“Ring the bells that can still ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.“
(Anthem /Leonhard Cohen)
The roots of the word “shamanism“ remain unknown. Some sources maintain that it derives from the Sanskrit “sramana” meaning monk. More likely it comes from the Tungusic language (Siberia/ Mongolia) “sha” meaning wise. A shaman is a wise or knowing one. The closest Chinese equivalent is“ 充滿 “chōngmǎn” or full of (light).
Shamanism is the oldest form of spiritually that actively connects with the invisible realms. In the cave of Lasceaux you can see 20 000 year old paintings of animals. They show hunting scenarios as well as totem worshipping. A totem describes one or more spirit beings in the form of animals or even plants. They accompany us as guides and helping spirits. Shamanism is a form of faith, but not a religion. It encompasses experienced values and rituals or tenets that are constantly evolving, but never dogmatic.
Other expressions for a shaman are healer, druid, witch, magician or curandera/o.
In most cases, a shaman is a wounded healer. Wounded healer means to be at home with our deepest wounds and hidden shadow aspects of ourselves, which serve as guardians of our inner light at the same time. Our wounds may crush us and take others along with us, but if we are able to continually assimilate and grow through them, we can change our inner poison into medicine. For ourselves, as well as the world around us. The crack is how the light gets in.
In this tradition, knowledge is passed down orally and directly through family members or from teacher to student. A (soon-to-be) shaman learns foremost from nature, his or her daily challenges and the “other” world, or what the Celtics called the non-physical realms.
Positions of power and status were and still are occupied by men in all patriarchal religions. Shamanism isn’t totally free from chauvinism, but has always been more emancipated. Power has been more divided between all sexes throughout its history. (Homosexuals for example are regarded as “two spirited” in the Celtic tradition and by Machi shamanism in Chile. As a “two spirited” being, one can walk between the worlds more easily).
Many become a shaman through heritage, it is however equally common for someone to become a shaman, not by choice but through strokes of fate or severe illness; a so-called extraordinary state of mind that opens the gate to the “other” world (a state that might also be initiated by the “other” realm). Astrologically, this is a dance between plutonic and neptunic forces: the process of being humbled by fate is plutonic (which can enable true power), while navigating through the veils of delusion is a neptunic one. The outer planets such as Saturn, Uranus, Neptun and Pluto are ambiguous in meaning. Pluto is simply regarded as the transformer, as well as the powerful (and hopefully humble) magician. Neptun is connected to the divine truth, unconditional love, and also being lost in all kinds of delusions and addictions. The road a shaman walks is a path between power and manipulation, through the deepest truths and foggy delusions. Shamans are not immune to such dangerous temptations. On the contrary, the “spiritual” ego is a temptation that many healers and esoterics fall victim to, arising from increasing capabilities that lead to declaring one’s insights as the one and only truth, while putting others down.
Our biggest potential lies within our deepest wounds. Those who can own their powerlessness and “guilt” become carriers of true power (see also article Creator vs Plaything). In myths of old, a dragon symbolizes both power and destruction. It can help us transform our wounds into a source of power or an uncontrollable urge for destruction. The dragon connects us to an archetypical or instinctual nature that is inherent in every form of life, which can neither be deceived nor manipulated. A nature which also follows the universal laws of life:
Life is sacred and wants nothing but to be lived.
Everything is interconnected.
Balance must be kept (if peace is to be accomplished). The balance between giving and receiving: male and female, structure and chaos, body, mind and heart. The list goes on.
Everything is constantly changing.
Energy never gets lost. It only transforms.
Everything visible to the human eye has a transcendent reality.
If we ignore these laws over a long period of time, we essentially become disconnected from an elemental force (symbolized by the dragon) that bonds us to the personal and collective magic of life. Much like a fruit tree bearing no fruit, we will be unable to nurture our potential power. Our detached, instinctual nature may then develop a dangerous independent existence that can hurt us, as well as those around us. (see article Curses and Obsessions)
An example is our profit-driven society, in which quantity is more valued than quality, where one’s own gratification takes precedent over the well being of all life on earth. We continually ignore the consequences for our planet and its inhabitants, leading humanity into the archaic dragon fires of self-destruction.
