our shamanic inheritance
by Jonathan Horwitz ©
Things have changed a lot since the old days. By the old days I don’t mean twenty-three years ago when I first started teaching courses in shamanism. No, I mean the old, old days – long before the Vikings, long before the Druids, long before the megalith builders, back to that time when our ancestors sat around campfires, shaping wooden tools with stone tools, listening to the silence, feeling the presence of the Spirits. And even though things have changed, still there is a connection to that time.
I find it wonderful that we, as shamanic practitioners, are the ones who are consciously carrying that connection to our most remote ancestors, and yet this is something that we forget, question, and often fail to realize to its full depth. We make comparisons. Why can’t we be like the shaman’s of old, I have heard people ask. The answer is, mainly, because we don’t live in the past. We are here, for better or worse, at the beginning of the 21st Century. Once, a participant asked if we weren’t just “playing Indian.” It’s a fair enough question, because to the untutored eye, that’s how it may appear. There we are, twenty-some people, sitting in a circle, a circle which may have originally been made inside a skin tent, but which we, in our time, have rediscovered is the best way to sit if we are going to talk together.
And talking together, we also find out that this return is what some people want, people who long for those “better days” of the past, the mythical time of the Nobel Savage. And then they ask, “How can I bring my shamanic practice into my 21st Century life?” Again, this is a fair question. But what is it we want to bring into our lives? Many of us are urban or suburban dwellers. We are surrounded by modern conveniences, which we eagerly consume, pre-packaged foods, synthetic materials, and air pollution. If we are lucky, we have a job which we enjoy on some levels, and live with people who are supportive of us, and for whom we try to be supportive. And we have our shamanic practice. But what is our shamanic practice? The answer to this question is as different as the people reading these words.
My experience from teaching shamanism tells me that the majority of people who practice shamanism today do not do so because they want to bring back the past. For me, and for many others, the reason for practicing shamanism is to maintain our contact with the Spirit World, and to bring the power of that contact into our lives and to our world today. This power is our spiritual heritage.
We do, however, live in the Computer Age and not in the Stone Age. The power from the Spirit World is the same as it always was, but the world around us has changed. About fifteen years ago a Sami friend of mine arranged a course for me in arctic Finland, primarily for Sami people. One of the things that struck me was the difference in the quality of the intention of the journey missions. While I was used to hearing such missions as “How can I heal my inner-child?” from course participants in England, a Sami man asked his spirit helpers “Where on the river can I catch most fish?”
I feel there is a tendency in the western shamanic revival to (psycho-)therapeutize shamanism, and given the life-style of the 21st Century, this is natural enough. Even in our day and culture, people come to see shamanic practitioners for physical health problems, but, unless they know about shamanism before hand, the shaman is often the last of the health practitioners to be visited, and often only when all other practitioners have signed the case off as hopeless.
But in many cases, people who don’t know much about shamanism come to see shamanic practitioners about “life issues” rather than “health issues”. Probably more than at any time in the history of the world, people are daring to ask the questions of themselves and their lives that only philosophers asked before. We dig deeper. We want to know the answers. We want to do better, better at least than how we were doing before.
Not so surprisingly, one of the big drawing cards of shamanism is soul retrieval. People who know nothing about shamanism hear the phrase “soul loss” and it rings a bell. This is because so many of us suffer from soul loss. The result of this is that pressure is put on the shamanic practitioner to perform the Soul Retrieval Ritual in such a way as it is palatable to our times’ taste, even in cases where it may not be appropriate. And this presents an interesting cluster of related conundrums.
I feel a major problem for people interested in practicing shamanism in the western world, is that shamanism is viewed simply as techniques we can learn. However, it is the spirits who empower, not the use of techniques. Workshops can inspire and give introductory experience. You can learn to journey to the spirits. You can learn the basics of power or soul retrieval. You can learn to diagnose, to find the spirits of illness, and how to remove them. And this is all very valuable. Sometimes when I teach a basic technique someone says “Oh, but I’ve done this before.” This is what I call the Pepsi view of life. Been there, done that. Fortunately, life is not like that. Each moment is new, each experience is new. It is just our closed minds which keep us from seeing and experiencing the ever changing colours of the Sunrise.
Shamanism is not psychotherapy. The person visiting a shamanic practitioner may well have worked with a psychotherapist before and not unreasonably may be expecting something similar to whatever that was. In psychotherapy, the relationship is between the therapist and the client. In shamanism, the relationship is between the shamanic practitioner and the spirits and the client. This means that from the shaman’s point of view, the power she is working with comes from the spirit world through her to the client.
