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the Shaman's Way


by Jonathan Horwitz ©

The 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. 

Using rhythmic drumming, dance, and song the shaman experiences a consciousness shift 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. 

The journey 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. 

Shamanism and Psychology 
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. 

The shamanic 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. 

Shamanism and Religion
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. 

Shamanism 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. 

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The 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. 

Of course 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. 

No 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. 

People are 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. 

Shamanism and Ecology
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" civilization. 

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. 

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Shamanic Healing
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 home.

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"). 

These are 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. 

For several 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! 

The re-integrating 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. 

The 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. 

However, the 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. 

Shamanic work 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.

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