Unit 1: What is Shamanism? An Overview


Our course is meant to be an introduction into the practices of shamanism.  Even though most of the work can actually be completed rather quickly, the successful practice of shamanism is reliant on the potential practitioner to contemplate the questions and responses, and perform the practice activities more than once if necessary.  With that said, you can stretch the classes out to a month or so, but we do not move to the next unit until one has let at least two weeks lapse from beginning a unit.  Most of the time, I’m pretty impatient, but believe me, this is the best way to practice shamanism.  It is more like letting things unfold, instead of making them unfold.

There is really no way around addressing the obvious, but specific terms, principles, practices, rituals, etc. that we discuss in practicing ancient beliefs and rituals may really sound odd to those not accustomed to this type of thing,  “hell”, some of it still sounds odd to me.  Everyone I’ve studied with and/or worked with operates under the premise of just keeping quiet about the specifics of any of your more personal experiences.  I never really was quite sure if it was to stay humble or if there was another secret that we would learn.  I always understood that there were great misunderstandings about what this work is about, but I think I just found the 2nd reason practitioners don’t talk very much about journeys, while looking for a suitable definition to include in this course.  Even the dictionaries can’t get it right.

I thought that I would start the course very simply and slowly.  I will do that.  The first two sources I found were Merriam Webster, and Dictionary.com.  However neither of the definitions even comes close to being accurate.  Actually, in my opinion, they are very misleading.  Whether purposely or just ignorant of the practices, it just shows the hill that needs to be climbed just to have someone understand just a little bit.

merriam webster Definition of shamanism:

:  a religion practiced by indigenous peoples of far northern Europe and Siberia that is characterized by belief in an unseen world of gods, demons, and ancestral spirits responsive only to the shamans; also:  any similar religion

dictionary.com Definition of shamanism:
1. the animistic religion of northern Asia, embracing a belief in powerful spirits that can be influenced only by shamans.
2. any similar religion.

First of all, these are poor and inadequate definitions of Shamanism as I have learned.  Secondly, Shamanism is not an organized religion.  Shamanism is a word that has been used by anthropologists, for many years, to describe a collection of specific worship, rituals, initiations or beliefs common among many of the worlds indigenous tribal peoples.  Over the course of years of study, they noticed that no matter if the indigenous tribe came from the Amazon jungle or Siberia, there were some beliefs, rituals or behaviors that were common to all.
There are different beliefs about who can and who can’t be a Shamanic practitioner.  There are others, and we are in that number, that believe it’s everyone’s birthright.  If you have a desire or intention to practice shamanism, and you find the right teacher and apply the principles, you will succeed in being a practitioner.  However, Shamanism is not something that you can learn in a weekend retreat.  You can learn something, but a weekend is not enough time to experience all of the rituals and/or initiations, then document the experiences, and analyze and integrate them into your behaviors.  That said, Shamanism is a way of life.  When I say it is a way of life, I mean to say that it’s not just about reading.  The work is extremely rewarding, but it can be hard work at times, you must literally “live it” to experience the greatest results.
The other misconception that I kept running into while searching the web for relevant articles is that there were way too many references to the Shaman being an influencer of spirits.  In other words, the literature leads one to believe that the Shaman or healer is in control of good and evil spirits and can direct them to do whatever the Shaman feels necessary.  That is a mouthful, and really untrue in in almost every sense of Shamanic practice.  It’s really the other way around.  We (Shamanic practitioners) allow ourselves to be used as a means by which spirits accomplish healing in what we will call ordinary reality.  One never really has to be a healer for others.  The healing can be just for ones self.  Either way, it’s the spirits doing all of the healing.  We just get to request the healing, and if the spirit agrees to heal, then we get to go along for the ride so to speak.
Yes, for the most part the practitioners of Shamanism do have an animistic view of existence.  So what’s that mean?  Unlike the definitions for Shamanism, this one feels a lot better.  Wikipedia defines animism as: “a religious belief that various objects, places, and creatures possess distinctive spiritual qualities”.  I still don’t agree on the religion thing, but yes, there is a belief that messages, wisdom and healing can come from anything including the elements.  I haven’t seen a lot of it yet on the internet personally, but this is something else that I believe has been severely misrepresented in the past, either for purposes of control or entertainment.
Before continuing, it might help get a further lay of the land by reading our summary article called “What is Shamanism?” by Clicking Here
The Shaman and Journey:
Traditionally Shamans played the role of doctor, priest and healer of the tribe.  It is not customary to refer to yourself as a Shaman.  In some ancient indigenous tribes, it was left up to the community to judge the effectiveness of the healing.  Likewise, those in the community were really the followers who conferred the name Shaman onto the practitioner based on how effective the work was.  People known Shamans enter a transformed state of consciousness, in order visit other realities.   So that this doesn’t sound so mysterious, it is not that dissimilar from what we’ve been conditioned in the West to call our imagination or dreams.  When a practitioner engages in this type of behavior, it is called a Shamanic journey.  Shamans journey to search for wisdom, search for answers to questions, ask for assistance with a particular unresolved issue, etc.  There is usually a specific intention that comes from the heart and soul, associated with any journey that a Shaman takes.  Practitioners typically don’t journey just for a stroll.  There is usually a reason for doing it.  Well, if you think about it, there are probably many reasons each day that one could actually journey for information, blessing or healing.  In a larger sense, Shamans live their lives as healers of others, the environment and other beings here in ordinary reality.  Shamanic practitioners journey to seek the assistance of helping spirits.  Helping spirits take all kinds of shapes and forms in shamanic reality, and there is no way to really even give examples because each person and practitioner are unique.  Each interested person will have to find their own, because you are the only one who possesses the ability to contact your helping spirits is you.  Think of the journey as the foundation for any practice of Shamanism.  That being the case, it is well worth learning how to do it well.  Just like the foundation of your house.  It needs to be strong and sturdy.
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Mark Glynn, CSP
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