Even in our personal lives, we choose the path we walk each and every moment. The wounds that are also our potential power represent both gifts and personal challenges at the same time. A shaman thus never stops being a student. Firstly because nature, the spiritual world and our daily lives provide constant sources to learn from and obstacles to overcome; secondly he has to prove himself worthy of the treasure he carries each and every day.
The Machi Shamans in Chile pray each morning to be forgiven for every emotion, thought and action made without awareness. A shaman takes a path with significant responsibilities. If he is not in balance with everything, by staying truly humble and serving the power in his heart, he or she will get lost.
How this balance is to be attained, can be learnt from ancient shamanic traditions. One of them is the so-called “fragmentation of the ego”. On a shamanic journey, helpful spirits destroy the ego, in order for it to be rebuilt anew. Only what you are willing to let go of is worth keeping. If we can let go of our needs or even our persona (the way we present ourselves to the world), this enables us to be free and therefore be more alive. In moments where we are stuck in our needs and driven by our ego, we cannot interact openly and be true to our nature. We tend to behave that way especially during challenging moments, crisis and uncertainty. Fear leads to rigidity in ego and our being. Our ego should ideally be balanced and cyclic like our breaths. Breathing in, breathing out. Being aware. Letting go. We need our ego to survive in a physical body, but also let it go by connecting with everything that is. In order to love and be truly alive we require both aspects. To be ‘Egoless’ has often been quoted and regarded as a goal in patriarchal spirituality. To me this is a rather doubtful and dangerous concept. Denying and ignoring our needs seems to me a cul de sac or a boomerang smashing us in the face sooner or later. You can lie to yourself, but never to the dragon power inside of you. The balance of energies, emotions, needs and circumstances is more sacred to the shamanic tradition, than one state of being over another. The shamanic path is essentially female in its nature, the balance found in the chaos of life.
Another central pillar of this balance is grounding (see article Curses and Obsessions). The shaman used to have everyday work and was embedded in a family within many indigenous traditions, the balance between spirituality and ordinary life. A shaman also needs a companion, someone who provides protection, while holding the sacred ritualistic space; someone who knows to bring the shaman back to this reality when it is needed; someone who is courageous enough to point out his or her erring ways, both in thoughts and behaviours to be changed.
According to Michael Harner, the known ethnologist and founder of the so-called core shamanism, there are enough similar identifying features in very different shamanic cultures all around the globe. In every one of those cultures that he examined, there were some almost identical core ideas. One of them is the concept of the upper, lower and middle world. The upper and lower worlds are mainly non-physical realities and are distinguished by certain qualities such as chaos and structure, harmony and unruliness, dragon power and angelic grace.
The middle world is the physical reality in which we master our daily lives. These three realms are connected through the world tree (Yggdrasil) where the shaman travels “up” or “down”, wherever he is guided to go. Each of these has malevolent and benevolent spirits. We as human inhabitants of the middle world have at least one main spirit animal that guides and protects us, which also symbolizes certain core qualities of our soul. When needed the shaman “rides” for us on his or her drum to the other worlds in order to negotiate between us and the invisible spiritual dimensions. In every ritual around the world, these three realms and all the four directions are called upon to help, for creating a so-called sacred space. Michael Harner always avoided teaching his students shamanic journeying in the middle world, because he worried that those who know could abuse their powers and manipulate others, as unfortunately some shamans tend to do.
The world in which we live, is a magical place where spirit merges with matter. Some shamans use these spirits of the middle world to fight and harm one another, as well other people. There should be no illusion about the abuse of spiritual power taking place only in institutionalized religions. As anywhere, the form of faith does not sanctify its practitioner, rather the intention of the respective person does. Many often ridicule shamanism as pure humbug, while many others tend to idealize it as well. Whenever human nature is involved, there is always a mix of lights and shadows.
