Thursday, 19 November 2009

Clowns, Fools and Social Shamans

Han’s off to Canada for six weeks in January to study Native American clowning.

In Native American culture, she tells me, clowning is not about performance, it is about community. Example: a clown takes a late night walk in the moonlight. She passes the home of Jo and Janice and hears Janice crying and Jo shouting cruel things.

The next day in the community, the clowns spontaneously do a little skit about the way that husbands treat wives. No-one but Jo and Janice knows that it’s about them, but the message that Jo and perhaps Janice receives is clear: you are being seen. Please bring your behaviour back into line with the norms of our community.

As far as I understand it, Han continues, in Native American tradition laughter is a route to God. Clowns are used at the beginning of ceremonies to get everyone laughing and opening up to what is to come. For ceremonies to really work, people need to be open, and play and laugher is the thing that softens you and gets your ego out the way enough for that to happen.

The clown intervenes spontaneously in the Native American community whenever she sees fit. Clowns don’t answer to anyone in the community, they answer to up there, Han says pointing. If a clown starts to get all egotistic about that, other clowns will clown on them to bring them back down to size, keeping the community in balance. They do it all with a really light playful touch, concealing private learning kindly within a lot of laughter.


I'm talking about this with AJ, a Californian clown / businessman who happens to be couch surfing in the same place I am. "You've missed something important," he says. "The role of the fool is not so much about bringing people back to the community norms, it's about holding up absurd norms, questioning them, and liberating people from them, bringing them back to a more visceral spontaneity."

The clown, the fool and the social shaman. Brothers. Sisters. (But not identical ones. Jonathan Kay, arch Fool, wouldn't have his name mentioned in the same sentence as shamanism, says Loose, a protege. Sorry Jonathan...)

I’m fascinated by this role. We talked about something very similar at CLEAR Village, the role of the contemporary social shaman. Forget drums and rattles, we said. The thing is this: that for community to really work well, it's really useful to have at least one person who's role is to keep an eye on the wellbeing of the community and intervene playfully to keep things healthy. We used the word shaman because when we talked about community wellbeing, we meant an idea that involves spiritual wellbeing, whatever that might mean. That’s what the shaman does. She takes care of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual wellbeing of a community and the individuals within it, intervening as appropriate with all manner of songs, dances, play and other techniques to keep things good.

The shaman has implicit permission from the community to do his thing because people recognize and respect the role. They know they need it.

And like the clown and the fool, it is the shaman’s only role. He’s not also a leader, and certainly not a politician. He’s got no agenda other than the wellbeing of the community and its members, and answers primarily to god.

I think you play that role, Alastair said to me at CLEAR. I was the energy lady there, getting the group singing and dancing and playing and laughing together, bringing wholeness to the group when they’d been working apart, energy when they were tired, laughter and relaxation when they were too tight.

I thought about that and it didn’t feel quite right to me. To really play that role, I said, I would need to change; I have too much of a political agenda. I work for wellbeing, yep, but I think about it in political and systemic terms. Politics and shamanism don’t mix.

In all the conversations I’ve had about this over the last few days, it seems to feel to all of us like we’re discovering something quite true, and we all start thinking of the people we know who would play this role should our culture recognize it. They are the people who drift a little, not quite sure what their true role is, because that role doesn’t really exist currently in our culture. Priests, therapists, facilitators, they’re all kind of it but not really.

It seems to me that in the same way that I have been given a natural gift for music, other people have a natural gift for being incredibly insightful into what’s going on with people, a strong spiritual instinct, a light and playful touch, and an easy lovability. These people are our contemporary social shamans. But right now, while most of them sense it they don’t really know it, and our economy by and large offers them neither training nor jobs.


  1. I've been told by an elder that "hooka" (phonetically, not sure about the spelling) is the name for these people in the native community. Has your friend encountered this word. I would like to know if this is the case.

    1. if you know send to 'rua (dot) lupa (at) live (dot) ca' I'd love to know