Traditionally, a shaman is a tribal healer who journeys into alternate states of consciousness–into the underworld and the overworld–and returns safely with the treasures found there. They can also show others the way. Shamans are found in tribal societies worldwide, and practice in an incredible variety of forms.
Healing requires us to look inside ourselves, taking the time to feel something which has been causing us pain. The pain is transformed in the process. From a shamanic perspective, this is a journey into the underworld. Experiencing this process deeply often involves moving into an altered state of consciousness. This can be accomplished in many ways, including dancing, chanting, ritual, meditation, and drugs. Each shamanic tradition has its own methods. The shaman acts as a guide and helper, one who knows the terrain.
Coming to terms with the darkness inside us is empowering, even liberating. Afterward, there’s a feeling of relief. We feel light, and we soar into the ecstatic experience of the overworld.
In some cases, such as a soul retrieval, the shaman leads the process, going into the underworld on behalf of the patient to do battle with the darkness. In other cases, the shaman follows, giving advice or help only when necessary.
One of the basic practices of shamanism is connecting with helping spirits (also referred to as spirit guides, teachers, spirit animals, or angels). These are very powerful entities found in the underworld and overworld, spirits who are willing to help us if we ask. From them flows good energy–love and transformation–to those in need of healing. They can also provide critical information or directions for our lives.
Shamans provide a channel for the healing, loving energies from these spirits. The healing literally flows through the shaman’s body and into the patient’s. It’s important to understand that the loving energy which is needed for healing doesn’t come from within any person: it is channeled through a person, but it comes from the helping spirits of the spirit world, or from the earth itself.
“It was my first therapy session. After my breakdown, I had been lucky enough to find Meg, an urban shaman....She told me to imagine a flight of stairs going down, and at the bottom, a door. When I walked through it, I found myself in a miserable, poverty-stricken village. It began to rain. In the distance were the bank towers whose power kept all these people in poverty. The world seemed utterly without hope. Meg said, “There is someone here who can help you, who can give you access to the infinite wisdom inside you.”
As she said it, he was there: a dwarf standing beside me, leaning on a walking stick. His cloak hid his face, but I felt his wisdom strongly. We walked out of the village, and down the street to the bank towers. He struck his stick on the ground, once, twice, three times...and with a rumble, the towers fell to dust and were gone.”
A shaman, then, is a person with enough understanding and experience of this process–descent, transformation, ascent–to be able to guide others through it. But being a shaman means more than that. To channel the loving energy, shamans need continue working on their own issues and their own body, keeping the heart open, developing a relationship with helping spirits. A lifelong commit-ment, this is something one is called to.
The calling is not always gentle. Occasionally, a person is chosen as a shaman at a young age, and the apprenticeship proceeds comfortably into adulthood. More often, one is called by a dream, vision, or illness. Often the calling completely disrupts the person’s life. It may take the form of a sickness from which the person is healed only by taking on the shaman’s role. In some societies, being a shaman is seen as a misfortune; in others, a blessing.
Shamanism in the Modern World How can we bring ancient ways of healing to modern Western societies? Is our culture’s loss of a vital understanding of the process of healing recoverable? We have no definite answer, but there are more and more urban shamans, each developing his or her own style. Over time, we may succeed in establishing a place for ourselves in the culture.
One major barrier for us is the lack of tradition. Tribal peoples naturally believe in the traditional ways and spirits they were raised with. Modern Americans do not, by and large, believe in spirits at all.
But offsetting the lack of faith is the fact we modern people live in a relatively unlimited world of ideas. We’re free to imagine possibilities inconceivable to traditional peoples who came before us. We can combine different ideas in new ways, eventually building something we can believe in. It’s more work, but it has its rewards.
“Lujon came to me complaining of lack of energy. He looked like he was carrying a tremendous weight, and we agreed to try a shamanic process to release it. He lay down on my massage table. After blessing the space, I chanted to free the spiritual object–it felt like a stone–which seemed to be lying on his solar plexus, then lifted it, and carried it outside, letting it sink into the earth.
“Don’t talk to anyone about this for two or three days,” I said, “Not even your girlfriend.” “Is it a secret?,” he asked. “No,” I said, “But when you talk about something, you bring it into a new arena. By keeping it inside for awhile, you can protect it from our culture.” His fatigue soon improved.”
Improvisation is essential to urban shamanism. Without traditional forms to work from–or when working with clients who don’t understand the traditions we have studied–we need to feel our way forward, finding safe ground to share with the client. We can begin with massage, counseling, or energy work, and move gradually into shamanic practices as we find a way to create a common language about this with the client.
Many Americans are afraid to give themselves up to ecstasy in processes such as wailing, howling, chanting, or dancing to channel spiritual energies. Many of us are afraid of the spirit world, even as we deny it exists. We need to work gently to prepare the way for these very powerful practices. We talk together, creating a new understanding of the emotional and spiritual forces in ourselves. We struggle to fit the ancient truths into our modern ways of thinking.
Many of these conversations yield new and interesting ways of looking at ancient practices. Learning to talk with a new person about healing concepts can transform the concepts themselves. It’s also incredibly exciting and fun.
Consider, for example: most of the body healing which is done by working in the spirit world, with helping spirits, can be “explained” in terms of the immune system, but how do you explain the process of healing a streak of bad luck? Do you need to? Urban shamans need to be open-minded, versatile people, who are ready to create new ways of thinking about things, because while we can’t rid ourselves of the rational, western way we were raised to think, we’ve seen too much of the spirit world to believe that “it’s all in our heads.”
Whenever a person heals through shamanic therapy, a seed is planted. Each change has a miraculous effect, not only on us, but on the whole culture, as we succeed in blending ancient wisdoms in with our own, American, selves.
Ness Mountain is an apprentice urban shaman in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at 503-335-8761