Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Professional and the Primitive

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 21, 2011

A couple of years ago when I was in Africa, I got a chance to visit a Masai village. The place was so far out in the boonies that we had to fly to it. There were no roads. We had two city Masai with us, a young man and a young woman, who did the translating.

Masai

Masai warriors dressed for a lion hunt

When we landed, we could see that there was a commotion going on. Our guides explained to us, after speaking with several of the camp elders, that the shaman had just determined that the site upon which the village had made camp was “unwholesome.” So everyone was packing up to move.

The population of the camp was about five hundred—warriors, kids, old folks, plus all the tribe’s livestock. The ceremony of moving camp required that the procession be led by the white cattle. So these were being rounded up. This was not so easy, as the individual white cows were owned by different families and were scattered all over the valley. We watched for more than an hour while the elders, under the direction of the shaman, collected the white cattle and herded them to the front of the procession. The whole tribe had packed up now. The warriors—the tall, slim morans—were singing a ritual song and jumping up and down, surrounded by the pretty young maidens, who were contributing their own chorus.

Finally the village moved.

Two hundred yards up the hill.

“That’s it?” my girlfriend Nancy asked.

We were watching the shaman. Yep, that was it. He had solved the problem. The new campsite was much better.

At the time I didn’t think much about this. It all seemed perfectly natural and in keeping with Africa and tribal life. But when I got home, I started to wonder about the assumptions, as best as I could grasp them, that underpinned this whole extravaganza.

1. Some invisible malignant force threatened the first camp. What was this force? Ghosts? Restive ancestors? Free-floating evil? Would wicked things befall the tribespeople if they remained in the first camp?

2. This invisible evil could be warded off by moving the camp—even though that move was only a few hundred feet. Did that makes sense? Couldn’t the evil force simply follow the tribe up the hill and work its malice there? Why did such a simple fix solve the problem?

3. One individual, the shaman, was capable of perceiving this evil force, of divining its malign intent, and of warding this off by instructing the people to undertake a specific course of remedial action.

4. The tribe followed this individual’s counsel without a glimmer of protest. Not a solitary mom complained about having to pack up her stuff, which including kids and dogs, clothing, food and cooking gear, shelters made of animal hides and all kinds of other gear and impedimenta. Everyone participated freely and enthusiastically.

I must observe, of myself, that I too accepted the shaman’s edict without question. When we got uphill to the new camp, it did in fact feel better. I was glad we had moved.

5. The Masai culture itself. These were no benighted primitives being exploited by some canny hoo-doo man. The Masai were and are one of the great warrior cultures of all time. They have been in East Africa since the 1500s (longer than the entire tenure of the U.S. of A.) and they have thrived and dominated in a harsh land peopled by hundreds of proud, strong, and aggressive competing tribes.

Beyond that, the culture of the Masai is brilliant in and of itself—their dress, their ritual, their social organization. The people are tall, strong and beautiful. The young men stand up to lions, armed only with a spear. The Masai, it seems to me, must be doing something right.

What if, I asked myself, the Masai view of the world is correct? What if there really was an evil force threatening the lower camp? What if the shaman really saw it and concocted the exact right remedy?

Maybe if we had stayed in the lower camp, one of the pregnant young wives would have miscarried. Maybe a fight would have broken out between two braves and one of them would have gotten hurt. Maybe the whole village would have been seized by collective hysteria. Maybe the shaman’s wisdom saved us from that.

What does all this have to do with you and me as artists and professionals? What does it have to do with the idea of “turning pro?”

Here’s what I think:

I agree with the Masai. My world-view is a lot like theirs. I believe in the shaman. I wish I had a shaman myself. If I had a shaman, I would have breakfast with him every morning and whatever he told me to do that day, I would do it.

Better yet, I wish I was a shaman.

In truth, I practice my own form of shamanism every day. As an artist, I seek to access unseen powers. Evil forces are out there. Resistance, self-doubt, self-sabotage. How many other malign entities are hovering each morning over me and my huevos rancheros?

Then there are the good forces—inspiration, enthusiasm, courage … new ideas, brilliant breakthroughs, insights, intuitions. Where do they come from?  I don’t know. How can I access them? I have no clue.

Yet this is my business. This is my calling. This is my life.

Damn right I want that shaman. He is my man! I love the guy!

In lieu of the shaman, I have … what?

I have a code of professionalism. I have virtues that I seek to strengthen and vices that I work to eradicate.

I serve the goddess. Where she says to go, I go. And sometimes I’m not sure where she wants me to go.

I wish I knew that shaman. I would love to sit down with him. I’d ask him what he saw or sensed that morning. How did he see it? How did he know what the remedy was? What course of training or initiation had he undergone to acquire his knowledge?

Does he see his role as serving the gods, like I do? Does he regard this gift as a blessing or a curse?

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

16 Responses to “The Professional and the Primitive”

  1. December 21, 2011 at 5:02 am

    To each their own Shaman…what we give over to..be good or evil is our personal guide…as a Christian I like to think I make Jesus my leader, personal life coach…chief….but that is not always the case. Unfortunately some mornings I wake up to demons and all but shout “take me to your leader.” I too have good to be strengthened. The difficult to obtain yet produce positive results. And I have vices to eradicate…the things that beckon my attention with sugar coated promises but leave me empty in return…the easier road but the destination bites.
    You gave me a good thinking place with your column as I head into 2012…may we all be more particular in who we give privilege to lead us…for we too may one day be asked to lead us all out of danger.

