Shamanism is an ancient Spiritual Path that explores a way of living in harmony with the world around us. It is possibly the oldest organised spiritual expression, although it is unclear as to how it really began, be it as a set of ideas from scattered cultures, or whether a core of early humans carried its first forms with them during epic migrations. Whatever the case, the essential ideas of a living Spirit are found all over the world.
Shamanism has been practised in many forms all over the world for thousands of years, growing in some communities into more complicated faiths, being absorbed by or absorbing other religious movements. The common features relating to Shamanism lie in the underlying concept of a living, conscious world, where everything is alive and spirit (our sense of self and personality) can be found in every other worldly inhabitant. The expert in communication between humans and the non human worlds in these cultures is called the Shaman. These people serve their communities by finding paths to harmony for their people which will also contribute to the growth and survival of the whole world, rather than being a benefit at the expense of the world around them.
A Shamanic harmony is an active state, a dynamic relationship between all that exists. The Shamans peace is a vibrant, thrilling pattern of connection wherein life and growth are celebrated and the world itself is a waking part of the equation. This brings the perceptions of animal, plant, stone and water to the shamans deliberations as their spirits are independent beings in their own rights, with their own agendas, quarrels, hopes and fears and the shaman must be able to meet and talk to those beings, facilitating their cooperation with the community.
Shamans learn to separate themselves from everyday reality by learning long established techniques which involve song, music, dance, drugs, pain or stillness which draw them into trance. From this state they can enter realms where they can communicate directly with the Spirits, developing relationships with spiritual helpers and drawing upon initiation ceremonies, Vigil and Visionquest, conduct healing and find those safe paths to peace with the world that they seek for both individuals and the community as a whole.
There is no single philosophy or set of teachings that defines the practice of shamanism. It evolved in many cultures over the world as a tool for survival and it's forms are diverse and unpredictable. Being a shaman is more about following a vocation and fulfilling a role than pursuing any particular faith.
"When we walk upon Mother Earth,
we always plant our feet carefully,
because we know the faces
of our future generations
are looking up at us
from beneath the ground.
We never forget them -
As we Honor the Ancestors
from whence we came"
Chief Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper, Onondaga Nation
Over time, our distant ancestors realised that the world they lived in was more than just a place to eat, sleep, breed and die. They learned that their survival was bound up with more than the need to keep warm and have enough to eat. They knew that the world affected them physically through weather, changing of the seasons animal migration etc but also that it reached out to them in other ways...voices of their prey speaking out of the night, dreams of the hills in the silence of the painted caves.
The world spoke to them and they learned to listen, to enter into the conversation, to find the paths of least disturbance through this great interwoven web of life - the trails that facilitated the growth and survival of the tribe, allowing them to thrive without outgrowing the supplies in it's environment.
The pattern ran deeper than simple resource management as the people were intrinsically woven into the fabric of the landscape and thus discovered kinship and bonds between anumal, plant, landscape and people and also a sense of responsibility, obligations of protection and ceremonies of empowerment. This was not a world that belonged to a humanity with exclusive claims to its use. It was a world of independent, interdependent and diverse intelligences and the responsibilities of finding ways of living together, of recognising lives taken and lives given, the sun and the rain that bring the world to life and burn it or drown it onto death again, belonged to the community. It was a world of animism: of consciousness, of life, of spirit permeating everything.
Among these communities on the edge of survival, the shaman evolved as one component of a tribe's survival skills. Alongside those who gathered and those who hunted, fished or tanned hide, were those who found the safe path through the world, the ways of living that kept the tribe at peace with it's non-human neighbours. Recognising that all life is about dying, the shaman's job was not to avoid or disguise killing, but to explain it justify it, offer respect for lives taken by the tribe, lives given by the world and to bring to her people the thoughts of the spirit world on their conduct and the path they followed. The shaman was the pathfinder for her people, picking a route throughthe interwoven trails of all the other inhabitants of the world, both human and non human. They have been with us ever since.
