A Practical Guide to Shamanism

Shamanism saved my life. It returned power to me that I lost when I was quite ill, and was told I would not recover. If you'd like to know my story, visit About Me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Is Shamanism?

             Shamanism is the world’s oldest spiritual curing modality, is cross-cultural and dates back at least 80,000 years.

             Because it is a spiritual modality, the aim of shamanism is to offer spiritual cures. Equally important, shamanism helps people to answer important questions about their lives.

             For people who have been working with different spiritual techniques and modalities for some time, the notion that “all illness begins as spiritual dis-ease” is a common one.

            In shamanism, we not only believe that all illness is rooted in power loss, we believe that it is the Helping Spirits[2] who cure illness.

            The notion of curing vs. healing is more than semantic. It’s important to understand the difference. For example, I once treated two women of the same age and same background who came to see me for chronic back pain. Both had had several surgeries, and one had a morphine pump.

           In the individual appointments, I was shown that both clients, although presenting almost identical symptoms, needed different shamanic curing practices. I worked with the compassionate Helping Spirits as they dictated, and the clients receive their individual cures.

              After receiving the work, one woman’s back pain disappeared (the woman with the morphine pump), and the other woman, while still having the pain, was no longer depressed by it, and was empowered to work with her illness in a whole new way. This, in turn, inspired her to create a support group for others with back pain, and, over time, her back pain resolved. 

            A unique cure was delivered to both patients, but was integrated by each client in a unique way. So it is the way that the client integrates the cure that is a mitigating factor in determining what healing will unfold, and how healing will be experienced  by the client.

            In my practice, I have been taught by the Helping Spirits that it is important for clients to not just receive lost power, but to learn how to stand in that power, to direct it to birth a more creative, passionate and meaningful life.

             This is where the healing begins. Here, too, the Spirits teach and design unique protocol and treatment, often in the form of interactive ritual and ceremony that almost all clients enjoy and value as deeply meaningful and transformative.

            Note that the common term used in the west for someone who practices shamanism for others is shamanic practitioner[3]. The term shaman is title granted by the community that receives curative treatments; it is a term of great respect and honor.

             The most-common misconception about shamanism is that it is a religion; it is not, but is a reverent, spiritual practice. It has been – and is – practiced in every habitated continent on the earth.

             The second most-common misconception is that all practitioners use visionary plants to alter their consciousness to do their work. In fact, most of the indigenous people in the world do not use drugs or plants to alter consciousness; cross culturally, most shamans use the drum, rattle or some rhythmic instrument. It is the repetitive beat which creates a sonic percussion[4], which enables the journeyer to safely alter consciousness. In many cases, songs and ritual movement are also used to help alter consciousness.

How Shamanism Works

            The Helping Spirits and the shamanic practitioner work in tandem to serve. It is my observation that the spirits always cure, but the cure does not always manifest in the way we night imagine.

            And, while shamanic cures do not always result in instantaneous, complete physical cures, they sometimes do. I am a dramatic example of this: in September, 1996, my twelve-year battle with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome ended in one four-hour session when I took a shamanic journey to work with my illness. I literally went from being ill to being well in a four-hour period. Since then, my illness has never returned[5].

            That I was cured is not atypical, but, in my case, my illness was a strong call from the spirits to work with them to serve others. Suffering from an illness that cannot be cured by any source other than the Helping Spirits is not unusual in indigenous cultures as a way for members of a community to be elected to do shamanic work.

            Because I had worked for so long in various modalities trying to glean what my illness was really trying to teach me, I know that the gift I received through shamanism -- and the spirit of my illness -- could not have been experienced in any other way. In other words, until I learned the wisdom from my illness, the illness persisted.

Making Sense of What Matters

            The journey is the classic shamanic process of altering consciousness so that your spirit can leave your body to walk in worlds that exist in nonordinary reality[6], which is the home of the compassionate Helping Spirits. It is the journey that differentiates shamanism from other spiritual practices.

             To walk in these other worlds, the shamanic practitioner first enters an altered state of consciousness. As mentioned above, drums or rattles are most often used in shamanism to aid the shaman in shifting from an ordinary state of consciousness to a shamanic state of consciousness[7]. In addition to drumming, a practitioner may be given unique rituals by her Helping Spirits to help alter consciousness.

            While shamanic journeying has been called the technique of ecstasy[8] and can be an ecstatic experience, the practitioner is not seeking personal pleasure by doing this work.  We do the work to meet with the powerful and compassionate Helping Spirits in the worlds of nonordinary worlds where they dwell[9]. Through their compassion, they cure, transmit important information, and provide, at times, life-changing guidance.

