INTERVIEW WITH ORAZ ABULKHAIR
(Note: We are publishing the following interview to give a sense of the intercultural perspectives and alternatives that people are searching for in the face of our current ecological challenges, in particular in the post-Soviet countries. The editors do not necessarily agree with the perspective contained herein)
A hereditary shaman, psychologist Oraz Abulkhair gave an interview to our journal in which he talks about his practice of shamanism and creativity, their connection with nature, the search for universal values in the era of globalization and his desire to keep in touch with the spiritual traditions of his people.
Key words: shamanism, nature, ecological movement
Brief information about the interviewee:
Oraz Abulkhair is a shaman, psychologist, and digital media artist. He received his psychological education at Charles University (Prague) and the University of the IPA EurAsEC (St. Petersburg). He works as a corporate psychologist at an IT company (Moscow), simultaneously combining this work with a private practice. From early childhood he studied the craft of shamanism under the guidance of his grandmother. He is also an active participant in the environmental movement "Protect Kok-Zhailau" (Almaty).
Alexandra Dvornikova (A.D.): Oraz, could you tell us a little about yourself: who are you, what do you do, what is your circle of interests?
Oraz Abdulkhair (OA): Hello, my name is Oraz Abulkhair, I am 35 years old, originally from Kazakhstan, indigenous to Almaty. I do a lot of different things, so the first time I meet someone, the answer to this question can cause mixed reactions.
First, I am a hereditary shaman. The shaman's gift sometimes "skips" a generation or even two in the family, so the shaman's craft is not a continuous line, rather it resembles a dotted line.
Secondly, I am a certified psychologist, this year I celebrated the first anniversary of my professional psychotherapeutic activity. In addition to my private practice, I work as a corporate psychologist for a Moscow IT company.
Thirdly, I am a contemporary artist using digital media. I held a solo exhibition in St. Petersburg and participated in two general ones. Due to my many and diverse activities, I do not have enough time to finish several new art projects, but despite this, digital art is an integral part of my daily life.
Fourthly, I am a traveler. In the 21st century, real travel has become something rare, with a touch of romance, and 2020 seems to have put this side of my life on pause, but I believe that in the future I will set off again with my backpack to unknown places. My most striking traveling experience was walking the pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago, when in 10 days I walked 274 km.
Fifth, I am a tarot reader. The first deck, which I still use, was given to me 23 years ago as a gift from my grandmother, who taught me everything.
A.D.: As a hereditary successor to an ancient tradition, you position yourself as a modern shaman. As far as I know, academic education also did not pass you and your ancestors by and, in addition, you have extensive knowledge in the field of depth psychology. Could you explain how it all fits in your mind? How do archaic practices such as shamanism keep pace with modernity, complementing scientific and cultural perceptions of reality?
O.A.: That's right, I studied psychology at Charles University in Prague, where I was lucky to be a student of Professor Jaro Křivohlavý, an outstanding Eastern European scientist, psychologist and writer. He studied health psychology, experimental psychology, and existential therapy. In conversations with him after lectures, I discovered my love for humanistic psychology, the main idea of which is to help a person find the meaning of life. This very moment represents one of the first bridges to the ancient practices of my family. But everything started with my grandmother, she taught botany at an agricultural institute (Alma-Ata, Kazakh SSR). She not only taught me the shamanic craft, but also instilled a distrust of any new esoteric knowledge, since it is dangerous to take unverified information on faith; first it must be verified.
Usually when I say that my grandmother was a shaman, for some reason everyone imagines a caricatured old woman in skins in the middle of a dense forest, while my grandmother, along with my academician grandfather, were actually people of science. They married in Leningrad, all their children continued their dynasty of becoming university lecturers, but secretly everyone continued to go to their grandmother for "help", and also in secret from everyone she taught me her craft.
As for how the "archaic practices" stay in step with the times: it is worth starting with the understanding that shamanism is based on the belief that everything around us has a soul, or its semblance, say, "energy." Everything is interconnected, including us, but we humans are not at all the "crown of creation." The key element here is the relationship itself. These relationships are not destroyed even after death.
