Delving into shamanism

Have you ever wondered if shamanism could help you? I think a lot of people have, because books like The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz fly off of the shelves.  Carlos Castenada‘s books still inspire us to suspend disbelief and think that maybe we could enter a magical world, if only we could meet a teacher like his Don Juan.

I had the good fortune to take a workshop with one of Don Miguel Ruiz’s students when I still struggled to emerge from my ‘dark night of the soul.’ During this workshop, I had a particularly amazing experience. We did an exercise where we lay on the ground around an old tree, and visualized ourselves going down and down and down into the earth. I did this, sliding down the roots of the tree in my mind, and I came upon a stream and turned into a seal. I swam down the stream and then I “saw” a huge cavern, with a lake at the bottom. I turned back into me, caught a ride on an eagle to the opposite side, and journeyed onward until I came to a door. As I stepped through that door, I disappeared and turned into pure space and oneness and I re-collected myself on the other side as a changed person. When our leader asked us to return from our visionary travel, I retraced my steps across the lake and up the tree roots.

Now I know that this all happened in my mind. My body stayed under the tree the whole time. However, it had a deep and lasting effect on me. It healed me, not completely by any means, but substantially. For a long time after, I could lie down and retrace my steps down into the earth and past that cavern, and learn something about myself. And then one day, it was as if the universe closed the door and I couldn’t go there any more. It was time for me to learn something new.

You might think that I would drop everything and follow this teacher, or Don Miguel, but I can never get that excited about any guru sort, shaman or not. I have, of course, tried workshops and private sessions over the years, of various sorts, with various shamans. Some of them transformed me. Some seemed awesome at the time, yet didn’t really have a long term effect. None cured my asthma, but who knows? Maybe someday. I will never stop searching.

Shaman of Kyzyl, 2005. Tuvan shamanhood is bei...

Shaman of Kyzyl, 2005. Tuvan shamanhood is being preserved and revitalized (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are curious, realize that there are many different shamanic/healing traditions and I am using the term shaman very loosely. Even people who live close to each other developed their own healing paths, which can be quite distinct from each other. Some groups blended herbal and other healing practices with shamanism, which has more to do with the soul (ancient psychotherapy) than the body, and some kept them separate. Some use hallucinogens to gain visions and speak to teachers, some do not. All have wisdom to offer us.

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  1. #1 by White Cranes on April 9, 2012 - 4:07 pm

    The Castaneda books are novels, fiction. And they are about *sorcery*, not shamanism. For example, the Don Juan character is never shown healing anyone, and his philosophy as presented as a way to personal salvation (to not be eaten by the cosmic eagle at death as ordinary people supposedly were). Furthermore, his “teachings” had absolutely nothing to do with the Yaqui people, as Castaneda first claimed in order to fraudulently get a doctorate in anthropology—until the Yaqui people protested.

    Shamanism is a path of service, not a personal growth system. Shamanism is a specific healing system, which requires journeying to the spirit world to do healing work, battle or cajole troublesome spirits, or get information. And a shaman is proclaimed so (in whatever language her/his people use) by a particular community, not self-appointed (just as you cannot just get a degree in public administration and then proclaim yourself a mayor. It is a role in a community.

    All shamans are healers, but only certain healers are shamans—-those who meet the criteria above. Of course, shamans often use other tools in addition to shamanism to heal people. And real shamans certainly do physical healing. That is a big part of their role as shamans.

    Nowadays there are a lot of people calling a lot of things “shamanism” that have nothing to do with shamanism. Unfortunately that just muddies the water, making coherent discussion more or less impossible.

    • #2 by annstanleywriting on April 9, 2012 - 9:22 pm

      Thanks for your feedback, White Cranes.
      Wikepedia has a very interesting article on Carlos Castaneda, and discusses his training in ‘shamanism,’ but you reminded me that he talked about sorcery rather than shamanism. The article does mention the term nagual, which is what Don Miguel Ruiz calls himself. It also talks about the controversy surrounding Cataneda’s books.
      According to Joan Halifax on page 3 of Shamanic Voices, the term shaman comes from the Vedic sram. Some sources seem to feel it should only be applied within Siberian cultures, but most use it rather generically to apply to a healer, seer and visionary within hunter-gatherer traditions around the world.
      There are many paths to becoming a shaman. In many of these traditions, as you say, the shaman is chosen, perhaps because of signs shown at birth or because the position is inherited, but in others the shaman may discover his vocation, possibly through a vision (see the Forward by Stanley Krippner in Ruth-Inge Heinze, Shamans of the 20th Century). Heinze also agrees with you that Castaneda’s Don Juan was a sorcerer and not a shaman, but she also says that the main characteristic of a shaman is that they mediate between the sacred and the profane (pg 16) and restore harmony. However, another universal characteristic seems to be that they have undergone some death experience, whether physical or psychological.
      I agree that there are many people today calling themselves shamans who don’t have much training. On the other hand, one could be quite pedantic and insist that only people from certain cultures are allowed to be considered shamans, and the world might be the poorer for it. A few of the people I’ve worked with call themselves shamans, but they have done extensive training for years. Others use different words for themselves, such as nagual, student, energy worker, etc.
      I didn’t mean to imply that shamanism is a personal growth system. I personally have not studied shamanism. I have gone to shamans for healing of my body, mind and spirit, and I have done a fair amount of reading on the topic. That’s all.

  2. #3 by KM Huber on March 27, 2012 - 2:42 pm

    I do believe the Source does help us along when it is time to move forward–“the universe closed the door”–as you say. Or, that has been my experience, although not with a shaman nor with such depth as your tree experience. I am curious about shamans–was quite fascinated by them in an anthropology intro class–thanks for providing references. It is time to read Castaneda completely as I have just read excerpts and those sometime ago.

    Excellent post, Ann!


    • #4 by annstanleywriting on March 27, 2012 - 4:12 pm

      I have some really interesting references to sprinkle into some later posts. My current favorite, though, is The Reluctant Shaman by Kay Cordell Whitaker. her posts, too and should find a link and add that.

  3. #5 by Alex Jones on March 27, 2012 - 9:40 am

    I am of the opinion a “teacher” is only required to show the student the technique of shamanism, then the student can move on doing it alone without the need of gurus.

    • #6 by annstanleywriting on March 27, 2012 - 10:06 am

      Obviously, I agree. I haven’t however, pursued shamanism in any serious way, which might require studying with one teacher for a time. My quest has simply been to heal my psyche and my physical self.

  1. Shamanism – A General Summary of the Spiritual Tradition «

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