Detractors of shamanic healing often say that the patient has to believe in shamanism, that is, believe in the spirits, for it to work. This is patently not true. One of the most graphic examples of this was when I was doing an afternoon healing workshop at a conference on shamanism held at a university in northern England some years ago. The person we were working on was very ill with colitis and had been for two years. She was a psychologist working in a psychiatric ward of a large hospital. She had no previous knowledge of shamanism whatsoever, except that one of her colleagues had told her it was like stone-age psychotherapy. She had come to the conference to learn about shamanism.
Fortunately, there were sixty rattling singers and an excellent drummer on hand. While I was doing the diagnostic work, I was shown a huge sleeping snake some thirty feet long and a yard wide, right where her lower intestine should have been. “What’s THAT!?!” I shouted at my very relaxed healing teacher who was sitting right next to me. “Oh, yes, that’s her power animal. It’s making her sick because she refuses to recognize it.” My healing teacher told how me remove it and to put it into a small piece of amber I had been carrying in my pocket for two years, and then told me to give the amber – and the snake – to the woman. Three months later I received a letter from the woman. At the moment of healing all symptoms of the illness totally disappeared.
Perhaps from her point of view, I did the healing. But from my point of view, it was my teacher, my power animal, and hers who brought her the power which restored her health. Yes, I was the conduit - and the power flowed though me. But it was the work of the spirits.
For non-practitioners, the shaman’s relationship to the spirit-world is problematic, to say the least. Those who do not experience the spirit-world, and its power, view shamanism with an intellectual interest or a beneficent tolerance, still others with irritation, or even fundamentalist rage. This is something we have to live with. But what has interested me increasingly over the years, is the effect this has on some shamanic practitioners.
For many the result has been to emulate psychotherapists, even to the extent of getting an education as a therapist in order to have a façade of respectability. The result of this is that the burden is put on the practitioner to use techniques, be they shamanic or psychotherapeutic.
But where are the spirits in this? The techniques are the beginning. But with each gift comes responsibilities, and for shamans the responsibilities are spiritual. If we do not accept the responsibilities, then the techniques – together with their short-term peak experiences – become empty rituals. The spirits want us to learn from our experiences, change, accept responsibility, and become as powerful as the power they offer us.
The shaman’s relationship to the spirits is the very essence and foundation of shamanism. No spirits, no shaman. The shaman’s power comes from the spirits. This is one thing that has not changed for the last quarter of a million years. This is also what differentiates a shaman from a so-called “normal” person. A normal person may well know who his spirit helpers are, but a shaman knows how to communicate with her spirits and how to interact with them. (1)
It is practice that takes us further. Practice, practice, practice. This is why I have started doing individual practice trainings at my simple retreat center in the woods of southern Sweden. I start with where people are in their practice, and listen to where they want to go. So many people don’t even know what they want, but if you listen you can generally hear it. The interesting thing is that the spirits know well what we want, but they are more interested in giving us what we need. The tragicomic truth is that often we are presented with what we need and we reject it because our tightly clutched agenda keeps insisting on what we want.
I know a lot of people, myself included on occasion, who argue with their spirit teachers. There are two key words in successful spiritual practice, shamanism included. The two words are trust and surrender. We have to trust our spirit teachers if we are to surrender to their power and wisdom, otherwise we cannot receive what it is that they have to give us. By this I am not saying that we should resign all responsibility for our lives to the spirits. We have responsibility for our lives. Our shamanic practice is a part of that responsibility. When we go to them, do we listen or not? Do we receive their power? Do we follow their teachings?
The experience you get from practicing, from doing the work, builds on itself and is ever expanding. Every time I do a healing I learn something new, as with the woman with colitis, because each case is different. True, I am often slow to learn, but up until then, it had never occurred to me that one’s own power could make one sick.
But not only did I learn from my teacher that unaccepted personal power can make you ill, I also learned new “techniques” on how to take care of the situation. And this is how I continue to learn, by giving the spirits room to work, not only with the person coming for treatment, but also with myself.
Shamanism is a demanding practice for many reasons, but in one very special way it is not. When we work with the spirits they give us the power we need to do the work. The hardest part is learning to hold onto the power. The reasons for this being difficult are many, but it is often because we do not “feel ready.” But, both with myself and the people I work with, what I find is that when I am journeying, the further I get away from the ordinary reality of my ego, where I formulated the mission, and go deeper into the world of the spirits, the further I get away from what I want and closer to what I need!
One day, when I was doing my morning ritual, suddenly several of my spirit helpers were standing before me in my room. I was stunned. One of them said: “Now you have given yourself to us.” Wait a minute! I protested, rattle in hand. I didn’t ask for this! I felt faint, and began to fall. One of them caught me before I hit the ground. “Don’t worry,” he said, and continued, “We have also given ourselves to you.”
1) ‘Aspects of the moral compact of a Washo shaman’ (Handelman, Don (1972) in: Anthropological Quarterly, 45, 2.
This article first appeared in Sacred Hoop Magazine, Issue 64, 2009, www.sacredhoop.org