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What is shamanism?

Shamanism is a spiritual practice found in cultures around the world from ancient times up to the present day. First and foremost, shamans' practices are practical and adaptable. These practices coexist over millennia with varying cultures, systems of government, and organized religious practices. 

Many formalized religions, from Buddhism to Christianity, came from ancient shamanic roots and still bear the shamanic threads of deep connection to the divine in all things. But shamanism itself is not a formalized system of beliefs or an ideology. Rather, it is a group of activities and experiences shared by shamans in cultures around the world. These practices are adaptable and coexist with different cultures, systems of government, and organized religious practices. 

Individual practice

Nowadays, in non-indigenous cultures, shamanism is studied and practiced as a life path. Following a shamanistic perspective, individuals seek to be in relationship with the spirit in all things. They seek to use information and guidance from non-ordinary reality to intentionally form their own life experience. 

This perspective is not inherently contradictory of any religious practice that allows a person to be in direct relationship with whatever they perceive as a higher power.

Consulting with shamans

Just as in ancient times, contemporary people consult with modern day shamanic practitioners for practical and pragmatic solutions to problems in everyday life-from personal illness, professional challenges, or family discord to ancestral issues.

Shamans work in voluntary, ecstatic trance states, which alter their consciousness to travel to the realms of the invisible worlds. Their ability to gain information and make changes in the invisible realms is dependent upon the working relationships they develop with spirits there. In this sense, shamanism is a relationship-based practice of making changes in invisible realms to impact healing, of individuals or communities, in the realm of ordinary reality.

For some peoples, such shamanic practice is part of their dominant culture, for others it is directly contradictory. Some individuals are intuitively guided to seek help from a contemporary shaman, often when other options have been exhausted, without even understanding what a shaman is or how they work.

What is a shaman?

According to famed American psychologist and consciousness pioneer, Stanley Krippner, shamans are "community-assigned magico-religious professionals who deliberately alter their consciousness in order to obtain information from the 'spirit world.' They use this knowledge and power to help and to heal members of their community, as well as the community as a whole." 

Krippner describes shamans as the first physicians, diagnosticians, psychotherapists, religious functionaries, magicians, performing artists, and storytellers. 

In shamanistic cultures, all adults are responsible for their relationships with spiritual energies, including those of their home environment (geography, animals, and plant life,) their ancestors, their own personal helping spirits, and Spirit, the creator force. 

However, the shaman is unique in that he or she not only has increased facility for traveling in non-ordinary realms, but also uses their spirit relationships to create changes that will manifest in the physical world, for the healing of individuals or the community. This definition differentiates shamans from other types of practitioners. For example, mediums use altered states of consciousness, but they do not take action in those altered states. And sorcerers take action in altered states, but not necessarily to heal.

Abilities of shamans

According to Christina Pratt in The Encyclopedia of Shamanism, a shaman is a practitioner who has gained mastery of:

  • Altered states of consciousness, possessing the ability to enter alternated states at will, and controlling themselves while moving in and out of those states.
  • Mediating between the needs of the spirit world and those of the physical world in a way that can be understood and used by the community.
  • Serving the needs of the community that cannot be met by practitioners of other disciplines, such as physicians, psychiatrists, priests, and leaders.

A shaman is therefore a specific type of healer who uses an alternate state of consciousness to enter the invisible world, which is made up of all unseen aspects of the world that affect us, including the spiritual, emotional, mental, mythical, archetypal, and dream worlds.