What Is Shamanism?
Updated: Jul 23, 2019
Historical evidence of shamanism goes back at least 30,000 years. What we now refer to as “shamanism” developed (apparently) independently worldwide throughout all cultures.
The paradigm in which we live – that is, the Dominant cultural assumptions and pervasive emphasis of our consciousness – stresses the importance of the division within reality. This can be seen in the existence of separate nations, religious factions, race, economic classes, etc. Our underlying reality (from which all these external forms are created) is the internal assumption that we, as individuals, are separate from the world around us (this, of course, varies in degree from culture to culture). Indeed, we perceive objects as being complete within themselves. Is this the actual nature of reality? Are we projecting our personal isolation upon the world around us?
The five world religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism – all developed within this paradigm of separation (in roughly the last 5,000 years). This is evident in the goal of reaching heaven/afterlife in Islam and Christianity, being guided from this world to the next by the Torah in Judaism, and the attempt to remove oneself from this physical world/cycle of rebirth or samsara in Hinduism and Buddhism: All are striving to achieve something separate from the life we live now. Those in monastic traditions live separately from their communities; other people considered “holy” also have lifestyles that set them apart from lay people (Hindu sadhus who live as beggars, Catholic priests who do not marry). Similarly, the world religions have explored the transcendent aspect of divinity; that is, a God that is beyond this world, outside this world. This God exists complete, within itself – the monotheistic God.
The paradigm of separation, the transcendent God, and world religions that have developed within this period have contributed to humanity greatly. However, there have also been severe problems – mass violence, ecological destruction, psychological distress, economic disparity, etc. These problems derive from our isolation and our perception of our self as separate individuals – separate from one another, from nature, and from universe at large.
There is, of course, another way of perceiving reality. There is an inherent Unity and relationship between what appear to be separate objects. This can be readily seen in the use of human language and art as forms of communication (we relate to one another), as well as the incredible balance in nature that hinges upon complex relationships. It was within a paradigm that emphasized this Unity that shamanism developed.
Historical evidence of shamanism goes back at least 30,000 years (one example is the Chauvet Cave). What we now refer to as “shamanism” developed (apparently) independently worldwide throughout all cultures. It has only been recently in our globalized world that people began to notice that traditions of healing, ceremony, and communication with the realms of spirit contain striking similarities throughout the world, regardless of where they reside. In English, the term “shamanism” has become the blanket term to refer to these traditions, deriving from the Siberian term for their traditional healers. With so many different global traditions referred to as shamanism, it is impossible to simply define shamanism. What is possible – and, in fact, much more important – is to look at the major elements that these healing traditions have in common, and to note how these may differ from elements of the world religions today.
The shaman is called into their role in one of two ways: The most common way is that the spirits call the healer to the path, sometimes in dreams or other visions, sometimes kidnapping them when they are children, sometimes through the development of a sickness that is only cured when they accept their role as shaman. The individual does not have a choice in this matter – it is the spirits who choose the shaman. The other way in which someone becomes a shaman is being born into a family lineage of shamans. As with the calling of the spirits, the individual does not have a choice in the matter, which is a stark contrast from the “religious seeker” on the hunt for God, which appears in many spiritual figures in today’s world religions. (Of course these individuals are “answering a call,” but notice the emphasis in their role as “seeker.”)
Once called to be a shaman, an individual is trained by the spirits and/or another shaman. Eventually they go through some kind of initiation rites. However, unlike monks, nuns, or many other holy people in the world religions of our own paradigm, shaman remain very much within the daily life of their community – they have a regular job, often have families, and participate fully in day to day life. It is when their community needs them that they become the shaman. This occurs during rituals, annual ceremonies, and individual healings. The particulars of such rituals and ceremonies vary, but in all of them the shaman becomes the medium between the human realm and the realms of spirit. The spirits, deities, ghosts, etc, are not separate from the human world, but are in direct relationship with it. They have influence in the affairs of humans, and while all people have the ability to communicate with these other beings, it is the shaman who specializes in it.
Shamanic healing emphasizes two ways in which people get sick – soul loss and invasive entities. Soul loss is caused by traumatic episodes that injure the human spirit, causing part of it to be attached to this event or left there as the person goes on with their life. Through spirit travel, the shaman can retrieve this fractured part of the person to create healing. In other cases, invasive entities will latch on to a person, often draining their energy or affecting them psychologically. This can only occur when a person is in some way vulnerable to such an attack. The shaman can remove these invasive entities, but more importantly, they make sure the person is not susceptible to other attacks. As with soul loss, a person can only be attacked by invasive entities when they are out of balance with the world around them – that is, out of balance in their relationship with reality as a unified field. While the shaman helps in this process, ultimately it is up to each individual to remain in balance.
Inherent in all of this, and central to the shamanic world, is the perception of the immanent divinity. It is incorrect to believe that shamanic traditions around the world do not have a concept of a unifying force, a Creator. But instead of seeking God as something beyond our world, they found God throughout the world – in all living things, both physical and of spirit. Therefore, in the shamanic world God is present through direct interaction with the everyday living, which contrasts with many concepts in the world religions today where God is ultimately sought through removing oneself from world.
There is not right or wrong way to relate to the Divine. As has become clear, the world is comprised of objects that are separate, and yet are inherently connected. The atrocities occurring throughout the world reveal that we as humans have come to value the isolated aspect of life to a heightened degree. While we have learned a great deal from this, it is now causing our destruction. If we do not honor the inherent Unity of the universe, we will continue living out of balance – and we cannot exist this way forever.
There is no use in some attempt to go back to living in the old paradigm where shamanism developed. Instead, perhaps we will be able to comprehend God as both immanent and transcendent. While these concepts seem mutually exclusive, there is truth in both. To understand these apparent opposites as mutually inclusive, there is a necessary shift in human consciousness. Exactly what that entails is currently unfolding, is being created, by us – as we too, though not realizing our inherent Divinity and therefore living separate from God, are still part of this reality where God is immanent in all of creation.