I get a lot of questions.
Between the Pagans Tonight radio show, Face Book, and travelling, I meat a lot of amazing people, and I get just as many questions. Samhain is “Pagan New Year’s” in many ways, and one of my resolutions (as opposed to revolutions, which can get dizzy) is to help answer people’s questions as much as I can. I figure a one-two punch of blog and radio show should do the trick. Which brings me to the topic of Shamanism.
I have been into Shamanism longer than Paganism. I was studying Tibetan Buddhism for a couple of years in high school (I had to do something between writing teen angst fueled poetry and standard issue rebellion), and learned how religion in that area was a mixture of imported Buddhist practice, and the local Shamanism of the Bon people.
I define Shamanism as a group of spiritual technologies derived from mystic experience, Divine inspiration, and experimentation that seem to be in common to people from many cultures that serve the role as healer in the tribe. I think of Shamanic practice as having a set of spiritual tools. It’s not as if there was secret shaman school where you get utility belts (there is isn’t, I promise, and if there is I will let you know), but there are a lot of similarities.
The first book I read on Shamanism was Michael Harner’s Way of the Shaman. Shamanism is a word that comes from a word for what the practitioners of the Siberian are called (the popularity of that term from the historian Mircea Eliade). I bought a frame drum, and used the droning beats to get into a trance to go on journeys to the Underworld, communicate with spirits, and understand the Universe a little bit more.
Trance- the ability to get into mystical state of consciousness- is probably the most important of the Shamanic tools. When people talk about the shaman being “between two worlds”- we can say that being in trance is that liminal space. Ecstatic dancing, exhaustion, fasting, lack of sleep, types of music, chanting, sweat lodges, and meditation are very common ways to get into this state. Typically the deeper the level of trance, the better results one gets. There are of course more *cough* traditional ways of gettting into trance through entheogens- or ritualized drugs found in Nature. This includes everything from peyote, and “magic mushrooms” (psilocybin), to datura and belladonna.
Before I hear “Mark Mandrake told me to take drugs to be a shaman”, let me advise caution in all shamanic practice. You could just easily hurt yourself trance dancing through an open window and off of a tall building as you could with spiritual pharmaceuticals. In my experience, it is best to do mystical practice in general with the easiest tools to use: those in your body, of movement, breath, voice, and passion. Non-entheogenic use is the preferred method (also completely legal) and far safer. If you do decide to go the “poison path”, do not do so alone, and be cautioned of the legalities (or lack thereof).
There are many functions a shaman, or shamanic practitioner, can perform. Anything from exorcisms, healing, divination, spirit communication, to gaining wisdom through exploration and seeking visions. Some healing work can be carried through with the judicious application of herbs, and sometimes something stronger is needed like a soul retrieval. One theory is that wehn traumatic things happen to us, we lose connection with part of our spirits and go through “soul loss”. A soul retrieval is a spiritual journey, typically through the Underworld (place of the ancestors, the hidden, and subconscious), to reconnect with that piece of yourself. The shamanic practitioner Jason Morrow, looks at this process as something to be done with a spirit of self-love if doing this for your own soul, and it is the “seeking to be whole” that is as much a part of the healing process as any drum, rattle, or dance.
The spirits of the shaman can be from any place: the realm of the Beloved Dead; the spirits of the plants, animals, and stones; from sacred places, such as woods, lakes, and mountains; or from any Natural source. Any spiritual ally should be treated with respect and honor. There is a balance between subservience to the spiritual, and the “command” of the Renaissance magician bossing around spirits. As we seek to have healthy, whole, and satisfying relationships with our fellow humans- we can, and should, seek the same quality of relationships with our spiritual allies.
Lately I do, a lot of what can be called “urban shamanism”. Although I have fasted and done retreats in the woods, I live in a city. In July I did a live Shamanic walkabout through a local park. The spirits of the neighborhood baseball diamond, infused with the joy and passion of childhood sports, are just as relevant as the trees. Most shamanic practice has a belief in animism at its heart- where everything has a spirit and life force. This means that there can be something sacred found inspirits of concrete, and electrical wire; pigeon and squirrel.
Listen to the Pagans Tonight episode we talk about Modern Shamanism here. May the spirits bless you, and may you find wisdom in your Work.