SHAMANISM IN THE PRESENCE
Today Shamanic ideas and techniques lie hidden in many modern spiritual traditions and often descriprions of shamanic practices may remind you of things you have experienced. Shamanism is tough, vibrant and surviving and accommodating of other beliefs. Central American healers invoke Roman Catholic Saints alongside older gods and demons; Afrcan masked dancers dance their ancestors, animals and the spirits of motor cars and aeroplanes. New spirits evolve in traditional cultures as their shamans encounter the forces of technology - guns and water pumps and these are incorporated into traditional ways.
It is simple for our technological societies to dismiss the 'magical' interpretations of the natural world. We feel safer to label these animistic worldviews as "primitive" or "superstitious, forgetting that these cultures generally have a much longer and less destructive track record than our own.
These are people whose understanding of the world is unsurpassed in it's subtlety and precision and can teach us ways of living within our resources and achieving some form of sustainable relationship with our planet. As a whole, we are on the edge of survival with collapsing fish stocks, a thinning ozone layer and unforseen consequences of pollution and at last we are recognising the need to review our relationship with the natural world and come to the understanding that we are as much a part of it's dynamic processes as everything else and that we need to find ways of moving safely within those processes.
A community's guide to relationships with the spirits might be referred to as a 'pathfinder', 'healer', 'holy man' or 'walker between the worlds'. The term 'shaman' comes from the Tungus people of Siberia and means 'ecstatic one'. At the heart of shamanism are the concepts of community, trance and ecstacy.
Shamans serve the communities they belong to, and are bound up in the relationship of people, land and spirit, often to their own cost. Traditional shamanism can be a chosen path, a willing vocation, or an obligation thrust upon someone. The demands upon it's practitioners are often exacting, sometimes painful, and rarely a route to instant health, wealth and happiness. It is the sole that they fill that identifies them. Workshops, labels, tools do not make you a shaman...work with people, land and spirit make you a shaman.
A modern shaman must find new paths through life. Traditional skills may inform you and teachings inspire you, but you have to find ways that the communities you work with now will respond to.
TRANCE AND ECSTASY
A shaman needs to be able to enter the spirit world and work with those spirits as an active participant. Shamans are rarely passive mediums or a channel for spirit voices. A shaman is expected to enter a dialogue, sometimes even a full on squabble with the spirits he/she meets and to do this he/she must be able to set her own spirit free, if not from her body, then at least from the distractions of everyday life. This period of separation is called trance and it is an ecstatic state entered through drumming, dance, singing, silence or stillness which heightens the shamans awareness, allowing them to percieve beings and forces that are not registered by our usual senses.
The period of detachment may be very gentle and shallow, allowing the shaman to speak to people as s/he listens to spirit, or it can reach deeper, where s/he seems 'dead to the world' or where spirits share the body and s/he drums and performs wild, whirling dances with the spirits looking out of her eyes and rejoicing in the beat of feet on the floor and the rhythm in the blood.
A shamans work is often unpleasant and difficult - helping the deceased pass over, wrestling health back from a spirit of illness or 'dis-ease' - but even in the most difficult of times, shaman may still feel the sense of wonder, release and glory that is the spiritual realms.
WHO BECOMES A SHAMAN?
There are no absolutes in Shamanism; no single "this is the way to do it", no definite "Shamanic Way". Shamanism is a personal calling and even when working within a long-established tradition, individual shaman will do things their own way. Teachers may help apprentices perfect techniques and listen to or interpret visions, however, those apprentices will have to forge their own relationships with the spirit world and find the power to act for themselves.
A shamans boundaries and expected skills will vary between societies. They may be male or female, heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual or express other gender variants. They may be young or old...the vision that identifies the shaman may come at any age and similarly may find that those abilities may leave after a time, thus pushing the individual towards a new pathway.
