There Are Many Shamanisms

Lone Tree - Winter sunsetThere are many shamanisms. This became apparent to me some time ago, when I noticed my teachers and colleagues used the term “shamanism” to describe a vast landscape of beliefs and practices. Infrequently, a teacher would disqualify an activity or technique used by another, saying, “Well, that’s not really something I understand as shamanism.” Very rarely, someone might brand another practitioner as a “plastic shaman.” This usually happened when the branded practitioner was charging too much money for the teachings, was sleeping with too many students, or was advertising themselves in a way that was perceived as inauthentic.

There was another way one could find oneself labeled as “plastic”. That involved sharing stories, traditions, or sacred knowledge one had no right to share. Of course, the temptation to share “sacred knowledge” in the grand international market place of “sacred” ideas is powerful, indeed, as is the temptation to create “sacred knowledge” from thin air, or lift it from other peoples.

In the Americas, Native young people wanting to know about shamanism have often been advised and encouraged to study with practitioners both within, and outside, their tribal nations. With the disruption of tradition and knowledge in Native communities (caused by colonial expansion) particularly here in the East, many tribal people have had little to no access to traditional wisdom. As a result, they may be drawn to the work of non-Native practitioners such as Michael Harner. The knowledge shared by Michael and others is a blessing when there are no teachers in one’s own traditions!

Yet, the glumming together and use of diverse tribal traditions has its drawbacks. Forcing together practices from many traditions works, in the global marketplace of spiritual ideas, to colonize the local sacred. Further, it brings cultures that do not see themselves as practicing shamanism into the fold of the rubric of shamanism. Particularly distressing is its tendency to decontextualize the relationship between shamanism, ancestors, and tribal peoples and their traditional lands. These are all acts, usually unintentional, of cultural genocide. Finally the insistence that all work with the spirits is shamanism is inherently problematic, making any definition of shamanism questionable.

There are a vast number of beliefs and practices that fall under the rubric of shamanism. Yet, get a diverse group of shamans together and, more often than not, they come to some basic agreement about what they are doing. They may have wildly different ethical beliefs, may or may not use substances to alter their perception, and may be urban or live deep in the wilderness. In spite of those differences, they are likely to find common ground, a stance that appreciates the local and recognizes a thread that connects diverse locales and traditions. They are also likely to be acutely aware of the presence of the colonial and the threat of the spiritual marketplace.

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10 thoughts on “There Are Many Shamanisms

    • Cultural appropriation is an immense problem. It is, in the age of information, almost impossible to avoid. Selling others’ cultural knowledge is another matter, as is utilizing it without the permission of the culture. Thanks for the link!

  1. A very poignant post.

    Having received my initlial training in Harner’s method, I must admit that for a while I felt somewhat as though I was working in a vacuum. It dawned on me, however that as the practices taught run central to many peoples, these practices could be used to explore not only our own personal myths, but those of a western culture aching for a common standpoint as well. And through this, perhaps make available some of the spiritual light and healing of which it seems to be in such a deep need.

    As my practice has deepened through contact with Elders (physical and otherwise), I have seen and felt so much healing energy pass through myself and others out into this world, that questioning the validity of Harner’s method doesn’t even enter the picture.

    That being said, however, I have come across a few individuals who, while apparently meaning well, seem to forget that to truly do this work, one must walk the balance between the physical and spirit worlds – with one foot planted FIRMLY in each. Without the grounding connection of the physical world, the energy to which we open ourselves can, as a dear friend of mine once put it, “fry you to a crisp.”

    Balance is the key. As such, any traditions learned from must be treated respectfully, and allowed to take root so that they and the practitioner can grow together…

    • Yes. I struggle to find some semblance of balance with these issues and practices. Paradoxically, the very forces that bring us opportunities to learn and engage others, are the very forces that threaten to destroy the teachings. Given that, balance seems illusive. Walking, as you point out, in both worlds, feet firmly planted, seems crucial.

      • I think perhaps it might not be so much the opportunities to learn that threaten to destroy the traditions, as the only way the healing will continue to get done is if the traditions are shared. Instead, might the true threat come with misuse from those who learn them, and insufficient care in those who would pass them along?

        Certainly the responsibility here must be twofold. While the student must maintain a spiritual connection with the heart of the tradition, so, too, must the teacher take great care to pass along the tradition only to the student who can do this.

        I shudder everytime I hear someone say they’re going to South America to “do Ayahuasca with a shaman.” I wonder not only at their ability to handle what they’ll be going through, but also at the veracity of the “shaman” with whom they’ll be working.

        When the student ASSUMES he’s ready, the one he ASSUMES is a teacher will appear…

      • I share your concern about such Amazon trips.

        Actually, I have no worries about teachers sharing their traditions. I wonder about our capacity to learn from so many disparate sources and to make sense of the learning. The marketplace suggests that all is available without harm. Yet, as you note, knowledge comes with responsibility. And yes, one hopes the teacher will impart that responsibility.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen the results of people jumping in and running with what they’ve been shown without proper preparation or consideration of the impact their actions might have on others…or themselves.

    So much damage brought about by reckless teachers and even more reckless students…

    I’ve worked with these people, still do, with some of them. And I’ve seen the toll their carelessness has taken upon their bodies and their spirits. For some, it’s an initiatory experience…a trial by fire. Others simply burn out…or worse, burn up.

    • I’ve also seen way out of control “teachers” and students do immense harm.I guess that has always been a possibility. Of course, when people lived in relatively small communities, there were institutional barriers to poor behavior, not that they always worked. In the age of the Internet those barriers are largely gone. Like most new technologies, the Internet frees and enslaves.

      • Yep. And it’s certainy easier for people to set themselves up as something they’re not. It’s amazing how many peopl see a website and assume that everything poste on it is true.

        I worked with a patient the other day who told me they “dug around and checked me out before they committed to calling me.” I told them I was glad they did.

        So many people come to our studio saying they found their power animal by working with a cd or some other nonsense, without realizing the danger they can put themselves into by pursuing stuff like that…

      • Sigh. A couple of years ago there was a profound tragedy in a community near here, involving a “teacher” whose actions led to profound loss and pain. The teacher refused to take even respond to what had happened in a meaningful way, adding to the suffering. (Oddly, the incident involved a sweat….)

        We are all human and make mistakes. I become very uneasy around folks who believe they are infallible.

        Anyway, I encourage people to be thoughtful about working with me or anyone else.

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