In this special issue of Vibration Magazine, you'll meet several experienced shamans and learn about their work. You may even have been drawn to this issue because you yearn to become a shaman yourself. Below, a panel of experts advises you of important principles for novice and intermediate students to be aware of and to heed. First, however, it would be good to define what a shaman is. Inputting the term "shamanism 101" into Google's search engine produced a variety of excellent and sometimes eye-opening articles -- you might try the exercise! Here's how a well-balanced and comprehensive article at Wikipedia defined it:
"Some anthropologists and religion scholars define a shaman as an intermediary between the natural and spiritual world, who travels between worlds in a state of trance. Once in the spirit world, the shaman would commune with the spirits for assistance in healing, hunting or weather management. Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living. Shamanism requires specialized knowledge or abilities. It could be said that shamans are the experts employed by their communities. Shamans are not, however, often organized into full-time ritual or spiritual associations, as are priests." (See the rest at Wikipedia.)
Surveying what experienced shamans from a variety of traditions have to say, one truth emerges. Shamanism requires commitment -- often a lifelong commitment. It's not something you dabble in like a Ouija board -- shamanic work evokes forces that are too powerful for that to be safe without careful preparation. Nor is it recommended that you engage in the shamanic equivalent of a series of one night stands. If you include a smattering of exotic native practices from around the world in your ceremonies without thoroughly understanding the spiritual background and mastering the disciplines behind them, the result is likely to be neither safe nor effective.
Yes, there are common threads among the traditions, and, yes, you may need to explore a few possibilities before you find the one that fits you best. Then it's best to make a commitment to one tradition and stick to it. Rituals and ceremonies should not be eclectic, as lack of focus, mixing too many elements and invoking too many guiding forces can produce a muddle -- or a bit of territorial dispute between the spirit forces involved, since different traditions can have very different viewspoints and underpinnings. These forces are more likely to pay attention to your invocation and be willing to work with you if they know they have your loyalty and commitment -- and if you have paid them due respect.
COMMITMENT TO PLANT OR ANIMAL SPIRITS
Working in partnership with the spirits of plants and animals is a case in point. A power animal is not a pet, it is an ally in healing yourself or others, and it deserves to be treated with honor. Likewise, the most powerful work done with plant spirit medicine usually involves a deep and long-standing connection with a few well-chosen plants. Here's what Stephen Buhner has to say about forming this sort of bond in Sacred Plant Medicine:
"Go and sit by the plant and just let yourself admire it and enjoy its beauty. Let yourself fall in love with it. In making relationship with plants, the most important thing is treating them as equals; the second is having proper ceremony (like prayers and offering tobacco); the third is receiving the communication of the plants (it must be a dialogue not a diatribe); the fourth is doing what the plant asks of you; and the fifth is never violating the bond of trust between you and, if you should happen to violate that bond, making it up (as you would in hurting any close friend) immediately."
COMMITMENT TO A TEACHER
Commitment to a teacher is also an important stage in the development of shamanic practice. Work with someone who is experienced in these matters and can both instruct you and evaluate what is happening to you. Guidance by a true and seasoned shaman not only accelerates your growth but protects you from many of the pitfalls and dangers these practices can entail. Choose your teacher wisely and well, however, because there are many unqualified or even fraudulent people around the New Age circuits -- those called "plastic shamans". A Wikipedia article explains the term:
"The phrase plastic shaman is a pejorative colloquialism used for individuals who try to pass themselves off as shamans or other traditional spiritual leaders, but who actually have no genuine connection to the traditions they claim to represent. Rather, plastic shamans use the mystique of these cultural traditions, and the legitimate curiosity of sincere seekers, for personal gain. This exploitation of students and traditional culture can involve the selling of fake "traditional" spiritual ceremonies, fake artifacts, fictional accounts in books, illegitimate tours of sacred sites, and often the chance to buy spiritual titles. People who have been referred to as "plastic shamans" include fraudulent spiritual advisors, seers, psychics, or other practitioners of non-traditional modalities of spirituality and healing who are operating on a fraudulent basis.
"Critics of those who have been called plastic shamans believe one danger is that students who come to learn from plastic shamans may be exposing themselves to physical, as well as psychological and emotional risk. This is because the methods used by a fraudulent teacher may have been invented, "adapted" or stolen from other cultures and taught without reference to a real tradition, or to the precautions such a tradition would normally have in place in regard to sacred ceremonies and guidelines for ethical behaviour. There is evidence that fraudulent and sometimes criminal acts have been committed by a number of these imposters. It is also claimed by traditional peoples that in some cases these plastic shamans may be using corrupt, negative and sometimes harmful aspects of authentic practices."
COMMITMENT TO A HEALING GROUP OR PARTNERSHIP
Once you are seriously involved in shamanic work, a commitment to a shamanic or healing partnership -- even to a group that practices together -- is a crucial support that both protects you and empowers the work itself. Diana Stone, a seasoned shaman who incorporates Huna and Native American traditions into her healing work, advises:
"I experienced one of those moments in the early 1980s that one never forgets. I had deliberately sent out an intention to discover my soul purpose in this life. An incredible numinous figure appeared in a vision and revealed that I was to reawaken the Western shaman in the American psyche. Mind you, I had only the vaguest notion of what that meant. Troubling visions of dining on monkey meat around a jungle fire assailed my consciousness.
"Nearly thirty years later, that prophetic vision has proven to be true. I serve a worldwide shamanic healing ministry. The familiarity with the idea of shamanism in the American culture has surpassed by far any expectations I originally held. The positive aspect of this is that I and other non-native shamans have developed tools that are distinctly Western. The downside is the lack of any long-established traditions to train and protect the practitioners.
"I strongly admonish anyone who intends to practice as a shaman healer to not work alone. Ideally, there should be a balance of masculine and feminine energies in the group, as there is strength in the polarities. I work with a team of experienced shamans -- my husband, Don, my brother Duane, and my son David. This craft by definition deals with very powerful and varied energies. It is reckless and foolish not to have back-up. Connect with a teacher of proven integrity, other experienced shamans or energy workers. It needs to be someone who can monitor your energies and keep them clear. I have had the task of healing some very powerful shamans who literally were in a life threatening situation stemming directly from their healing work. You can't help anyone if you are dead!"
SOME FINAL CAUTIONS
Lynx Graywolf, who created the Shamanic Essences, concludes:
"I always hope that people take these sorts of cautions seriously, for there's no path to 'instant enlightenment'. If there was, I would have been on it a long time ago myself! Unfortunately, what some people don't seem to understand is that there is great potential for physical harm, including insanity or death, from consuming many of these sacred plants without proper supervision and training. Also, they're unlikely to be able to interpret and put to good use the experiences they have after consuming the physical energies of these plants. Most people don't have the benefit of a 'local shaman' to undertake a healing journey such as this with them!
"This is why Shamans undergo such demanding training for many, many years! On every level, from the physical to the spiritual, they have to be prepared and ready for what ever it may be that they encounter. Every Shamanic Journey is potentially risky, and that risk is greatly compounded when someone is using Sacred Plants, even for those who have had the training and experience! The essences are a gentle and respectful way of approaching these energies. Working with them acknowledges that one is willing and ready to heal on some level without putting one's self at risk, and also not showing disrespect to the Sacred Plant involved by not really understanding or knowing what one is doing."
ART CREDITS: The prints used to illustrate this article are derived from prehistoric petroglyphs found along the Columbia River Gorge. These petroglyphs, expressed in many different media, are a theme in the art of Pacific Northwest Native American artist, Lillian Pitt. To see more of her art, visit her web page. Page design by Donna Cunningham of Word of Mouth Web Design.