What is Shamanism? Demystifying an Ancient Tradition
SO FIRSTLY, WHAT IS SHAMANISM?
THE ABRIDGED DEFINITION
Shamans are mapmakers working at the energetic level, closest to source (or whatever you want to call it – the universe, God, spirit, etc) to help to dream our world into being. Problems are solved by opening a dialogue with nature, utilizing the power of archetypes, and by journeying into unknown realms.
THE UNABRIDGED ADDITIONAL DETAILS
We use the term mapmaker in shamanism, which is just a fancy term to describe the shaman’s ability to assist their clients with charting a new life map. Maybe the client feels like their current life map is limiting or has a lot of dead ends to it. Perhaps the desired destination isn’t even on the current map. The shaman helps create a new map, or a new route to the client’s destiny. This may mean making drastic changes to current circumstances such as relationships, jobs, or residences, or maybe it’s just some house cleaning or de-cluttering in order to get back on track.
Dreaming our world into being means being a dreamer, instead of being dreamed. This includes dreaming of and achieving outcomes, instead of letting life just happen to you, and seeing misfortune as lessons in strength and character-building instead of devastating pitfalls.
The archetypes are ancient forces of nature that live in our psyche. These can be a wide range of elements within us including the masculine and feminine, the creator, preserver and destroyer like Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in Hinduism, or the victim, perpetrator and rescuer. There are archetypes of the Tarot such as the Fool, the Priestess, the Magician and the Devil. But the main archetypes that shamans work with (and it varies by culture) are animal beings. In the South American lineage that I trained under we work with Serpent, Jaguar, Hummingbird and Eagle/Condor, which I’ll go into more detail later on. When journeying, the shaman calls in these archetypes as allies for guidance and protection. Shamans bring the archetype’s shadow sides to light so they don’t continue to subconsciously control our actions, and helps bring them to a state of balance within us.
Shamanism is about seeing divinity in all living things, interacting with the supernatural, and co-existing with other dimensions and alternate realities. Shamans work with stones, plants, animals and spirit guides, knowing every element in our reality has its own energy and potential power. Shamans use dreams, plant medicines, drumming, chanting and meditation to travel through and between the realms of space time and timelessness. They see that the soul can be injured by ancestral trauma, or trauma from the individual’s actions or events from this lifetime and many lifetimes ago. Working with the chakras and the energetic field that surrounds the body, shamans can repair and release long held imprints that oftentimes lead to disease.
Being a shaman isn’t always all rosy. Shamans work with demonic energies and entities that latch onto people and modify their actions. They journey into unknown realms, which is a terrifying space for most of us to catch even a glimpse of. But they learn to navigate the darkness, with the knowledge that dark and light are only projections of the dualistic nature of our reality.
A VERY BRIEF HISTORY
The word shamanism is said to have derived from the Siberian Tungus word šaman, meaning “one who knows”. Throughout history and across the world, most indigenous villages would have their own shaman, from the Mongols, Turks and Inuit, to tribal cultures throughout Asia, Australia, Africa and the Americas.
When Christianity started spreading throughout the world, shamans were often faced with being forced to give up their beliefs or be executed. This led to practices being lost or hidden for hundreds of years. When the conquistadors arrived in South America, various shamanic lineages retreated high into the Andes or deep into the Amazon jungle, protecting their healing traditions with the utmost of secrecy, many of which have survived to this day.
St. Patrick was praised for successfully eradicating “snakes” from Ireland. While historical evidence states that Ireland never actually had snakes after the last ice age, snakes were likely a metaphor for the Druids, an indigenous group of wisdom-keepers with a connection to the natural world (in other words, shamans), whom St. Patrick successfully drove out when he established Christianity in Ireland. And we are all aware that plenty of “witches” (shamans) in medieval Europe were burned at the stake for their witchy ways.
SHAMANS AS STEWARDS OF THE GARDEN
Even if you’ve never practiced Christianity, you’re probably familiar with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. With or without religious ties, many modern-day westerners have bought into the idea that Eve got us kicked out of the Garden of Eden and we’ve been begging to be let back in ever since. Shamans don’t believe that we were ever kicked out, but that we are stewards and caretakers of it. There is a deep and respectful connection with Mother Earth or Pachamama and a belief that although she has the power to destroy us, she can also guide and heal us. Shamans strive to live in ayni, or sacred reciprocity, with all living beings.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SORCERY AND SHAMANISM?