Naturally, these relationships are almost never in an idyllic "harmonious" state, so sometimes they can be the cause of destructive events in a person's life, who, turning to the shaman, asks him/her for help. My task in such cases is to experience a person's life as a whole, and this requires not only understanding him, but also his relationship with loved ones and the environment, in order to understand where the "block" is, and most importantly, what needs to be done so that the person seeking help can realize his mistake or the mistake of his ancestors and correct it, or later independently cope with emerging problems. After all, these challenges are an integral part of life.
Photo: The morning after the High Coven celebrates Samhain (Avebury Stone Circle, Wiltshire, England, 2015)
Photo: Olkhon Island, Baikal, 2017.
A.D.: What, in your opinion, could the shamanic tradition give to the modern world?
O.A.: The most important thing, in my opinion, is the idea that a person is not the crown of creation. We are only a part of the Whole, and therefore we must support the natural course of life, Nature, because without it humans themselves cannot exist. Despite all the fantastic films showing people living in distant space, in reality this is virtually impossible, because we cannot live without Nature - we are a part of it. Our entire cultural footprint and baggage is a consequence of the environment we came from and can only be applied in a similar context, but certainly not in empty and cold space. Unfortunately, modern people have forgotten the value of Nature, remembering her only in moments of rest or despair; at other times, people do not cease to destroy what they are a part of, exacerbating the ecological crisis.
In addition, the ancient shamanic tradition still influences the modern world. Recently, an interesting situation occurred in my life - the spirit of a Japanese shaman woman came to me, she told me that she lived in the 17th century and was buried in Kyoto. But most importantly, she showed me how she danced on the shores of a raging sea, and every time lightning flashed, she threw a pearl into the raging waters to the sound of thunder. In this way, she appeased the gods and spirits of the sea to calm their anger and spare the people.
I immediately wrote about this to one of my students from Japan. Mizuki specially flew to me to undergo an initiation; her grandmother was a shaman, but she could not pass on her knowledge further. Alas, this is a frequent story throughout. A student of mine told me that this month, Japan is experiencing a lot of flooding due to typhoons and heavy rains, which usually does not happen at this time of the year. It is causing many cities to be badly damaged, and residents have had to move to safe places. It was obvious that the spirit of the ancient shamaness had returned to pacify the water and protect people. It is especially interesting that after a while the spirit of the Japanese shaman woman came to me again, showing the ritual that my student had to do so that her grandmother could start teaching her the ancient knowledge of Japanese shamans, thanks to which she could continue the work of her ancestors.
A.D.: What tasks does a modern shaman undertake? How do shamanic practices take place? What is the role of nature in this process?
O.A.: It is worth briefly explaining what is the difference between modern and traditional shamanism. Modern shamanism includes modern techniques, or techniques from other ancient traditions, while classical shamanism remains exclusively within its ethnocultural practice, which, in my opinion, is not the best choice in an era when people must overcome differences and boundaries to unite and join in the collective salvation of our planet.
My path to modern shamanism began with a teenage protest, when, after studying with my grandmother, I decided to go into science, choosing psychology and linking my future with it. But already in the process of training, I realized that the old and new paths are not only parallel, but also the same in essence, so I began to try to modernize the existing shamanic knowledge through psychological knowledge and techniques. The resulting symbiosis allowed me to achieve significant results, by the way, which were noticed by my “colleagues.” Thus, I was invited to a private celebration of Samhain in the Circle of Stones, in Avebury (UK), in 2015.
Now about the "process" itself and about the tasks of the modern shaman. The modern world has just begun to return to what nourishes the spirit. This action itself is a movement from its opposite, when, as is the case now, surrounding reality has become so cold that people are increasingly trying to find something that can "warm" them, referring not only to their roots, but also to other ancient practices. I don't see anything wrong with that.