As a "pathfinder", shamans may be healers of the sick, guides for the dead, channels through which the ancestors may speak, guardians of tradition and the heart of the resistance to change. Shamans may also be tricksters, fools and clowns, who challenge us by throwing convention back at us, causing us to question what is "right and proper" by embodying everything that we think people should not be or do.
Shamans "break reality", shocking you out of your complacency , throwing you off balance to force you to find your own way. Shamans protect our pathway through life by protecting and preserving old customs and traditions that have guaranteed survival over the generations, whilst also remaining sensitive to the changing world. When shamans heal they simply help an individual to step back onto their own personal path, when they provoke, they shake people up enough to hopefully find a new path out of their current situation.
The shaman is always aware that something Other is always there...these are the pathfinders, workers with trance and ecstacy.
Modern Shaman, like those of old are jacks of all trades, however, there are some who are better in particular areas than others. In general, modern shamans fall into three main groups:
* Healers: Help people listen to themselves and their own spirit and to move in their own lives with harmony.
* Speakers: Help individuals and groups listen to themselves and heal the bonds within communities.
* Patterners: Help communities explore their relationships with nature and smooth the way between people and the environment.
To become a shaman, you must learn to walk the spiral path and explore yourself and your relationship within the world. There are five key qualities that you should find in most shamans, whether they describe themselves as speakers, healers, patterners or some other term. These are:
* Honesty: in himself as a person, accepting the diversity of emotions, skills and ideas that makes him as unique as every other individual.
* Integrity: the personal strength that forges relationships with spirits of all kinds.
* Vision: A readiness to stop and listen to the Infinite, to touch the patterns of the Web.
* Humility: with all his strength and vision, he will still be called to awe by the wonder of the world and the gods and goddesses of the Infinite.
* Passion: all the above are reached through passion, for shamanism is a world of ecstacy; that awe in the world may be humbling but it is also engulfing and ferocious.
Shamanic training does not make you a shaman, you do that by finding that you are doing the job, being a pathfinder, acting as the bridge between the worlds, used by people to find a path towards harmony with the world and used by spirits to smooth the passage of humanity through the rest of the world.
DISCOVERING THE SPIRAL PATH
To a shaman, everything on the Web of Life and Spirit has an awareness, a consciousness that he can sometimes communicate with. These people perceive that the presence of "spirit" everywhere; in stones, wind, rain, houses, people, animals and trees...an awareness that objects such as houses have all of their own, grown out of wood, stone and brick and the accumulated experiences of the lives lived within those walls.
A shaman knows that the spirit beings are around us at all times, busy about their own existence, ignoring us, helping us or irritated by us (yes they do get irritated:))), however, it is easier if spirit meetings and interactions are kept separate from everyday life. To enter the Otherworld is to open up a set of senses that allow you to look at the familiar world in different ways...as a place of dreams which are not in any way fixed. Initially it can be entered using visualisation, but when you become used to it's ways you begin to experience it as a blend of dreams, experiences of other beings and the land itself. Different traditions organise the spiritual world in different ways; be it 'this world' and 'the otherworld', 'upper', 'under' and 'middle' (our) worlds, Heaven and Hell, even layers and layers of dirrerent wqrlds. In the Nordic tradition, these layers are connected to each other by the 'World Tree', that grows through all the layers making a single whole out of many parts.
One image that might describe the course of shamanic training is that of the Spiral Path, which is a double spiral representing the two paths that a Shaman learns to walk simultaneously; one winding to the heart of the pattern, the other leading out from the centre, releasing them from the labyrinth into the freedom of the world. The inward path is the path of self, the ability to walk into his own heart, meeting his fears, hopes and ambitions, knowing his passions, pleasures and pains, learning to enjoy himself for who he is and for who his spirit seeks to become, rather than for who other people might want him to be. The outward path leads the shaman into the wider world of spirit and the web and to a realisation that the entire world is awake and watching him.
