Hank Wesselman began his career as a paleoanthropologist after completing his undergraduate work and his master’s degree in zoology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He then served in the United States Peace Corps, living among people of the Yoruba Tribe in Nigeria, which is where he first became interested in indigenous spiritual traditions. He went on to earn his doctoral degree in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley. Over the past 45 years, he has worked with an international group of scientists exploring the fossil beds of eastern Africa’s Great Rift Valley, seeking answers to the mystery of human origins. His fieldwork has allowed him to spend much of his life with tribal peoples who have rarely, if ever, been visited by outsiders. These were among his first encounters with traditional shamans.
Dr. Wesselman is also a shamanic practitioner and teacher—or shamanist, as he says—now in the 36th year of his apprenticeship. The books in his autobiographical trilogy—Spiritwalker, Medicinemaker, and Visionseeker—have been published in 14 languages and reveal the nature of his initiation into the shaman’s world, a reality that growing numbers are eager to experience themselves. He is also the author of The Journey to the Sacred Garden: A Guide to Traveling in the Spiritual Realms, The Bowl of Light, which shares the teachings of an authentic Hawaiian kahuna mystic regarding the end of this cycle of ages and the beginning of the next; and his most recent The Re-Enchantment: A Shamanic Path to a Life of Wonder. He has also co-authored with his wife Jill Kuykendall, Spirit Medicine and The Spiritwalker Teachings; with fellow shamanic practitioner Sandra Ingerman, Awakening to the Spirit World; and with Raquel Abreu Little Ruth Reddingford and the Wolf—a story for children. All are available on Amazon.
Hank and his family live on a small farm in Honaunau, on the big island of Hawai’i. He and Jill also travel regularly to teach shamanic workshops at places like Esalen, Omega Institute, and Breitenbush Hot Springs. Visit their website at www.sharedwisdom.com. — Leslee Goodman
The MOON: You’re a scientist by training and profession; not a spiritual seeker. In fact, your first shamanic experiences were spontaneous—even forced upon you. Please tell us about your journey.
Wesselman: It actually began when I was doing field work in Ethiopia. I would often find myself out in a tented safari camp for up to three months at a time. It’s one thing to go camping over Labor Day weekend, and then come home and have a shower and a meal. But it’s something else to be out in the desert for that length of time, surrounded by miles and miles of wild country, wild animals, and wild people—many of whom had never seen a white man before. Your consciousness begins to shift.
We were doing survey geology, archaeology, and paleontology—the study of fossils—in sediments that stretched for 70 miles and across time—from 800,000 to three and a half million years ago. It was out there among these eroded land forms, in what I called “the whispering lands” because of the breezes that blew through, that I began to have spontaneous visionary experiences, strikingly like those of indigenous shamans.
As an anthropologist I knew “about” shamans. I knew they are the gifted visionaries in traditional societies who can do three things:
First, they can achieve expanded states of awareness and connect with the unseen aspect of reality, what they call “the spirit world.” To shamans—and indeed, most traditional people—reality has two components—both equally valid and real. One is seen and the other unseen.
Two, shamans can enter into relationship with the inhabitants of the spirit world, who may be ancestors, or animals, or even the organizing forces of the universe. They often approach these spirits on behalf of other individuals, or their entire community. Essentially, they make themselves a bridge between the transpersonal world of spirit and the personal world of form, and allow power, or energy, to flow from that world into this one.
Three, shamans perform or facilitate what we call “miracles,” results that defy the known laws of nature. Over the years I’ve witnessed dozens of major miracles, including spontaneous healings from cancer, Crohn’s disease, endometriosis, IBS, and more. While I provided “the coordinates,” so to speak, and the drumming to help participants enter non-ordinary reality, even non-indigenous, first-time practitioners have had experiences that would pass muster in any indigenous shamanic circle.