A lot of people are starting to study other cultural traditions and use ancient techniques of other peoples. This is wonderful, although I am aware that the original bearers of many ancient practices have a negative attitude towards it. I repeat, in the 21st century we must help each other and share knowledge in order to make our world a better place together.
Human life, according to the ideas of shamanism, is based on the connection of everything with everything else. In this world, everything is interdependent. The loss of such connection disrupts the natural course of events, which can lead to catastrophic consequences. It is with these consequences that shamans work.
Actually, the life of a modern shaman, as well as that of a traditional shaman, develops in such a way that he/she will be drawn to the place where there is some kind of disturbance of these connections. Most often shamans feel the so-called "call", which allow them to understand what they will face in the future. Nature is the source of our strength, and we are a part of it, which means that, having felt a connection with her, shamans are transported into the past through a connection with everything around them in order to find the "beginning" of the problem and to try to solve it on a spiritual level. This is the classic shamanistic method, but I am not sure that I can correctly express it in words, since the process itself is a spiritual experience that is difficult to describe.
A.D.: You can often hear the phrases “place of power”, “spirits of the place”. What are these referring to? Perhaps you could explain these concepts both from the point of view of tradition and from the point of view of modernity.
O.A.: The Earth and her resources, alas, are now perceived only as a source of income for greedy and narrow-minded people. Nature, as I have mentioned many times before, is a common home for everyone, but even in it there are specific places where, according to the legends, you can feel something more. Most shamans and many other practitioners around the world are engaged in correcting the lapses of the previous decades. Due to many sad historical events, a lot has been lost - knowledge, continuity, places of power, and most importantly the very relationships with nature and traditional culture. These are now slowly but surely being restored thanks to the actions of people like me.
Photo: Bozzhyra tract - a mountain range in the Ustyurt National Reserve in Kazakhstan.
I will give an example of my activities relating to the protection of natural and cultural values. Someone not very clever decided to build a hotel overlooking Bozzhyra - a unique natural place that is the bottom of an ancient ocean. The activists of Western Kazakhstan turned for help to the activists of Almaty, who defended the Kok-Zhailau mountain plateau a couple of years ago. I did not know all this, but I offered help to my friend, one of the leaders of the "Protect Kok-Zhailau" movement, with whom we had conducted a ceremony on a mountain plateau many years ago to preserve it.
On the appointed day, this friend and I went to a place that is a source of strength for her, and from there I set off on a spiritual journey. I suspected that the negative situation, due to which they decided to build up such a majestic place, could not appear just like that, and I was right. I saw a whole story that was shown to me by the “guardian" of this place. Since ancient times, people have venerated him, trying not to disturb him once again, but in cases when they passed through this place, they left gifts. Initially, he was the only power of the place, but later a certain ancient commander was buried there with honors and the guardian power absorbed his spirit, therefore it became personalized, so to speak. That is, the guardian is not the spirit of that commander, but he acquired many of his features.
The days of respect for nature and spirits are long gone; people have forgotten old customs, and recently, instead of gifts, they began to leave garbage. The world of spirits is dependent on the world of people, therefore, without contact from our side, the spirits themselves "become thinner". That is why the “guardian” chose to leave Bozzhyra, seeing the destructive actions of the people there. The situation was at a stalemate, and together with my “colleagues” from Almaty and activists of Western Kazakhstan, it took many different ritual-offerings to halt the desire of the “guardian” to leave this place forever. Subsequently, a solution was found that helped to stop the development of the territory. But this is only the beginning, a small victory, while the war for the salvation of Nature continues to this day and not only in our country.
Photo: Appeal to the guardian spirit of Altai. The foot of Mount Belukha, 2013.
A.D.: What do you think about the ecological crisis: what led to it, what is its “lesson”, what is the situation now, what opportunities exist to overcome it?
O.A.: I can answer the first part of the question not as a shaman, but as a psychologist. Our Ego led us to the ecological crisis. I will express an unpopular theory, both among activists and among my "colleagues" in the craft.