2.1.The right state of mind
-In the moment
Several factors must come together in order to become a shaman. One needs the inner call, a lot of experiences and most likely some painful apprenticeship years. In the end it doesn’t matter whether someone is a powerful shaman or “just” an ordinary person, one must walk the talk. Nature does not judge. What is essential however are the three I’s from above.
You can have the most exceptional abilities and the most sacred instruments at your disposal, if your intention is not crystal clear and pure, you cannot have much effect onto this world or might even harm others. On the other hand, we can find ourselves in circumstances where our intention is pretty much everything we have and manage to accomplish great transformations. Or as the renown Chilean medicine woman Luz Clara says: “It’s our intention that heals”.
Integrity should be the core of our intention. It is often said everything is connected with everything. It is important for humanity to truly internalize what that means. What is needed are real mindfulness and integrity, otherwise it is nothing more than lip service. If we are working on someone without his or her permission, even with the best intentions we are not respectful and therefore lacking in integrity. Integrity keeps our boundaries, as well as the boundaries of others. Integrity is strong, soft, compassionate and nonjudgmental, an expression of a pure heart. Integrity is looking for a balanced exchange of energy (money, resources etc). Integrity is not possible without truthfulness and fairness involved. It balances our needs and the needs of others. Integrity is connected with all drives of life.
2.1.3 In the moment
A shaman should be able to react spontaneously to these drives. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this ‘mindfulness’, a central terminology in Buddhist teachings. The biggest gift we can offer to someone else is to be completely there in the moment with all our senses. At the end of his life, when Carl Gustav Jung was asked what he would consider the most healing aspect in psychotherapy, he replied: “You know, more important than the method we use is the fact that we reach out to someone fully present.”
There are endless literary and philosophical essays about the essence of love. For me these three components are somehow the core: intention, integrity and in the moment. This might answer the question of how a shaman is able to heal: love.
3.1 Modern Shamanism
“Everyone who consciously connects is a shaman to me”- Marcela Lobos
Modern shamanism can be roughly divided into three sections:
-Shamanism in our daily lives
-Ancient traditions opening up
-Mixtures between the old and new
3.1.1 Shamanism in our daily lives
Some might wonder whether all the aforementioned can be applied to shamans only. According to the shaman Marcela Lobos, we could look upon anyone as a shaman who is consciously connecting to the world. Or taking up the laws of life again: anyone who respects and honours everything alive; anyone who is consciously aware that life wants nothing but to live; anyone who consciously realizes that everything is interconnected; anyone who senses the roots beneath the asphalt of the streets and listens to the songs of nature; anyone who is constantly aware of balancing energy exchange, and is acting with love and kindness. One embedded in the eternal change of life and the transcendental aspects of our ordinary existence. No one can be in that state all the time. In those moments however, we are living the shaman inside us.
You do not necessarily have to work professionally on clients to cause transformation and healing. If that is our calling, we will be guided towards it by the spiritual world sooner or later as discussed before. The shamans who work as healers are certainly needed, but the future of humankind however, depends on each and every one of us, how much we are willing to become conscious and to act in this mindfulness. To accomplish this we do not need to rattle or drum. We do not need to attend church services or bow in the direction of Mecca. We can do it but we do not have to. In the end, everything that counts is our intention, our integrity and how often we are able to be fully present.
3.1.2 Ancient knowledge
Some shamanic traditions have begun to share parts of their secret knowledge with the world in the course of the new millennium. They are following certain prophecies and resolutions from their elders to save the world from collapse. They call it the time when the condor (southern hemisphere) is flying with the eagle (northern hemisphere). Not all that glitters is gold though. As a result, there has not been only an accumulation of wisdom, but also a kind of ethno tourism with sometimes life-threatening consequences.