So, back to my first shamanic experience in the early 1980s in Africa. I was working with two Kenyan tribesmen and a third man, Atiko, who was an Ethiopian shaman known locally as a “crocodile whisperer.” He could talk to the spirit of the crocodiles—and these were 25-foot-long man-eating crocodiles. He could swim across rivers and not be bothered, and could bless the waters so that people could bathe without being harmed.
The four of us were working to excavate a site millions of years old, which contained the fossilized remains of elephants, crocodiles, and many other animals, including Australopithecus, a forerunner of Homo sapiens. Every so often I would feel a creeping feeling that I was being watched. Because this was big predator country, I paid attention to these feelings.
The day came when my coworkers and I were packing up for lunch and I felt the feeling again. As I stood up very slowly, I saw that Atiko was looking at something to my left. I slid my eyes in that direction and saw something move—a large, dense shadow. But when I turned to look at it directly, it disappeared—exactly as if it had stepped through a gap in the fabric of the universe and zipped it shut behind him.
“What was it?” I asked Atiko.
Although Atiko spoke six languages, English wasn’t one of them. He studied me carefully before saying, in Swahili, “Shaitani.”
I later found out that shaitani meant “spirit.”
I didn’t believe in spirits at the time, so I had to file that experience away under “Unknown,” or “Inexplicable.” But it haunted me for years. Then, a decade later, when I was living in Berkeley, California, I had a spontaneous encounter with a spirit and, as the culmination of a series of intense physical sensations, underwent a shamanic journey to visit a future descendant, a young man of Hawaiian ancestry named Nainoa, who was living on the west coast of the North American continent 5,000 years in the future.
The MOON: What do you mean by “underwent a shamanic journey”?
Wesselman: I mean that I traveled psychically. I was aware of my physical body lying essentially paralyzed in the bed next to my wife in Berkeley, but I was experiencing being within the body of Nainoa, who was living in a tropical North America in a traditional Hawaiian village 5,000 years after the fall of Western civilization.
I realize how far-fetched this sounds. My scientific mind didn’t know what to make of it either. I had climbed to the top of my profession and was working with people like Mary and Louis Leakey and Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist who discovered the remains of “Lucy,” an early australopithecine dated to about 3.2 million years ago. I was a respected scientist. Yet the feeling I had was that I had climbed the wrong ladder and that, in fact, the ladder I wanted to climb was leaning against a different house entirely.
That house was shamanism, which was not widely practiced in the West at the time, but which has become of increasing interest because of the ease of access it offers to the spiritual realm. Once this connection is made, life can become an extraordinarily enhanced adventure.
As a result of the shamanic experiences I’ve had, and pursued, and taught, I’ve become kind of a wandering medicine person, teaching workshops at places like Breitenbush Hot Springs Center in Oregon, Esalen Institute in California, and the Omega Institute in New York. These workshops themselves become life-changing experiences.
About 15 years ago I took a group of shamanic students with me to Peru, where we met an Andean shaman, who told me that, as western people expand their culture throughout the world, traditional people are drawn to that culture and away from their traditional teachings. Their practice of shamanism wanes. But shamanism is simultaneously taking root among westerners. The shamanic traditions will change in response to its new carriers, but this is to be expected he assured me. This is how the practice refreshes itself, keeping the wisdom and technologies vibrant and alive. Certainly, my spontaneous shamanic experiences were not based on any learned, or taught, technique.
The MOON: But what about cultural appropriation? Many indigenous people are angered and frustrated by the cultural appropriation implicit in taking on indigenous shamanic practices. What do you say to them?
Wesselman: I’m sympathetic, because indigenous grievances are many and legitimate. It’s extremely ironic that we want to adopt a people’s spiritual practices after we’ve destroyed the people themselves. It’s rather like the State of California putting the grizzly bear on its flag—after wiping out every single grizzly in the state. However, the shamanic tradition is a worldwide phenomenon and shamans exist in some form in every culture. If we go back far enough, all of us are descended from indigenous ancestors, so the ancient shamanic tradition is one of the birthrights of all peoples everywhere. The tradition changes as we make it our own.
