On the mundanity of talking to spirits

Would you believe me if I told you that I had experienced spiritual wonders — spellwork, divination, the casting and removal of curses? What if I told you that I gained insight into past lives and karmic tolls, and that it all happened in the living room of my grandfather’s house?

You see, I grew up knowing that my grandfather was a shaman.

I was born and raised in Thailand — a vibrant, hot, and most importantly, Buddhist country. Most areas of my life were pretty unremarkable. We were middle class, I attended an international school for most of my life and I spent much of my time reading, dancing and playing with my dog. These things were parts of me, but they pale in comparison to other influences.

One of these essential ingredients that made up my being was my mother’s side of the family’s connection to the spiritual.

Before we proceed, I want to make clear that I use the term shaman very loosely here as there is no perfect word in English for this phenomenon, but vessel and shaman are the ones I personally feel are the best.

I’ve spent countless hours at temples making offerings, praying, learning mantras, and yes, witnessing and participating in shamanic rituals.

It often surprises people to hear that Buddhism, now more often seen as an adaptable and vaporous life philosophy, has roots in such traditional religious practices. But in my life, Buddhist rituals always brought a tactile element to our attempts to reconcile with intangible ideas like the soul and afterlife.

When I reminisce on those experiences, my ears ring with the phantom drone of Sanskrit chanting and loud traditional Thai music. I smell the flowers from the offerings and the feast of food offered up to our spirits and to the people that attended, and I feel the beads of sweat rolling down the back of my neck in the oppressive heat made worse by the crowd around me. Dancers shrouded in gold and silver; golden platters piled high with nuts and pigs heads; my grandfather enrobed in white and gold; his house transformed into one giant shrine of community and abundance.

It’s hard for me to say if this is even a fair representation of the proceedings. As I said, I was still young when I was attending these rituals, so it’s possible things have become exaggerated in my mind as these experiences became memories.

As I grew older I began to take a subtle but conscious step away from it all. A private shame was growing in me. I had an understanding of the scientific method now, of the way modern society solves issues and cures sicknesses — and it certainly wasn’t this.

My memories of the rituals began to almost feel foreign in my mind, and I was left with the question: what use is a shaman in the 21st century?

The vividness of my memories of my grandfather’s rituals may have been compounded by the shame in me that pushed those experiences away — othering them, even as they outshone the mundanity and structure of my emerging adulthood.

My grandfather is now bedridden in a hospital back home, and has been for a while now. While he is receiving good care and his mind is unclouded for the time being, it’s clear to everyone in the family that he won’t be with us for much longer. With him so close to the end, I’m almost desperate to understand what I can take from all the rituals I participated in with him.

I kept getting so sidetracked by the vivid imagery that sprung into my head every time I tried to reflect back on my experiences that I almost missed another defining aspect of them: how normal it all felt in the moment.

Eight-year-old me wouldn’t have described my experiences with shamanic Buddhist rituals in the enthralling, bright way 23-year-old me just did. I didn’t realize till later in life what a unique space I found myself in, and so my experiences of these days felt mostly routine. When all the praying and talking and eating was done and it was my turn to converse with the spirits, it was simply another day in the life for me.

Interactions with the otherworldly were made surprisingly mundane to me growing up, and reflecting on it I think that was entirely the point. I was taught to understand the difference between the tangible beings of this world and the more hazy figures on the other side, but it was never distorted by fear, confusion or even a sense of uncrossable difference.

We knew these beings — they had been with people for longer than our culture had stood. We knew what they liked and disliked, and we understood their personalities and cadences. Most importantly, we chose to interact with them through a lens of acceptance, respect and mutual benefit.

Our spirits guided us and gave us insight into things that were unknowable. Not only that, they healed us, chided us and even bantered with us. We thanked them with things they like — cigarettes and cloves for the older presenting spirits, soda and toys for the younger ones.

I grew to realize that participating in these rituals benefited all, whether you believed in the reality of what we were experiencing or not.

Even if you didn’t believe in the magic being performed, attending still allowed you to connect with the people in your local community, to make space for the things they were going through and the things they wished for, to eat good food and watch performances and to leave with a higher sense of connection.

Our dalliances with things that lie beyond our world aren’t really attempting to connect with the other side at all: they’re ways to connect with the material reality of our shared circumstances.