Both of these paths are walked simultaneously, whilst the shaman looks deeper and deeper into himself and emerges simultaneously in the world, revealing hidden wonders of the self as he goes. Walking the Spiral path is a challenge to the aspiring shaman as he will encounter aspects of himself that he could never have imagined and be placed in positions wherein he will be confronted by beings that he would never have believed could have existed. The end result is a sense of 'falling into wonder'. Meeting a world so full of enchantment and delight that life suddenly holds an endless source of richness and joy.
MAPPING THE OTHERWORLDS
From his point of entry into the Otherworld, be it smoke hole, World Tree or sacred space, the shaman is able to build up a picture of the geography of the spirit world. These worlds do not obey the rules of geography that we are accustomed to as distance and direction as we know it are not important there. Travel may happen as the shaman takes on the form of an animal, wind, water, or even sunlight. These modes of transport will alow him to travel to places in the Otherworlds that he is unlikely to be able to reach in any other way.
Some shaman map their discoveries in paint on the skin of a drum or a shield, or embroider them on to a robe or blanket. These become guides for their apprentices or for the community at large. They can also become tools of divination with which the shaman can track the movement of a stray human soul or an errant spirit of disease before setting off in pursuit. Meditating upon a track drawn on the skin of his drum may allow him to enter the track directly, seeing him arrive suddenly at the 'house of the spirits' in question more quickly than he would otherwise have been able.
In building maps for himself, an apprentice shaman works outwards from his sacred space. The shaman will need to face in different directions and/or invite different elements to move with him as he begins to map both form (animal or elemental shape, or energy of movement) and destination (where the shape takes him). He must look at how elements touch his space and what is woken by them in him, transforming him.
Shamans do not sacrifice the technique for the tools - the right tool is often whatever the shaman can lay her hands on at the time.
As a shaman works, she gradually accumulates a selection of tools. Some may be familiar rattles and drums, while others may be small plastic animals, shards of sea polished glass or collections of odd bits and pieces, stalked, found and bound together with string because of a set of connections that the shaman and her guides can detect around and within them. These are 'power objects', things touched by the spirit world and when a shaman makes and uses a power object, she draws together items that will bring spirit to her. This power object becomes a miniature gateway through which the shaman and spirit can work together towards a particular end. This object, with use, will accumulate its own residual energy; becoming a battery of sorts and on picking it up, the shaman can draw upon that power supply without always reaching out to the spirits beyond.
A number of power objects held together become a 'bundle', a collection of power objects, wrapped in cloth or leather or held in a safe box. Some bundles are personal to the shaman, yet others represent bodies of teaching and grow over the years, or even centuries, that they are in use. Bundles are sacred things, guarded and kept safe until they are called upon to open and reveal their power.
A technique is one of the six basic approaches to entering the Otherworld. No matter how varied the techniques employed by different shamans, they all serve essentially the same purpose, which is to allow her to open the gates to the Otherworld and bring her to a place and to spirits who are appropriate for the task at hand. A shamans techniques are designed to drovide sound, movement, or other stimuli that allow the shaman to step out of her everyday world, releasing her own spirit from those concerns to travel in the spirit realms. Shamanic techniques create a sense of heightened awareness in their user, opening their eyes to the worlds beyond the everyday. Sometimes, an entranced shaman is very quiet...almost passive, whilst at others, the shamans voice sings the wonders she is seeing or her body dances the emotions of her travels.
Watching a shaman at work is often one of the best ways to understand the passion; with the drums behind her or the teacher plants within her, a shaman gives herself completely to the experience of the Otherworld journey. Even in the middle of chaos, these techniques are about absolute stillness. When she is entranced, a shaman may be whirling about the room, but deep inside herself, her spirit steps out of the movement and listens to the world speak. The shaman thus needs both the ecstacy of song, music and dance and the ability to be utterly still within that.
Top of page Next theme