You can’t spell Shaman without sham. Shamans are, by definition, mind manipulators, working to open up the vision of other people beyond their current limits.
We want to show connection, a connection that may be hidden at the current level of thinking. You cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them, as Einstein noted.
This kind of revelation requires opening the mind and heart to a bigger picture, beyond the nice, hard facts that get us stuck.
The minute I hear someone fall back into a duality, trying to get a crisp binary — “Well is it Hot or Cold? Up or Down? Free or Captive? Good or Evil? Which is it!?” — I know that they aren’t open to seeing beyond their tunnel vision. Nuance, texture and context escape them and they get crazy about the slippery slope, trying to insist that one step towards the other side will cause everything to turn to crap.
Shamans use tricks to expand the range of possibilities, to help move through walls that others see as hard & fixed, to get beyond boundaries into new possibilities.
For people who cling to a kind of intense cynicism, those tricks themselves are evil. Nothing should move past the crisp, cold, hard facts that they cling to, the observations that they have branded scientific and fixed.
They have a point, of course. Being deceived can be a bad thing, allowing others to play out their own hidden motives, to manipulate you in a dastardly and venal way. Some have used tricks in a duplicitous manner, a sleight-of-hand rip off that leaves others disadvantaged.
When I was accused of manipulation back in high school (I think we were reading “Man The Manipulator“) , I had to understand the ethics of manipulation. Was manipulation just bad all the time? Should we never attempt to sway other people through our own manipulation?
The answer I came up with was simple. As long as your intent was explicit and not covert, manipulation was acceptable. If I told you that I wanted you to quit smoking and then used emotional and intellectual manipulation to move towards that goal, that is very different than telling you I loved you while really being out to fleece you out of your cash.
Those erstwhile cynics Penn & Teller came to the same conclusion. Their intent is explicit: rather than pretending to have some mystical power, they tell you they are out to fool you. And then, they do. They aren’t gateways using the power of the deceased, they are tricksters, using the power of the brain.
Of course, women figured this out a long time ago. Manipulating others is what we do, helping them get out of their ruts, see new possibilities and have the courage to move towards those better, bigger options. Unless we open their hearts and minds, they can’t find ways to grow beyond, to moult their current shell and become new.
The moral women did this with explicit intent, gladly telling others about their intentions, interests and goals. The less than moral women did this with concealed intent, playing games and leaving their marks at a disadvantage, using and abusing them.
As Penn & Teller have proved, magic done with explicit intent can still be amazing, potent and transformative. In many ways it can be more so, because instead of writing the causes off as supernatural, we understand that we too can create these kind of visions, this kind of awe and influence.
I knew very early that I had powerful skills to manipulate, to use words and emotions to sway other people. I could baffle with bullshit, convince with conviction and sway with seduction.
I also knew that to use those skills with integrity, I had to use them with explicit intent. This baffled many people I worked with who were always trying to figure out my angle, suss out my hidden agenda, but they found that, in the end, I was speaking as honestly as I could. They knew that if they had my skills they would be tempted to conceal their motives, hide their goals and obfuscate their objectives to make it easier to manipulate people, so they were surprised when I was just up front.
Many people, though, have never learned to clarify their own intent. In the same way that we are rarely angry about what we think we are angry about, the current irritation only bringing up something deeper, we often don’t take the time to really understand what we want and what we are willing to do to get it. Our desires get mixed in with our own neediness, our perceived entitlements taint our logic.
Most hidden manipulators just perceive themselves as trying to get what they deserve, what they were promised. Their good intentions form a cover that helps them rationalize their actions. As long as they believe they are manipulating for the greater good, they are entitled to use deception to achieve their goals, for the ends justify the means.
Confronting people about their true, deeper intent is always a challenge, for it strips away their comforting justifications for concealed manipulation. No one wants to be accused of deceit; in their mind, they were only doing what was required. Others did this to them, so they have ground to return the favour, tit-for tat.
This results in people acting out, trying to hurt other people just to express their pain. Emotional manipulation that comes out of a damaged place often causes much more harm than good, as I have found many times when people tried to hurt me to gain control.
Getting clear on what you want, what you really, really want, is hard. Moving beyond that to understand what moral rules you know you need to honour in getting those things is even harder.
One of the hardest things for me to learn was about the limits of manipulation. Leaning on people too much doesn’t make them change, in fact it often makes them more resistant, more hardened and more determined. People heal in their own way and in their own time, even me, and that means manipulation has real limits.
When I share my explicit intent now and someone turns away from me, I don’t chase them anymore, trying to find a way to sweet talk them into letting me manipulate them over time. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.
I am a shaman and I use shams. I never use them, though without explicit intent, and that includes disclosure. The people I am close to know my position, but they still laugh as I touch them deeply and make another point, seeing the techniques play out in front of them.
Explicit intent is a foundation of my practice. And yes, it is something I wish others would practice too.