Jan Van Ysslestyne is the foremost expert on classical shamanism of the Ulichi.
photo by: Skeptiko
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Jan van Ysslestyne to Skeptiko. Jan has written a very impressive new book titled Spirits from the Edge of the World and she’s here to join me in a conversation about shamanism and all sorts of related good stuff. Jan, we’re doing a take two of this interview, we did a little audio change here, but thanks again, so much, for joining me on Skeptiko.
Jan van Ysslestyne: Thank you so very much, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: This is a really interesting topic and you were so generous to contact me you said, “Alex, I think we should talk about this amazing work I’ve done with this group of people, these native people in this remote area of Siberia and they’re the Ulchi people.” And as we were just chatting a minute ago, they are really the original shamanistic culture, that is where the name, the origin of the word shamanism comes from, these and the surrounding culture, right?
Jan van Ysslestyne: Correct, yes.
Alex Tsakiris: So, you’ve done this incredible deep dive into the work and I have to tell people that the book is really great, very well written, nicely compiled, and then I go to your website, it’s absolutely beautiful. You have these beautiful infographics with all of these teachers from the tribe and you have them laid out in their lineage and you have some great audio and video that you’ve collected. So, I guess the place to start again is to give folks a sense of how you came to study these people and what the process was like. You just told me it’s taken you a number of years, you’ve had these folks come and visit you for over ten years and you’ve learned their language. Tell us the whole story, if you would.
Start 00:11:52 Alex Tsakiris: The main thing that I wanted to talk about, because I don’t care about the Ulchi, I’ve never going to meet the Ulchi, I care, only in the sense of what they can inform, in terms of all of my other kinds of things, and all of these competing ideas we have about this extended consciousness reality, right? So, the Ulchi say one thing, the NDEs say another thing, the ET says another thing, the astral traveler say another thing. I mean, are we looking at just a different cultural overlay, it’s the map versus the territory thing? How do we figure that out?
Jan van Ysslestyne: Well, I don’t think so. My concern was a lot of people go specifically into this field, is that they go and gather up all of this data and they come back, and they translate what they think that they’ve observed from a very mechanistic, linear, reductionistic, Western approach, and I think that’s kind of putting the cart before the horse. Personally, to really understand another culture, you have to liberate yourself from your own culture as best as possible and you have to go into another culture and know that you know nothing, you know nothing John Snow, you’re completely ignorant. You need to learn to think in a different way.
Alex Tsakiris: Why? Let me challenge that in a Skeptiko way. This is, kind of, the shut up and calculate model alternative. So, the shut up and calculate Western model is, “Screw that. No, I’m just going to go and plough ahead with my way of trying to mechanize it, trying to operationalize it, trying to make it work, so I don’t really care about your culture. Show me an iPhone,” or in this case, to connect with the Skeptiko thing, I am the United States Intelligence and I say, “Go and get me Andrija Puharich, go and bring Uri Geller over here,” and he seems to know a bunch of this stuff, and bring him to the Stanford Research Institute, because a long time ago, past life, former life, you were in that world, so let’s bring Uri Geller over here and he seems to be able to read minds, he seems to be able to do this, let’s make it happen, remote viewing, let’s figure out how to operationalize that. I don’t care about the Ulchi, I only care about what they can do, and I only care about if I can turn it into a product.
Jan van Ysslestyne: Yes. That’s an interesting take on things.
Alex Tsakiris: And my point is, where does that get us as opposed to where does it get us from taking an anthropological, let’s value their culture, let’s do all the rest of that? I’m not saying one versus the other, I’m just saying, let’s not prejudice one versus the other because at the end of the day, a lot of times what it really comes down to is what we want is just the goods anyway. I mean, the whole magic thing and the interest people have in chaos magic, which is, in some ways, related to this, is, “I want to get the spirits to do shit for me here in this world.” For a lot of people that’s their net takeaway and I think we need to have a reasonable counter to that, in terms of saying, “Well, here is why you might want to do that, here’s why you might not want to do that.”
