Shamanic Practices in Overview



Here we are again, discussing the common, foundational concepts of shamanism.  Would you care to start by explaining what shamanic practice is to you?The World Tree

I’m glad you termed it that way; 'what shamanism is to me.'  I think we should first discuss essentially universal constants found within most shamanic practices.  Something that we should really get a good handle on fast is that many of these understandings developed in geographically diverse and remote regions, so the occurrence of commonalities of concept has to be significant, even if only from a statistically improbable view-point.

Almost all of shamanic spiritualism recognises three states of reality in one linguistic conceptualisation or another; the energetic world, the physical world and the spirit world.  Analogous terms are used colloquially, but the terms essentially add up to the same thing; soul awareness [energy] leading to physical awareness [corporeal] leading to spirit awareness.  This is essentially foundational to the three worlds concept common to many forms of shamanism.  Illustrated by the symbolism of the World Tree, the Axis Mundi, the lower world is one of energy and soul, the middle world is analogous to our physical world/existence and the upper world is one of spirit and intelligence.

In Australian Aboriginal ‘dreaming’, these aspects are [erroneously] perceived by [general] society as ‘far-away’ times, where ancestors are and animals talk; this is analogous again to the three world concept.  Us ‘white fellas’ tend to think that the dreamtime refers to a chronologically distant past, but in my personal experience and perception, this is more a linguistic nuance than correct interpretation. I find those Australian Aboriginals I’ve discussed this with also have trouble understanding that ‘white fellas’ can be so ‘thick’ over such a simple concept; but they are respectful enough to let folks go on their way and follow their own path.  Amazonian shaman do not differentiate a lower and upper world in the same way, but instead talk of the ‘river’ and the ‘jungle’ [worlds] in the same way, using similar conceptual markers. Peruvian shaman also have a different concept of three worlds, but again, it is essentially analogous.  In every [shamanic] society I have examined, I find the same concepts expressed in different ways.

Ed – The terms ‘white fella’ and ‘black fella’ is far from racist, and instead originates with Australia’s Aboriginal people.  I was challenged on this once by a Dutch tourist who thought I was being racist in description.  I called the particular man in question over (he was well known to me, but is deceased and will not be named in respect for his people’s customs; he is remembered with fondness) and said, “This fella recons I shouldn’t call you a black fella.”  He looked at the tourist and asked why not, holding his arm against mine and commenting that he was born black and remains black, where I am obviously white but can turn pink, red, grey and green too!  The vast majority of Aboriginals I’ve met and interacted with use these terms freely, with no racial implication, as the keen observers of reality that they are.

How would such a commonality of concept happen?

In my reality, the experience of the shamanic journey is so similar to people the world over that simple observation brings about understanding.  This is of course, modulated by linguistic, environmental and educational nuance too.  An Amazonian citizen thinks in terms of river, bush and jungle as the daily reality of their world, so a vertical differentiation is unlikely to occur to them, but the river, bush and jungle are life constants.  The American Aboriginal cultures also show a similar conceptual analogy, as do the New Zealand Maori, despite nuances in narrative and labels.  My feeling is that the recognition of these three states of being are common to most shamanic practice.

What would you say is the most defining common aspect of shamanism worldwide then?

All shamanic practice I know of revolves around the central notion that everything; animal, vegetable, mineral and elemental (wind, fire etc.) has spirit and/or soul, perception and intelligence.  The Shaman sees the divine, the holy and the base in all things.  Shamanism, as a rule, does not hold to a singular, realised & individualised ‘god concept’.  All shamanistic forms I know of view everything as a reflection and manifestation of God or Great Spirit (or the quasi-infinite pool of information which physics demands must exist, or else information can be lost and the universe breaks down in a puff of mathematical inevitability).

Excuse me?

