Shamanism is a collective name for a set of practices that date thousands of years to when our species lived in closer harmony with the natural world. To quote Terence McKenna: “Shamanism is not a religion, it’s a set of techniques”. In the same way that Reiki energy and practice is non-denominational, Shamanism can be adopted and practiced by anyone with a calling to it.
The role of the shaman
Within more traditional shamanic societies such as those of the Native Americans, a person would be called to shamanism and these would be people with a disposition towards spirit work. Being of a weaker physicality would also factor into this, since a shaman would have to suffer a “crisis” as part of their initiation. Extreme illness or mental infractions would force the initiate to work with the spirits to overcome their problems and this is why shamans are viewed as “wounded healers”. By having an intimate knowledge of the struggle to survive and overcome, they would be better placed to advise the community in much matters.
Which brings us to the principle role of the shaman – that of a healer and spiritual advisor to their tribe or neighbourhood. They would act as intermediary between the forces of nature and the environment and the needs of the community. The role of the shaman is varied and may include the use of herbal remedies although this would be approached in a slightly different way to similar modern practices. The shaman will work with the spirits of the plants, not just their physical attributes.
Another principle technique is the use of trance states. The shaman would enter into this experience through the use of rhythmic drumming, sometimes with the additional help of certain plants and their tutelary spirits. The drumming (a repetitive beat of between 200 and 220 beats per minute) has been shown to stimulate alpha and theta brain waves, thus recreating meditative and visionary states while remaining mostly conscious.
Whilst in this altered state (described by many as the Shamanic State of Consciousness), the shaman would have access to the spiritual realm, the place where all knowledge is stored. This concept has been adapted by various spiritual concepts that have their roots in the global practice of shamanism. Taoism, which evolved from eastern shamanism, describes this “higher consciousness” as the Tao, the undefinable transcendental consciousness of life itself.
One of the most difficult aspects of trance-work is to translate the visions and experiences into a useful form for the good of the community. The shaman’s intuitive reasoning would play a part in this, along with the information received from nature spirits and from their natural environment. Shamanic healing is the 21st Century adaptation of these ancient techniques and there are parallels with therapies such as regression and NLP, the main difference being in the delivery.
Techniques that work with the subconscious such as work performed under hypnosis rely on the client’s own experiences and ability to assimilate new ideas or alter existing patterns of belief and behaviour, guided by the therapist. Shamanic Healing is primarily performed by the therapist, who undertakes shamanic journeys on behalf of the client. They then detail these experiences to the client upon implementation. This is not an exclusive rule however, since techniques such as breathwork (accessing trance states and energies through controlled systems of breathing) are more focused on the client’s experiential process.
A typical Shamanic Healing session
A typical Shamanic Healing session may seem familiar – an initial consultation, followed by the “work” that is needed, then a chance for the client to assimilate the new information and apply that to their life. A Shamanic Healer may also be trained in additional techniques such as energy healing and this can be incorporated into the session. A popular method is known as Power Retrieval – undertaking a shamanic journey to find the client’s Spirit Animal Ally and bring that energy back into the “waking world” so that the client can use this support for their healing.
The Three Worlds and the World Tree
Most shamanic communities respect a generic view of the Three Worlds – the Upper World (where tutelary spirits such as Ascended Masters or Angelic guides reside), the Middle World (were nature spirits and our own “shadow selves” are based) and the Lower World (home to animal spirits and creatures of the subconscious). These worlds are linked by the World Tree and this concept has been carried forward into various societies. The Vikings knew it as the Yggdrasil (the tree that Odin hung from for 9 days to obtain the knowledge of the runes), Haitian Vodou represents it as the Poetau Mitan, centre of each peristyle (place of spiritual practice), and the Druids viewed all trees as aspects of this One Tree.
The concept of external and internal worlds has some parallel within certain schools of psychotherapy. A journey to the Lower World would be akin to delving into the subconscious and an Upper World journey would access the “collective psyche” described by Jung. In this way, shamanic practice can be seen as a spiritual ancestor of modern psychology.
Living harmoniously with our environment
Shamanic Healing may be seen by some as an arcane and outdated set of methods that have been superceded by modern approaches to psychology and physiology but in truth it holds its place within the modern therapeutic world. Many therapies have their roots in shamanism and there are an increasing number of people who are focusing on the synergy between their own spiritual identity and that of the world around them. Exploring shamanism is just one of the ways in which we can bring ourselves closer to a way of living harmoniously with our environment.
By Mark Barwell
Shamanic Practitioner and Reiki Master