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Shamanism

Vicki Davies

Shamanism is the study and practice of the principles and techniques of shamans. It is concerned with the interrelationship of one's Life Force with the spirit of anything and everything else, be it human, animal, plant, mineral or celestial; the individuality within reaching out to the 'within' of everything else. Shamanism connects the individual with Nature and with other levels of existence and in so doing seeks not to manipulate, control, or exploit, but rather to engage the willing co-operation and active support of all forms of life in a mutual endeavour of self development and growth which is spiritual evolution. Shamanism is thus, by its very nature, highly individualistic.

Shamanism thus has nothing to do with the supernatural because it is essentially a natural and holistic activity. It recognises that everything is an energy system in itself within a greater Energy System, and therefore linked to the energy systems of everything else. Shamanism is no 'new' religion, or even a revival of an 'old' one. It is not a belief system at all as there are no doctrines. It rests not on faith, but on the acquisition of experienced knowledge - i.e. knowledge that can be attained by the individual.

In shamanism neither faith nor intellectual prowess are prerequisites. In shamanism one simply does it in order to know it; knowledge comes through the doing. There is no set of beliefs to be accepted before progress can be made; no dogma or creed to be bound by; no sacred writings to be revered and interpreted, literalised or allegorised; no vows to be sworn. Only the power source that is within to be awakened and guidelines needed to point the way.

Little is known about shamanism among technologically advanced and well educated nations because the knowledge of its teachings was suppressed during the centuries of religious intolerance and bigotry and the teachings were 'forgotten' or 'lost' through the political, industrial and social changes which urbanised our ancestors and disconnected them from their shamanic roots. Most people today living in industrialised society have little communication with Nature and the environment, and no contact with the life pulse of the planet Earth itself. The consequences of this ignorance are now evident as the ecology is gravely damaged, whole species of animals and plants are becoming extinct and even the planet itself is threatened. The equilibrium can be regained through a renewed respect for Nature, the Earth and all its inhabitants be they human or non human. Thus, the ancient knowledge of shamanism is very relevant to the needs of ordinary people today.

Shamanism is the most natural of all philosophical and metaphysical systems because it operates within natural and cosmic laws, and is part of Nature with its seasonal and cyclical energy patterns. Shamanism could today be described as a Way of Effective Living, since the application of its principles and the practice of its techniques can both enhance and enrich life. Since it involves the observation of what lies beyond or within appearances, it might also be described as a new Science of the Spirit, enabling mankind to tap into sources of knowledge and wisdom which transcend the intellect. Shamanism does embrace several important principles:

  1. Divinity, the Great Spirit, God, or whatever name we choose to give to the Ultimate Source, and the Cosmos - which is everything that exists, and has existed, or will exist - are one and the same. Energy and matter are one.
  2. Everything in existence is connected to everything else. This is not the same as a belief in the oneness of all things. It is the realisation that everything interconnects in a great universal web of energy, and it is this understanding that makes linking with, journeying through, and knowledge of all things possible.
  3. Everything is alive. Everything vibrates: animals, trees, plants, rocks. Each is a part of the lives of one another, and each has its own life or way of expressing the idea in the mind of the Great Spirit. Each is organised differently from human life, serving a specific purpose for which is was designed. Each has an awareness very different from that of humans.
  4. There are inner zones of reality which affect and regulate what we experience outwardly. Within these inner realms are helpers, guides and teachers with power to effect change in the outer reality.

Anthropologists and ethnologists have concluded that shamans have figured in human affairs since way back in recorded history. Paleolithic antler carvings and Les Trois Freres cave paintings testify to their presence since time immemorial. For twenty thousand years, little corn was planted, few marriages made or wars started without the community elders getting a nod from the local shaman.

The word 'shaman' is derived from the language of the Tungus people of Siberia. It can be translated as meaning 'to work with heat and fire; to heat or burn up'. So this word applied to a person may be taken to mean 'a transformer of energy', because fire is not only energy but also an agent of change. The word also means 'one who knows ecstasy', because it is an ecstatic experience that singles out the shaman: the experience of obtaining information, guidance, help, advice, healing and empowerment as a result of connecting to an inner power that is inherent within all things.

A Shaman is either a man or a woman who enters altered states of consciousness in order to make 'journeys' to other dimensions of reality for the benefit of his or her community. In these journeys, the shaman explores and becomes familiar with the territory of what anthropologist Carolos Castaneda refers to as non-ordinary reality. In shamanic cosmology, non-ordinary reality is divided into two main regions known as the 'lower world' and the 'upper world'. When journeying to the lower world, shamans typically visualise themselves passing down a long tunnel into the earth, often beginning in a hollow tree, an animal burrow, a cave, or a spring. When journeying to the upper world, they generally visualise themselves rising into the sky from the top branches of a tress or on the smoke from a campfire or chimney. What makes a person a shaman is the ability to make these journeys at will in order to bring back various kinds of useful knowledge to the middle world or ordinary reality - information often imparted by spiritual teachers and guides who inhabit the hidden dimensions. eg in their journeys, shamans may receive instructions for diagnosing and treating disease, finding lost objects, locating scarce resources needed by the tribe, communicating with the spirits of the dead, or helping the recently deceased cross over safely to the "land of the dead".

Michael Harder in The Way of the Shaman has coined the term shamanic state of consciousness to describe the altered state in which shamans make their journeys. Shamans have traditionally used a wide range of methods to enter this state from psychedelic drugs, fasting, isolation in the wilderness, singing, dancing to 'sonic driving' (monotonous percussion sound, usually drums). Modern neo shamans have added flotation tanks, photic driving (strobe lights), new age music and an array of mind altering machines.

Because illness is one of the most prevalent and serious of human problems, usually the greater part of the shaman's work involves diagnosing and treating disease. There are shamanic healing methods that closely parallel contemporary behaviour therapy, chemotherapy, dream interpretation, family therapy, and hypnotherapy. As anthropologists have known for many years, the shaman is often a 'wounded healer' - i.e. an individual who has undergone a serious illness or other life threatening crisis and survived, after which he or she develops healing abilities. Shamanic healing is generally a spiritually exercise.

Shamans still play an important role in many communities. They flourish in the jungles on New Guinea and South America, on several islands of the Pacific, parts of Asia and amongst the North American Indians. The Caribbean Islands have their own particular brand popularised as voodoo. Traditionally, a tribal shaman became initiated through rigorous and often savage tests, after a long apprenticeship. He was either chosen by an experienced shaman, or had inherited the role from a parent or grandparent. Some shamans were self selected.

To experience shamanism for the self it is necessary to set aside conventional beliefs and maintain an open mind. Through an understanding of shamanism a person can:

  • Comprehend forces and energies that exist beyond the range of the physical senses and learn to work with them.
  • Become aware of your own non physical dimensions and those of all beings, whether human, animal, plant or mineral.
  • Develop an inner vision that will enable you to comprehend the inner planes of existence and affect what is coming into manifestation from the realm of the unmanifest.
  • Develop an insight into people's characters.
  • Develop practical skills in personality profiling, oracular consoling, divination and distant healing.
  • Shift your consciousness to different planes of existence.
  • Free yourself from unwanted restrictions and limitations.
  • Release yourself from the illusions of false beliefs.
  • Discover personal gateways to greater power and mastery over your life.
  • Learn the language of the subconscious mind and of the 'hidden 'self and work with natural images and symbols.
  • Develop an inner hearing.
  • Come into harmony with the Earth and with Earth energies and align with the Cosmic forces of the universe.

Thus, a shaman is primarily a 'harmoniser', one who heals at all levels - physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual - in a particular way.