Shamanism? What Is That?

            What Is Shamanism?

People who seek a balanced life often find that nurturing a personal spiritual connection is helpful —perhaps even essential — to their quest. Science has begun to support this idea by affirming the benefit of a strong spiritual connection in maintaining health and fostering healing. Shamanism is often described as “the first spiritual practice of humanity,” with traditions and techniques that can be traced back more than 5,000 years. Evidence of shamanism has been found in every culture and on every continent throughout the world since the dawn of mankind. More importantly, its legacy, methods and belief structures can be useful today in personal growth and healing.


It has been said that the English word shaman comes from the name given to traditional tribal healers of the Tungus people of Siberia, and it roughly translates as “one who sees in the dark.” This description is due in part to the fact that many shamanic practices involve meditation, often with eyes closed  (sometimes in a deep trance state) to help discover the nature of a problem and determine potential solutions. The shaman “looks” into dark places in the person, the community and the planet, and finds how to bring them light, hope and healing. In many cultures, a shaman is a healer, counselor and spiritual director all wrapped into one.


The most basic tenet of shamanism is that everything has a significant spiritual component. In fact, a shaman believes everything exists as Spirit in its ultimate nature: Every person, every animal, every tree, every illness, literally every single thing that exists. Moreover, this Spirit can be accessed, engaged or encountered in ways that bring about positive change to enhance the quality of life, relationships and health. Modern shamanic practices also consider the importance of eating healthily, getting plenty of rest, engaging in appropriate exercise and having solid emotional support. Beyond all those things, the shamanic path recommends that we stay “pumped up in Spirit” so that we can really live well.


The Shamanic Practitioner


As in many areas throughout the “undeveloped” world, it is possible to find and work with shamans in contemporary society. They may be members of traditional tribes or cultures, or modern urban persons. They will have apprenticed for years if not decades with an acknowledged tribal shaman.  It is, however, more likely that one will connect with a shamanic practitioner who has studied neo-shamanism or core shamanism. Such practitioners honor the various traditional teachings, ceremonies and religious beliefs of the native shaman. But in their own work and study, they employ core world views as well as practices that are universal across many shamanic cultures, rather than exclusively embracing a particular path such as the Hopi way or the Aboriginal Australian way. 


There is a rule of thumb that warns, “If a person calls himself (herself) a shaman, run!” By most shamanic traditions, such a person is lacking in appropriate humility. In other words, they are taking credit for the good work that Spirit performs in the lives of others. A Cheyenne frind of mine told me that a true Native American medicine man is unlikely to ever call himself by that name, even if he is known to be so and is formally recognized by his entire community.



The Shamanic Journey


The shamanic journey is the basic technique one employs to initiate his/her personal spiritual connection and then to access ever deeper and higher levels of spiritual guidance. Journeying, as it is commonly called, is generally done while lying down with eyes closed, guided by the sound of a beating drum or other traditional percussion instrument(s). The journey frequently involves opening into a trancelike state similar to that of deep meditation. The experience often results in striking visual and somatic imagery full of archetypal themes, visions and intuitive knowings. 


Journeying is undertaken to enter into what author Carlos Castaneda dubbed non-ordinary reality, the realms of healing, wisdom and empowerment accessible by great mystics, teachers, artists and healers. The journeyer is able to meet with and learns to work with personal spirit guides or helpers commonly thought of in our culture as guardian angels. The journey can offer profound intuitive and spiritual guidance. Moreover, shamanic traditions teach us that work done while journeying (in alternate or spiritual dimensions) can lead to functional and effective change in ordinary reality and can improve our everyday life.   


Shamanism, Illness and Healing


Just as shamanism teaches that there is a spiritual component to everything, it also suggests one or more spiritual elements exist at the center of every illness. Therefore, there is a functional spiritual aspect to any physical and emotional recovery or healing experience. Shamanic practitioners seek to assist their clients in cleansing, strengthening and/or renewing their vital life force or spirit. One’s soul essence can be depleted or damaged through trauma or ongoing abuse or distress. The shamanic practitioner often works with clients in one or more initial sessions to bring them back to a state in which they may experience deep inner strength and balance. Further exercises, study, meditations, prayerwork and/or ceremony may be recommended to be performed by the client alone or in community.  This additional work is intended to further the process of spiritual growth and repair, which also helps with physical and emotional growth and repair.      


Our culture already embraces one principle which is shamanic in nature: People who are always negative or constantly in a negative environment often become ill. One shamanic “antidote” might be to find ways for the sick person to be very positive to help manifest wellness. In shamanic practice, negative energy and its effects are called “spiritual intrusion.” The shaman performs what is called a “shamanic extraction” to remove the negative energy from the client’s system. From a shamanic perspective, people who constantly look in the mirror and think thoughts such as, “I hate my butt,” dump negative energy into themselves, wounding their spirits. In turn, this creates a field of negative energy around their rear end, which magnetically draws more negativity to it. The cycle can go on and on until it is broken by a more powerful, personal spiritual shift. A shaman can help facilitate that shift.




In his book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, internationally renowned anthropologist Mircea Eliade concludes that shamanism is the foundation for all the world’s spiritual traditions. Shamanism can coexist comfortably with, support and even enhance all spiritual paths. Just as importantly, it can coexist with and holistically support all other positive healing methods − including modern medicine and its complementary modalities – and spiritual paths. In the spirit of shamanism, this coexistence is the most natural and balanced thing in the world.


© 2006, 2008 Neal Szpatura


Earlier versions of this article appeared in “Balanced Living” magazine  


and on my web site,         


Brightest blessings!



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