Greenhorns were killed by carelessly consuming ayahuasca in the jungle. Charlatans drove their students to death in most irresponsible sweat lodges. Most of the time, there are no indigenous people involved. More so, instant shamans from the west that teach a dubious mix between ancient wisdom and modern “knowledge”, stringing it together without thorough knowledge or at best superficial understanding of its background and effects.
3.1.3 The mixture
Not all who combine ancient wisdom with modern insights are necessarily dubious.
Knowledge, magic and wisdom are also going through constant evolution, much like life itself. Many great healers are mixing ancient traditions with modern studies in psychology and even science.
As Luz Clara says: “It is the intention that heals”.
To this it should be added, intention with integrity ultimately determines whether there will be harm or healing done. It is nevertheless quite difficult to distinguish between a true shaman and a charlatan. Some are even both at the same time, which do not make things easier.
4.1 Charlatan or shaman?
Many quack doctors have taken advantage of the lack of meaning in our western society. Their personal gains have caused harm to many people. The fact that they manipulate, exploit and even fanaticize is nothing new. We are convinced that if we faithfully follow such “gurus” we shall be filled with light and fortune. In reality, we find our own unresolved shadow dancing with the shadow aspect the charlatan represents. It is no surprise that in this way, we end up addicted, traumatized and broken. So how are we able to distinguish between a charlatan and a shaman with integrity? There is no absolute certainty, because very few are pure light or pure shadow. Most are somewhere in between. The better question is how much light and how much dark is in someone. Nevertheless I would like to give some hopefully helpful hints on how to make the right decision:
-Indigenous ancestry is not a guarantee for capacity of being a shaman.
-Having learnt from shamans does not inevitably make someone a shaman. Learning does not always equate to knowing.
-Claiming oneself as a shaman, somehow special or even enlightened is not necessarily true.
-Being blessed with special skills does not ensure those skills will be used as a blessing.
-Beware of “the” path, “the” teacher or “the” teachings. Exclusivity is not part of nature, but rather belongs to malevolent forces.
-Beware of so called light-workers who deny “evil”. Who you are not dealing with at your entrance comes through the backdoor. What you resist persists.
-If you are forced to do something against your will, you should definitely question the integrity of the teacher or healer. One’s own sovereignty is always sacred. Encouragement, challenges and even criticism can bring real progress, but coercion is an act of violence.
-Beware of teachers/healers who always have an answer and reject any form of criticism as someone else’s problem. Yes, we all tend to project our shadow aspects onto our teachers/healers, but this does not necessarily mean it is mistaken. A trustworthy shaman is conscious of his or her own fallibility.
-Beware of teachers/healers who constantly talk you into participating in endless sessions or seminars for your healing. A responsible healer gives recommendations, but leaves the decisions of when, how often or if at all up to you.
-A shaman with integrity gives his abilities to set you free, never to bind you. Whether it is a personal bondage or a group, always be aware of those that try to tie you down. It could indicate vampiristic needs and addictive structures. A true shaman encourages you to grow and to walk your own path, instead of creating a need for the therapist/group.
-The work that is done might seem completely crazy. Nevertheless, it is about results in the here and now. Sooner or later something has to change. Even if it takes immense patience and the steps seem ridiculously small, something must change. If it does not you should consider leaving the healer. Sometimes the method is wrong, sometimes it is wrong for that time. This does not always indicate an incompetent shaman; it could just be that the interpersonal chemistry is wrong.
-A shaman uses his or her skills to serve the individual and greater good. For his efforts he should be paid appropriately. However, energetic balance is what it is about and demanding enormous amounts of money are inappropriate and should be considered a fraud. This exploitation derides the sacred balance of life. Even if there are unique abilities involved they are nevertheless abused.
Shamanic work always aims to improve circumstances in which we are living. In ancient times the survival of the tribe was dependent on the skills of their medicine man/woman. He or she was responsible of finding the best place to hibernate or the closest grazing buffaloes. No whoowhooshmooshmoorattlerattleboomboom. Survival was and still is the goal. The way a shaman does it might be regarded as insane, but in the end what matters is that things change for the better. Or to recite a shaman from Vienna: ”Please keep the good old common sense switched on.” The wise one or shaman walks the fine line between he who heals is right (Hippocrates) and when too much crazy is too much crazy.
