What is Shamanism?


What does it mean to be a shaman?  What is a shaman?

These are a few reflections on what I feel it means to be a practicing shaman in North American at this time. These are based on teachings and experiences I have had with doing this work for the last 28 years. I would like  acknowledge here  a tremendous amount of gratitude to my teachers and mentors who gave me a lot of insights and  stressed the ethics of how this work must be practiced. I owe them a great debt for their patience and wisdom. 

Where to begin….

There are a lot of ways to answer this because shamanism is a set of protocols and techniques that are practiced by peoples all over the world as dictated by the cultural traditions, geography and cosmology of the people. Shamanism comes in all shapes and sizes and uses a wide variety of techniques that encompass all manner of how we connect to each other, the earth, universe and other worlds.  The word ” Shaman” is from the Mongolian word that represents, “a person who speaks with spirits”. They were often women that did this work in that region and it has a rich and deeply rooted practice that reflects the wide plains and harsh existence of their world. This is only one example,  every region on the planet has a form of this kind of work. Other examples are the Sangomas of Southern Africa, the Medicine people’s of the North American continent and the use of  word “Curanderos”  for those who practice shamanism in Central and South America. One also needs to keep in mind that with each region, social structure and geography you find a different name for these kinds of practices. It is always best to ask and not assume when addressing or interacting with healers/elders from other regions.

Reality check: Shamanism has fallen victim to the colonial misappropriation of many other indigenous traditions and we must make every effort to correct this. Those of us who do this work and have studied with other traditions outside of our ethnic origins must always answer to the lineage of that tradition.  We are guests to their world and must respect that. We will never have the deep insight or depth of understanding because we are not of those traditional roots. What I have gleaned from my teachers is that they are showing me a  way into understanding how to discover these  ways in my world. This is reflected in that way I teach and do my practice.

How to define what Shamanism is….

Shaman's rattle

The definition I like to use to define shamanism comes from one of the few unbroken shamanic traditions left on the planet. The Greenlandic tradition  states, “A shaman is one who has mastery over spirits”. I feel this simple definition encapsulates the essence of what I do personally in my work.  “Spirits” are the unseen, non-ordinary beings, forces and experiences we have as we navigate the earthly plan. These can also be the expressed as the natural forces of gravity, radiation, friction, strong reactions, weak reactions and other physical phenomena that govern the workings of the universe.  How this relates to my practice is  through my understanding of these physical and energetic states.  These states through their reactions to each other can  effect people, places, things in sustainable and detrimental ways.  In general, a shaman seeks to brings order to chaos and stimulate change into stagnation.  This can happen in the body, mind and spirit. This can look like putting herbs on wounds, psychotherapy, mediation, ceremony, prayer, mischief and witnessing. 

Each situation and person requires analysis to determine the correct applications of protocols. This can look like prayer, ceremony,  divination, observation, listening…etc…  and from that the shaman determines a course of actions to take that will bring about a desired result.  

Shamans usually have a toolbox of many things to work with. I myself, have traditional techniques such as drumming, rattling, healing songs and prayers,  divination, herbalism, plant medicine, techniques in dream working, grief work, and ceremony. Each of these can stimulate when applied a rippling of healing into other areas of the person, place or thing to change the state of consciousness.  In my personal observation of this work it  has shown me that I never fix individuals I fix the interconnectedness we have with the inner and outer world. This can look very different give the situation presented. This makes shamanism participatory. One must be engaged with the present unfolding of actions and events. One can not rely on a generic method that will work all the time with all situations. That just not how the universe works.