“He who desires the Soul, who plays with the Soul, who makes love with the Soul, who attains ecstasy in the Soul, becomes his own master and wanders at will through the worlds. But they who know otherwise are dependent. They dwell in perishable worlds and cannot wander at will.”
– Chandogya Upanishad
Shamans & Shamanism
Shamanism has existed since the beginning of time. A shaman is a person – man or woman – who can enter alternate states of consciousness at will to travel in spirit between this world and the otherworlds in order to find healing, knowledge, guidance and help for others. A shaman works with power and energy, calling upon the help of many spirits. She works closely with a full repertoire of spiritual helpers, who choose to help her. The shaman’s continually expanding experience sets up pathways of trust and alliance between spiritual helpers, facilitating a trust that links different realities. She is able to mediate between the everyday world and the unseen realms, becoming a bridge of living Spirit.
Shamanism is distinct from other magical and visionary techniques because it is part of the shaman’s soul that makes a spiritual journey, flight or voyage between the worlds. Methods of divination, mediumship or healing may have shamanistic elements, but they are not technically shamanism unless such a spirit journey takes place and the knowledge, healing or help brought back is implemented in our world. Shamanism is used by indigenous peoples the world over. Many retain ancient techniques, and others have adapted ancestral skills for new situations.
In most people’s minds shamanism is now associated solely with North American nations or Siberian peoples. But it exists in many other places as well. Circumpolar peoples from China to Alaska continue to practise it, despite the overlay of Christianity or Marxism, while Central Asian shamanism from the Middle to the Far East continues underneath the teachings of Islam and Buddhism. Areas of India, Africa and South America retain many shamanic practices as part of their mainstream spirituality.
Some of the following shamanic names, drawn from worldwide cultures, indicate the extent of shamanism around the globe:
bhopa – Hindu – shaman
hatali – Navajo – medicine person
awenydd – Welsh – inspired one
mudang – Korean – female shaman
noaide – Saami (Lapp) – shaman
gongsai/jinpo – Zhuang (Chinese) – male/female shaman
angaqoq – Inuit – shaman
sangoma – Zulu – shamanic healer
dhami – Nepalese – shaman
curandero/a – Central American – male/female shamanic healer
llapo – Tibetan – oracular shaman
The ancestors of Western peoples also used shamanism, but the shaman’s role became fragmented, subsequently devolving upon a multitude of people, including priests, storytellers, healers, judges, diviners. In most cases, the essential shamanic component was lost, although individuals and scattered families have retained intrinsic shamanic practices in their hereditary skills of healing, mediumship and divination; some social pockets have also retained certain skills and still guard certain shamanic doorways in collective folk-customs. A close study of European folk-customs and archaic spiritual practices reveals that shamanism is well rooted in many European countries, although this evidence is frequently overlooked or discounted as a manifestation of atavistic superstition or witchcraft.
Ake Hultkrantz believes that it is natural ‘to regard shamanism as one of the strongest powers behind the historical formation of religions’. Although it can manifest as a spirituality, it is rarely manifest as a religion in the Western sense. It most often appears today as a healing practice within a religion. In parts of Central and South America, for example, curanderas (shamanic healers) call upon both Catholic saints and indigenous gods, while in Tibetan Buddhism the ancient, pre-Buddhist deities are invoked to enable oracles and healing. In some places shamans provide certain ritual and healing functions for their society which are not met by the predominant spirituality of that people or region. Shamanism is the servant of all traditions.
This book doesn’t attempt to be a historical or anthropological survey of shamanism, but it is important that the vocation and work of shamans is properly contextualized here. Shamans are always chosen for their role by the spirits of the universe, for shamanism is not a self-elected vocation: so the one who determines to become a shaman as an ego-enhancing exercise will not succeed. Shamanism may run in the family or one shaman may become a teacher to one or more spiritually elected candidates.
When someone is called to be a shaman, he may attempt to avoid the calling for the very good reason that shamanism is one of the most demanding of vocations, the shaman being available simultaneously to the spirits as well as to future clientele. This avoidance may also spring from a fear of dealing with spirits and the otherworlds they inhabit. The creative basis for shamanism shows itself clearly in such situations for, like the repression of creativity, the avoidance of a shamanic calling usually results in a massive loss of power or soul, frequently leading to life-threatening illness. This ‘shamanic illness’ is generally cured by a full acceptance of the spirit- dictated vocation.
