Shamanism: What is it?

What is Shamanism? It’s a question I get asked time and again, and it’s a question I ask myself time and again. Yet, whenever I answer it, the answer is a mildly different one. At its very core,  I feel it is a way of living or even more so, a way of being. When explaining it to others, it sometimes might feel like a belief system, or even a religion, but it is a lot more expansive than those paradigms. To understand this better, let us dive deeper into it.

Who is a shaman?

As a way of answering the main question, maybe the place to start with is by asking and answering the question who is a shaman? Think of the shaman as the medicine man or medicine woman of a tribe. The word itself comes from the Tungus language that would be used in the regions of Siberia and Mongolia. These days, it is now widely used to describe almost all native or indigenous medicine men or women of tribes all over the world. The native words for these medicine men and women may be different. For example, they are called a sangoma in south Africa, a Druid in Celtic traditions, ‘waphiye wichasha’ in the North American Lakota tribes and so on. However, whatever the local differences may be, there are some central themes that you see that run common through all these traditions all over the world.  These central themes and commonalities that we observe across the different indigenous tribes are worthy of their own blog post. Shamanism is Universal yet individual, just like us. 

Roughly translated, shaman means ‘Dreamer between worlds’. One of the main ways shamans work is by entering into a state of trance to access these other worlds. Shamans predominantly use sound, movement  or even certain plants to enter into a state of trance. These other worlds they access can be representations of the subconscious, our higher consciousness, etheric realms and much more. In this trance state, the shaman communicates with spirit and bring messages back and forth between our world and these other worlds. These messages may literally be messages, but could also take on the form of energy exchanges, healings and more. Shamans believe that work in the spirit world can initiate healing which then manifests into our world.

So, fundamentally, a shaman communicates with the spirit or energy of the world around us to help bring about the healing required within an individual or community. Just don’t limit your understanding of the ‘world around us’ to what you may be able to sense through your 5 physical senses.

Shamanic view of us

In shamanism, everything is believed to have a spirit or energy. Every single thing, be it a living sentient animal to something perceived to be lifeless and inanimate, like a rock. So, mountains, stones, trees, rivers, the seas, the oceans, the sky and the clouds, fire in all it’s forms, animals, fish and all that we can perceive in this world and reality has a spirit. There is also energy and spirit in the worlds we cannot perceive, but know exist, for example, the spirits of our ancestors. The spirits of the generations yet to come. The spirits of stars and planets, and so on. Hopefully, you get the picture… Shamanism takes this view and then layers in the fact that we are all connected to each other through this spirit/energy.  Take 5-10 minutes… or maybe even more, to contemplate that possibility. The possibility you and I are connected, and that we are connected to everything everywhere in some way through this universal energy.

When you look at it this way, how can it be anything less than a way of being?

Shamanic view of health, disease and illness

A state of health and well-being in shamanism is a state of balance.  A balance in that connection that we share with everything around us. Diseases and illnesses manifest at various levels when this state of balance is lost. When there isn’t a balanced exchange of energy, this will create illnesses and diseases on spiritual, mental, emotional and physical levels. A very simple example would be if we cut down trees for wood/agricultural/grazing land, but don’t plant trees to replace them, eventually, this takes it’s toll on our environment, first locally, then globally. Think of what happened in Easter Island, where deforestation, introduction of the Polynesian rat, overpopulation and total deforestation led to the decimation of the natural resources of the island and eventual decline of the population. Another very simple example could be the pollution we see in our rivers and seas end up affecting the microscopic plankton, and these pollutants, be it microplastics or heavy metals, go up the food chain into the small fish and krill, which are then eaten by fish like mackerel, cod, etc and eventually end up on our plates.

We are connected to everything and everything is connected to us. Our actions directly and indirectly come back around to us.

So, in shamanism, we always try to attain a state of balance as our path to health and well-being.  This state of balance, must be both ‘with in’ us and ‘with out’ us.  A lot of the healing we have to do, we have to do with ourselves, but this also needs to happen hand-in-hand with healing and balance we need to achieve with everything around us.

The shaman in the community

So, think of the shaman in a community as your local doctor, except that he or she is working in a different way at very different levels with a very different understanding of health and well-being. A shaman also works at a community level. Imbalances in the energy of the community can cause community-wide imbalances, but so can community-wide healing change the energy within a community and held restore balance.

By the way,  if you do have any health issues, you should always seek the advice and help of professional medical practitioners . Rightly or wrongly, this can be a trigger and can bring up resistance for many people, especially those inclined to be reading this blog. Again, remember, everything is connected. It would be unwise and unfair to yourself to not to get a better understanding of what may be happening at a physical level with your illness or disease, especially when we now do have some great ways to understand this better. The difference now is, you understand that this is only one aspect of the whole, only one part of what is going on with you, only one way that this disease/illness is manifesting itself.  In doing so, you are better informed and empowered to make better decisions for your own health.

Shamanism – Is it a catch-all term for all ‘old-age’ and ‘new-age’ alternative therapies?

There is a lot to shamanism that simply cannot be described in blog posts and books. In some ways, it is so all-encompassing and wide that it can become very easy to label a lot of the complimentary and alternative therapies as shamanic. When a central part is that ‘We are all connected to everything’, then everything is shamanic, right?

It may well be, but it helps the mental aspects of ourselves and our current way of living and being to help distinguish between different healing modalities and belief systems. Our technological and scientific way requires us to break things apart to understand the mechanistic way of working. Understanding the working of the individual to help understand the working of the whole. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we lose something in the understanding of the whole when we only look at the whole as the sum of individual parts.

In the same way, I feel that initially, as we gain a better understanding of all this, it may help to be able to differentiate between what is shamanic healings versus herbal medicine versus Reiki or Rahanni, yoga, reflexology and the hundreds of other wide and varied modalities of healing. I think of them as a wide and varied set of paths, all leading to the same destination. All different rivers, leading to the same ocean. All different expressions of us as humanity evolving in our consciousness. All different expressions of vibrations and frequencies of the one Universal energy or spirit.

Where  the various healing modalities are the different rivers, I think of shamanism as the flow of water.  There in lies the feeling that it is a way of being.

May you journey well.