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What Is Shamanism?
Stationed at the firelight's periphery, the shaman has, through eons of time, served as shield and intermediary between the community huddled around the fire and the unknown. Shamans still hold this position, but in the modern Western world, the nature of community and the unknown has changed beyond recognition. We no longer live in a tribal culture as a cohesive whole, and the unknown is defined by what little remains that cannot be measured by science. Yet we still peer into the darkness, searching for connections between ourselves and our ancestors, the Earth, and each other. Today, the universal relevance of Shamanism transcends ethnic and cultural boundaries in its applicability for all humanity. The practices of shamanism have found fertile ground even in those who are not called to fulfill the role of shaman, but who still feel the desire to reconnect with so much of what has been lost in our evolutionary sprint toward an ever less spiritual and natural world.
Endemic to shamanic practice is the use of trance states. These allow the practitioner to move at will into the realms of spirits in order to communicate, learn, negotiate, and develop lasting relationships with these beings. This set of practices exists in indigenous tribal cultures around the globe. In these traditional settings, a shaman is defined as one who enters into a trance state and interacts with spirits, either by Journeying to where the spirits are, or by bringing the spirits into their own body, in order to bring information back to the ordinary realm to facilitate change, most often concerning healing and the retrieval of information which forms the practice of spirit divination.
While the definition of a shaman is narrow, the set of practices that can be used in support of shamanic healing and divination is quite varied. Much of it is based upon a fundamental worldview largely forgotten by technological cultures in the modern Western world. Animistic in nature, this orientation views all things as inherently alive, and imbued with the presence of the divine. The highest value is placed on the communal nature of humankind over the individual, recognition of the beneficial presence of ancestors, even after their death, and the repair and maintenance of balance between our human community and the natural world. Ultimately, the view that arises from shamanic practice points to a relationship with self that includes a much larger and more complex sense of soul than that found in monotheistic religions. This broader perspective is essentially transformative, bringing about developmental stage shifts and changing the very nature of identity.
There are three main types of shaman found in active practice today. Indigenous shamans are those who operate within their existing tribal cultures or who have reconstructed an indigenous practice or have been adopted into an existing tribal culture. Core shamanic practitioners base their practices on the work of Michael Harner and his theory that certain universal practices which occur in all shamanic cultures can be lifted out of their tribal context and used by anyone. Post-tribal shamans, are a natural evolution of the indigenous shaman, are chosen and initiated by spirits to serve individuals in the cultures of the modern West.
What separates the role of the shaman from that of lay practitioners is that the work is done in service to others. Just as a doctor requires training and certification before entering practice, a shaman first needs to be recognized by the spirits as having the necessary talent, then they need to receive competent training and, finally, to be initiated by the spirits.
The role of the shaman has always been defined by the needs of their community. Since the most important element of the tribe is the communal whole, the tribal shaman will work to meet the needs of their tribe. It is to this community that the shaman owes their loyalty and their service. For the post-tribal shaman or core shamanic practitioner, serving in our modern, urban environment, this sense of community is made up of whoever uses their services. For them it is the individual who they are focused on serving. This reflects the direction of social evolution in our culture, which values the individual over the communal. However, what defines the shaman in all cases is the nature of his or her work and how he or she relates to community through their service.
This definition is necessary to our understanding of just what shamanism is, so let's break it down.
A shaman is one who moves into a trance state in order to communicate with spirits, to cause changes and/or bring back information, in service to others.
A trance state is an altered state of consciousness which allows for movement into the realm of the spirits. This state can be accessed through various means, ranging from simply mental discipline and drumming to extreme physical distress and plant medicines. Most shamans focus on the techniques of sound or movement – drumming, rattling, dancing – to carry them into the altered state. With practice, the shaman is able to drum, chant, dance and communicate with their clients in the physical realm, all while in a trance state. It is important that the shaman is responsible for moving into the trance. It is not something that they fall into without intention. There are some kinds of spirit medium who do this, and this separates them from the disciplines of shamanism.
Communication with spirits
Once they can enter a trance state, the shaman looks for a way to connect with the world of the spirits. This other world is accessed through various doorways, some in the natural world, some within the shaman. Moving through these doorways, the shaman encounters the spirits that inhabit this other world. Often these spirits have an interest in the shaman and his or her community. This provides an excellent starting point to develop a relationship with the spirits. Once rapport is established, relationships can be built. The shaman will usually have one of more special relationships with Spirit Allies. These are special spirits who assist the shaman's work in various ways, sometimes becoming mentors and teachers as well.
