When I was 25 I met a Mongolian shaman. He lived next door. I didn’t know it at the time but the experience would forever change my understanding of what it means to be self-critical.
I had an apartment in Mongolia’s capital city Ulaanbaatar. Well, actually it was my Dad’s apartment. He worked on a nearby mine half the year training locals on geotechnical software. During his time in Mongolia he had fallen in love with and married a local Mongolian woman named Undraa. She had since moved to Australia but her family remained in Ulaanbaatar. That was the purpose of the trip.
Dad and Undraa flew in from Perth, and Bec and I flew in from Montreal where we had been living for the past two years. The four of us met in Moscow and took the Trans-Siberian across to Ulaanbaatar where we were to spend the next fortnight. I wanted an authentic Mongolian experience.
I got one.
On the last stop after six days on the Trans-Siberian I jumped off the train to -39°C. I could feel the cold edging through my soles as I stood on the platform sucking a cigarette. I’ve never felt cold like that.
Bec and I stayed in Dad’s apartment whilst he and Undraa bunked with the relatives. Next door lived The Shaman. For the first week I had no idea he was a shaman. I just knew him as Undraa’s brother-in-law, Tukem.
Tukem was a quiet friendly man who drove us from place to place. He didn’t speak a word of english, and he barely opened his mouth, but he was always around when you needed to get somewhere. I got the feeling he was The Khan’s driver. Khan means king in Mongol and was the title given to the eldest male in a core family.
I first noticed Tukem was different the day we went to the desert. We drove in two cars to a site where Genghis Khan found an auspicious golden whip. Legend goes this whip inspired his future conquests.
I rode in an air-conditioned Prado with Bec, Undraa, her sister, and her sister’s husband. We listened to 90s K-Pop and I watched Undraa drop wrapped lollies out the window. She said it was a sacrifice to the gods. Ahead in an old beat-up sedan Tukem drove Dad and The Khan. They sat in the back downing vodka.
When we stopped The Khan came bumbling over to me with a dish of vodka clasped in his hands. He bowed his head and offered it to me. I stretched out my hands and placed my palms beneath his forearms. It was a symbol of the youth supporting the aged. Then I took the dish with two hands, bowed and took a gulp. I could take as much or as little as I wanted but real Mongolian men took the whole dish. So that’s what I did. Most days we were blind drunk by mid afternoon. It was custom.
The first time I noticed the difference in Tukem was when The Khan passed the dish his way. Whilst the rest of them laughed and joked between sips. He was serious. He delicately cradled the dish in his palms, let a drop or two spill to the earth, and then he raised the dish a few centimeters to the sky before taking a sip. He had a look in his eyes that said, I’ve seen a lot.
Tukem wasn’t always a shaman. As the story goes one night he was visited by a local shaman who told him he was to take his place. Undraa explained that Tukem had ignored the message and this is when bad things started to happen. First his wife had a stillborn. Then she had another and another. Not long after he was assaulted by two men on the street just outside the apartment where he had his skull beaten in with a metal pipe. Eventually he convinced himself he was cursed and took up place as shaman.
When I found out he was a shaman I asked Dad if I could sit in on one of his ceremonies. In Mongolia you don’t just approach an elder with a request. You take communication through the rightful channels. In this case Dad was second to The Khan in superiority. It didn’t matter that he had white skin or that he lived on the other side of the world for 6-months of the year. He had married the second oldest daughter so he was second in charge.
I felt chills run down my spine when he replied, “He’s already invited you”.
I never discovered the truth behind why I was invited. All I know is that Mongolians are very spiritual people. They work on gut. If they get a good feeling about you. They like you. If they don’t. You know about it.
Undraa had requested the ceremony. She was having problems with her 13 year old son. He was struggling to cope with the change after moving to Australia and had been expelled from several schools. She was at a loss and wanted The Shaman’s advice. When she approached him to organise the ceremony he told her to bring her two sisters because he had a message for all of them. Bec and Dad were also invited. Bec declined. I understood her position. Why kick the hornet’s nest?
We met in Dad’s apartment 10-minutes before the ceremony. Dad was yammering on about God. Since splitting with Mum several years earlier he had taken to christianity. I remember him saying, “I’m just warning you that if it doesn’t work, it may be because I’ve got my God with me. I may need to leave halfway”. I could tell he was scared.
At 6pm we knocked on The Shaman’s door. His wife let us in and led us to the living room where Undraa’s nephew sat alone. He was a young boy of around 12. We sat down and had a cup of tea and smoked a cigarette whilst we waited for Undraa’s two sisters to show.
When they arrived the young boy left and came back a few minutes later telling us The Shaman was ready. He then led us to the master bedroom.
I had visited the same room a few days earlier when we had first been told Tukem was a shaman. The only bedroom in the house had been emptied of everything except a few cushions and an incense stand. It meant Tukem and his wife slept out in the living room with the kids. Even when the space wasn’t being used.
