Shamanism is humanity’s oldest spiritual practice, perhaps progenitor of all other spiritual systems and religions (Eliade), and it spanned across cultures and continents. Shamanism has consistency across cultures, though the specifics of languaging and beliefs differ depending on the culture and climate. These shared practices consistent across cultures are called core shamanism (Harner). An example of this is a shamanic practitioner’s helping spirits. These are termed guardian spirits to North American shamans, “tutelary spirits” in Siberia, “nagual” in Mexico, “assistant totem” in Australia, and “familiar” in Europe (Harner, 42). In general, shamanism, like many of the mystical traditions born from it, recognizes the interconnection of life, the cycle of energy (birth, death, rebirth), and the self as a reflection of the whole (as in inner and outer worlds, microcosm/macrocosm, and self within community).
Shamanic practitioners utilize altered forms of consciousness, or what Michael Harner calls “shamanic state of consciousness” to access their information, typically from spirit guides, to allow for insight, wellbeing, and healing. The perspective of illness in shamanism goes beyond the physical and mental bodies and examines illness from a spiritual perspective. Shamanic practitioners view illness as representing three possible manifestations: power loss, soul loss, and the presence of harmful intrusions (ex. hostile energy, infections, entities). The shamanic practitioner accesses their medicine through various means within that altered state of consciousness, including: “journeys”, energy readings, intuition/divination, spirit helpers (ancestors, guides, animals, plants) and/or ritual, depending on the practitioner’s trainings, strengths, and gifts. For example, some say that a healer is not a true shaman if they do not have plant wisdom within their healing arsenal (Tedlock), which may be spiritual information from the plants (“plant songs”) or medicinal knowledge (i.e. herbalism); however herbalism is not a core shamanic practice nor is it necessary to be a shamanic practitioner (Harner).
As part of their healing capabilities, shamanic practitioners can access the “hidden realms” of the world, which exist as the lower world, middle world, and upper world. These realms are beyond time – allowing past, present, and future to co-exist. Shamans access these different worlds for different intentions, moving up/down/sideways through realms with their altered consciousness. Because of their access to different realms, shamanic practitioners can also aid the deceased through what is termed “psychopomp”, depending on their gifts and trainings. Individuals in reality can be impacted by forces or entities in these hidden realms, causing illness.
In most traditions, shamanic practitioners are initiated, typically through their own illness or tragedy. For example, in the Celtic tradition, shamanic practitioners experience an illness for seven years as a part of the initiation. These themes of illness among healers are shared in many writings about Buddhism and mysticism in general, and even the archetypal view of the Wounded Healer: that is, using an injury or wound as medicine for self-healing and living a more whole life and using the wisdom gained from that injury and transition to heal others. (see writings by Joan Halifax and Pema Chödrön for examples)
Personal experience: What I know
I have training in core shamanism: journey work, power and soul restoration, extractions, psychpomp, and some intuitive divination techniques, with future trainings planned. I implement shamanic tools for most of my personal spiritual practices and have had profound insights and understanding. My shamanic practice clients have all experienced validation and emotional/psychic wellbeing from session insights.
I know that ritual, a healing, shamanic tool, adds significance, intent, and mindfulness to healing practice. Ritual is used in western medicine with physical results: when patients receive pain medication without their knowledge, their pain does not improve as much as patients that receive the “ritual” of pain medication administration (Požgain et al. 2014). I also know that dismissing something just because I don’t understand it is a form of arrogance (see Maté’s article below for a similar discussion) – there is so much mystery to life, and this mystery is a large part of what makes life beautiful. Shamanic practice is best learned through experience, and everyone’s experience is individualized and should not be dismissed. Rather than concerning oneself with how it works and if it is “true”, the question that needs to be asked is: did the technique/methodology (here shamanic practice) help?
If you are interested in learning more about shamanic practice or finding a shamanic practitioner near you, see The Society of Shamanic Practice as well as Sandra Ingerman’s website (under resources). If you are in the metro Chicago area, local shamanic practitioners include myself as well as more experienced practitioners such as Lauren Torres (https://www.earthbliss.com/), Donna Callaghan (https://www.journeyofthesoul.net/ ), and Rodrigo Dugue (https://www.healingartsmetaphysical.com/).
References and Suggested Resources:
- Cowan, T. Fire in the Head: Shamanism and The Celtic Spirit.
- Eliade, M. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy.
- Harner, M. The Way of the Shaman. Also see Cave and Cosmos
- Ingerman, S. She is a shamanic practitioner in the United States, a prolific writer and teacher: http://www.sandraingerman.com/ All of her books are excellent
- Her article that summarizes shamanic practice, views of illness, etc.: http://www.sandraingerman.com/sandrasarticles/abstractonshamanism.html
- Kimmerer, RW. Braiding Sweetgrass.
- Požgain et al. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Po%C5%BEgain+placebo
- Tedlock, B. The Woman in the Shaman’s Body.
- Society for Shamanic Practice, started by physicians interested in shamanic techniques in healthcare: https://shamanicpractice.org/
- Concerns about appropriation and shamanism (recall that all of humanity has historical and shared access to shamanic practice): https://www.shamanlinks.net/blog/define-cultural-appropriation-shamanism/
- Shaman vs. Shamanic Practitioner: https://www.shamanlinks.net/blog/shamanic-practitioner-or-shaman/
- Recent article by a psychotherapist G. Maté discussing the healing potential of shamanic practice: https://psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/article/2311/inside-the-ayahuasca-experience/00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000