It wouldn't do anyone much good if the shaman just Journeyed for personal amusement. It is when they do so for their community that it becomes shamanism. One of the most common uses of shamanic Journeying is to bring about healing for another person. In traditional shamanism, this person would be a part of the shaman's clan, tribe, family or village. For those working in a post-tribal setting, the person is most likely a client who has sought them out for their skills. These healings may be for a particular physical illness or for a mental disorder, but more likely there is a soul-level issue that is creating physical and/or psychological symptoms which drop away once the healing is complete.
Bringing back information/divination
The shaman can also serve their community through divination. This is the practice of communicating with the spirits to bring greater and deeper understanding about some aspect of what is being looked at. The shaman may read messages from the spirits in natural phenomena, like cloud formations, the flight of birds or the entrails of slaughtered animals. These days, it is more likely to use a tool like a black mirror, a pendulum, or a set of objects that were found with the help of the shaman's Allies. Some reconstructionists use runes or cast lots as well. Whatever tools are used, the shaman connects with their spirit helpers, the ancestors of the client or even gods and goddesses to find answers to the questions they are asked. These questions must be of a serious nature, without an apparent method of being answered by ordinary means. Once an answer is received, the one who asked is generally obligated to follow whatever advice they have received.
In service to others
As mentioned above, the shaman works in service to others. In traditional settings, this meant those who shared the same tribe or village, however, for shamans working in the West, this generally refers to anyone who seeks them out for their services. In this way, the shaman still serves community, even as the nature of that community is transformed.
These elements form the fundamentals of shamanic practice. Of course most shamans perform many other functions as well. Shamanic practice will usually include some sort of soul retrieval, along with extraction, ancestor work, and other spiritual healing.
Just as important as this definition is the preparation required for a shaman to function effectively in the role. This preparation is said to begin before birth, in the spirit realm, as the shaman is chosen for this work. The shaman may or may not have a say in this choice at a soul level, but who is and who is not a shaman tends to be set by the time one is born. However, just being chosen is not enough. You still need to know what you are doing. In a tribal setting, the person would receive training from the existing shaman. In the post-tribal culture, we find our training as best we can.
There is no book or workshop that will make someone into a shaman. That said, both books and workshops can provide a foundation of practical training in the techniques necessary to begin practicing shamanism. In most cases, those attending trainings are not planning on becoming shamans, but rather intend to use what they learn to lead a more fulfilling life, with deeper connections to spirit, land, soul and ancestors.
If chosen by the spirits and well trained, a person will be initiated by the spirits as well. This can be a terrifying and overwhelming experience, often culminating in a real or vividly imagined death, followed by the dismemberment of the body, which is eventually reassembled, along with some added bits and pieces from the spirits. After this initiation, the new shaman is ready to begin practicing for others.
For the lay practitioner, no such initiation is necessary, since there will be no need to connect with a spirit ally or collect missing pieces of someone else. Instead, there is a veritable cornucopia of techniques that lies open to anyone with even a modicum of talent and capacity. These are the people who are fueling a renaissance of shamanic practice in the West. It is their hunger for healing, for connection and for a sense of belonging which they recognize as their soul's birthright, which makes these teachings available in the form of books, videos and workshops. This is how the practice of shamanism survives and thrives in its new forms in the world today, even as the tribal forms of shamanism continue to function, providing us with a palpable link to our own shamanic ancestors.
The transformative elements of shamanic practice are deeply effective for those who were raised in the dominant Western culture. Simply moving beyond the confines of the limited ego identity begins to cause developmental shifts which accelerate with deepening practice. This sort of "moving beyond" is all a part of the practice – moving beyond the physical body and the physical realm; moving beyond the ego into soul; moving beyond the individual into the communal self. All of these offer profound opportunities for those living in our post-tribal culture to reconnect with what our ancestors encountered in the experience of being fully human.
It is this insatiable and incorruptible yearning for wholeness that keeps shamanism alive. It is this hunger to connect with both self and other that calls shamans into being. It is this deep and burning thirst for awakening into soul that turns our attention back towards the inner doorways that lead to the realms of the ancestors, the spirits, the goddesses and gods, to the World Tree, to the vast and ever growing Mystery that lies beyond the circle of flickering light cast by what we think we know.
Indigenous and Modern Shamanic Practice
What do we actually mean by indigenous and modern shamanic practice? Let's start by defining those things and how they might be different.
