Shamanism has been practiced for millennia across the world. Shamans, who have either grown up as apprentices of their shaman elders, or have been to called to the service later without direct ties, undergo an important initiation process. Many will spend however long it takes (days to years) isolated in nature. They are informed of their purpose and survival through their dreams and spiritual journeying. This process is commonly called ‘vision quest.’
Vision quests may involve a soul retrieval, which as it sounds, means reclaiming an aspect of your soul. For example, I’ve heard that some people during a soul retrieval have visited with themselves as a child to reclaim the qualities of wonder and play into their lives.
During the initiation process and vision quest, shamans face their greatest personal challenges, must navigate their own darkness and shadow aspects, and work to heal the lineage of their ancestors in this life as well as the other lives their soul has lived. It is extremely important shamans heal themselves before healing others as this removes blockages and inefficiency. It increases their understanding and empathy.
Shamans become stewards of multiple worlds. They journey to different realms to receive healing messages. These journeys pervade time and space and are beyond ordinary consciousness. Other realms inform shamans of the spiritual disorder and the path to heal it which trickles down to impact mental and physical issues. The 3 realms I’m aware of aside from dreaming, are upper, middle, and lower. Visually, these are depicted by a tree.
The upper world has ancestors and light beings, the middle world is the reality we perceive daily, and the lower world is for soul retrieval, other spirit guides, and shadow work. Certainly I’ve simplified these to the bare minimum. Different cultures and practitioners have different interpretations. For journeys, shamans travel up or down the tree depending on what is needed. We understand our existence to be above ground, mid-tree. The upper world is reached by the highest leaves in the treetops, and the lower world is through the roots.
The work of a shaman goes beyond diagnosis and distributing remedy like the role of an ancient doctor. Shamans are visionaries. They work to restore alignment in the world. Visiting other realms is like time travel so they are able to gain insight about what is necessary for healing all relations. Relationships with bodies, other people, animals, nature and the living world, and with spirits must be aligned for optimal health. Shamans see the world through multiple lenses.
A Place to Start Your Journey
If you close your eyes in a relaxed but awake position, imagine the most beautiful place. What makes this place so beautiful? What is there and what is absent? You might notice the place is wide open and pulsating with life. There is no garbage on the ground, and the air is clear. If people are there, how are they interacting? What does it feel like to be there? When you consider what is there and what is absent, you begin to understand what needs to be healed. How does this beautiful place become reality? This is how you start to become a visionary, by dreaming the world into being.
Journeying requires openness to imagination without your thoughts controlling what comes. Like with synchronicity, you have to be willing to notice details around you and engage with it like learning a new language. It’s amazing what insights might present themselves to you while listening to the rhythms of a drum or shakes of a rattle. The rhythms help induce a trance state that opens you to possibilities beyond your thoughts and ego. The sensations are meant to lead you away from what makes you feel ill or prevents you from healing. Access to these realms also can be through dreams and ceremony. You have to be willing to work with symbolism and always honor your experiences with deep gratitude.
In my personal energy medicine training and shamanic wisdom training, I traveled the ‘medicine wheel.’ The medicine wheel involves 4 cardinal directions with an animal that represents the initiation process and healing work. Starting in the South is the direction of the Serpent. Moving to the West is Jaguar, the North is the direction of hummingbird, and the last direction is the East, Eagle/Condor. Many shamans have the 4 elements in each direction: earth, fire, water, and wind/air. Once you invite the wheel into your life, you notice it as a constant personal growth cycle.
New Age Shamans
These days there are many “modernized” shamans who follow adaptations of the original traditions and techniques. While I believe anyone can apply some shamanic healing principles into their lives, it’s important to have knowledge about what exactly you’re doing and understand that “shaman” is not a self-proclaimed title. It is a serious call to service where the community “decides.” Many shamans have described instances where people in their communities have showed up on their doorsteps for help. People come to you.
It’s also important to remember that these cultural traditions have been colonized, oppressed, and discredited. There have been many debates about ethics and appropriation of the traditions. This is something to consider both if you would like to incorporate aspects into your own healing journey and if you are seeking the guidance of shaman. You want to be sure you or the person who claims their title as a shaman is practicing with integrity and appreciation.
Lot’s of “modern westernized” shamans, or I think the proper term is “neo-shamans,” of the new age will identify as “light-workers.” Light workers attempt to steer the world in the direction of the light or towards a vision of beauty. This is great, but it often ignores the gritty work required to fully heal before stepping into this place. It’s imbalanced therefore not in true alignment.
Things don’t go well and become beautiful because we will them to be; everything is a relationship. You have to put work into a relationship, give and receive, and understand and learn from pain to heal. This process, ethical practice, and ensuring you choose a genuine shaman are also discussed here about the sacredness of ayahuasca.
I haven’t gone into depth about the history of shamanism or many of the anthropological “how’s” because I see these reports, while they’re trying to be objective, as having a particular gaze. So much is lost in translation and cultural conditioning that determines what is “true” and useful.
Also, while I don’t think shamanism is a replacement for modern medicine, I do think modern medicine can learn a lot from shamanism to be more complete. I don’t claim to be an expert in shamanism. My interpretation has come from research, training, and direct experience with Q’ero, Shipibo, and “modern” shamans. I encourage your insight to come from personal experience as well. Try other ways of knowing!
It seems like more people have become interested in deepening their purpose, healing their relationships and their soul’s traumas, and dancing in the ways of beauty, wisdom, and light. Yes!
Go explore how to heal on another level with shamanism and how you can be of service to the world through this healing. For resources, feel free to send a message of inquiry. If you like this page, please share it!
4 thoughts on “What is Shamanism? Wisdom to Apply to Life”