There is a world full of help and healing above you, a world full of unconditional love and guidance below you and gentle wisdom all around you, the ancient shamans tell us. You have a beneficent spiritual teacher living in the shamanic upper world who has been looking out for your well-being since you came here. You also have a power animal ally who lives in the shamanic lower world who has been protecting and guiding you all these years. And here in the middle world where you live are trees, birds, stars, sun, moon and stone spirits all calling out to you, singing you are loved, you are not alone.
As a child growing up in Michigan before I knew about “shamanism,” I was enchanted by nature and spent every minute possible climbing trees, canoeing, catching tadpoles, lightning bugs and listening to the meadow larks trill in the fields. It was a magical, highly animated world. I was one with these natural forces. We spoke the same language and shared the same joy being in water, on earth, in wind, in night and sunlight. I stayed connected with them all the way until graduate school when the bond was fractured through my living in the unnatural world of logical analysis, word swords and philosophical argumentation. My health suffered as well.
I left and moved to a cabin in the forest, splitting wood, hauling water, reconnecting with what shamans call the “spirits of nature,” and healed myself.
Perhaps you remember a time when you were in touch with the magical, healing world of nature — a special tree, a family pet who understood everything about you, a treasured place on the earth that welcomed you and put everything back to rights.
I did not know that I was walking the beginning of the shaman’s path until I was in my thirties, nor that the rapture of childhood and rupture and illness in graduate school were part of the initiation process.
What is shamanism, anyway? The word is often used but what is it talking about?
Shamanism is the ancestor of all the world’s spiritual traditions and goes back at least 40,000 years. Your ancestors and mine once practiced shamanism to celebrate the seasons, heal wounds, find lost persons and objects, ensure the success of the hunt, and prevent tribal warfare.
The word shaman comes from the Siberian language and means “one who sees in the dark.” A shaman is someone (female or male) who enters into an altered state of consciousness through the beat of drum or rattle, travels to other worlds to meet with spirit teachers and power animals, gathers answers and healing, and returns here to help alleviate the suffering of others. These “spirit flights” are ecstatic experiences for the shaman, and shamanism is often called the archaic techniques of ecstasy!
A shaman uses the shamanic journey to go to the other worlds by entering into a shamanic state of consciousness, usually on the beat of the drum. In this altered state she is able to “see with her strong eye” and go through the barriers into nonordinary reality where the helping spirits reside. The helping spirits are both in animal form — horse, bear, cougar, eagle, wolf, etc. — and human form — Buddha, Merlin, Bridget, Tara, Mary, White Buffalo Calf Woman, Plenty Coups, Crazy Horse, etc.
Shamanism has existed on every inhabited continent and is now in a resurgence on the planet. Each shaman has her own helping spirits with whom she works in a powerful partnership to assist people who come asking for help. A shaman may, for example, journey into the upper world in search of a person’s missing soul or journey into the lower world to recover a person’s lost power. These two healing methods are known as soul retrieval and power animal recovery. They can help a person become whole again after accident or trauma and can cure illness and other misfortune.
Generally the word shaman is reserved for someone who is practicing in an indigenous tribal culture. Contemporary shamanic healers like myself prefer to be called shamanic practitioners in acknowledgement of the years of study with the spirits that it takes to become a shaman. It is also up to the community to decide that someone is a shaman. When a practitioner is getting consistently good results in the healing work they do for other, they may begin to be referred to as a shaman.
How does someone become a shaman or shamanic practitioner? Generally there is “a call” to shamanism. The spirits may call someone to the work through a vision or dream, or through inheritance by family lineage. Abrupt events such as an illness, psychotic break, or near death experience may serve as a “wake up call” reminding the person that their true vocation is in service to the spirits. During these experiences, a person may even cross over to the other side and learn about the territories of the spiritual realms.
A person may also be called to shamanism by an inner longing to be with the spirits and be of service to their community.
It is an honor and a privilege to participate in shamanic work. An excellent way to experience shamanism is to take a workshop, learn more about the three worlds of shamanism and have contact with your own spirit teacher and power animal in nonordinary reality. In the Foundation for Shamanic Studies Way of the Shaman weekend workshop, you will learn the classic shamanic journey method of the shaman, experiencing the power of divination (problem-solving) and healing work with your own helping spirits. Drumming, the dance of animals and singing your soul’s song all give you a hands-on feel for the ancient practices of shamanism.
In closing, I want to share a beautiful story with you about an Eskimo shaman, Uvavnuk, who gained her spiritual power in one dramatic instant. The story is told in Shamanic Voices by Joan Halifax.
A ball of fire came down out of the sky and struck Uvavnuk senseless. When she regained consciousness, the spirit of light was within her… And when she sang, all those present were loosed from their burden of sin and wrong; evil and deceit vanished as a speck of dust blown from the hand! And this was her song:
The great sea has set me in motion
Set me adrift,
Moving me as the weed moves in a river
The arch of sky and mightiness of storms
Have moved the spirit within me,
Till I am carried away
Trembling with joy.