Jan van Ysslestyne: Okay. Yeah, I agree. Now, I wouldn’t say that research in the West doesn’t conform to the Ulchi reality construct and Robert Monroe’s work fits hand in glove with what the Ulchis believe reality is about.
The Ulchis believe in multiple souls. They have a very different view. Everything about shamanism in the West, by neo-shamanists seems to be interpreted from a very Judeo-Christian standpoint.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, what do you mean by that?
Jan van Ysslestyne: Well, they always talk about the singular soul and then they talk about this thing called soul retrieval, which doesn’t exist. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but it doesn’t exist in shamanism.
Alex Tsakiris: What does soul retrieval mean?
Jan van Ysslestyne: In the West they believe that if you have some sort of trauma, that some part of the personality, the psychological personality is wounded and goes missing and causes all sorts of dysphoric states in your being. So, shamans go and find that particular piece, that very mechanized view of grabbing some piece of yourself that’s gone missing and they bring it back and they reattach it to your being and everything is hunky-dory.
Alex Tsakiris: But again, if we go down that path, and I don’t know how far we want to go down it, don’t we run into the same problems of language, culture, Jungian psychoanalysis, that on one hand is total bullshit and on the other hand is provably effective for people, in terms of overcoming trauma? So, if I’m able to make you feel more whole, whatever that means to you, then do you really care whether I called it soul retrieval or whether I called it post-traumatic stress disorder, correction or whatever? Does the language sometimes get in the way of something that is so much more complex than we could possibly understand?
Jan van Ysslestyne: I don’t know if it’s more complex, I just think it’s very inaccurate.
Alex Tsakiris: So then, let’s talk about that specifically, how we would know what’s more accurate.
Jan van Ysslestyne: I’m only here to tell you what these people told me, and I think that by being with them for almost three decades, learning their language and the language is everything, that I can come back and translate that back to my Western culture in a way that most Westerners can’t. I can say, “Okay, what does exist in the medical literature and in the psychology literature and all sorts of other literature that’s out there that corresponds to what these people say?” Robert Monroe’s idea of the second body corresponds hand in glove with what the Ulchis say our beingness is all about.
Everybody working in the lucid dream community, that also corresponds to what the Ulchis say is a true shamanic journey.
Alex Tsakiris: On the other hand, and even in the Ulchi and in your book, there is a doing part to the spirit thing. It’s not like we’re leaving the spirits just up there, we’re saying, “Oh, come intercede in this, help this happen, help that happen, help this person in their healing or their recovery or their protection,” so, that’s doing too. So, there is kind of a mixed thing.
Jan van Ysslestyne: Well, they are rather ambiguous, aren’t they?
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I think it might to, maybe a little bit more of a contradiction there that we’re willing to accept.
Jan van Ysslestyne: I just think it’s fascinating. I can see where Amma, and she’s an amazing person, is coming from, from that Hindu background where they view the world as a play, that all the gods are at play and this is all maya. That’s one way of perceiving reality. Indigenous people have a different way of perceiving reality.
Alex Tsakiris: Some indigenous people.
Jan van Ysslestyne: Right, yeah, and it’s all quite unique and it’s all very different.
Alex Tsakiris: So, where’s your iPhone? When I say, “Where’s your iPhone?” and I think you get it because you didn’t come jumping through the screen and throw a fit, because I’m pushing pretty hard there and I appreciate that you’re willing to do it.
Jan van Ysslestyne: Keep pushing.
Alex Tsakiris: So, back to connecting the dots, like I was saying. I go, and I talk to a guy who is doing a film about Andrija Puharich. So, Andrija Puharich is this brilliant guy, he’s interested in all of these extended consciousness realms. He’s the first one to go to Mexico and look at the indigenous people down there, who are using sacred mushrooms, who are using these entheogens, to do these kinds of astral travels and they’re bringing back all of this stuff, and they’re also having psychic experiences and all the rest of that.