OK, I was having a shot at those who hide behind the fence of science, 'cherry picking' data which fits their model and conveniently not seeing data which would force re-examination of their elemental understandings.  Many use science to deny God, but they do so erroneously as they deny all possibilities of God based upon the central presumption that God exists only in the Individual form defined by the business-of-religion model.  The battle between science and itself, quantum and relativity physics, only need to bring in God as a repository of information and the two meet far more closely.  Glazing eyes huh?  We might leave this for another time and get back on subject.

Spirit in everything…

Thank you.  When I say spirit in everything, I mean from trees to animals to mountains to man; everything.  In every shamanic practice I know, the Shaman ‘perceives’ with more than their five physical senses. When I talk to a tree, I engage in a conversation or sorts. I am not, in my reality, just talking in the direction of a piece of unfallen timber.  We instinctively give characteristics and recognise a form of individuality in our cars, boats, planes, and even houses.  Rather than a linguistic faux pas, shamanism recognises that either there is spirit in everything, or nothing can have spirit.  Cosmologically speaking, we all come from the same source.  If we have spirit, so must every piece of matter, at one level or another.  The Shaman does not consider a human and a non-human spirit to be more or less advanced or worthy or valuable.

Shamanically, when you talk with a specific plant on la-dieta [discussed later on], that plant’s spirit will eventually come to you.  If treated with respect, that plant spirit will teach you what role it can play in healing and health.  It is the spirit of the plant that does the teaching, the [shaman] essentially only provides the introducion for the apprentice, in Amazonian culture at least.  If I have a client with a particularly intractable condition, I will journey and interview the condition itself and see if I can find out what it is there for, and why of course.  In many cases, the answers are pretty obvious, but this is interspersed with quite obscure reasons too.  If the client is willing to address the issues raised in journey, they most often recover well and completely.

Whether using herbal medicine, perfumes and scents, potions, journeying, or any other form of shamanic practice, the practitioner recognises and works with the energetic, tangible and spiritual aspects of the world as aspects of the same whole. Spiritual sickness IS physical sickness. Energetic sickness IS physical sickness. Each aspect directly and unreservedly affects the other. The altered state of perception is the thing that a practiced shaman can reach quickly and almost automatically.  This altered state is the opening of the mind to that which is really there, not just what we see with our physical senses.

Altered states of Perception? Would you elaborate?

As far as I know, this is pretty much a universal feature of all cultures where shamanism is identified.  A Shaman uses altered states of perception and/or consciousness to perceive and interact with the energetic and spiritual aspects of our world. Michael Harner, a popularly quoted author on shamanism, describes it as a Shamanic State of Consciousness.  I observe that my physical body is intimately tied to the physics of the corporeal and linear existence we are all in; [my] mind, however, is a little less fixed to simple linearity.  We know where the brain is, but the functions of the brain [physically] don’t account for all of the connections, thoughts, imaginings, realisations and dreams of the mind.  Most shamanic practitioners would recognise the concept that the mind does not have to adhere to the strict linearity (past – present – future) to which our physical body is intimately tied.

This is where is diverge slightly from Harner’s description.  I would suggest that Shamanic Perception, rather than Shamanic Consciousness,  is more accurate (in my practice).  Now different folks arrive at this level by means that might include altering their consciousness by ingesting different substances.  I do not feel that altering consciousness in this way is particularly desirable or necessary to achieve levels of “Shamanic Perception”; although with different entheogens [plant compounds to alter the mental state, including natural hallucinogens in some cases], these terms can go hand-in-hand.  This is probably a discussion all on its own though so let’s just stick to shamanic perceptions for now. When I am working to resolve past issues for a client, my reality is that a part of my mind is trans-temporal (out of linear sequence), and that I can find and perceive the physical time of a problem’s origin.

In the past?

Yes, in the past. I do not feel that the mind is tied to this present moment in the same way that the body is.

Are you talking about seeing auras and things like that?