The training of shamans is usually undertaken by both spirits and human teachers who are themselves shamans. The apprentice learns by assisting the qualified shaman and so integrates her own growing shamanic knowledge with practical implementations of techniques and the reactions of clients to specific treatments. The acceptance of trainee shamans by their community is critical, for they cannot practise without people.
Why Do People Consult Shamans?
People need shamans’ help for health, work and relationship problems, as well as for making ritual sense of changes in life-patterns from birth to death. They may also have difficulties that have mysterious origin, perhaps arising from their ancestral inheritance or from a curse. In response to these needs, shamans seek out solutions, cures, rituals and information from the spirits in the otherworlds.
Contemporary manifestations of shamanism reflect the changing needs of society. Many of our present needs are similar to those of ancient and indigenous societies – health, work and relationship problems and making sense of life patterns – but we may also add the needs produced by Western urban life: the need to address the soul-loss which manifests as incompletion, meaninglessness, alienation, addiction, self-mutilation, lack of self- esteem and loss of vision. Modern medicine has found solutions to many physical illnesses, while modern psychology attempts to heal what it sees as mental illnesses, but the subtle illnesses and imbalances are largely ignored or marginalized, nor are their needs addressed by the major religions who do have the apparatus to discern spiritual cause and effect. It is left to shamanism and a host of complementary therapeutic disciplines to address the soul.
Modern shamanism addresses contemporary problems and helps us reforge our primal belonging to the earth by providing rituals and healing practices. The creation of rituals by shamanic means re-empowers those disempowered by religious ceremonies which alienate rather than reconnect. The immediacy of walking between the worlds and of implementing what is discovered there re-authenticates each individual’s spirituality.
Misconceptions About Shamanism
Shamanism is a primal spiritual practice that has somehow survived into our time. This survival has been ensured by the usefulness of shamanic skills. If ancient techniques are lost it is because they are not so useful. People simply do not consult ineffective shamans and they soon have no clients, no income and no status in society. Chandra, a Nepalese dhami (shaman), speaks humbly about this:
‘… a man can learn many things from his failures, but failures can create uncontrollable needs and weaken his soul. For that reason, a dhami must always bring satisfaction and success to the people around him, even small successes, for only then will the souls gain strength to take a next step.’3
This philosophy of small, incremental successes is central to shamanism which, since it deals in spirit, is very much concerned with ‘keeping the spirits up’. While shamanism can produce dramatic and immediate results, the subtle and gradual organic changes that it brings are more enduring and more comfortable when we ourselves have changed. Human nature is a creature of habit and old habits die hard, as we all know.
This leads us to a clarification of certain misconceptions about shamans. One of these concerns the alleged charlatanism of shamanism. All shamans work in the context of their society, wherein their practices are performed publicly. Like any showman, the traditional shaman will accordingly ‘play to the gallery’, utilizing illusions and sleight of hand to enhance the healing or séance. Many people have assumed that the use of such tricks must significantly devalue whatever shamanic work is done or mask a complete inability to heal.
Some early anthropologists who studied shamanic cultures were of the opinion that shamans were epileptic, since they seemed to behave in hysteric and irrational ways, often falling to the ground. This view has been abandoned by most academics, although it was still popular until recently among Soviet researchers to whom any truck with spirits was evidence of fraud or mental derangement.4 In working with spirits, shamans frequently experience intense shaking and physical agitation; since it is difficult, if not impossible, to remain upright once soul-flight has begun, shamans usually sit or lie down suddenly. I cannot find any evidence for the allegation that shamans are hysteric, weak-minded or nervous individuals: on the contrary, living shamans demonstrate a balanced, well-integrated and creative personality that has to be well-grounded in order to perform shamanic healing.
I searched in the darkness, I was silent in the great silence of the dark. That is how I became a angaqoq, through visions and dreams and meetings with flying spirits … The ancient ones dedicated their lives to the work of keeping the world in balance; they dedicated it to great things, immeasurable enormous things.