5. My personal experiences with shamanism
I have been practising shamanism for almost twenty years now. It started when my best friend went to the US and left me one of her mystical books. I’m usually not that much into mystical storytelling, but I missed her and this book made me feel somehow closer to her. In that book, I read for the first time about power animals and I immediately saw mine in my mind’s eye. Years later, I went to a shaman more by accident. She was recommended to me and I went without knowing any details about her work. She “retrieved” my power animal (it had always been there, butit was more like consciously connecting with that energy). It was exactly the one I had seen years before, which made me curious to learn more.
Over the years, I became familiar with many traditions, mythologies and methods. I dove deeper into the Siberian, Celtic and South-American shamanism.
I came across many great teachers, as well as some dubious ones. I met people who went through dramatic changes and spontaneous healings with shamanism. Up till now, I am not one of those people. My changes came slowly. I had some deep spiritual experiences, even though none of them would be enough to convince a skeptic, I honestly could not think of anything that would probably do that.
I can confirm that I went through some profound transformations. Spiritual work has definitely healed my mind, body and soul. After the curses laid on me had been resolved, a constant change occurred. Not fast, but again slowly. I am still recovering from that nightmare, so I know what people go through. You have to otherwise you are not able to do this kind of work.
What kept me going even in times of doubt (doubt has always been my second nature) was my yearning to be deeply connected with everything that is. Leaving behind the limitations of the material world and its scientific proofs, I searched for that connection to melt into the oneness. Many people find that in traditional religions, while I feel at home with shamanism. One reason is that it has very, very few restrictive rules. What matters is the magic of the moment. It is also a very sensual way to practice spirituality: the pulsating drum, the humming, screaming and dancing, the smell of burning herbs. Shamanism is to me sensual abundance and transcendent emptiness rolled into one.
I practise regularly and would consider myself a shamanic practitioner. When I work on others I am melting with the shaman inside me.
There are various special days in shamanism as well. Each of them symbolizes a certain energy connected to the season we are in. Connecting to that energy around the right time supports what you want to strengthen or transform. It is useful to do so, but it is not a must.
Some methods I learnt were not my own, which I had forgotten over the years. Some I kept and had become deeply rooted into my being. I use these methods the way I had learnt them but developed with my own unique quality.
I am highly connected to the devic kingdom with its unicorns, fairies, tree devas, swans and dragons, which is considered the so-called Celtic shamanism.
I practise overtone singing that many Siberian and Mongolian traditions use for healing.
Before I went to Chile in 2009 to meet some Mapuche shamans, called Machi, I dreamt in mapuche: “ai auka”. In that dream it came as a song to me, while I was moving the rivers, the winds and the stones in a circle with other women. I was not able to google what that means, because mapuche is a language that has never been written down. When I arrived in Chile a machi translated that “Ai auka” means: I’m a wild woman. That is why I feel connected to the wild (and wise) women of Chile.
After all those years, I had only one drum and a rattle with Jamaica palm trees that was found auctioned on eBay. I never thought I needed lots of shamanic stuff from different traditions to be more shamanic. But since 2009 I’m a kultrun carrier, the drum of the Machis in Chile and the first in Europe, I guess. In 2015 I received my spiritual name as a kultrun carrier. Since then I only use this drum in healing ceremonies. It is my sacred drum.
My patron saint is Maria. She has been with me since my early childhood years, even though I was raised as a protestant. Amongst others Maria helps to resolve curses.
This article does not claim to fully explain shamanism. Maybe it helps as an introduction, or as a little guide to find one’s way through the jungle of all the healers and teachers out there. In my article healers, shamans and teachers, I will give more detailed recommendations with related links. In case you want to know more about what kind of work I’m doing, please click on about me.