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Shamanic Screenwriting

By Mary Trainor-Brigham

Shamans were the first master storytellers. As the preeminent narrators of our age, screenwriters can share in this venerable heritage. And in so doing, you can help reverse movie making's current disastrous trend of taking us deeper and deeper into ever more shallow waters.

Key to Shamans' authority is the sheer scope and acuity of their consciousness. Ritual healers, they are the ones sought out to restore harmony to their villages whenever needed. Their knowledge embraces not only the stories of individuals, but how these stories nest in the larger tales of the clans and the tribe and so on and so forth all the way back along a horizontal time-line to the people's Cosmic Creation Myth. With every piece of their ceremonial regalia, every feather, fur, quill and bone, they acquire another "eye" into a timely and timeless web of life large enough to provide any solution. Can't you feel it?

It is by tapping into the powers of this invigorating original tale, this "once (& forever) upon a Dream-time," that Shamans are able to get current discord in perspective and attain harmony. Any screenwriter does well to cultivate such a god(dess)-like overview of your characters' stories. This is also one reason why it's best for scribes to tackle only those life issues some distance in personal biography, on average some seven years ago. This allows you the scope to discern what originally motivated your characters, how this life-force became frustrated, and how it can be replenished or transfigured so that they can ultimately succeed in their evolution.

Shamans also have vertical scope. While the majority of modern Westerners are acculturated to focus on what is deemed as Middle World (this moment, the material, the manifest), Shamans routinely expand their consciousness to access the realms of Upper (Divine, prophetic) World, and Lower (Ancestral, natural) World. We all experience a mini tour of such layered, shifting realms via sleeping, dreaming and reawakening. By cultivating the "strong eye" of the Shaman, we can read these territories intimately. We'll know the difference between what is fated from the past and what is possible - destiny - that potential which we carry mysteriously within and which can be ignited to illumine a new future. Can't you feel it?

Traditionally, a person would be able to ignite their destiny via Initiation: a ritualized ceremony of introverted seclusion (female) or extroverted ordeal (male) which "cooked" one's consciousness to a frequency of remembrance, so that they could recall their purpose in this life. In the classic mode, this Initiation, this round of Death & Rebirth, marks the end of one phase of identity (Childhood) and the beginning of another (Adulthood).

But with that essential tradition lost to so many of us, we slog through the chapters of our lives in a tidal rhythm clogged with psychological flotsam and jetsam. Instead of fine, upstanding (and handsomely tattooed) grown-ups empowered with a clear and celebrated sense of contribution to their tribe, we have far too many pseudo adults who are actually hungry ghosts: part children, part zombies.

My book, DEEP CINEMA: Film as Shamanic Initiation, utilizes modern films to restore us to an antediluvian sense of ancestral storytelling, our innate capacity for Shamanic consciousness, our Indigenous Souls. The template I employ for the tri-parte world is Voudon, from Haiti, and that which I've selected for our tri-parte selves (also Upper, Lower and Middle) is from the Huna tradition of Hawaii. In both formulations, a soul descends before ascent, risks the stormy powers of Hell before claiming Heaven, from which vantage one's Middle World/Self is then blessed and transformed. As the philosopher Nietzsche sagely put it, "Whoever has built the new Heaven has found strength for it in their own Hell."

Toltec Shamans call their altars "Exits out of Hell" and it is only by holding to impassioned intent, staying aligned to purpose, or open to shattering revelation, that your key characters can go the requisite distance to make your plot worth viewing. Tricksters, jugglers, bards, spirit spouses and totemic guides from animals to angels all aid in the stupendous soul-engendering process and still inhabit the most modern of tales, however updated and disguised they may be.

One of the ways the Shamanic world-view turns ours upside down is that for them, Creation is the font of revelation, rather than it coming from some religious tome or abstract ideology. In fact, in the Haitian Voudon tradition, Middle World is comprised of both Nature and the Marketplace, the teaching being that humans should strive to generate exchange in the Marketplace which echoes the harmony and sustainability of Nature. An initiated Voudon woman, selling you a fish in Port au Prince, would likely extend a blessing that the spirit of that sea creature now swim in the waters of your Soul. Compare that with grabbing a box of cold fillets from the grocery freezer. And this from a people who endured the atrocity of having their ancestors marketed as slaves!

How many people today are enslaved to corporate colonialization, multi-national entities which ravage the worldwide landscape, inner and outer, for obscene profit? By consuming entire human lives via labor and debt, they demand the soul's equivalent of blood diamonds, pearls of too great a price. DEEP CINEMA works to shrink the power of this "mutant market-place" by returning your focus to more soul-sustaining values. It realigns you to divine/natural powers, via love of original creation, of which we humans are the essential witnesses.

The Fon people of Africa believe that each one of us is born, and dies, as part of a pod comprised of plants, animals, landscape, weather systems, etc. We may have longer or shorter life cycles, but essentially we all rise and fall together: how comforting! Has your heart ever been tugged by morning mist over a lake, or the sight of a verdant Norfolk pine? You're probably related, intermingled, sustaining one another! Quantum Physics (which Shamans comprehend innately) teaches that we are not merely discrete, armored entities (particles) but also open, fluid proclivities, possibilities, potential (waves). I once heard a married couple, documentary filmmakers, passionately aver that they had given their hearts to the Caribou and carried Caribou hearts in their chests. Can't you feel it?

Sean Connery was selected to play the first James Bond because the producers awaiting his arrival for audition looked down from the office window to see him striding across the parking lot like a panther. What a refreshing difference it would provide to create characters for whom you've discerned totemic animal spirits, who have devotion to certain landscapes, and who bloom under certain weather conditions.

One animal which provides an almost hackneyed symbol of transformation, the round of Initiation, is the Butterfly. But this wee beastie deserves a closer look. (For example, did you know it has eyes ~photon cells~ on its genitals? Imagine the advantages!) Once you comprehend the anguish it endures as it grows, you'll never be tempted to sell short a character's arc of development. As I describe in my book,

"In their metamorphosis from caterpillar to chrysalis to winged wonder, these beings undergo an Initiation of grueling proportions. Yet their outcome is so beautiful and delicate that we rarely look to them as guides for courage, risk and triumph. But harken to this: inside the caterpillar is a cluster of cells known as 'imaginal buds' which already promise its Destiny as Butterfly. While the wee, wormlike, spiky, furry creature crawls the earth, is a part of it already imagining, say, flight through the vast canopy of the rain forest or even thousands of miles beyond?

"Well, the trouble is, at this stage of the game, the immune system of the caterpillar experiences vertigo at the prospect of such a quantum leap, sensing these visionary buds as alien, something to be destroyed. Only after the immune system itself is mulched out in the soupy, liminal womb of the chrysalis do these cells have their say, igniting and fashioning the last, most stupendous stage of life: winged bliss!"

So too the most powerful scripted characters face challenges of such threat that it feels like a death for them to push through to the next phase. Another totemic example: before a snake emerges with new skin, its old one becomes opaque, even over the eyes, temporarily blinding the creature. Yet that blindness provides a moment of faith, a moment in which to realize that faith itself is fidelity to insights gained, and to emerge by dint of one's own powers, renewed.

Can't you just feel it? 1000 fathoms deep in your Sea-soul?

Of course you can, Shaman scribe. Now go write it!

Meet the Author: Mary Trainor-Brigham

Mary Trainor-Brigham, Therapist, M.A. Culture & Spirituality, has had 15 years experience as a Film Columnist, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She has brought together her twin passions – for indigenous cultures and movies – in therapeutic programs, international workshops, documentary films, and now Deep Cinema.