So, he’s a PhD, Northwestern University, he’s also a medical doctor. If you don’t know the history, Northwestern is tied into MKUltra, which he didn’t know at the time. So, our government, our secret shadow government is interested in all of this extended consciousness stuff too, and they’re probably interested in it because in 1940 or 1950, they start finding out that ET is in this extended consciousness realm and that ET’s all over the place and then later on they have Rick Strassman, who they allow to research DMT, up there in New Mexico, and he starts giving it to people and boom, they pop into the same realm, if you will, and there’s ET and there’s all of these shamanistic, if you will, to use the more broad term, beings and purple jaguars and all of these crocodiles, half crocodile, half human kind of thing. So, they’re all there, right?
Jan van Ysslestyne: Right.
Alex Tsakiris: So, more interest on the part of our iPhone guys, so I’m saying this is our Western kind of, we’re going to just drill into it, kind of thing, so they’re like, “Okay, great, we’ve got to figure this stuff out.” So, we’ve got Puharich, we’ve got Rick Strassman, and “Oh, Puharich, you know this guy in Israel, Uri Geller. Great, go and bring him over here, we’re going to study him. He says he can read minds, well he can do it.”
So, they’re doing the shut up and calculate, build us an iPhone, help us get into that other realm, so we can beat the Russians, if that’s really the thing, or we can control the population, so that they don’t get into that thing. But they’re taking a very mechanistic, Western, iPhone, shut up and calculate way to reach this extended consciousness realm and I’m very interested in that, because I’m interested in the intersection between that and ET, who seems to have mastered that in a more technological way, where they have tools, they have devices, they have ways of getting into this realm.
The way it leads back to the Ulchi, and I guess my big question is, when we look at the Ulchi, when we look at these indigenous people, are we looking at more advanced technology or are we looking at less advanced technology? And if we allow the crudeness of that question to sit there for a while, are we saying, “Well these people, they figured some stuff out, but they didn’t really know how to do it in the same way that they knew agriculture,” but to be honest, we do agriculture a lot more effectively now, even though we fuck up the planet, and even though we put in all of these crazy additives, we get a hundred times more bushels of corn than they do.
So, are we looking at a more advanced ability to manipulate extended consciousness or a less advanced way?
Jan van Ysslestyne: I would say that the Ulchi are a very elegant, sophisticated form of primitivism. I would also say that, as far as contact with other realms. They do talk to ETs, they just call them the sky people, and they see them walking on the earth and they also see them in the other realms and that they have lots of information to impart. But to them, they don’t talk a lot about it because it’s just second nature to them.
I remember when they first came here, I showed them, I said, “Okay, this is great. These people have never left their villages, great, I’m going to ask them a million stupid questions.” So, I showed them a picture…
Alex Tsakiris: Because they’re a clean slate, right? They haven’t been indoctrinated by the culture, kind of thing?
Jan van Ysslestyne: Right. They’re as clean… I mean, nothing’s clean, but I showed them ET and I go, “Have you ever seen this?” and they go, “Oh yeah, that’s a sky person. Oh yeah, that’s the sky people.” They said, “Look at our petroglyphs. All of those people and their rock art and archeologists, they come along, they look at our little images of our people and they call it a shaman. They always misidentify our petroglyphs.” They say, “No, it’s a sky person.”
And if you look at their masks, which is very interesting, they’re all sky people. They don’t have animal masks, they don’t have a mask of birds or wear a mask of this, they’re all this oval shape and they say they’re all the sky people, the oval masks that they wear.
Alex Tsakiris: Is their tradition of the belief that the Ulchi are the Ulchi descendants of the sky people, is that part of their belief?
Jan van Ysslestyne: Of a specific, say, another group? No, they don’t have that in their idea.
Alex Tsakiris: What is the origin of the Ulchi, where do they think they came from?
Jan van Ysslestyne: They think they grew out of the earth, that the great sky master or sky beings or the intelligence of the earth, they have all sorts of creationess in their tradition. As I said, rather than having this Judeo-Christian concept, of being made like an artefact, by some big supernatural being, they say they just grew out of the earth. “We’re a part of nature, we’re not separate from nature. We weren’t made, we aren’t an artefact.”
