There is a lot of discussion and opinion on what a shaman is. The word itself is rooted in the word šaman from the Tungus people in central Asia. Definitions vary greatly in modern society, this varies from people who enjoy trancing out to music at dances and ‘tribal’ gatherings calling themselves shamans to a very precise definition as per Mercia Eliade who in his book Shamanism – Archaic techniques of ecstasy specifically defines the term shaman as distinct from medicine man, sorcerer, healer, diviner, magician, herbalist and so on. Eliade’s specific differentiation is that the shaman who may be and practice all of the above is defined as, “the shaman specialises in a trance during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld”. This definition is sometimes employed in a strict sense, and appears to me to be limiting in scope. To me a shaman means more than that definition.
To quote Joan Halifax from her book Shamanic Voices; “The shaman, a mystical, priestly, and political figure emerging during the Upper Palaeolithic period and perhaps going back to Neanderthal times, can be described not only as a specialist in the human soul but also as a generalist whose sacred and social functions can cover an extraordinarily wide range of activities. Shamans are healers, seers, and visionaries who have mastered death. They are in communication with the world of gods and spirits. Their bodies can be left behind while they fly to unearthly realms. They are poets and singers. They dance and create works of art. They are not only spiritual leaders but also the judges and politicians, sacred and secular. They are familiar with cosmic as well as physical geography; they know the ways of plants and animals, and the elements. They are psychologists, entertainers, and food finders. Above all, however shamans are technicians of the sacred and masters of ecstasy.”
Leo Rutherford in his book The Shamanic Path Workbook, also sees a shaman from an inclusive and holistic perspective. He defines a shaman as “someone who has fully walked the path of transformation and chosen to become a healer, helper, seer, prophet, in service to the people”.
The most important and consistent point in all the above views is the emphasis on community, whether healing, divining, or prophesising, it is done in service to others. Shamanism is not shamanism if done in isolation.
Shamanism has always been a way for living as humans in relationship to all things on our planet Earth. Some thousands of years ago at the dawn of human civilisation a quantum change happened to this way of being. It was not the introduction of religion but something far more powerful, the shift from a hunter gathering and ad-hoc horticultural society to agriculture. This change had enormous consequences. From being in relation to all things; we became the ‘managers’ of the living world. The ways of animal husbandry, crop rotation and irrigation of fields led to permanent settlements, the human tribes no longer had to follow the migration of the animals and foraging for plants, we could have it all in one place! The early civilisations started, from where the social and religious structures, systems, and worldviews (many of which we still experience today) came into existence.
The ancients knew and experienced that there is an energy normally invisible, which connects all that exists, and they lived with the knowledge of this energy and how to use it. This concept of the inter-relationship and understanding that man is a part of nature, not separate to it, a part of the connecting energy has been expressed in many ways and in many cultures but unfortunately not in ours.
The separation in Western society from the natural world with it’s accompanying myth of man having “dominion over all living things”, has led to spiritual disconnection from the universal energy field. At some level we are aware of this, and many are experiencing a heart-led desire to reconnect to the universal field of energy and consciousness which we are part of.
Many people are being drawn to spiritual paths such as shamanism as one of the ways to meet this deeply felt desire, to heal the pain of separation, and rejoice in the ecstatic beauty and possibilities of simply being alive on this rich and beautiful planet.
Shamanism contains time tested healing practices, ceremony and teachings to support people in this re-balancing of themselves. These practices are fundamentally healing, not only for the physical body but also for our inner sense of being and our soul. However the challenge is to build a bridge between the ancient wisdom and practices in such a way as to be useful , effective and meaningful to the modern Western individual.
One of the most significant separations between modern Western approaches and the shamanic approach is one of perspective i.e. between energy and physicality. From the shamanic perspective you could say that we (and everything else) are fields of energy, and the actuality that we experience as the physical world is but the description of our physical senses rather than being an absolute inherent fact. In some respects quantum physics is now pointing in the same direction as have the ancient shamans for forty thousand years.
In shamanic Healing we work with energy. Another word for this energy is life-force, soul, or the ‘vital nature’, and in shamanism there are many traditional ways of healing working with soul or life-force. It comes to fundamental questions and challenges to what is reality. This fundamental conception is so vast, that it seems that it can only be described in terms of metaphor.
“Nature shows us only the tail of the lion. But I do not doubt the lion belongs to it even though he cannot at once reveal himself because of his enormous size”.
<b>The Path of the Shaman</b>
The distillation of shamanism in the 21st century is the recognition that we and our god (whom we have made in our image) are not separate from creation, but discrete aware elements in a vast unending timeless ocean of consciousness and energy, and that we are all connected to each other, simply because we are each other.
All the traditional and indigenous shamans that I have encountered share one unifying characteristic , they will do whatever is required to help a person into health and well-being by catalysing in one way or another that persons inner belief system, to guide change in that persons reality so that they come to feel and ‘know’ that they will get well. This is just as important as the ‘real’ and tangible medicine work. They know that we are greater than we have been led to believe we are, and can influence and co-create our ‘reality’. Creative visualisation and other practices to influence the unfolding of our lives are not new-age, they are very much ‘old-age’ and belong to all of us. If we go back in our ancestral lineage, you would find that we all came from shamanic cultures, it is our birthright.
One of the beautiful aspects of shamanism is that it is a true spiritual democracy; there are no priests, no hierarchy. We all have the same rights of access to the universal field of love , life-force and consciousness because that’s where we are at. We have just forgotten it.
Howard G. Charing, is an accomplished international workshop leader on shamanism. He has worked some of the most respected and extraordinary shamans & healers in the Andes, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Philippines. He organises specialist retreats to the Amazon Rainforest He is the author of the best selling book, Plant Spirit Shamanism (Destiny Books USA), and has published numerous articles about plant medicines.