Not really, although auras can be included in those perceptions.  Personally, I am less interested in perceiving the aura of a person than I am in perceiving areas of ‘stagnation’ or ‘stickiness’ in their energetic body, but this may well be what many aura perceptions to others are too.  Although many different explanations will be presented colloquially, dependant on training, most [clean] shamanic work seeks to mobilise energy which is stagnating, or less mobile, than it desires to be.  The physical body modulates energy (as does all physical matter), converting potential into probability.   Physical matter has an energetic signature slower than ‘free’ energy has, similar in principle to the refraction index in physics.  The more stagnant the energy, the more negative potential it represents.

A repetitive, negative thought is commonly described as ‘bogging down a person’s spirit’.  Liberating stagnant energy back into its mobile state is what shamanism is all about, at its ideal.  The space where a shaman works cleanly becomes a place of liberation of energy, heightening the ease with which stagnant energy can be motivated in that location.  The Shaman’s initial intent is that of holding a space for healing to occur, easily and cleanly.

Most of us recognise when a place feels good or bad, happy or unhealthy.  This is a level of shamanic perception.  Phenomenon like déjà vu is also a common experience.  Déjà vu can be a trans-temporal thought; out of its originating linear time.  When you brake for no reason only to have a vehicle cross against a red light, you experience a moment of prescience.  Other times, you might simply be in a state where your perceptions are a little closer to the shamanic than typical, or it might just be a ‘weird feeling’ too.

Not every ‘weird’ experience is shamanic.  Our minds are complex; differentiating between a solid perception and a manufactured one takes practice and the establishment of effective, internal filters.  This is part of the training of a practitioner.

So spirit and intelligence of some sort in everything, altered perception and three worlds are common?

Yes indeed.  I would add the skill of observation to the list too.  Let’s take this a little further back.  A successful society can acquire the free energy – in terms of food and shelter – to afford such luxury roles as Shaman.  This is a role which is, by definition, less productive in gathering energy – essential survival stuff – than the ‘common’ contributing worker.  The Shaman is released from basic survival imperatives and given the time and space to develop skills different from the supporting community.

Once released from keeping their heads down – working – the Shaman is able to observe their society from a new and enlightening angle.  Their role naturally placed them slightly outside of their community; cultivating a sense of mystique and/or distinction along the way.  As their understandings became more complete through concentrated observations, and naturally more esoteric, their role shifted from herbalist and bone-setter into spiritual go-between.

The shamanic role, with its attendant luxury of being able to observe their community (and nature) and have the time to process and think through many of their societal challenges, gave that supporting society a different benefit, one not directly energy based.  The pay-off was in having one who was able to decode the politics and undercurrents of their society from a different view.  The shamanic role quickly took on aspects of societal advisor.

The Shaman might call a ceremony, meeting or even have a simple chat with the right person; whatever’s needed to keep their community running smoothly and well.  The Shaman’s “suggestions” carried a weight different from the normal chain of command in a clan.  Clever leaders of a society paid clear respect to the observations and suggestions of their Shaman.

Surely we are talking of possible corruption here too, aren’t we?

[laughs] Of course!  Any time there is power and ego involved, corruption is a tantilising, almost an inevitable consequence.  Power has always been a corrupter.  This is why many shamans have been less than healing to their society, just as the business of religion has been a destructive force too, especially when placed in governance as a theocracy.  Just ask the Spanish during the Inquisition, the Viennese during the Trials and many others.

In communities where a shaman is clean in their practice, working from a place where the ego is attached to the wealth & health of their community, not their practice, the shaman was, and is, a powerfully binding and healthy influence.  The whole principle of working without ego is where so much of a shaman’s apprenticeship goes.  There is always an aspect in early practice when you start to become entranced by your own publicity.

Without a strong guiding hand, the young (inexperienced) Shaman can easily slip into dirty practice without ever registering the change.  This is why shamanic apprenticeships are variable in length.  Most shaman I have talked to will rarely release an apprentice until they have been guided successfully through their ‘little’ and ‘big’ traps.  There are conceptually two times that a shamanic apprentice will be most tempted and affected by egotistical seduction.