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
Alex Tsakiris: What always fascinates me is the reincarnation thing. One of the things I think is interesting about that is when you try and pin it down culturally, you wind up with some very specific differences in what people believe. Like, what you just said right there, there’s something really, kind of, specific that doesn’t go into other cultures. Other cultures say, “Hey, reincarnation, it only happens three times,” or 15 times, or the interval between times is 50 years or 100 years or like you just said, thousands of years and then you go and look at Jim Tucker or Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia and they said, “Let’s try and study it the scientific way,” and now we have this kid who was born in the 80s or 90s and he’s remembering, vivid memories of a World War II fighter pilot.
So, what do you make of that data and in general, what do we do when we have data that comes back that contradicts other data in this extended consciousness realm thing, because we’re having this conversation Jan?
Jan van Ysslestyne: I think this is great. First of all, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity. If I tried to pin down the Ulchi with anything they say and go, “Is that really true?” They go, “Well, I don’t know. We haven’t been there yet. Who knows? Be open. Keep an open mind. This is what we’ve heard. Some people say this, some people say this, some people say that, but we haven’t been there. Be open to everything.”
So, all of this NDE and reincarnation, I listen to it, I watch it, I’m aware of the University of Virginia’s research and work by Robert John and Brenda Dunn. It’s fantastic. Who knows? That’s what makes everything so wonderful and exciting, and yes, it’s going to be contradictory, who knows? Just keep on going. Let’s find out what we can find out.
Science isn’t wrong, it’s just incomplete.
Alex Tsakiris: Well said, right.
Jan van Ysslestyne: And I love all of the new stuff that’s coming. I listen to the people who come on your show and it’s like, “Wow, that’s another idea.” This is not about making people wrong. The only people I think are wrong in any of this are the hardcore materialistic scientists, when given evidence that is in flat contradiction to what they’re saying, rather than being true scientists about it, which a lot of them have come that way and said, “Wow, here’s some new data. Let’s go and check this out. I was mistaken, let’s go here.” Those are the true scientists. The other ones that go, “No, it can’t be possible, and we don’t care about all of your research studies and I don’t care if you did a triple-blind test and blah, blah, blah. You are wrong, wrong, wrong.” That kind of arrogant attitude by those people, those people are wrong. Everybody else is just exploring and discovering and adding and working hard to add to our knowledge base and that’s so exciting.
Alex Tsakiris: I do have to say, I think that’s wonderful. I think you’re one of these transitional people and I don’t know if I’m answering my own question from a minute ago, but I don’t think a lot of people could really feel comfortable with one foot in both of these worlds as you do, because obviously, you are deeply interested in the deeper spiritual aspects of this, but at the same time, you’re bringing that scientific, break it apart, deconstruct it, whereas your iPhone kind of vibe, kind of thing, and then on the third leg you’re saying, “Of course, none of that matters or means anything anyways.”
Jan van Ysslestyne: Of course, I’m trying to really understand them and their planet and bring it back and translate it. It’s like I’m going to planet Ulchi and I’ve come back and planet Ulchi is not like, trust me, it’s not like the West at all. So, I’m trying to come back to our planet and trying to explain how these aliens from planet Ulchi, how they exist, their view of logic, their view of how things happen and I’m trying to use my, having grown up in a Western culture, to look at the science and look at the medical data and say, “Well, the closest I can get to…” and come up with examples. If I give a bunch of philosophical abstractions, it’s not going to make any sense. It’s best to give examples.
So, it’s me talking about REM sleep, behavior disorder and this and this and this and that’s the closest I can get to explaining the phenomena. Nobody has said that, and anybody in the West who’s ever said that’s what it is, I’m the first person in saying that everything I know, this is what it correlates to.
So, if you want to go and have a shamanic journey, I don’t know, they talk about the shamanic state of consciousness, I think, “What the hell is that? That’s some vague…” I mean, it’s like, there’s no such thing, they’re just consciousness.
Jan van Ysslestyne: The Ulchi didn’t have mushrooms and other hallucinatory plant teachers in their area, although the Chukchi people who live in the north do, but all sorts of plants, they don’t have a problem with the idea that there are plant teachers. The Ulchis ate marijuana every morning for breakfast. Yeah, Ulchi land.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, that’s a psychedelic.
