What is Shamanism?
A new escape hatch for desperate solace seekers?
Or a spiritual practice that holds wisdom for the modern man?
Many people send me questions about this strange little world I belong to, ranging from what is Shamanism, to how I found it and how it works. There are also many others that question (with good reason) if Shamanism is just another buzzword trending in the new-age scene of navel-gazers. My intent with this post is to answer only the question: what is Shamanism?
Major publications of every description have already weighed in on the re-emergence of the 26,000-year ‘trend’ called Shamanism. It’s a great story. It’s like finding an old pair of jeans in your closet from the college days and finding they mystically still fit. Shamanic medicine fits neatly within the current Western narrative about ‘finding’ ourselves – we’ve moved on from Eat, Pray, Love and discovered Purging in the Jungle.
The truth is that Shamanism now receives much undue criticism and praise.
Newbie acolytes proselytize about their own experiences achieving “oneness with all”. There are endless forums full of burn-outs recounting the time they took DMT in their living room (and somehow linking that to Shamanism). “Shamanic Initiation” workshops have popped up all over the world, regardless of whether they are taught by real Shamans. Shamanism as a word and a concept is becoming stretched into a new abstract version of itself that does not always connect with its history.
So what is Shamanism, really?
A LOOSE DEFINITION
Shamanism is inherently very hard to define because it encompasses hundreds of different veins of Shamanic practice spanning more than ten thousand years. Although there is significant overlap in systems of thought and rituals, each lineage of Shamanism has slightly differing techniques or practices; these differences are becoming further pronounced over time as modern Shamans adapt and merge with other ways of being.
Most importantly, Shamanism is a spiritual practice; it is not a religion nor is it bone jingling voodoo worship. It is a way of understanding the Universe and ourselves in the greater context of living in this space and time.
Arguably, Shamanism was the original spiritual practice and may have been a part of human life since the very beginnings of mankind. Anthropological evidence of Shamanism suggests a likely existence dating from 26,000 to 77,000 years ago. Other early evidence of Shamanic practice include the cave paintings of Lascaux and Tassili.
Just as Paganism has deeply affected the narrative of Christianity, it is hard to determine how much the animist nature of Shamanism has directly or indirectly effected every religion and spirituality that followed after it. Perhaps it is not a surprise that we are called again to these ancient methods in search of deep healing – it is already deeply rooted within the history of man.
Today we most closely associate Peru and South American countries with Shamanism, but that is not strictly true. There is much evidence to suggest Shamanism existed simultaneously across many varying, diverse areas of the world: Peru, Ecuador, Siberia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Mexico, parts of Europe and the USA. Shamanism is still practiced in all corners of the globe.
The word ‘shaman’ actually has its etymological root in the meaning “the one who sees”, but it’s also believed that the deeper root of this word could be related to Sanskrit or even Chinese.
From Ross Heaven: “[Shamanism] has now come to be used generically for anyone who carries out healing, counseling, or divinatory work in partnership with spirit guides, allies, and helpers, and which normally involves ritual or ceremonial procedures to make these spirits manifest and elicit their help to create beneficial change.”
Although Shamanism has widely varying practices worldwide, there are several universal themes:
The belief that everything has a soul or spirit regardless of its present state of matter, including objects that many would regard as ‘inanimate’: crystals, plants, tables, chairs, ad infinitum.
Altered States of Consciousness
The belief that a Shaman can affect illness or wellbeing in physical reality by entering an altered state of consciousness. The Shaman can use sound (like drumming, as in Mongolia & Siberia), ethneogens (like Ayahuasca or San Pedro in Peru) or deep meditation to access this altered state.
The belief that spirits not only exist, but can affect illness or wellbeing in the physical reality. Shamans engage with spirits to encourage healing in their clients. Additionally, a prominent feature among many Shamanic lineages is the belief in ‘spirit guides’: ascended spirits that aid the Shaman in all of their healing work.
Duality is slightly less universal as a Shamanic concept (notably, Andean Shamans do not believe in duality), but it is a prevalent theme nonetheless. Duality is the belief that there are both good and evil forces and/or spirits at work in the world (as well as across different levels of paranormal existence), and that they exist in equal measure. In short, it also means life will always be equal parts joy and pain; no amount of wishing or thinking will create, or dare I say, manifest, more joy than pain.
My Thoughts // What is Shamanism?
If you’re new to this world and wondering if you can get comfortable walking this path, take heart: when I first met with my Shaman I had no clue that spirits and entities were involved. Shamanism does not require faith or fanaticism, and certainly doesn’t necessitate a belief in the spirit realms. I know many people will want to read information on Shamans plucking the strings of the infinite grid and skipping around our multiverse communicating with Spirits. Yet if you stop there, you’re possibly overlooking the core.
I have learned from my Shaman that the essential focus of a Shaman’s work is something different.
Shamans move energy. Shamanism is a practice that involves moving heavy, toxic or negative energy for the clients benefit.
Once you strip everything else away, all that is left is the movement of energy.
To expand on that, I’ve included this quote from Ross Heaven that I find particularly helpful:
“Compartmentalizing spiritual and healing approaches into various camps and specialties (such as aromatherapy, reiki, massage, herbalism, crystal healing, and so on) is a modern fascination — traditional shamans worked with all of these and more, doing whatever was necessary to provide the right medicine for their people. This is still the case in Peru, where San Pedro shamans may also use sound healing during ceremonies, for example, or reiki-like techniques to change the energies of their patients into a new and more positive alignment, or offer herbal preparations and teas to help with particular ailments.”
So, what is Shamanism? Just moving energy. The stuff of life.
Nothing more, nothing less.
I have to reiterate here that I am not a Shaman. I’m a Shamanic Practitioner, and a current student on the Shamanic Path. I’m not sure if everything I write here would get a sign-off by other Shamans, if they would agree in part, or not at all.
In the words of Don Juan Matus, the erstwhile teacher to Carlos Castaneda: ‘Everybody falls pray to the mistake that seeing is done with the eyes.’