word "shaman" (pronounced SHAH-MAN) has become a new age catchword,
used by many but understood by few. Originally, it comes from the
Evinki people of Siberia, and literally means "the one who knows."
Today, in the western world, some mean that a shaman is any kind of
native medicine man or woman, while others think it is anyone with
a strong personality and an intense stare. But, in fact, a shaman
is defined by the way she or he works. Quite simply, a shaman is a
woman or man who changes his or her state of consciousness, at will,
in order to contact and/or travel to another reality to obtain power
and knowledge. Mission accomplished, the shaman journeys home to use
this power and knowledge to help either himself or others.
drumming, dance, and song the shaman experiences a consciousnessshift
which enables her to let her soul journey to what is traditionally
known as the Spirit World. In many cultures, this alternate universe
is divided into three main areas: The Upperworld, the Middleworld,
and the Lowerworld.
to the Lowerworld is started by the shaman by sending his own soul
through an opening in the Earth - for example a cave, a spring, the
hole at the base of a beech-tree, a foxhole, or even a man made hole
such as a well or a mineshaft. The hole continues as a tunnel, further
and further down, and, finally, the tunnel opens out into the landscape
of the Lowerworld. The appearance of the Lowerworld is greatly varied.
For some it may be a tropical, or woodland or mountainous landscape,
while others may come into a fairytale-like country, with two suns.
Be that as it may, it is here where the shaman meets his spirit-helpers,
and it is the spirit-helpers who give the power or knowledge the shaman
must have to return to ordinary reality to fight the illness of his
patient, give advice for serious problems, or reestablish the balance
of the community.
As the American
anthropologist Michael Harner points out in his book, The Way of the
Shaman, the key classic shamanic technique traditionally practiced
all over the world, the journey to non-ordinary reality, can easily
be learned and used by people with a western cultural background.
Many, if not most, of our modern psychotherapeutic methods have their
roots in shamanism, and for this reason it is possible for shamanism
to superficially resemble many current therapy forms. Because of this,
I have often heard people with a psychological background try to explain
the shamanic journey as an "inner " journey to the unconscious or
the "higher self." This explanation is based on the western point
of view which sees humans as the crown of creation, and, in opposition
to shamanic knowledge, does not give other lifeforms credit for consciousness.
Fortunately, there is more to the Universe than the human mind. From
the shaman's point of view, the non-ordinary reality of the spirit
world exists parallel to the ordinary reality of our consciousness,
and independent of our minds. The shaman, knowing that all things
created have a soul, also knows that it is possible to communicate
with these other spiritual essences by journeying to them, breaking
through the boundaries of Time and Space.
techniques are powerful, no matter how they are explained, but if
we accept the reduced psychological explanation we risk separating
ourselves from most of the shaman's power. The power of the shamanic
journey resides in the fact that it is a journey of the soul, and
that the shaman's soul returns with the power of the Universe, which
is the strongest medicine be found.
One of the most widespread misunderstandings about shamanism is that
it is a religion with the shaman in the role of priest. This is not
the case. In some traditional societies, the shaman serves as both
shaman and ceremonial leader, but the two activities are carried out
at different times. In the shamanic ceremony, the purpose is to build
a bridge between the world of the spirits and the everyday world as
we know it, and often all the participants in the ritual become intimately
involved with the power present. That which separates shamanism from
most religions is the direct spiritual experience without middle-men,
for example, priests, who attempt to establish a monopoly on the sacred.
There are no gurus in shamanism, except in the spirit world, where
the shaman receives her knowledge.
goes hand in hand with the animist's experience of the world: first,
all that is alive, and being alive embodies a spirit; second, all
that is alive is connected by these spirits. Therefore we all - humans,
trees, dogs, cats, bees, stones, mountains, seas, Earth and Sky -
we all are connected. Even though shamanism itself is based on first-hand
experience and is not religious belief, many religions - including
certain Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic sects - have strong shamanic
influences and leanings. One need not believe in anything to use shamanism,
not even that it works. But people who don't believe in anything risk
believing in many things, and those who hold dogmatic positions risk
having to radically revise their ideas after having experienced the
non-ordinary world of the shaman. It is also very normal for those
practicing shamanism to have life- changing experiences, experiences
which in everyday language are called religious experiences, which
provide him with a set of values and practices to live by.
