I believe that the underlying emptiness in the materialistic western worldview has unleashed a growing hunger for reconnection with our deepest selves. At some level we all long to be held in the natural cycles and rhythms of our mother, Earth. Shamanism, released from its cultural and tribal contexts, which vary across continents, teaches that everything is connected. For sophisticated, urban dwellers to relate to this, we’ve needed to make sense of it within our own cultural and educational frameworks.
This includes the teachings of scientific disciplines such as quantum physics. Its description of a field of energy connecting all things echoes the fundamental shamanic principle of a web of life. Psychology helps us understand the three shamanic worlds (lower, middle and upper) in the light of major levels of consciousness. We can relate to the idea of ‘spirit guides’ through the concept of archetypes as developed by CG Jung. Ecology teaches practical and spiritual ways of caring for Earth and deep ecology helps us to understand that everything is alive and has soul. Cosmology is a window into the mind-boggling extent of our connections to the universe.
While these materialistic supports can help, shamanism is much more deeply rooted in the human body and psyche than such an intellectual approach suggests. It arises from an ancient, soulful, ecstatic, joyful approach to being fully alive and in ‘right relationship’ with our world and does not need the findings of science for validation.
Shamanic practices have survived because they work. Many people find them strangely familiar. Perhaps this is not surprising. As well as being encoded in our genetic history, some of the most recognisable stories and images from major religions have a shamanic sensibility. For instance, Buddha touched the earth and called upon it to witness his enlightenment, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness and the vivid and exuberant depictions of spirits and demons in Tibet grew from the blend of the Bon shamanic tradition with Buddhism. All of these speak of deep and ancient roots in the mysteries of Earth & Cosmos.
Urbanites who are drawn to this today do not learn the tribal shamanism of old. Instead, they study a neo-shamanism that is still embedded in the sacredness of life, nature and the universe. Now we learn to be, not shamans, but shamanic practitioners, healers or therapists.
While we are not chosen in the traditional ways, I’m sure our decision to enroll in courses such as a Certificate in Shamanic Practices is still guided by Spirit. The training of today continues to be rigorous and transformative, based on surrender, initiation and scrupulous purifying honesty. The capacity to balance the energies of the dark, cavernous underworld, the spirit version of our material Earth and the high vibrational world of the sky, happens paradoxically when practitioners both surrender to and gain mastery over the powers generated in these worlds.
One important, traditional technique that is still taught is the famous Shamanic Journey. In altered consciousness the soul travels on waves of sound produced by drumming, clapping, singing or rattling. It is an effective way to directly access personal and spiritual guidance. People who are drawn to a deeper exploration of shamanism can learn to use this and other techniques to help their communities and the planet in the time-honoured fashion.
Shamanic techniques meet three fundamental human needs – for guidance (known in shamanism as divination), healing and empowerment.
• Practitioners seek guidance for their clients by journeying into the spirit world and contacting guides for advice and direction.
• They may seek healing for clients through soul retrieval. This is a shamanic method of repairing the disconnection that can happen after trauma or suffering. Soul retrieval offers a way of bringing a person back to wholeness.
• They work to empower their clients through a journey to find and install a ‘power’ animal. This animal has an ongoing role in the person’s life and a loving and reciprocal relationship develops.
Many people today have persistent difficulties with the concept of power, often because they’ve had negative experiences of someone else’s power over them.
In a transcript of a radio interview Michael Harner, the Western world’s foremost exponent of Shamanism, explains it in a helpful way, ‘…the person who's doing this work is drawing upon an experience of power far beyond himself or herself...this power comes from harmony…some people might say God, some people might say love. But this power has tremendous strength, & so when you draw upon it, particularly for good purposes, then this energy is there.’