I’ll be honest, before I was familiar with the practice, whenever I heard the term shamanism, it conjured up images of voodoo dolls and war paint. In the Bahamas and other places in the Caribbean, you may have heard the term obeah. Although obeah is commonly known as a form of black magic, spell casting, or sorcery, it is also a spiritual healing practice. Voodoo (or vodou) and obeah both stem from African shamanic roots, and aren’t always used for placing hexes on your enemies. Quite the contrary, shamans in many indigenous tribal cultures were highly respected individuals who were connected to spirit, and who could navigate the unknown realms in order to assist with solving problems of individuals and communities. This could include tracking where herds of buffalo would be for the hunters, healing disease, calling in rain during drought, escorting souls into the afterlife during the death process, and assisting to resolve relationship issues or family quarrels. But as with any professional calling, you’ll find the ethical practitioners, and you’ll also find the sketchy used-car salesmen type that are willing to sell souls to make a quick buck.
And so, the power to heal also yields the power to kill, and a benevolent shaman can also be a malevolent sorcerer. While we did learn about the practices of sorcery and black magic in shaman school, it was only so we knew how to protect ourselves from it. A shaman upholding high ethics uses their knowledge and power in service to others, not for harm. Shamans who venture to the dark side are often coerced by money and other low-level worldly desires. This can result in bad karma in this lifetime and future lifetimes for both the shaman and the person requesting the evil spell. So as much as your ex-lover hurt you, I don’t recommend seeking out your local shaman who has no scruples about casting an evil curse on them, or you may run the risk of misfortune for the next ten lifetimes.
SHOULD WESTERNERS BE PRACTICING SHAMANISM?
It’s not my intent to open a can of worms here, but it’s worth addressing since it seems to be a hot subject. I also teach yoga, and I often come across articles about cultural appropriation in the yoga world. People have been sporting mala prayer beads as designer jewelry and getting om tattoos for decades now. While I have no comment on the previous sentence, there seems to be a huge question mark about western adaptations on Indian Hatha yoga and other traditional healing modalities.
In the shaman scene, there is neoshamanism, and there are westerners that receive the initiation rites of direct shamanic lineages. Neoshamanism is new-age shamanic techniques practiced by westerners which don’t always resemble traditional forms of shamanism, and are oftentimes adapted, or misappropriated to suit their own wants and needs.
These days you’ll hear all kinds of people calling themselves shamans, from L.A. hipsters, to gringos hosting ayahuasca ceremonies in Central American pop-up retreat centers, to the redneck on the show “Kentucky Ayahuasca”.
I personally don’t prefer to call myself a shaman after merely completing a 300 hour training, as I believe that I may be disrespecting traditional shamans who were born into a lineage or have trained for their entire lives. Shamanic practitioner seems to be the term that I resonate with most accordingly, but that being said, I have done my best thus far to respect the teachings as they were passed down to me.
I was initiated into the lineage of the Q’ero Inca shamans of Peru while studying with Alberto Villoldo. Alberto has been working with the Q’ero Inca people of the high Andes for some 25 years, starting at a time when they had previously had very little contact with those outside their local villages. Their prophecies however, told them of a time when the world would be ready for their teachings…the end of days . They were to come down from the “clouds” high up in the Andes, and begin to share their teachings with the western world, who seemed to be growing more disconnected with this planet we call home. By the time Alberto came along, there was (and still is) a great sense of urgency to create a shift as we navigate into shaky times with environmental vulnerability and toxicity towards our planet and within our global communities.
I see the rapid explosion of interest in yoga and shamanism as an urgent need for humans to connect with their own bodies and with the earth. There are always going to be those that don’t agree with westerners utilizing any form of traditional healing practices, but I personally believe that as long as the practices are used in the manner in which they were intended, which at the highest level is for healing the individual, communities and the planet, then I say, let’s do what we have to do to pull us back from the edge of complete cataclysmic destruction and extinction.
DO YOU HAVE TO USE PSYCHEDELICS TO PRACTICE SHAMANISM?
No. I worked with ayahuasca, but it didn’t sit well with me. While I have much respect for plant medicines and feel they have a place in many people’s personal healing journeys, the idea of throwing up and getting eaten and digested by giant serpents (even if it was only a projection) was not not my first choice as a healing modality, which is why I ventured towards energy medicine. Although entheogens such as ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms and San Pedro/peyote are commonly used in shamanic practice, there are plenty of shamans who don’t use them.