education of a shaman
Traditionally, the would-be shaman is most often initiated spontaneously
by the spirits. In our culture, these experiences are sometimes referred
to as out-of-body experiences, psychotic episodes, revelations, or
even very powerful dreams, depending on ow they occur and how they
are viewed. Sometimes these experiences are also accompanied by illness,
as in the famous example of Black Elk (see Black Elk Speaks
by John Neihardt). In any case, when this happens, an experienced
shaman is consulted and asked to teach the way of the shaman to the
newly initiated one. Indeed, sometimes the teaching is the only cure
for the illness. The teachings of the experienced shaman consist mainly
of setting up learning situations for the neophyte, because the shaman
realizes that the Universe is the real teacher.
each culture has it's own traditions, but whereas priests and ceremonial
leaders are strictly restricted in their rituals by the preestablished
cultural rules of their traditions, in many cases the information
received by the shaman goes beyond the traditions. And this is respected,
because it is recognized that each shaman has his own direct contact
to the wisdom of the spirits. For example, in some traditional cultures,
it was felt that East was the direction of new beginnings. The apprentice
shaman, returning from a journey to the spirit world, may announce
to his ordinary reality teacher that he had learned that East was
the home of endings, and that the Land of the Dead lay to the East.
His teacher would not argue with him, but rather ask questions which
would help his pupil to understand the deeper meanings of the non-ordinary
teachings. In other words, the shaman knows that there are no fixed
teachings from the spirit world, and the Universe teaches us all according
to our needs and according to our ability to understand. And sometimes
it pushes us.
spirits - no shaman
The apparently simple practice
of the shaman has been used for at least 20.000 - and perhaps as much
as 200.000 - years over the whole world, including Europe, and is
by no means a "new-age" system, even though it is experiencing a renaissance
in our time. The most usual way to learn to do shamanic work in our
culture is by getting the basic teachings on a course, although many
people in our society do have spontanious initiatory experiences.
By setting up learning situations for course participants so that
they can experience for themselves the power of the shamanic journey
to the world of the spirits, and to learn how to use that power safely
and ethically is what we teach on our courses. As a teacher of shamanism,
people often ask me, "How long does it take to become a shaman?" I
generally answer that it only takes a few minutes to have a shamanic
experience, but to become a shaman takes a lifetime, and if you ever
catch yourself saying " Now, I am a shaman!" it is a clear sign that
you're still an apprentice. It is not the shaman who decides if he's
shaman or not: it is the people who come to him for help, and the
spirits, for the shaman knows that it is the spirits who do the real
work. No Spirits, no shaman.
often attracted to shamanism because they need to feel more power-filled,
to feel more in contact with their lives and with what is going on
around them. What happens with them is often more than they expect.
As the basic techniques of shamanism are relatively easy to learn
to use, even beginners experience feeling stronger and more powerful
with their spirit-helpers by their sides. It is also typical that
people get the desire to share that power and use it to help others.
One of the differences between a shaman and a "normal" person is that
the shaman knows who his spirit-helpers are, how he can come into
contact with them, and how they can work together. A shaman is only
a shaman when he is shamanizing. Otherwise, he is a "normal" member
of the society he lives in. In our society, people doing shamanic
work have all kinds of ordinary reality jobs, for example, computer
programmers, teachers, construction or office workers, doctors, actors,
parents and grandparents, to name a few. Indeed, many shamans are
peering out at us from behind the most "ordinary" facades.
One of the drawbacks of our life today is that we are so caught up
in our daily routines that we have lost contact with the basic simple
joys of living on this planet. How often do we stop to smell that
special scent of the fallen leaves in the Autumn, or feel the warmth
of the earth in the Spring? One of the results of coming into contact
with the spirit world is that one feels much more connected with one's
everyday surroundings, the Earth, and the Universe. The reason for
this is that one is more connected. In traditional societies, the
shaman was able to talk with the plants, animals, rocks, and the rest
of Creation with which we humans share the Earth. As a result, the
humans lived in harmony with their surroundings. Now most people have
forgotten how to communicate with the other inhabitants of the planet,
and the most obvious result of this today is the threat of total destruction
of life on the Earth as we know it, by our own so-called "higher"
For me, this
connection with our surroundings is of paramount importance, not only
for the sake of the planet and everything on it, but also, obviously,
for each of us as individuals, materially and spiritually. Just as
everything we use, from wooden kitchen spoons to the microchips of
our most advanced computers, comes from Nature, the shaman is aware
that much of our spiritual power also comes from the spirits found
in Nature. It is clear then, that living carelessly on our beautiful
planet not only depletes our possibilities, and harms the source of
our nourishment, but it also damages the well-spring of our spiritual
foundation. When we kill nature in the myriad ways we do it, we kill
ourselves, physically and spiritually. In attempt to remedy this I
teach a course called Spiritual Ecology, the main idea of which is
to put humans back into contact with the non-human population of the
planet, on a one to one basis. During this course, I send all the
participants into the forest to talk with a tree, any tree. Their
mission is to ask Tree what their own personal role is in the destruction
of the Earth. Once, one of the participants told the following: "
I chose a birch tree. Or perhaps it chose me. After we had talked
a bit together in a friendly way, it said to me: "By the way, you
don't really need your car." " Oh, yes, I do!" I responded, and started
to list a lot of good reasons. But the Tree had its own arguments,
and pointed out that there are shops a few minutes walk from my home,
and half-empty busses that drive past my door all day long. And do
you know what? I don't really need my car!" As I see it, one of the
greatest challenges to the new generation of shamans is to re-establish
the contact between human beings and the other inhabitants of the
Earth, to network nature, to stop the slaughter of the environment
we share, to find out what can be done - spiritually, ritually, and
practically - with the damage which has already been done, and to
learn once again that the Earth will nourish us - physically and spiritually
- if we allow her to do it.