In the world of shamanism today, generally, a distinction is made between indigenous shamanic cultures and modern forms of shamanic practice in locations where shamanism disappeared (or went underground) for many centuries. This means that there is both research and re-construction work being done in many locations where dominant Western culture (on reflection a rather odd mix of science and Christianity) is viewed as the preferred (only viable) worldview and mode of perceiving reality.
All existing civilizations today were preceded by earlier civilizations that practiced shamanism. Yet shamanism has never been a unified global practice. Shamanism is a word that, in modern times, we use to refer to a spiritual belief system that puts the tribe's connection to Spirit (or the spirits) at the very heart of community life. The figure of the shaman plays a key role in this. Operating somewhere between priest, psychologist and medical doctor, he or she offers healing, guidance on spiritual matters, ceremonial and divination work. All shamanic cultures honor the ancestors of their clan. Outside Time the ancestors are consulted on matters of importance to the community. Even the generations as yet unborn are taken into account when decisions are made that affect the larger Web of Life and all living things (please Google Seven Generations – Great Law of the Iroquois to read more).
Shamanism follows the principle of animism: it believes that all things have in-dwelling spirit and that we can contact these spirits and communicate with them. Here, I refer to not just humans or animals, but also trees, plants, mountains, rocks, winds, rivers etc. (And indeed our own computer! If you are having IT problems – tune into the spirit of your computer!)
Civilizations that have preserved an ancient and (relatively) uninterrupted lineage of shamanic/tribal culture until the present time are called Indigenous Cultures. Well-known examples are the Native American peoples or the tribes of the Amazon. There are countless other, less well-known, examples such as Hmong shamanism in Southern China or the Dravidian mountain peoples of India.
In Western Civilization a schism occurred during the period we call the Renaissance (which was followed by the Enlightenment). This was the time when science, as we know it today, became the dominant mode of perceiving and interpreting reality (some key words are investigation, experiment, causality and evidence). Up to this time there was no separation between alchemy and science, between astrology and astronomy, between philosophy and mathematics and so forth. Today we speak of Newtonian Physics, as Isaac Newton is often called the Father of Modern Physics, but actually the great man spent half his time on metaphysical studies and pursuits!
Here, we also need to acknowledge that non-European early civilizations made very significant contributions to our history of science. Think of the Mesopotamians, Ancient Egyptians, Maya and Chinese. Islam also helped preserve ancient knowledge while adding further insights and conclusions.
Summing up this vast subject rather crudely we can say that there has been a scientific (or linear) Western worldview in operation for some centuries now. This dates from a period when great scientific advances and discoveries were made and science, as we know it today, took shape and definition. Europe moved from the magical and profoundly religious worldview of the medieval period (where trees were seen as the thoughts of God and everything/everyone had its place in a larger Divine Plan) to a more fragmented secular worldview.
In Europe this period was followed by the Inquisition and Witch Trials (between 1450-1750 CE). The US saw witch trials too (think of Salem). There is a well-known principle in the comparative study of religions stating that new (conquering) religions often demonize the old gods and old ways as they introduce a new pantheon. In Europe the Church Fathers of Early Christianity deliberately instilled a deep-rooted fear in people of the old Pagan ways (including folk magic and herbalism). Many (so called) witches were burned at the stake for their healing skills and knowledge of magic.
Today all Western people collectively carry that fear in their/ our ancestral field as we all have ancestors who would have been affected by this (be it on the accused side or on the accuser side, often both!). Roughly, we can say that in the Renaissance period a split occurred between Church and Science which translated into a split that still affects all of us today. This is the split between the workings of the outside world (everyday reality) which is studied and explained through scientific research and our own personal inner world – where our spiritual or religious beliefs live, as well as our intuition. Sadly, we have lost the ancient art of being polymaths! Astronomers revile astrologers and most scientists have no time at all for alchemical principles (which are essentially spiritual principles!).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Shaman Pathways - What Is Shamanism?"
Copyright © 2017 Trevor Greenfield.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Foreword Yvonne Ryves 1
What Is Shamanism? Kenn Day 3
Indigenous and Modern Shamanic Practice Imelda Almqvist 10
Shamanism as an Active Spiritual Practice Dorothy Abrams 20
Working with Spiritual Entities Janet Gale 28
Shamanism and Animism Laura Perry 36
Beyond Cultural Appropriation and a Search for Authenticity Jez Hughes 44
Modern Shamanism, the Middle World, and Ego S. Kelley Harrell 52
Shamanism for Inner Soul Work Julie Dollman 62
Animals and Healing Hearth Moon Rising 70
British Shamanism Elen Sentier 79
Shamanic Story Weaving Taz Thornton 88