What Is Shamanism, Anyway?



By Jennifer Engracio

“Shamanism…[is] as applicable to twentieth-century life as [it was] to the lives of native tribes 6,000 years ago. Shamanism is a way of understanding energy. Since it is not a belief structure, it doesn’t interfere with an individual’s personal faith. It doesn’t matter, then, if you are Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or whatever. Shamanism is a way of finding your own inner truth and light and developing the ability to manifest this power back into the world…Don’t be afraid of a new idea like shamanism. It really is only a word that describes a way to live in balance with one foot in the world of the physical everyday existence, and a foot in a healthy spiritual life. Shamanism does not require you to believe in anything but yourself.”

-Lynn Andrews from “Woman at the Edge of Two Worlds”

The etymology of the word “shaman” itself comes from the Siberian language and it was originally used to refer to a spiritual medicine healer in the community. In fact, shamanism itself is widespread among indigenous people of the world today. In each area of the world, including Europe, earth-based spiritual practices can be traced back to specific groups of people who knew how to enter into communion with nature spirits through non-ordinary reality in order to obtain information that could aid in the healing of a person or a community. Although we don’t tend to call urban shamanic practitioners “shamans” in the modern world, the skills indigenous shamans utilized are being used again by shamanic practitioners the world over.

Today, shamanic practitioners do not focus on what is “broken” in a person or even necessarily how the imbalance happened in the first place. Shamanism is concerned primarily with reminding an individual of their inherent wholeness. Shamanic practitioners see that when a person experiences trauma or illness, they are not in need of fixing; rather, parts of his or her being splinter or shatter away from the whole causing inner and outer dissonance. Because imbalances manifest in the spiritual energetic level of being first, this is also where practitioners travel to bring back these pieces to the afflicted person. In the case of a long-standing physical illness, the body can begin to heal only when the spiritual aspects that caused the illness to begin with are brought back into alignment with overall health and well-being.

Today, many of us have lost contact with these old ways. The traditional shaman has grown more extinct in North America due to our colonial past. In the modern world, we’ve had to adapt ancient traditions to fit our hurried, busy lifestyles. Urban shamanic practitioners train in ancient shamanic technologies in order to heal themselves and to support healing in others in the community. Ancient tools are used by everyday people again with great success: drum journeys into the spirit world, vision quests for extended time out in nature, and other spiritual ceremonies. All of these strategies help us to quiet our inner world so we can hear the voice of Spirit and our inner wise one who knows what medicine we need to heal.

This may seem strange to people who were not brought up in shamanic cultures. However, because of their close proximity and dependence on the natural world, ancient peoples knew that the consensual reality we live in is not the only reality we can sense and participate within. It is not uncommon for shamanic practitioners to work with spirit guides, totem animals, and their ancestors in order to affect positive change in their own lives and in the world around them. In shamanic cultures, dreaming is not an idle activity without useful function: it is the way people dream a new reality into being. This does not involve attempting to control anything outside the practitioner. What we put our attention on is what manifests. And so just like a journeyer can enter the spirit world for answers to problems, she can also enter the spirit world to lend energy to a different dream than the one she is currently living. In fact, both are needed in order for healing to be effective.

Shamanism may seem like magical thinking and there are definitely magical and mysterious moments in the practice as we learn to deepen our individual connections to Spirit. However, the truth is that there is substantial work needed on the physical plane of existence, putting our visions into action, if any change is to occur. As individuals on a growth and evolutionary edge, if we choose, we continue to heal until we die. Healing requires us to keep sensing the splintered parts of ourselves, working with the spirit world to bring them into wholeness again.   This is a tremendous act of power that we are capable of as human beings. Unlike other living creatures, humans can consciously learn to direct their will to literally change the pathways available to them in the future. This is one of the benefits of being able to go back in time or travel into the future, whereas animals only live in the present. Shamanic practitioners learn to responsibly travel the spiritual realms to affect change.

If it is so easy, then why are there so many suffering people? Of course, this gift we have can also be a pitfall. Many of us get stuck in our ego minds. Or we refuse to let go of the past. Much of the pain of the human condition is caused by our lack of awareness and ability to direct our attention. This takes lots of practice and mentors who know how to teach these methods with skill and care. Although many of these traditions have been lost, many have survived and been revived. Although there are some modern-day shamanic practitioners that are charlatans, there are many more who are earnestly passing their teachings onto sincere and responsible individuals willing to learn these ancient ways of dreaming, healing, and creating. Many elders are passing on this wisdom for the benefit of humans as a species, regardless of cultural and societal barriers.