Healing is, and always has been, the main work of the shaman. Central
to the understanding of shamanism, and especially shamanic healing,
is the concept of power. Essentially, power in shamanism is not power
as might, but rather power as energy. Traditionally, the shaman sees
two main reasons for illness. The patient either has something inside
which should not be there (an unwanted power intrusion), or is missing
something that should be there (power-loss). As all things have a
spirit or soul from the shaman's point of view, this holds true for
illnesses as well. In the case of a power intrusion it is the shaman's
job to remove the spirit of the unwanted power.
In my work
over the years, I have found that the main cause of illness is separation,
both literally and metaphorically, to the degree that the two words
could almost be considered to be synonymous. By separation, I mean
being cut off from one's surroundings, loved ones, or even - perhaps,
especially, - oneself. We've all heard friends say: "I have this horrible
job that gives me no satisfaction and takes all my energy." The shaman
is aware that all things are connected, and, as such, influence each
other to some degree or another, just as you are influenced by your
family, your friends, the things you read, the weather, the Earth
and the Moon, and even the stars.
Think of the
healthiest, happiest person you know. In all probability, she or he
is well connected - that is, aware of what is going on around her,
as well as being receptive and responsive. Now think about the person
you are most worried about.
In shamanism the idea of separation is expressed in the term power-loss.
In fact, it is generally trough power-loss that power intrusions can,
literally, take place - that is, fill up room. From the shaman's way
of looking at things, when you are feeling powerful (that is, full
of power) it is when you are in good contact with the rest of the
Universe, and, being filled with that power, there is no room for
illness. Your spirit-helpers, power animals, and non-ordinary teachers
are close at hand, you are listening to what they are saying, and
following their advice. In everyday English, we might call this following
our intuition, or trusting. Conversely, one of the greatest symptoms
of power-loss is lack of trust. Fear is another. Power-loss may manifest
itself as things "going wrong." You have often heard someone say,
"It was just one of those days when nothing worked." Of course, we
all have days like that, and they can be seen as warning signals.
But if they continue, it would indicate power-loss, along with accompanying
depression and a proneness to illness. This kind of power loss often
occurs when one of your power animals wanders away for one reason
or another. To remedy this, the shaman undertakes a journey to find
and restore the lost power to the suffering patient. This restoration
of power is often enough to not only put the patient back on his feet,
but also to knock out any unwanted illness intrusions.
Another, and, in many cases much more serious, form of power-loss
is what shamans call soul-loss. Soul-loss is seen as the major cause
of much serious illness, and this separation from our own soul can
also result in making us feel separated from our bodies, our relationships,
our surroundings, and Life itself. Most of us have experienced this
to one degree or another in our lives. If we are lucky, the soul parts
we have lost return again to us quickly after their departure. But
we are not always so lucky. Sometimes they can't find their way back
How does soul
loss happen? It generally happens when we have a traumatic experience
or are going through something which, for us, is untenable. Unfortunately,
traumatic experiences and untenable situations arise constantly in
our society, and we are faced with them from the time we are children,
in some cases even before we are born. For example, most of us know
people who were beaten, sometimes regularly, even as small children.
Oppressive schooling or work experiences can also lead to soul-loss.
