What is Shamanism?


Discussing what a shaman actually is, and is not.

Part One of an interview with Craig Berry as an introduction to Modern Shamanism.

Craig: Before we begin, I’d like to preface this discussion, and all information on this site, by making it clear that any answers or statements can only represent my understandings, my experiences and my views.  There is no universal text or methodology in Shamanic Practice which can legitimately claim to represent a 'true consensus' .

Ed. – For best automated translation accuracy, we have conformed to US English spelling as our spelling format.

So what is Shamanism?

Shamanism is a spiritual practice, a philosophy, a framework for life.  'Clean' shamanic practice is selfless practice with a universal goal of benefit to all involved in every case. Dirty practice entertains the base human tendencies towards self-promotion and egotism. Effective shamanic practice seeks to benefit all parties, even in the deepest shamanic work (e.g. exorcism). Effective and ideal shamanic practice is clean.  It should result in increased long-term peace and balance in every case. 

Revenge, teaching someone a lesson, egotism and narcissism are all things that never leave peace behind them, and are hallmarks of dirty practices.

Could shamanism be better defined by first discussing what it is not?

Yes. Shamanism is not a religion. Shamanism does not preclude or exclude any part of a religious faith (although organized religion is traditionally very jealous of its members and typically demonizes and vilifies any thoughts outside of accepted dogma). Shamanism has no hierarchy, no levels of authority, no 'certifying' agency or board. Shamanism has no Holy Scriptures or universal doctrine.  Shamanism does not include concepts of deities, sin and judgment in any universal manner.

Shamanism honors the energy, spirit, reality and soul of everything. There exists mind (of sorts), consciousness and spirit in all things of this universe. Before you think that this is too broad a statement, consider the simplest challenge in philosophy, "Either all is holy, or none can be." In our common speech, we refer to inanimate things as personalities constantly, often assigning gender and individual bias.

Before I start sounding like another ‘new-age, jargon-spouter', let's take a moment to bring some scale into the mix. When I 'commune' with the spirit of a type of tree, I am [typically] using the mechanism of that specific tree to interact with the unified spirit of that species. When I talk to a person, I am talking to an individual. An individual tree may also be communicated with, but the individual entity that is the tree does not experience or communicate in a way readily recognizable to us. The 'intelligence' of an individual tree or flower simply does not have the same terms of reference as we have; how could it be different?

So the first step in understanding shamanic practice is to understand that everything is seen as holy, everything is seen with spirit and everything is seen as energy in one form or another.

Where did the term, 'Shaman' come from?

"Shaman" comes [arguably] from the Tungus people of Siberia and essentially translates as ‘one who knows’ or even ‘one who is a ‘little’ mad’.  The term itself is by no means universal.  We might call [in English] a curandero from the Amazon a shaman, but they would not.  They would differentiate themselves as vegalistas, curanderos, ayahuasceros and many other terms.

The shaman, within a traditional society, represents a 'luxury role' . Only when a society is able to reliably produce a surplus of essential needs can it afford to have members reduce or cease hunting and gathering; allowing continuous focus upon the more introspective and spiritual aspects of life. The shaman is released to participate in a society from an observer's point of view. In many traditional societies, the shaman's early role was to recognize and counter stresses and tensions from within a society, to preserve unity and cohesion; necessary for the survival of that larger society. Further, the shaman had the luxury of being able to take the time to commune with and learn the nuances of the natural world around them. To recognize the spirituality of nature and the nature of spirit.

South American Shaman found entheogens like Ayahuasca and San Pedro, the North American found Peyote and Europeans found certain mushrooms could bring on states where consciousness is altered sufficiently to see what lies underneath, around and within all that our world is. A common experience and foundational aspect of shamanism is the understanding of spirit in everything.

Talk to a Shipibo (Amazonian) Shaman and they will talk to you of a world of plant spirits, animal spirits, ghosts and demons, malevolent and benevolent spirits. Despite the huge geographical and chronological differences, a Tungus Shaman in Siberia would recognize and understand instantly the concepts and entities involved. Many of the structures and understandings that underpin shamanic practices have concurrently and/or independently arisen in geographically and chronologically diverse populations.

Many other shamanic practices do not use entheogens, but instead use drumming, fasting, dancing and other methods to reach a similar state of altered perception. All of these methods, when used in context, take large measures of time and effort. Most folks tend to leave these practices to the few who are called; although many of these practices are available to anyone who has a calling and the inclination to follow it.

In summary?

Shamanism is a practice which honors the spirit and soul of everything, is practiced without ego as nothing that a Shaman does comes from them personally. The Shaman practices peace and conciliation. When shamanic work is performed, it must be performed to honor all that are involved, without judgment or disrespect. Shamanism seeks, through the application of physical and mental abilities, to bring a greater level of peace and health to a person, thing or society.