            In these nonordinary worlds of beauty, power and splendor, the shamanic practitioner walks in service. By serving the client, the spirits are served, and by serving the spirits, the client is served. So the shamanic practitioner is really not the person doing the curing work, although it is important to understand that the intercession of the practitioner is a seminal part of this work[10].

             Also, shamanic practitioners need to have a particular kind of reverence for all life and for all beings. It is not enough to do the work in the studio, and then leave the studio to live carelessly; the practitioner has an ongoing privilege to love and honor the spirit in all sentient and nonsentient beings. 

             It is not just a metaphoric thing, this restoration of power. It is not abstract or conceptual. It is empirical. It is experienced. It is often miraculous, and always deeply humbling to work with the Helping Spirits in service to the client – whether that client is a human or another kind of animal, a home or business.

Different Types of Shamanic Cures

            The shamanic practitioner is, as described above, the person who leaves her body by altering her state of consciousness, and journeys to the nonordinary worlds on her client’s behalf; the practitioner partners with the spirits – in the name of love and compassion[11] – to cure the client.

            Often, the client is physically present as the shamanic practitioner does the work, although much work can be done long-distance. If the client is with the practitioner, s/he stays in ordinary reality in a relaxed and comfortable state as the practitioner works.

            There are many different practices that the shamanic practitioner may use to help the client. The practitioner is ALWAYS dependent upon the Helping Spirits to diagnose and provide treatments. These can range from power animal retrieval[12]l, in which the practitioner finds and returns a power animal that was once with a client whom the client has lost through trauma (this practice restores power), to an extraction, in which a foreign spirit is extracted from the client, to soul retrieval, in which vital essence or soul parts which have left the client due to trauma, injury or abuse are returned to her.

            While soul retrieval is probably the best-known shamanic practice in our culture, and while many people find their way into shamanic practitioners’ offices because they have heard of this work, there are endless ways that the spirits have of returning power to the client.

             In fact, this is at the heart of a shamanic practice: the spirits teach the practitioner, as is necessary, new ways to work with clients all of the time. There is no exhaustive shamanic menu of services anywhere, and there is no way of knowing what work the Helping Spirits will prescribe when you visit a practitioner.

             Another practice that the spirits might prescribe includes psychopomp (a Greek word which means “conductor of souls”). In psychopomp work, the practitioner helps those spirits who have passed on, but who are not completely at rest, to find their way back into the destiny of their souls.

            Depossession is another kind of curative work that the shamanic practitioner sometimes performs. While our culture has a very grim idea of depossession (think of Linda Blair in the Exorcist), this graceful and compassionate work can help a suffering spirit leave the body of a living person, and return to a place of love, compassion and grace. In turn, this work rids the client of any spirit that is not her own so she can, again, be filled with her own power.

            Divination is the fine and subtle art of getting answers from the spirits to questions posed by the client. It is a way of going to the omniscient source for information, guidance and wisdom. Often clients are suffering when they have questions. Sometimes, they are stuck in patterns, and have tried everything to change.

             It requires nuance and skill to understand how to frame and ask questions of the spirits, and then communicate their answers. Sometimes, the answers are quite specific, practical and logical; at others, the answers are transcendant, and can be metaphoric. The kinds of questions a client can present are endless, dependent only on their desire for help.

            Also, practitioners are called to work with any living being who is in the process of transitioning from this life to the next. In shamanism, death is honored as a natural process, and as a kind of graduation day. My own passion rises when I have the honor to work with a companion animal when it is sick and dying.

            If they choose, dying people can not only be taught to journey, but they can explore after-death realities. This work can be empowering and transformative for both the client and the families/friends of the client. It is a deep honor to work with people as they transition from this reality to the infinite.

            These are just a few of the curative practices that the Helping Spirits might “diagnose” for a client who comes to a shamanic practitioner seeking healing. What is most important to remember is that, because all people are unique, the Helping Spirits will direct the practitioner to perform practices that are distinctively prescribed for the client. Sometimes, shamanic sessions are subtle, sometimes, they are intense.

            There is no one practice that can be used in a cookie-cutter fashion by the practitioner to cure all illnesses. The Spirits always orchestrates specific shamanic treatments for the client because the client is unique; that is why in this article I am not going to give you a laundry list of how a practice might be used to cure a specific allopathic ailment. While symptom may govern treatment in allopathy, this is not the shamanic way. It's entirely different cosmology.

            An encyclopedic approach is antithetical to the most fundamental truth in shamanism – the return of power cures illness, and restores spiritual autonomy to the client. It is specific work done for you. No two clients are her the same ins regards to the cures they receive or the precise treatment protocol the spirits recommend.