There are many other reasons for soul loss, (and very often there
are well known standard phrases in our language which express this
as well), for example, with the death of a loved one ("When my husband
died, I felt that part of myself went with him."), an accident ("I
was scared to death"), physical or psychic abuse of any kind ("My
spirit was broken"), divorce, or the end of an important relationship
("She stole my soul"). In English, we sometimes express extreme sadness
by saying, "I just wanted to die." Even a violent argument can lead
to soul-loss ("I was beside myself with rage").
some of the ways soul-loss occurs. Why it happens, as Sandra Ingerman
points out in her book Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented
Self, is generally a matter of survival. We all have our limits
as to how much we can take. But what happens when we reach our limits,
when we can't back any further into the corner? Then it is time for
action. But sometimes, especially if we are in a weakened condition,
to take the appropriate action, for example, leaving a violent partner,
just isn't possible. When this is the case, that piece of the soul
which reacts most to the situation knows it is time to leave, and
does so, both for it's own survival and for the survival of the organism,
its self, as a whole.
In my work
I've found that the most normal way that soul-loss occurs is when
we give a piece of our soul away. This is often done in a vain attempt
to maintain contact with another person. For example, I recently made
a diagnostic journey for a woman and discovered that her long-dead
father had a very important piece of her soul. After the journey she
told me that her father had died when she was seventeen and she was
almost out of her mind with sadness. Her aunt, in an attempt to comfort
her, had told her to put a picture of herself in her father's pocket
at the wake, and in that way she would always be with him. She did
it, and lost a piece of her soul, until the journey was undertaken
to retrieve it. The double tragedy of it was that the burden of her
love had prevented her father's soul from going on until it was lifted
from his shoulders. As in this case, soul-loss may often be connected
with death, and in these instances the shaman is often called to work
with the spirits of the dead as well as the living.
When we finally
reach a point in our lives where we realize that not everything is
as it should be, and we decide to do something about it, it is often
impossible to see where to begin. I believe this is the main reason
that people in this "new age" are searching. If you ask one of your
friends "What are you searching for?" in many cases the answer will
be "For myself." For thousands of years, shaman's have been helping
others literally to find themselves, and soul retrieval has been one
of the main tools in the shaman's kit.
years I have been working together with psychotherapists, finding
missing pieces of their clients, and bringing them back. This is especially
helpful if the therapist is trying to work with "the child within,"
and no child is there! One therapist friend was almost complaining
when she told me that many of her clients showed such incredible recovery
after the soul retrieval that it only took a few weeks to re-integrate
the newly returned soul parts, and then their work together was finished,
and she'd lost a client!
can be a trying process, as in many cases the person who gets a piece
of soul back is confronted with the pain dating from the time of the
soul-loss. But having that missing piece back gives the power again
to make the work possible. Painful as it may be, it is also wonderfully
and beautifully rewarding, because we need to be whole to be healthy
in the deepest sense of the word, we need to be whole to move as we
should in this life, we need to be whole before we can know who we
are. And it is not necessary to wait.
Way of the Shaman
The shaman has often been referred to as "the wounded healer." What
this means is that the shaman has passed through some terrible illness
or crisis, or has even been to the land of the dead, and has survived,
but not only survived: she has also come back, stronger and wiser,
with the help of the spirits. It also means that most of the people
reading this article have the potential for doing shamanic work, for
we have all faced, and gone through, times of pain and crisis.
way of the "healer" is not the way all would choose, so many people
work shamanically without worrying themselves about becoming a shaman,
but rather take a journey to get help to make a difficult decision
in times of trouble, or to help a friend in need. Others combine shamanism
with their other spiritual or practical work. For example, I know
a social worker who journeys to get advice for clients who are having
extreme difficulties, a doctor who journeys to ask about the best
possible treatment for his patients. Most people I know who work shamanically
do so for the power to be that person they know they are, even in
times of crisis.
gives each individual the possibility of contacting the powers of
the Universe directly, and to receive that power and wisdom without
the interference of a middleman. This is both a humbling and an empowering
experience, and the true shaman is a humble person, who recognizes
that his power is on loan from the Universe, and that it is his mission
to use that power in the best possible way for this beautiful planet
we call Home, and all of its creations. And this is just the beginning.
Joan Halifax: Shaman - The
Wounded Healer (Thames and Hudson)
Joan Halifax (editor): Shamanic Voices (Dutton)
Michael Harner: The Way of the Shaman: a Guide to Power
and Healing (Harper).
Michael Harner: Shamanens Vej (Bogan. In Danish).
Sandra Ingerman: Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented
Gary Doore (ed.): The Shaman's Path (Shambhala)
Shirley Nicholson (ed.): Shamanism: An Expanded View of
Mercia Eliade: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy
Nevill Drury: The Elements of Shamanism (Element)
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