In the traditional account of "stopping the world" the shaman's teacher explains the workings of the consensus reality which has been pounded into every one of us (by parents, peer-group and other authorities) since birth. Allegedly, this controls most of our thoughts, feelings, values and behaviour. Then the path of the apprentice shaman is to find a way to bring the entire process of world-making to a halt. Through "the crack between the worlds" the apprentice now enters into a non-ordinary reality where he or she gains access to extraordinary insights and powers.
Prayer, meditation, yoga, fasting and other spiritual practices from all times and places have been derived from some original shamanic discipline embodying its own specific technique for "stopping the world". This means that somewhere in the background each practice once presupposed a traditional culture and defined itself over against the consensus reality of that culture.
All of them good ones
Let us accept that every spiritual practice really has its potential contribution to make, to the higher pattern of life which we seek to draw closer to. Yet there are also echoes and stories which embody powerful memories of the cultural background from whence this practice came. Though we may find the practice is effective, the stories may or may not be relevant to the path we must take through our own underworld.
The weakening of consensus
The thinking behind our project for a spiritual and cultural renewal for our own time, is that our situation differs in very important ways from the traditional type. In the first place there is a culture of literacy, of reflective criticism, scepticism and secular democracy which weakens the hold of the traditional cultures of the past.
Secondly this secular culture embodies a complex set of allegiances such that our identity is no longer simple - we find ourselves defined in relation to all sorts of institutions and intimate groupings; thus there is no longer a simple consensus reality, and so no simple identity for us within this consensus, from which we might recoil into the "crack between the worlds".
The challenge of the stranger
Thirdly we are intermingling with other cultures altogether - as happens in nearly every metropolitan centre in the contemporary world. This is an extraordinary development in a species which has been intensely tribal for millions of years of our earlier history. It is perhaps not fully appreciated what a challenge to our reality it can be, to enter into close range contact with an alien culture. (There is a section on this site which explores this phenomenon of incompatible cultural styles: the ecology of culture)
Ways of coping with one another
There is a range of possible responses, included the outright racist attitude which tries to remove the alien altogether from its psychic territory. One of the opposite extremes of racism is the bland cosmopolitan culture of generalised tolerance - where we try not to notice the differences in cultural outlook and personal values between us all. This is working quite hard to evade the consequences of real meeting. We do this by discounting ours or the other's point of view, or by strategically failing to register significant aspects of what is going on.
Live and let live
The attitude of "live and let live" is a great help for us at least to rub along together in the crowded cosmopolitan centres where many of us are living today. However, if we want to restore the sense of being really alive to one another, we need to find a different strategy. I am proposing that we try to experience the full depth of our conflicting realities - but with a genuine commitment to trying to reach across the gulf. This leads to a new technique of "stopping the world".
This technique depends on the attempt to build small-scale relationships, in which we are subject to two intensely contradictory goals; this effectively reproduces the kind of conflict the prospective shaman feels (the archetypal "stranger in a strange land"), when the consensual tribal reality he or she was raised up in becomes intolerable.
One of the goals in our technique is to make genuine attempts at mutual honesty and intimacy; the other is to be committed to making room for my own reality, and simultaneously room for the others. (The sense of contradiction which this generates is explored more fully in the section giving up the use of force in the "action- research" location on this site.)
A different freedom
"Stopping the world" feels a lot like going mad - at least for many people who are experiencing it for the first time; it is also something that, with support, any of us can get used to. I think that we can create small scale environments where we can give permission and support for this unaccustomed dimension of freedom. Then new, more creative possibilities of consensual validation will open up; the sense of being alive to one another, and being in time with each other at deeper and more subtle levels, can begin to be restored to us.
© all content: copyright reserved, Michael Roth, January 2004