Believe it or not the word "Shaman" doesn’t even come from the continents of North or South America. The word comes from the Tungus tribe in Siberia and it means, "One who sees in the dark." All the earth-loving, new-age followers are throwing the word "Shamanism" around so that it has become a new-age household word. So just what is it anyway?
To understand what "Shamanism" is we first have to discard all the preconceived thoughts about running off to some indigenous person in the jungle and taking hallucinogens. Though, those practices are included in some shamanic cultures, they are not what shamanism is.
We live in a modern culture, where we think we are separate from nature. Thus, many people refer to going camping as "getting back to nature." The truth is that we’ve never been separated from nature; we’ve only forgotten our relationship with it. Every thought we have, every time we turn on the water faucet, every time we put a piece of trash out for the garbage collector, we are generating ripples that effect all of the web of life. Shamanism in its purest form is a practice that reconnects us to the understanding that we are an integral part of that web of life.
Shamanism is a spiritual practice whose roots can be found in virtually every single ancestry on the planet, dating back in estimation anywhere from 40 to 100 thousand years. It’s not a religion, though most religions have shamanic practices. There are tools or practices or beliefs that we can find in most shamanic cultures that are common with each other. Most of them involve some way of communicating or connecting with the web of life all around us. When someone sits out in their backyard peacefully for a while they begin to feel the presence of their own yard, the plants, the insects, the birds, the sounds, the smells. Instinctively we know that all of life is vibrant around us. That is the heart of Shamanism. Reconnecting with this web of life often means slowing down long enough to experience it.
Why would someone in the modern "work-a-day" world want to learn about Shamanism? Someone, who gets up everyday, follows the same routine, sees the same co-workers, comes home, eats dinner, watches TV and goes to bed begins to wonder what meaning their life may have. They may derive some meaning from their religious practices, but often find even with that a sense of lifelessness with living in a city, surrounded by concrete and noise following the same routine day after day, week after week, year after year.
This mundane sense of lifelessness in the individual and in the cities is one of the things that create this illusion of separation. So practicing or studying shamanism (or any other practice that would reconnect someone to the web of life) is an important key to the health of an individual, as well as to the health of a place. Running off to the jungles only continues to propagate the illusion that we are separate from nature, and leads people to believe that their thoughts and behaviors, where they live, are inconsequential.
There are two very distinct reasons for practicing Shamanism, the first being the health of the individual (both emotional and physical,) and the second being the health of the planet, wherever people are. As a practitioner of Shamanism, I could share a number of "miraculous" healing experiences from clients over the years, and they are truly wonderful, however, the miracles that are most needed in our urban jungles are the changes in consciousness and attitude. Those kinds of changes are common to every person who begins to study and practice shamanism, and in turn affect every relationship the individual has, including their relationship with their environment. In traditional shamanic cultures, bad crops or unsuccessful hunting expeditions were considered "disease" just as much as an individual actually becoming sick. And if we truly are a vital part of this web of life, then it makes a lot of sense that the crime, pollution and disharmony in our neighborhoods are "disease" as well. We don’t have to pour millions of dollars, or run off to be missionaries in other places to make a difference on our planet. Not to discourage those who are called to do these things, but reconnecting with the web of life right where we are can and does help to ease the "disease" around us, and affect the health of our "tribe." And that is the heart and soul of practicing shamanism.
What kind of people practice shamanism? One may think that shamanism is for the "fringe" crowd, those selling smoking apparatuses in seedy shops, down dark alleys. Over the years, my clients and students have included Psychologists, Clinical Social Workers, Computer web designers, a manager for the mail room at a local university, a novelist, a publisher, a financial planner, a reimbursement manager for a healthcare company and even a Gastroenterologist. In a national three-year class with ninety students, there were 7 Medical Doctors, many Psychologists, Mechanics, Secretaries, Housewives, and even one Catholic Nun, as well as a Methodist minister.
The best part of practicing shamanism is that one doesn’t have to change who they are or what they believe. What changes is one’s conscious awareness of their relationship with all that surrounds them. In fact practicing shamanism can actually enhance one’s current belief system. Let’s take the concept of "loving your neighbor as you love yourself," for example. If one is operating in the belief of the illusion of separation then loving one’s neighbor can be a stretch, an "us and them" situation. If one begins to understand the web of life, then they begin to see their neighbor as an extension of themselves in the oneness of this web, and loving one’s neighbor actually is loving oneself.
What is a shamanic journey? "I thought you didn’t have to run off somewhere." A shamanic journey is an altered state of consciousness achieved with the use of rhythms such as drumbeats, rattles or click sticks. "Oh no," you say, "I knew the weird stuff was coming – I’m out of here . . ."
By now you may have images of William Hurt in "Altered States" running around the city transformed into an ape. Actually its not as weird as all that, every single person who lives and breathes air experiences an altered state of consciousness every single day of their life. Sleep is an altered state of consciousness, daydreaming is an altered state of consciousness; meditation and prayer are altered states of consciousness. It’s not something that takes someone over and makes them do things they don’t want to do. In a shamanic journey, the individual decides when they are going to do this, and can end it anytime they want to. The purpose of doing a shamanic journey, as it is a very basic tool practiced by many cultures all over the world, is to communicate with the web of life around and in us. The experience varies from individual to individual, but the results of conscious awareness are across the board, and the possibilities of healing are limitless.
Bringing the ancient practices of shamanism out of the woods and into the modern cities, to modern, Middle America is a lifeline to a drowning information culture. It’s a way to reach out to our neighbors and co-workers, increase our awareness of nature, reduce our stress levels, and enhance our spiritual experiences. It has always existed in indigenous cultures, and can be found in the jungles today. And most importantly, for the sake of our Earth, it needs to be practiced in our urban environments, by average, regular people.