What Is Shamanism, Anyway?

 

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An excerpt from the book “Dreaming of Cupcakes: A Food Addict’s Shamanic Journey into Healing” by Jennifer Engrácio:

“Shamanism is not a faith, but a wisdom tradition in which we learn purely from our own individual, collective and personal experience. It is not a religion and is dogma-free; indeed it supports any existing spiritual practice one already has. Many of us deeply desire a connection to our own ‘soulfulness’ and that of all other living beings in a free and natural way. This is the essence of Shamanism.”
– John Cantwell

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 the 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.

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 their 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 wellbeing.

Today, many of us have lost contact with these old ways.  The traditional shaman has grown scarce 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 any 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.  Many of these traditions have been lost and many have been revived.  There are some modern-day shamanic practitioners that are charlatans, yet 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.

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