul, or Human Spirit Guide, that "The true traveler is without a goal, it is the absence of goals which create the ultimate traveler."
At this point in the journey Xingjian is still fumbling with his newfound Power, at times heıs aware of his Gift, other times, especially here, heıs searching outside of himself. In the Chinese culture reference to the Self is very limited. It goes beyond mere politeness and protocol; it is an actual dynamic so unfamiliar to the Western psyche that it continues to be a cause of frustration among Western readers of Chinese literature and philosophical works. It is only when Xingjian is in encounter with the Collective does he refer to himself in the singular, "I" situation. Since the Collective forces him into the position of individuality, where he must deal with his own place in the world, Xingjianıs encounters with the Collectives, of which there are many throughout the book, (including the Panda Reserve, the Nature Reserve, and other monasteries), leave him with an emptiness of the soul, another common attribute of the Shamanıs Journey.
The Shaman must become emptied of the ties of the Past, much in the same way that Death liberates the human soul from dependence and care of a physical body, so Xingjianıs encounters with the Collective help him to achieve a sense of personal balance. They are also frightening, in so much that they force him to give up his reliance on traditional cultural institutions of China. Everything has changed so much; even the Venerable Master must work as a doctor to support himself on his own Spiritual Quest. Where the Master has chosen to continue in the present environment, and adapt to it, Xingjian still has to make a choice as to whether he will accept the consequences of his creative works at the hands of the Chinese government, or whether he will seek another way. At this point in the journey Xingjianıs path is still Unknown. It is a far scarier path to take than anything undertaken by the Venerable Master.
Encounters with the Self/Other Half
Somewhere between the Crisis and the Collective in the Shamanıs journey lies the Encounter with the Other Half. This is most often represented in the Shamanıs Journey by connection with the Female, or Male half, depending on the gender and identity of the Journeying Shaman. It does not necessarily have to be the "opposite sex" in the strictest sense of the word, but rather, we should think of it as more of a reflection.
Clearly, when Xingjian has his numerous imaginative conversations with the striking women and girls he encounters along the way, he is relating to the Other Half within himself. The Swedish psychologist, Carl Jung, termed these two images the Anima and the Animus, and they are unique to all world cultures, as an integral part of the Shamanıs journey.
Although Xingjianıs encounters with the females he observes and fantasizes about seem self-effacing and unconfident, there is a playful, leisurely quality to them that fits in well with the ideals of Chinese courtship. Romantic encounters and sexual interludes among the Chinese are generally innocent, childlike, and slow. There is no great rush to rut between the bushes, and sexuality itself is seen as mild distraction necessary to procreate life, but not as the most potent force in the lives of either male or female. Among the ancient Chinese, and some of the old Emperors, foreplay and sexual encounters could last for days, as both parties built up a considerable reserve of "yin or yang" energy that would later be released within sacred, sexual orgasm. With the coming of the Communist Party, in particular the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese further diminished the primitive sexual drives of the populace by establishing one of the worldıs most gender equality societies. Women soldiers fought the same wars as did their male counterparts, and served equally and without constraint in all facets of Chinese society. By the same token men often did the work normally assigned to women.
Xingjian, who was born January 1940, in China, grew up with these similar, but mixed ideals, and normally wouldıve taken great care and patience when trying to awaken the little flowers of womankind he finds on his journey. As he is experiencing loving tenderness, rejection, joy, and beauty through his Female Encounters, he is also coming closer and closer to the Peak of Soul Mountain. These encounters with the Female also take him out of himself for awhile, but back inside to the portions of his soul damaged by the recent experiences he has with the lung cancer diagnosis, the loss of his father, and the threat of imprisonment for his creative work.
At the heart of all creative works lies the sexual energies, as the same force that can create Life also allows us to write, paint, prose, sculpt, or design within the available elements of our own present environment. The desire of sexuality, ultimately, is to create Life, or Beauty, and in turn create a connection to the Divine Self. In men, this encounter is usually with the Perfect Woman, who at first is his mother, later, his wife or soul mate. For women, this encounter usually comes in the form of the children they bear, their own creative projects and aspirations, and finally, the men in their life.
Xingjian seems to do the bulk of his healing when he is in the dialogues with the women he meets on his journey. It is interesting to note exactly how slow and seductive he plays out the flirtatious interludes between Anima and Animus. Through the female encounters, or encounters with the Other Self, Xingjian gains another important Gift on the Shamanıs Journey, and that is the Power of Universal Love.
Reaching the Peak: The End of Soul Mountain.
"You are going against the flow of the glacier crawling like a partially frozen insect." Chapter 80, Soul Mountain.
What happens at the end of Soul Mountain, as Xingjian makes his way up Lingshan, crawling against the flow of the glacier, struggling to make the world conform to a previous vision? Like his hands and feet, which can no longer feel pain, he finally attains Vision. Like the Shaman who has fasted for days and nights, and stayed awake chanting into the night, Xingjian has allowed himself to finally become Free. At this stage of the Journey all that the Shaman was and is before him no longer holds him in thrall. It doesnıt matter what he does next, because he is no longer subject to the whims of the material body or the physical world. Although he is still in the physical body, he has attained a state of Nothingness, where, Everything, and Nothing matter equally at the same time. He no longer experiences disappointments, traumas, or defeats as he has released himself from a consciousness of achievement. He is able to create freely from the Heart with full confidence in his actions, realizing that his Gift is an expression of potent Power that he was unable to tap previously.
Many people faced with long terminal illnesses share a similar dynamic as to what Xingjian achieves on top of the mountain. In modern American society Death is still a great unknown mystery, something that we secretly hope our institutions will conquer, and that if we are good enough, or secure enough, we will never have to face this most terrifying of ancient unknown mysteries. Americans scurry like the partially frozen insect, going against the flow of the slow moving glacier, half-believing that in the end their institutions and collectives will remove the mystery of Death and conquer his cold hands once and for all.
Yet Death, which Xingjian achieves in the body by his acknowledgement of Nothingness, is as important to the life functions as the first breath a newborn infant takes. There is a freedom only achieved through nothingness, or death, that the frozen insect is not able to hold onto in his struggle against the long, slow, flow of life. When Xingjian finally achieves this state and publishes "Soul Mountain," the book becomes the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and remains, like the quest for Soul Mountain itself, a diverse and wondrous travelogue along the most common human highways. ##