The first is when they are starting to find their own place, finding and recognising an innate ability, and feel like they are personally the mechanism for change.   It is a seductive and self aggrandising slip into the unknown.  Most of the time, the apprentice ends up biting off a LOT more than they should; pretty much requiring rescue and feasting on the inevitable humble pie that follows.

The second is a far more subtle and powerful push which comes from their own community.  A natural thing is for those who have received healings in the hands of the shaman to credit the shaman for their healing.  Despite knowing that it doesn’t work that way, such praise and adulation is powerfully seductive for most people, shamans included.

When one starts to believe that one has personal power, egotism follows.  The danger is one of slipping into dirty practice to continue the claiming of personal credit.  In this second crisis, the shaman’s master needs to tread carefully to preserve the apprentice’s integrity and 'encourage them' back on track as an agent of change, not a force of change.  Ego must anchor somewhere; it never belongs in practice.  The outcome is never the shaman’s, so how can one proclaim ownership of either the process or the outcome?  I have seen many fall at this penultimate step into their own abilities.


The final challenge is keeping ego out of practice.  This goes on for the rest of a shaman’s life (or any other person for that matter) and is the ultimate test.  If effective practice is precipitating results, there will be praise directed at the shaman.  If the shaman allows this praise to build their ego, weakening their resolve and accepting their publicity, we are back to the previous step.  When this happens to well established practitioners, dirty practice is almost always the result.

The counter to this one needs a peer group of respected practitioners.  Even in societies where individual shaman might be ‘competitors’ [in the same ‘market’], there must be a system of mutual check and balance – in a healthy society anyway. In science, it is the process of peer review, an internal check to make sure that things are remaining where they should, grounded in the ideals and principles of the profession and not flying off into fantasy without reasoning or reason.

It sounds like this is a very personal thing to you.  Been there and done that?

Every day.  I am just as subject to ego, worry, anger, lust, love, joy and every other human feeling as anyone else.  Just because I have a different skill set and understanding than someone else, I remain totally human!

Humans stuff up,.. regularly.

In my practice, I get praised continuously.  It is sometimes very effusive praise.  I have to monitor myself and remind my clients that they are the ones doing the healing; all I can do is facilitate a different awareness for them.  This applies as much in myotherapy as it does in shamanism; the dangers and results of egotistical practice are just as personally disastrous.  We all know of at least one excellent practitioner or therapist who started to believe their own publicity and lost the plot; I know I do.  All therapists of any kind should remember that only the person with the injury can heal.

A mentor once asked me if I wanted to learn how to be a real 'healer'.  I said yes, and he belted [punched] me in the shoulder hard enough that it took a couple of days to get the arm working again.  Right after the blow landed and he had my attention again, he said, "Now you are the healer.  Remember this!"  I have remembered!  He was a good teacher.

So the last test is living life?

Yes.  It is the ongoing challenge we all face.  Releasing ego and choosing a different reality is something that comes with experience, age and learning – all three!  It comes back to samsara; understanding that suffering comes into your life through your [base] desires.  If you desire personal power, that desire is the entry point through which suffering will enter your life.  If you remain detached, seeking a beautiful outcome devoid of personal glory or ego, magic can happen around you.

This is why intent is stressed over and over.  It is your intent, above and beyond your actions, that ultimately defines who, and what, you are.  If your intent is egotistical, your actions will probably bring less than love and peace to those with whom you interact.  If your intent is to do your best to bring and be peace and love and good-will to all within your influence, your work is clean.

Buddah says, "Only those who desire more life live in fear of death. In their desire for more moments, they suffer the fear of death in the moments they have."  The intent must be to live each moment, not as if it is your last, but in the understanding that this moment, here and now, is the moment you have to live.

Intent is the key?

Intent is the key.  It is always the key.  Without clear and focussed intent, little is possible.  It is THE repetitive theme in all of this stuff.

This sounds like a good time to talk about our next subject.  Would you care to elaborate on the “Altered States” with reference to entheogens like peyote or ayahuasca? – COMING NEXT