In the entire history of humankind, there has never been an idyllic time, therefore all romanticizations of the past are meaningless. The conditions for human life have never been better or worse, since there has always been some kind of danger - something that threatened life regardless of who the person was. There has always been a certain force that threatened humans - it is somewhat similar to death, before which everyone is equal, but in this case, I mean something that motivates a person to make a choice.
Previously, it could be wars, tyrants, diseases, or something else; each historical interval had its own litmus test to identify the best or worst qualities of a person. Nowadays, there is a litmus test that reveals the best and worst in people - environmental disaster. The environmental crisis is a new challenge that is forcing people to choose to awaken and become aware, because the situation is such that living conditions have become so unbearable that it is as if humanity is already pressed against the wall.
I believe that all this is happening so that people finally understand that we are strong only together. I, like other practitioners, talk about love, about a conscious life, about mutual help, about the understanding that simple actions can lead to great changes. Now more than ever we need to unite, accept the wisdom of the past, and at the same time move into the future.
A.D.: You are not only a practicing shaman and psychologist, but also an artist using modern media, in particular photography. Tell us a little about your work.
O.A.: Yes, I am a contemporary artist. My main tools are photography and collage. In my opinion, the modern world provides endless opportunities for unleashing the creative potential of any person. I deliberately do not use programs such as photoshop, I only use editing software on my phone, because these are the future.
My first solo exhibition "In Search of the Sky Nomad" was in Golitsyn Hall. It was dedicated to the 25th anniversary of independence of my native country Kazakhstan. The main storyline consisted of the problems of the generation of my peers, who, in the wake of many historical events, seem to be suspended between the earth (* tradition and roots) and the Sky (* the desire to follow the heart, in step with the times). The blue ribbon in their hands symbolizes a prayer addressed to Tengri - the supreme deity of all Turkic people, in which they ask to be shown the right path.
Photo: Work from the cycle "In Search of the Sky Nomad"
But there are also shamans who remember the Old Ways and they stand firmly on the ground; precisely because of this, they are not able to easily readjust. This means that they are deprived of the opportunity to soar together with everyone in the new time. My sister and I brought these images into being.
Photo: Work from the cycle "In Search of the Heavenly Nomad"
Photo: Work from the cycle "In Search of the Heavenly Nomad”
In recent years, I have been working on a new series of images called "WITCH", in which I strive to return the word "WITCH" to its original meaning - bearers of wisdom and secret knowledge that protect people. A feature of this series is that all the models are my "colleagues" in real life, i.e. bearers of the Gift.
Photo: "Spring" - work from the "WITCH" series. Digital photo collage
Spring brings rich gifts to all those who believe in love, in a life full of abundance and fertility. Her time is Ostara. Those who follow the Old Ways bring gifts to her on March 21, the day of the vernal equinox.
A.D.: Do you have any final message or parting words to your readers?
O.A.: I always ask myself one question: What mark will I leave behind me? This question is a great filter to remove what is unnecessary and remind me of the value of every day that I live. After all, I understand that every day I face a choice, but this choice is not between a good action or a bad one, it is between a life filled with meaning, or a life associated with movement along the path of least resistance, when you do not decide anything, but simply float along in the common mass.
The answer to this question does not leave room for lies to yourself and others, but allows you to be truly free inside. Reasoning over the answer, you understand that the value of life is also in the ability to learn how to enjoy it to the fullest.
Yes, I am a shaman, I help people, I also fight for the salvation of Nature in the ways available to me, but at the same time I do not deny myself meetings with friends, adventures, the implementation of my projects, and much more. Once we have come to this world, then we should try to walk this path with dignity and joy, if possible, sharing our warmth with every person we meet. After all, this warmth will continue its journey in the hearts of the people you meet, even when you yourself are no longer there.
About the interviewer:
self-employed artist and art-therapist (St. Petersburg, Russian Federation)
Reference for citations
Dvornikova, A. (2022). An interview with Oraz Abulkhair. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 3(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)