Everyone on the planet has access to  Spirit and can be the agent of healing in personal and community contexts.  We live in a time where we have forgotten that we are co-creators with Spirit.  Life doesn’t just happen to us; we are attracting into our lives the situations, people, and life lessons that are helping us to refine our characters.  Each moment, no matter what is happening is a gift from a benevolent universe that is supporting us in growing and maturing towards our own enlightenment.  In other words, we are each born with a purpose and healing ourselves helps us to walk out our journey with more ease and grace.

I haven’t met anyone in my lifetime that has nothing to heal.  As long as we are alive, we are healing.  Many illnesses and imbalances have their roots on the spiritual level.  When folks go after the spiritual cause, the issue is often resolved. Indeed, we cannot grow and learn unless we are in a human body.  Sometimes, those spiritual issues come from other lifetimes that we came back to heal.  I have seen people heal themselves of diseases that doctors said were impossible to cure.  I have seen people heal themselves from traumas and shock including rape, loss of a loved one, and physical abuse.  There is nothing, it seems, that a sincere intent to heal cannot achieve.  The key is whether the individual really wants to heal the imbalances.   If they do, working with a shamanic energy practitioner can be a good support.

Some people have said: “I don’t get it.  Why wouldn’t someone want to heal?”  My response is that a commitment to healing means taking responsibility for everything that one has experienced and what one has created out of those experiences.  The truth is that it is easier to remain a victim than to take responsibility for what we are creating in our lives and not everyone is up to that challenge.  Staying in a comfort zone feels safer to many than creating waves, for example, by setting better boundaries with friends and family–a skill many of us need to learn in order to heal. Those who are ready to change will likely reap the rewards.  Those who are not ready will simply be presented more opportunities until they achieve their healing; my experience is that the universe wants us to succeed and is on our side.  This does NOT mean that we asked for any of the terrible things that happen in life.  It means that life presented us certain opportunities to grow.  And not all of these come in beautiful, easy packages.

We see the differences in choices folks make all of the time.  For example, why do some people perish in jail when they are wrongfully interred while others, like Nelson Mandela, take responsibility for their reactions and learn instead to strengthen their characters?  Nelson Mandela once said that he did not become bitter because he realized early on during his incarceration that no one could control his mind and that it was the place where he was always in control of what he did and what stories he told about what he was experiencing.  He chose to never let go of his intent of freedom for his people.  This, to me, is a great example of someone exercising his shamanic root of power and quieting inner dialogue to move towards a goal (healing intent).  In shamanic terms, the intent to heal created a pathway in the universe for that reality to manifest.  Our beliefs about what is possible can stop us from accomplishing incredible things because they create static realities.  The more we can learn to take our thoughts less seriously, question our beliefs, and keep them fluid, the more freedom we are bound to experience.

In other words, committing to our own healing means being a light warrior:

“Having warrior’s freedom is to act on your free will and be responsible for your actions, learn from your mistakes and refine your character. Let life be your teacher. The very act of living your life will expose you to both your weaknesses and your strengths and allow you to grow within your own individuality. Right response to your weaknesses comes from seeking your inner balance, also known as your inner council of law.”

-Marilyn Keffer and Gail Carter from “Shamanic Ceremonies for a Changing World”

I believe that every person on the planet can be a light warrior in his or her own life.  One of my teachers once told me that the battle is always on the inside because the inside is the only thing we have control over.  Every person who does this battle on the inside makes it possible for others to follow.  The journey, then, becomes more easeful for all our relations–human, animal, plant, mineral, and ancestors.  When each of us has freedom from our ego and shadow selves, our species will evolve past violence and suffering.

I believe in empowering people so they can go after their own healing.  When you come for a reiki, shamanic coaching or lomilomi session, you are taking a step toward your own healing.  You will leave with knowledge and tools you can take into your everyday life to continue healing.

To find out more about Jennifer Engracio and Spiral Dance Shamanics, go to: