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What is Shamanism?

Shamanism is a spiritual practice, philosophy, way of life, and method for healing, growth and insight.

Shamanism is probably the oldest and widespread healing method and spiritual practice we know of today. Many cultures, over tens of thousands of years, have applied shamanic practices and beliefs in some form. Much of the shamanic knowledge from traditional communities across the world has been lost over recent centuries due to colonialism, violent suppression of cultures and languages, and the rise of modernism, which has fueled consumerism, exploitation of nature, and contributed to a growing disconnection of people and the natural world on which we depend. Yet, many traditions and practices have survived, in part through adapting and evolving practices to meet the needs of the world changing around it.

While shamanic cultures are very diverse and have very diverse practices, they tend to be underpinned by two basic tenets. The first is that Earth, and everything on it, are generally understood to be living and conscious. This not only includes what we normally consider in western cultures to be ‘alive’ - animals, plants, algae, fungi and bacteria - but also the rivers, stones, soil, clouds, stars, wind and oceans. Everything is viewed as being permeated by an eternal life force and sacred consciousness.

The second is that, in addition to the normal reality we usually experience or perceive, the world and universe is also understood to include other realities. These may be referred to as spiritual realms, or which the anthropologist Michael Harner called ‘non-ordinary realities’. In shamanism, such non-ordinary realties exist in parallel to those we ‘ordinarily’ experience in our day to day lives. Importantly, both ordinary and non-ordinary realities are understood to be inhabited by different beings.

The term ‘shamanism’ can be traced back to the word samān of the Evenki people in Siberia. This means ‘one who knows’. The term ‘shaman’ is then often used to describe someone who engages with, and seeks to interpret, this wider consciousness and beings that inhabit the ‘unordinary-realities’ hidden behind the veils of our normal perception. Doing so enables a practitioner of shamanism to draw on the regenerative and spiritual power of this wider consciousness for healing, wisdom and insight. The wider application of the term ‘shamanism’ is potentially rooted in colonialism and is often criticized for misleadingly being applied as a blanket term to describe diverse traditional cultures. It is then important for anyone applying the term to be clear about what it means to them, and how this translates the development of their practice. 

Practitioners of shamanism will always benefit from learning from more experienced guides and teachers and those guiding shamanic individual and collective initiation and healing need to be able to apply qualities of care, compassion and have considerable experience. In shamanism, however, there are no are gurus, spiritual masters or leaders that define what a practitioner must experience. Those practicing it then tend to devote themselves to learning how to transcend ego, heal themselves and others, and bring compassion and non-judgement to the world. Shamanism is thus primarily a process of spiritual development and path of self-empowerment based on individual experience, with responsibility for the interpretation of those experiences lying with the individual and their immediate community. Shamanism is thus a combination of spiritual practice, philosophy, way of life, and as a method for healing, personal growth and developing insight.

Further Reading:

  • Francis, P. 2016. The shamanic journey: A practical guide to therapeutic shamanism. Volume 1. Paul Francis.

  • Harner, M. 1992. The way of the shaman. 3rd edition. HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco.

  • Mackinnon, C. 2016. Shamanism made easy: Awaken and develop the shamanic force within. Hay House Ltd. , London.

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