– Najagneq, Eskimo shaman
Traditionally, many shamans are perceived as ‘tricky’ or ‘mischievous’. While it is true that many people are fearful of those who wield or mediate otherworldly powers, it is also true that most shamans have a sense of responsibility towards their clients. The playful or trickster behaviour of the shaman is often an attempt to lighten the serious nature of much of the work, as well as to keep open the ways between the worlds. The entry of the clown, the heyoka, upturns the normal order of things, permitting authority to be mocked and confusing the barriers between what is possible what is not. In the midst of this licensed holiday from the normal is a sacred opening that allows healing and transformative experience to take place.
Shamanic practice goes hand in hand with rituals of purification, as well as prayers for assistance and thankfulness to the spirits; these remind the shaman that he is not solely responsible for bringing about changes. Such rituals keep the shaman in a balanced awareness which sustains ethical practice. The ‘habitual intuition’ by which shamans live and work is developed by drawing upon the web of knowledge amassed by experience and perception; it is maintained by the daily practice of sacred tradition.
How To Start
How, then, can anyone who lives outside a traditional culture receive a shamanic training?
Each culture has its own roots, songs, stories and traditional wisdom in which sacred heritage lies encoded. The effect of the shamanic path is to place our footsteps in those of our ancestors, to reconnect us with the universe, to become purposefully part of it once more. Each person has ancestral guardians and spiritual teachers who stand ready to guide them: it is these who will help you if you decide that this is your path. While this book will not make you a shaman, it will set your footsteps on the shamanic pathway and help you become a walker between the worlds. When we accept the reality of other worlds and have travelled between them, our attitudes to daily life will change. As we become aware primarily of the inter-relatedness of all that we do, think, are, we will no longer be able to disregard the subtle urgings of Spirit and power within us.
Practice 1: Grounding
In ancient times, few people actively sought out a shamanic vocation; their innate caution taught them to keep both feet on the ground, not to spin off dancing with the spirits. Today, shamanism is new and exciting, and many people positively desire to propel themselves into the otherworlds and get ‘high’. Shamans may visit otherworlds to gain information, healing or advice in order to help people, but to do so they need to come home again. Finding out where home is is essential, which is why you should regard this practice as essential information (see also Part 4).
Perform grounding after all shamanic work, returning gently to yourself.
The following things will earth or ground you:
- Breathing calmly and evenly
- Bringing to mind mundane purposes
- Bringing your awareness back to your body, mind and emotions
- Eating or drinking
- Gentle humour
- Being outdoors and becoming aware of your surroundings Recording your experiences
- Taking time and space to assimilate what has been experienced before rushing into the next activity
Create your own grounding sequence, based on your own needs and reactions. After any shamanic work, ensure that you are ready to perform ordinary tasks, especially driving, in a safe way.
Practice 2: Recording Practices
Essential knowledge and personal shamanic experience can dissipate like evanescent dreams unless it is recorded. After performing the practices in this book, permit yourself assimilation time.
Sit and write down your experiences, however vestigial or wacky they may seem. Enter into the experience with all your faculties: How did it make you feel? What was the most salient feature of the practice?
Do not worry if you cannot understand the experience right away; fragmentary information is often referenced again in subsequent practices. Some experiences make no sense for months or even years, and so your record becomes a very special way of assimilating understanding.
In your notebook record journeys, dreams, drawings, doodles and thoughts. If you are a pictorial person, you might prefer to draw pictures of your experiences, or if you are a verbal person, record them on tape.
Singing the Soul Back Home
Shamanic wisdom for every day
If you are losing your way in today’s materialistic world and searching for meaning and purpose in your life, this book
is essential reading. Shamanic teacher Caitlín Matthews reveals how following the way of the shaman can help you make sense of your daily life, discover much about your innate abilities, and help you feel more alive and at peace with the world.
Following Caitlín’s structured series of exercises, you will be guided – at your own speed – through the complete shamanic experience. Discover your spirit voice and true destiny and become a ‘walker between the worlds’, as you embark on your own shamanic journey.
This book will help you change your life.
Caitlín Matthews is a world-renowned author and teacher in the Celtic and ancestral traditions, tarot and divination, and the author of over 70 books, including Singing the Soul Back Home, Celtic Visions and The Complete Arthurian Tarot (with John Matthews). She runs her own shamanic practice in Oxford, UK, where she also hosts masterclasses in the healing arts.
Visit her website at: www.hallowquest.org.uk