Moreover, I followed no tradition in having my first series of shamanic experiences. As I explain in Spiritwalker, my first experiences began with entering a paralytic trance, which would come upon me spontaneously. In other words, I’d not employed any technique such as drumming, or fasting, or chanting, or dancing, or ingesting mind-altering substances. Nevertheless, I’d be drawn to the consciousness and body of another man—a man living 5,000 years in the future. I could hear his thoughts, feel his feelings, tap into his memories, see the world through his eyes. I experienced what he was experiencing as he experienced it.
When the episodes began, I seriously considered checking myself into a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Of course, they would have medicated me, and that would have been the end of the experiences. I didn’t do that and, as a result, I got to experience a future reality that takes place in the Central Valley of California, which has become an inland sea surrounded by the tropical vegetation of a Costa Rica. In other words, the worst-case scenario of climate change has transpired. The seas have risen to wipe out coastal populations and flood the Central Valley and the North American climate has become tropical.
The man I “visit,” Nainoa, embarks upon a trek through the tropical forest and discovers the remains of a great city. He encounters the same spirit—a leopard man—that has also visited me since my childhood—although my parents told me that he was just “an imaginary friend,” and I believed them. However, I now think that I was able to have these experiences—to accompany Nainoa on his explorations—in part because of this leopard man’s assistance.
When Nainoa is taken—again spontaneously—on his own first shamanic experience, he also encounters the same dark shadow being that I encountered during my first experience in California. Indeed, perhaps that shadowy figure was the spirit Atiko saw—and I only felt—in the desert. I believe that dark shadow being was what Joseph Campbell calls the “Guardian of the Threshold,” whom seekers encounter at the beginning of “the hero’s journey.” The Guardian reveals to humans the existence of realms of power beyond our imagination—just outside the borders of our “reality.” If we recoil in fear to this revelation, we don’t gain access; the door to the other reality remains closed. But if, as in Nainoa’s case and my own, we remain open, curious, and indeed, adopt a sense of wonder and awe about it, we are granted access to the transpersonal dimensions of reality; the world of the shaman.
The MOON: You gain access to time travel to a far distant future. And you gain access to the lived experience of a future descendant. But you also gain access to a future with grave implications for our own present.
Wesselman: Yes. And I had those experiences in the 1990s…The evidence for that worst-case scenario has grown far stronger since.
As a paleontologist, I’m aware that radical climate change can occur rapidly—far more rapidly than our present models forewarn. Prior to the Pleistocene was the Pliocene period, which ended roughly 2.5 million years ago. The Pliocene was a greenhouse world, with carbon dioxide levels similar to what ours are now, sea levels 300 feet higher, and no polar ice caps. As that period began to deteriorate, ice formed in the polar regions as temperatures—and sea levels—dropped.
Then, around 11,700 years ago, the last Ice Age came to an end quite suddenly. All the great glaciers and ice fields melted and the oceans rose about 300 feet. We know this from sediment cores collected from deep beneath oceans and lakes, and from bubbles of ancient air trapped inside ice cores taken from Antarctica, Greenland and elsewhere. A wave of mass extinctions ensued, wiping out the megafauna on which our nomadic hunting ancestors depended. We could return to this landscape very rapidly—with the sea level 300 feet higher than it is now—in less than 50 years.
This certainly seems to be happening, despite the protestations of the climate change deniers. More than two billion people—maybe more—currently live in coastal regions most directly impacted by rising sea levels. And of course there are other impacts of catastrophic climate change, as we are witnessing this fall with hurricanes Irma, Jose, Katia, and Maria; floods in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh; and wildfires across the United States and Canada. This is what we can expect from catastrophic climate change.
So, on the one hand, the conclusions one is forced to draw from my journeys to the future are dark. The positive side of the story, at least from my perspective, is the access to an incredibly expanded world of spiritual awareness. Adopting this path truly has led me to a life of wonder.
The MOON: The fact that western civilization collapsed after only about 200 years, by Nainoa’s people’s estimate, puts collapse at right about our present time. Doesn’t that give you grave forebodings?