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Reading the Reader: An Interview with Jan Van Ysslestyne

The following is a written interview between the blog editor, Ethan Barker, and East West astrologer Jan Van Ysslestyne.  This is the first in a series of interviews with East West healers and readers. 

Jan Van Ysslestyne hosts the Shamanic Council at East West bookshop on the second Sunday of each month, and gives astrological readings on select other Sundays. 

Ethan Barker will be hosting an open book discussion on the spiritual classic Be Here Now by Ram Das.  The discussion will be held at East West on Friday, November 30th, from 7:00-8:30. 

Ethan: You seem to have some special knowledge about shamanism. Can you tell us what it means to be a Shaman and what your interest in Shamanism is?

Jan: That is kind of you to say, but I don’t think I have any special knowledge. I have just been very fortunate to study with the elders and shamans of the Ulchi tribe in Siberia. Now the question about what it means to be a shaman would take a very long time to explain, so I suggest that you go and read my book-LOL. My interest wasn’t about shamanism per se as it was more about learning an ancient tradition of animism by a very remote tribe in eastern Siberia.

Ethan: For how long and where did you study Shamanism?

Jan: I worked exclusivity with this culture for almost 30 years. After the fall of the Soviet Union, I started bringing members of the tribe to the Pacific Northwest from 1994-2015. I learned their oral tribal language through an English speaking member of the group. This allowed me to translate their tales and traditions in my current book.

Ethan: Would you call Shamanism an art or a craft? Or a way of living?

Jan: The Ulchi’s gave the word “shaman” to the world. It comes only from their language group. More importantly, their tradition is about how to live as a proper human being on the earth through learning and living the Doro (which is the Manchu-Tungus word for Tao). Historically, they are “the wise people of ancient times” who are alluded to by both Lao Tzu and the writings of Chuang Tzu. 

They teach a way of life not unlike contemplative Taoists, or how to live in balance with all of Nature. Their shamanic practices are only a piece of this complex structure. They say that first, we must trust Nature, then other people, and finally ourselves. That seems to be getting at the very crux of most issues because people have a problem trusting themselves and go looking for outside validation to confirm their personal experiences. Shamanism is an animistic way of being in the world and adhering to natural law.

Ethan: And do you consider yourself a Shaman now?

Jan: no

Ethan: You recently came out with a book on Siberian Shamanism. Did you have a specific intent when you wrote the book? Do you feel it is more of a summary or documentation of what you know, or is it meant to guide someone through a specific aspect of that work?

Jan: My intent was to preserve the oral histories of these quickly vanishing people as well as to educate Westerners to the complexity and nuances of authentic shamanism. The word “shaman” is bandied around so much these days especially when it comes commodification of products for the consumer. In my small way, I hope to help people understand the practice more clearly whether they are interested in shamanism or not.

Ethan: You run the Shamanic Council at East West once a month. Can you tell us what goes on in that event?

Jan: Using the book as a guide, we explore and practice the specifics of the craft which has been handed down for thousands of years from one teacher to the next from an unbroken linear line. There are many people teaching ‘shamanism’ these days without any safeguards for their students. This is not out of maliciousness but from ignorance or misinformation. Westerners lack a basic understanding of spirits based upon the Cartesian/Newtonian/Judeo-Christian foundations of Western society. Westerners grow up with no basic structure of how the invisible world fits into our daily lives. Shamanism has never been about techniques as described in the West. Indigenous people don’t think in archetypes or Jungian psychology, and they have never done ‘soul retrievals.’ This is purely a Western invention. The experience is more akin to understanding and experiencing the world through emotional intelligence and the nervous system within the body. It’s about the feelings of experience without falling into verbal commentary as to “what does this mean”? Once the intellect gets involved, you start down the rabbit hole of no return. If you understand an Asian way of perceiving the world this helps but for most Westerners, the first act is to liberate themselves from their culture. Easier said and done, or as my old teacher Alan Watts would say: ”You have to go out of your mind to come to your senses”! LOL

Ethan: If someone wanted to attend that event, is there something they should do to prepare?

Jan: Come with an open mind and a drum

Ethan: You also do astrological readings here at East West. Can you talk about how your study of Shamanism influences your style as an Astrologer?

Jan: Shamanism follows all types of natural cycles in the world. The astrological chart is no different when looking at the tides and trends of nature. My approach to astrological interpretation has more of an Eastern flavor to it rather than being predictive or pathologizing the client. I remind people that “What is coming at them is really coming from them” so with this as a starting point we are able to explore implicit and explicit beliefs that people carry around about their life situations.↨

2 comments

  • Karen Infante

    I agree that the invisible world is experienced through emotion and feeling experiences. I’ve always thought of it as an expanding of the mind. The thoughts and ideas that come to me are completely different than when thinking about a solution to whatever. For example I di not consider myself to be particularly creative however when I’m in an animism state I’m very creative.

  • Jimmy Conomos

    Thanks Jan, your made some great points

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