How to Choose a Shamanic Practitioner or Counselor

             My approach to this is rather unique. Of course, reads all websites, and ask questions about who the person has trained with, and take notes. As the practitioner if s/he practices core shamanism, an indigenous practice from a specific culture (and if so, if that person was invited into that tribe to receive instruction, thereby receiving permission). Ask how long the have worked, and if they have worked with a specific non-indigenous teacher, you can go to the websites of those teachers to understand their shamanic philosophies.

          I am a purist, and do not want to work shamanically with teachers who mesh shamanism with other practices. This, by no means, denigrates any other spiritual practice. I have 25 years of experience that have taught me that working solely with the helping spirits and you, you will receive the most powerful work. Shamanism is a universe entire, and no one could learn all there is to know and practice within one lifetime. I imagine the same is true of other spiritual work. The work can become extremely complex, and is empirical. That means the results of the work should be, whether subtle or dramatic, observable. I want to know, and you want to know, that this work is truly effective and beneficial for you.

          Also, I always want to have a phone conversation or e-mail dialogue with a client before we book an appointment. I've spent as long as thirty minutes with people on the phone before we book. I do this to help educate the potential client about what I do in a session, answer their questions about my work, and make sure they feel safe. I strongly encourage potential clients to read this and other articles on my site. In this way, when we have our first session, whether long distance or in person, we can get right to work. They already understand I am a seasoned professional with 25 years of experience. 

Since I began work so long ago, the field has exploded. There are so many shamanic practitioners now, and choosing the right one is very important. Most work requires more than one appointment, and I also suggest you speak to shamanic practitioners who are able to communicate well. Shamanic instructions from the spirits can be complex, and so you will want to work with someone who you can really talk to.

If you are seeking shamanic instruction as a beginner, I suggest either the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS) or people who have graduated the Three-Year Program with the FSS, and have been a practice for a time and who has a solid reputation. 

 My beginner classes differ from the FSS by intent. I do not ape their program; their curriculum is very good, and I do not need to replicate it. In addition to teaching people to journey, my intention is to teach people how to build respect and reciprocity into their practices. The efficacy of shamanism rests on the relationship you have with the helping spirits. 

             So, to review:

 

1.    Whom did you study with?

If the person has studied with the Foundation for Shamanic Studies (FSS)[13], you can read “The Way of the Shaman” by Dr. Michael Harner to learn more about “core” shamanic practices (the graceful name given to near universal-shamanic practices developed by the FSS founders, Drs. Michael and Sandra Harner).

Practitioners need years of study and training before they can work in harmony with the spirits to truly serve their clients. While young practitioners are encouraged to work gratis for friends and family to gain experience, understand that shamanic practitioner who do this work as their life's work need to be paid for their work. In shamanic cultures, this is a given; in our culture, people do not know this. Expect a practitioner's rates to be in-line with other complimentary medicine practitioners.

Students have a a dizzying array of choices now. There is the vast array of classes that the FSS teaches -- from the introductory Way of the Shaman to the most sophisticated shamanic training, the Three-Year Programs in Advanced Shamanism and Shamanic Healing. This last class is generally regarded as the finest shamanic education you can receive anywhere. Many of the more popular shamanic practitioners cut their teeth and learned their more complex shamanic skills from the FSS.

While ordinary reality education is not a guarantee of skill or prowess, it proves that the practitioner is dedicated, works hard, and has invested much time and money in honing her craft. So I would suggest looking for practitioners who are graduates of the Three Year Program.

Remember, this is your choice, and you may want to interview a few shamanic practitioners before you choose one. Quite often, my clients find me through referral or through my writing. The same goes with teachers. There is no governing body that can "endorse" a shamanic practitioner or teacher. Rather, it is the helping spirits that "endorse" the work by imbuing and sharing their power with the practitioner.

If you are a beginner, know that there are people out their with little experience, albeit big hearts, who are so enthused that they want to open a practice after just a few weekends of training. This is understandable because they see the potential in shamanism to serve, but impractical because they do not have the experience necessary to handle some of the very complex situations that can arise when dealing with a client's illness.

 

2.    What is the first thing I need to do when I contact a practitioner?

In my practice, I want to talk with you on the phone or have a few e-mail exchanges (your preference) before you book an appointment. I want my clients and/or students to feel safe before we begin the work. Ask the practitioner or teacher if you can chat a bit in person before you sign up. 

You'll want to know if the person works solely with in-person appointments or if they will work wth long-distance appointments, too. I have found over the past few years that long distance work has the same efficacy as in-person work, which is great news because it can mean you will not have to spend time and money on travel.