It wasn’t until Tukem slid open the wardrobe door revealing a large cloak and mask that the reality flooded in. Each was made of thick hessian material and interwoven with Mongolian eagle feathers. Hundreds of colourful leather tassels hung from each. Black cloth eyes had been stitched onto the mask. Seeing the thing swaying back and forth on the rack as Tukem ran his hand through the feathers sent a rush of blood to my stomach.
Now we were standing in the same room except it was pitch black. The boy led us one by one. Undraa’s two sisters went first, then Undraa and Dad. On cue I followed him last. I could just make out the broad scratchy silhouette of The Shaman. He sat in the centre of the room. The others sat around him in a semi circle and the boy took a seat to his right. I could smell leather, cigarettes and incense. And I had this guttural feeling that the room felt different. That this wasn’t Tukem.
It is worth explaining that in a ceremony like this the shaman is a vehicle which a spirit can embody. The shaman ushers a deceased ancestor in from the afterlife and then allows them to take over their body. It means members of a ceremony can communicate directly with their ancestors through the shaman. In this case we had come to talk to Undraa’s grandfather.
The ceremony began by The Shaman letting out a soft rhythmic gurgle. The deep husky tone sent butterflies to my chest. As my eyes began to adjust I could start to make out the women to my right. They sat on their knees leaning down and rocked back and forth.
And, then. Dad shut off.
It couldn’t have been longer than two minutes since we sat. Hearing his deep snores rising and falling in the darkness I thought, he just turned your God off. That scared the hell out of me.
After a few minutes I began to grow comfortable with The Shaman’s throat gurgles. Then he fell silent. I held my breath afraid to make a sound. Then he started panting and aggressively tossing his head from side to side. Then the pants turned to a growls and gruff barks. I found out later that this was the transition stage. The throat calls had awoken Undraa’s grandfather and now The Shaman had turned into the animal upon which the grandfather was to ride in from the afterlife.
Undraa’s sister later explained that most Mongolian spirits ride in by horse, or camel, or reindeer. This is when the boy went to work. He would fetch some grain or grass to refresh the animal. After all this creature had just crossed in from another dimension. In this case Undraa’s grandfather had ridden in on a wolf. This explained the growls and panting.
The boy disappeared from the room and returned with a dish of vodka and a plate of raw meat. The Wolf feasted on the refreshments. I could hear him ripping through the raw flesh from behind the mask in the darkness. After finishing he took a large gulp of vodka and handed the dish to the boy. The boy lit a cigarette and gave it to him. He was now Grandfather.
For the next 20 minutes I listened to Dad’s deep snores and watched the silhouettes of three women rocking back and forth. They sobbed and moaned and interrupted one another in an attempt to ask questions. It was as though they were piglets gathered around their mother’s udder. They were somewhere else.
Grandfather gave them the answers they needed. He spoke half in tongues and half in Mongol. Every now and then he gestured to the boy who lit him a cigarette or handed him the dish of vodka. And then it was over. The Shaman fell silent and the boy told us he had gone. The women pulled together their sobs and Dad’s snores slowly wound down until he eventually woke. The boy guided us out of the room and into the lounge.
It was only afterwards that I found out what had been said. Undraa’s sister explained that their grandfather had told Undraa to send her son back to Mongolia to live with the family. He warned that something bad would happen if she didn’t. Within two months Undraa’s son was back in Ulaanbaatar to live.
The spirit had also told the women they must get back a family heirloom. The heirloom was a statue made of gold that had fallen into a neighbour’s possession many years ago. He said a curse had been placed on the neighbours that could only be broken if the statue was returned to the family. I’m not sure if they ever got the statue back or not.
It wasn’t until I was 29 that I came to learn the lesson of that day. What I saw The Shaman do was shift behaviour through belief. It didn’t matter if Undraa’s grandfather had physically sat in that room or not. That figure, whether you called him Tukem, The Shaman, The Wolf or Grandfather. The figure who put Dad to sleep and turned three grown women into sobbing piglets. He showed me the power of ideas.
He made me realise that stories are more than nice ways to connect with others. He showed me they are triggers. Emotional triggers that generate chemical reactions at a cellular level. These chemicals can make us happy or make us sad. They can make us fall asleep or make us wake up. Seeing this first hand I realised how possible it was that we could make ourselves sick, or make ourselves well. That through ideas alone we could make ourselves thrive, or make ourselves waste away.
That is when I realised my self-criticism was not just a discomfort but a red flag. This negative perception of myself was not just an idea. It was a destructive emotional trigger that could manifest itself physically. It effected the way I carried myself. And the way I communicated. It effected the strength I could muster when dealing with defeat. And the grace I could find day to day.
I realise now if I want to change my direction in life I need to replace the story of self-doubt with a story of overcoming. After all, we all get what we think we deserve. It took a Mongolian shaman to show me that.