  2. joe esposito
    December 21, 2011 at 5:07 am

    The heebie jeebies are there for a reason. I don’t need to know the reason, i just need to listen to it. Trying to proselytize the feeling is another matter left best to the witch doctors who traded their huts for marbled halls.

  3. December 21, 2011 at 6:08 am

    Brilliant analogy. Yes.

  4. December 21, 2011 at 7:51 am

    We are all connected, one to each other, and all to creation. The Masai like Native Americans understand this better than most cultures.

  5. December 21, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Finding a scientific explanation for the blink, intuition, thin-slicing, whatever one calls it, finally made it possible for me to accept that I’m whatever the secular scientific word is for all this. I see. I know.

    That said, being it doesn’t help you turn the power on yourself so much. Still inside the bottle, trying to read the label.

    I need two of me.

  6. December 21, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    What a great post! I feel as though whatever the Shaman can tap into for insights like the one you described is what we experience when we are creating something, like writing or whatever it is. It is that insight you describe, that momentary internal flash of brilliance, wisdom, joy, or terror. It’s like the precursors to migraine headaches that sparkle, flash, then disappear. Learning to tap the unseen stream is hard. I haven’t found a way to turn it on or off, it is mercurial for me; it is like my dreams which are sometimes remembered and other times not. I’ve learned to write things down as soon as they come to me so I don’t forget. Perhaps the Shaman moved the village immediately not in response to immediate danger, but because he lacked pen and paper to write it down! Thanks for a great read.

  7. Laura
    December 21, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    Aaaahhhh Steven…I think you’ve forgotten who you are.

    In the WofA, as I recall, you speak of putting on shoes with lucky shoelaces, the lucky $9 necklace, the lucky rabbit’s foot (pointed at you to direct the Muse, right?), and several other mystical, magical rituals designed to facilitate your birthing of creation.

    You can bet that Masai shaman’s got nothing on you…you ARE a shaman!

    Happiest of Holidays to you,
    Laura

    • December 21, 2011 at 5:27 pm

      Thanks, Laura … I forgot. (Actually it’s not a rabbit’s foot, it’s a tiny cannon from Morro Castle, Cuba — and it still works.

      Happy Holidays to everybody, thanks for being part of my life this year. It means more than you can imagine.

  8. December 22, 2011 at 6:11 am

    Steve,

    You give us the only imperative we can have–our own code of professionalism:show up. I’m getting a hell of a lot of help from Julien Smith’s THE FLINCH, one of Seth’s free Kindle offerings. Have you got it?

  9. December 26, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Steve if I know any one person who fits the description of a modern shaman it’s you. Maybe also Tony Robbins.

    As each human being matures over the course of his or her life so do we all as a species advance in ability and intellect. The peasant of a thousand years ago couldn’t grasp what any child today freely accepts. Evolution, the cosmos, individual equality and freedom. The people of the past needed their clergy and their shamans. Their parents, as it were.

    Today our species is adolescent. It’s time to move out. To think for ourselves. Maybe we’ll come to the same conclusions the clergy did, maybe we won’t. But they’re our conclusions to make now. No more comforting shaman. Just me. Just you. Coincidentally at the same time our means of communication have exploded. I might be sole proprietor of my decisions but I’m connected to billions of people who’re in the same boat. I might still decide for myself but I’m supplied with infinite counsel.

    What learning or initation are required to becoming a shaman? Say, “I am one.”

    Enjoy your holidays!

  10. December 26, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Maybe the guy just likes to get his jollies by having his people jump at his every whim?

  11. December 27, 2011 at 11:18 am

    I find that when I have worked myself into a corner I sometimes have to move things around. Shift the desk, vacuum the floor, shred a couple of papers. Then when I sit down I have new energy and the new spot feel just right. Until a gloominess sets on the new spot again.

    It might not be evil spirits, maybe just gnats and other bugs settling in the ground building nests under the shelters. Maybe the refuse heaps begins to stink or the privy needs to be moved a bit sideways.

    I facilitate between hoping for a permanent writing set-up in which I can sink in be comfortable and a set-up that shakes me awake and keeps me fresh. The pendulum swings both ways some days.

    • December 27, 2011 at 11:20 am

      “I vacillate (rather than facilitate)”

  12. December 30, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    I’m South African. I employed a black maid who lost her beloved brother in a senseless shooting. She was inconsolate, wailing day and night. After four days she left in the early morning, to visit a witchdoctor. Five hours later she returned a changed woman. The grief appeared to have vanished, her beautific smile and laughter had returned. Her steady energy washed into her return to work. She was my employee and friend for three years after the incident and I never again saw a glimmer of her grief. I have to accept I don’t know what I don’t know. Some things should be shelved within ourselves. Some things get put on hold. Some things will never be revealed.

  13. January 2, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Went to Kenya this past July and we went to the Mara. Visited a Masai village as well. Did you drink fresh cow’s blood? (tastes like iron) Danced and sang with the women and watched the men in a jumping contest. They said they me an honorary Masai, so I will use that along with your words and go into warrior mode this year. Let’s go, 2012!

  14. January 6, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I see the Shaman as intuition sometimes. I see it as a voice that just knows. We all have our inner shamans in us, it is a matter of heading their words, or even just hearing them. Quieting the ego enough to hear them ad then taking action without question.