A Contemporary Assessment on Shamanism
As we are now standing firmly in the 21st century, it seems a good time to look at the lessons, challenges, and the future of Shamanism as it continues to development as a community and individual healing spiritual discipline.
The definition of a Shaman is one who has mastery over spirits. A spirit is an energy, force, phenomena, or form that we cannot see or perceive directly with our five senses. In ancient times we called these spirits “ancestors”, “ghosts”, “sprites” and “faeries”, and many other names that various cultures have coined to describe an unseen presence or force. In the scientific world we call these things “gravity”, magnetism”, “strong reactions”, “weak reactions”, “thermodynamics”, etc.
A Shaman is an individual who works to bring balance, clarity, understanding and mediation with these unseen forces and this four dimensional space time reality that we live in. This is accomplished through training, study, initiation, developing ceremonies, rituals, healing the wounds that beings have inflicted on each other throughout time/space and the practice of authenticity. A Shaman works with a community or region to build healthy relationships with the seen and unseen worlds. In these modern times, a Shaman must have an understanding of Biology, Chemistry, Physics and many other natural sciences as well as an understanding of how the mind and body work.
Who becomes a Shaman?
Historically in almost every place that Shamanism has been practiced and studied, the Shaman-to-be is called either by dreams or by coming down with a serious illness. The individual is then taken to the village Shaman to apprentice and learn the ways of that tradition.
How long does it take to become a Shaman?
It takes a very long time, through years and years of dedication and hard work one arrives at being a Shaman. There is no easy quick way to learn Shamanism. To be a Shaman is a commitment to being responsible for the village and all the beings that make up that village. The village is where ever you live. Initiation is an important part of being a Shaman. One must face their fears, weaknesses and who they think they are before they are ready to meet the ultimate initiation: that of facing death. Not a symbolic death… real death. It is only through that kind of initiation that one truly understands the world and all that is.
Most of the teachings that come to us under the heading of “Shamanism” have come from places and people where their cultural practices are being squeezed out by modern industrial development. Our western understanding of these practices is limited because we were cultured in a different set of social values and spiritual structures. There is also the language and cosmological differences that can make for challenges and misunderstandings. Some techniques, practices, rhythms, songs and other pieces of a tradition are not always portable between cultures. They cannot in every instance be applied outside of their traditional use. For example, if you learn a traditional corn song that is sung during the planting of corn in an African village, it might not work when applied to modern corn planting methods in Iowa. Or, you might learn a ceremony to clear and appease the spirits of a place so one can build a new house in a Mayan village, yet it will not be effective when building a skyscraper in Manhattan.
These are the challenges of salvaging traditions that are disappearing and creating traditions for the time we live in. It is very important if you have the opportunity to study and learn from a traditional elder or teacher to do so. Spending even a short time with such a person can be an eye opening and humbling experience. Some of them have struggled to retain their native language and keep the songs and medicine work alive. Some have watched their children wander off to become part of the industrial world leaving behind the “foolish” old ways. Some live in two worlds: one of the modern and one of their ancestors, working to create a bridge. Again these are challenges of the time we live in and as humans it is our imagination and skills in problem solving that will create a new set of spiritual traditions that reflect the “soul” of the communities we live in.
Modern teaching concepts
There are some who have tried to teach Shamanism as a certifiable course structure. These schools break Shamanism down into techniques and practices. The individual takes a series of workshops and gleans the “essences” and “truths” of Shamanism one weekend at a time. This is how most people learn about Shamanism today, and they then go on to practice these techniques as Shamans. These retreat workshops are a good way to be introduced to Shamanism yet they do not replace working with a teacher(s) over the course of many years.