A true shaman develops their psychic capabilities and altered state of consciousness without the use of psychedelics. Shamans should be able to enter the trance at will, journeying between dimensions through meditation, dreamwork and chanting.
THE BREAKDOWN: THE MEDICINE WHEEL & THE FOUR DIRECTIONS
You know the quote by Albert Einstein… “We can not solve our problems on the same level they were created”? Well I have been hearing it a lot lately throughout my healing journey. But it truly didn’t make much sense to me until I delved into the practices of shamanism. Perhaps as I break down the four levels, or the Four Directions, it will make sense to you as well.
Shamanism utilizes four archetypes, four directions, and four aspects of the body and of the brain to make sense of the natural world and our place in it. Generally, the shaman takes whatever the issue is, and works a level or two above it. If it’s an issue with health or the physical body, you’d work on the emotional level, or the mythic level. If you have a relationship issue, you’d work at the mythic or energetic level to solve it. Working with pure energy can solve any issue, but case-dependent, sometimes you just want to view through the non-judgemental eyes of Serpent.
THE DIRECTION OF THE SOUTH
Animal Archetype: Serpent
Represented by the Body; cells, molecules, hormones, neurons
Part of the Brain: Reptilian Brain (brainstem), the oldest and most primitive brain, controls basic body functions such as heartbeat, breathing and body temperature, instincts and impulses. This is the brain we share with reptiles.
Serpent represents the literal and the physical, and sees the world though eyes that do not judge. The serpent also represents the healer within. We connect with serpent to remember to shed our past as it sheds its skin. With its belly connecting to the earth, it signifies a direct connection with Pachamama. We address the issues of the physical body at this level, and utilize the mind and above levels in order to resolve those issues.
THE DIRECTION OF THE WEST
Animal Archetype: Jaguar
Represented by the Mind; words, feelings, senses, emotions, intuition
Part of the Brain: Mammalian (Limbic), associated with emotions, memory and behavior. This is the brain we share with other mammals.
Jaguar teaches us the way of peace, of stillness and how to live impeccably. It teaches us to step beyond death and fear, to walk gracefully and silently through the dark forest, connecting with the life force of the jungle. Through the eyes of jaguar, things are not always as they appear to be. Jaguar looks beyond what everyone else is seeing, looks deeper. We address imbalances with the mind at this level and resolve their issues at a soul or energetic level.
THE DIRECTION OF THE NORTH
Animal Archetype: Hummingbird
Represented by the Soul; images, visualization, myth, ceremony, poetry, music, chanting
Part of the Brain: Neocortex, higher functions associated with memory, learning and conditioning, sensory perception, conscious thought, language
The hummingbird makes a trek of thousands of miles along its epic journey of migration, the Hero’s Journey. It teaches us to stay the course, facing fear with courage and resilience, and always remembering to pause along the way and enjoy the sweet nectar of life. Hummingbird helps us to listen to the whispering winds that carries the wisdom and guidance of our ancestors who watch over us. Here we heal and release our ancestral patterns that no longer serve us. Hummingbird is outside the realm of time. This is the realm of the mythic, the language of images, poetry, music, chanting. At this level, everything is what it is.
THE DIRECTION OF THE EAST
Animal Archetype: Eagle/Condor
Represented by Energy; knowledge, wisdom, source
Part of the Brain: Prefrontal Cortex, the pituitary gland and pineal gland (associated with third eye, psychic abilities, clairvoyance, lucid dreaming, connection with spirit, separation dissolves), activated during deep meditation and spiritual experience
Eagle comes to us from the place of the rising sun, the place of our becoming. Here we see everything from a higher perspective, with vision and clarity. Eagle sees everything, but doesn’t get caught up in it. We are shown the mountains we only dare dream of, seeing beyond the minutia of life, so we may behold the possibilities available to us in each moment. This level is pure energy, spirit, source.
Shamanism is so deep and vast that I could keep writing on the subject, but I’ll stop here. Coming out of my 300 hour training I feel as though I have only skimmed the surface, but I can’t wait to delve deeper. I know without a doubt, I have listened to a calling and have been catapulted onto a path to my destiny, although I have no idea what that’s going to look like in the next year, or the next ten years. In the meantime, I’ll be following up with another article on what to expect with a shamanic energy medicine healing session, so stay tuned.