Jan van Ysslestyne: Yeah. They collected hemp seed, marijuana seed all the time and I’ve actually tried to discover exactly which strain of marijuana grows up there. The information is not real clear, but it is some sort of Indica strain, but they ate that, they ate that every day.
Alex Tsakiris: What about back to shamanism as it’s reemerging in our culture, the good, the bad, the ugly?
Jan van Ysslestyne: My concern with core-shamanism and neo-shamanism and the Ulchi had exposure to this over the years that they were here, is a lot of what these people are doing is very dangerous. So, that’s the thing, that’s the aspect of made-up shamanism that concerns me.
Alex Tsakiris: Dangerous in what way? We’re two hours into this and now we’ve hit on a really important point.
Jan van Ysslestyne: Well, for example, in core-shamanism they have their techniques and then they have this drumming at 247 beats per minute which is, according to these people, puts you in a shamanic state of consciousness somewhat, and you travel there. Then, at the end, they have, what they call a call-back, where it’s an abrupt ending to whatever that trans state is when people are called back, the Ulchis saw that and experienced that when they were teaching for the Foundation for Shamanic Studies one year, they saw that happening and they were shocked. They said that that can cause a trauma to the soul, they thought it was very barbaric and those are the terms I will use because that is a quote from them, and after they had that experience they wanted to get up and leave. Then, I had to convince them that we had signed a legal contract and that we couldn’t get up and leave for a week and that it would all come back on me and so, “I’m sorry that you’ve had this experience. I’m so sorry,” and they went to address that, and later on, it was a week long, they went to address that with the people that they saw.
Alex Tsakiris: That again, we’re connected in that way Jan, you and I, in terms of understanding the mechanics of it, because now we’re getting into very much of a value judgement; there’s a right way to do it. There’s a wrong way to do it, or if you like, there’s a more effective way to do it, a more elegant way to do it and a less elegant way to do it. Well, what is that saying? Then, let me tie that back to something you were saying earlier about the hierarchy of consciousness, another one of my, kind of key things. Well, there are these souls who are on this level but then there are souls who are on another level. I mean, these are all little hints to mapping out this territory, this topology in a way that then again contradicts. I mean, if none of it matters then who cares if you enter into the astral body this way and enter back into it that way? Who cares, whatever you want to do? But then they say, “Well, I really wouldn’t recommend doing it that way,” or what do they say about evil spirits or malevolent spirits? These are all different areas we could get into, but it kind of contradicts that Daoism, “It’s all going to be okay. It doesn’t matter anyway,” kind of thing.
Jan van Ysslestyne: Well, Daoism is not a passive philosophy at all, or a passive way of life. Yeah, if you can get into that state of saying, “Well, it doesn’t really matter in the bigger scheme of things,” and maybe that’s true. Maybe that’s absolutely true Alex, but at the same time, you don’t want to say, “Oh, I’m going to show you how to shoot a gun,” and then you load the gun and then you give it to a very ignorant person that doesn’t know anything and you say, “Okay, here, put the nose of the gun toward you and pull the trigger.” There is your responsibility on the part of any teacher.
I mean, I can get into that. I can get into, somebody that’s teaching something, if they don’t know specifically what they’re doing, they could cause more harm than good.
Alex Tsakiris: Jan, again, you’ve written this awesome book, Spirits from the Edge of the World. Where do you go from here, in terms of your work and your investigation and ongoing relationship with the Ulchi people?
Jan van Ysslestyne: Well, since all of the shamans have gone on to wherever they’ve gone on to, I’ve got 25 years of all of the healing work that my main teacher, Grandmother Nadia Duvan did with people here in the West. So, I’ve got 450, 500 hours of information, all of her healing work with all of her different clients and what I’m going to do right now, what I’m doing with that is translating it and I’m going to put together some sort of quantitative study of the actual healing process and what the correlates are. I haven’t come up with all of the criteria for that yet, but I’m going to translate all of that. So, that’s my next big research project.
Alex Tsakiris: Awesome.