Ask about rates. There are some good shamanic practitioners who work by donation or gratis, but these people are not working shamanically as their primary profession. I do this work as my sole profession as do many others now. Expect to recompense your shamanic practitioner in the same way you would any complimentary medicine practitioner. Those of us who have been working at this for much of our lifetimes have invested many thousands of hours and dollars into the work. Understand you are NOT paying the helping spirits for their work; it is priceless. You are paying for the education and experience of the practitioner.

 

3.     What is the first thing I need to do when I contact a teacher?

When looking for a qualified teacher, especially note if the teacher can communicate with ease and grace. You can ask how long the person has been teaching. In my case, I have been teaching for more than 18 years. I was faculty for the FSS for some time, but left when I was told I had to teach ONLY FSS curriculum. As my helping spirits are the only committee I answer to, I could not agree to do that because there are other kinds of teachings my spirits want me to focus on. 

While teaching is certainly a skill-set that can be learned, shamanic classes in our culture are, I believe, the modern-day equivalent of shamanic initiation; shamanic initiation can be exhilarating and joyous, and it can also be intense. This is a truly sacred time to hold with reverence. You want to be certain that the teacher is experienced enough to handle the many complex situations and questions that can arise during and after a shamanic class. I do my best to make sure I am violable to students after the workshop through e-mail. 

Understand, too, that there is a difference between certifying a teacher and certifying a shamanic practitioner. It is CRITICAL for the client or student to understand that NO HUMAN BEING can certify shamanic power.

In other words, just because a person has trained with famous teacher does not mean that the student will have the relationships necessary with the Helping Spirits to be a really good practitioner or teacher.

Always ask about a teacher’s experience as a practitioner before taking a class. If they are not experienced practitioners, what, then, are they teaching you? If they do not have considerable experience in actually doing the work they are teaching, then what is their basis for teaching the work?

Remember, it is your job to ask questions to determine if the teacher you are interested in working with is BOTH experienced as a practitioner AND as a teacher.

3.  Can you tell me what shamanism is?

The person you are speaking with should be able to talk about the modality with nuance, grace and depth[14]. However, it is important to realize that shamanism is NOT “talk therapy.” Still, you often need your shamanic practitioner to recount detailed information to you so good communication skills are an asset.

4.  Could you please describe what a session is like and how long it will take?

The practitioner should be able to tell you about what a session is like, and give you at least a rough idea of how long the session will last. Different practitioners work in different ways, and the way they work may or may not resonate with you. 

While you may want to know exactly how many sessions you will need to work through your illness or challenges, understand the practitioner cannot know this before the work begins. If you see an acupuncturist, a naturopath, or any other complimentary practitioner, they will be unable to predict the future, too. My appointments are open-ended so that whatever work needs to be accomplished in a particular session can be completed. I never want to interrupt the spirits mid-work because our culture is used to working by a clock. Having said that, ninety minutes to two hours is typical. This includes work with you, talking about your issues as well as the shamanic work itself.

5.  What are your ethics concerning shamanism?

Do the answers you receive to this question jibe with your own ethics? Does the shaman state clearly that she will never perform any shamanic work for you without your permission? Is s/he reverent and deeply respectful of the work and of the spirits? Does she practice shamanism as her primary  practice?

Others may disagree, but when I see a shamanic practitioner, I want to work with shamanism only. I am a purist. But some practitioners co-mingle different kinds of spiritual practices with their shamanic sessions. Listen and ask questions to see if the work the practitioner is offering is ethical, grounded and substantial.

Does the person strike you as both ethical and compassionate? Does her personal manner and style underscore what she says? Is her office comfortable?

If the practitioner promises a particular physical healing as a result of her work with you, find another practitioner.

Remember, a “cure” can mean a cessation of pathology and physical symptoms, an emotional evolution and/or a spiritual breakthrough (among other things too numerous and complex to explore here). While the work is always powerful, sometimes its results are immediately dramatic and sometimes deceptively subtle. Sometimes, work needs to be repeated, and some work can take up to a year or more to completely integrate. Shamanism can (and usually is)  life changing.

Often, the cure happens, but the client is then faced with a new challenge: how to use that new power in new ways that will support life purpose while increasing vitality, creativity and passion? Through various shamanic rituals and ceremonies, which can be entirely unique to the individual client, people can learn how to stand in their power and wield it with insight and intention to reach the pinnacle of their passion, creativity and power.

In my experience and observation, clients who are willing to do all the work the Helping Spirits prescribe are the people that ultimately experience the greatest healing; the cure returns the power, but in the integration work, the clients learn how to use the power to create the life they want.

Given all this, it is important you feel a resonance with the practitioner or teacher. You may be working together very intensely over a period of time.

However, the pace of the work is up to you. A practitioner can recommend that you come back for a number of sessions, but you must decide what works best for you. Again, shamanic work is empirical, which means that you should see differences in your life as a result of shamanic work.

6.  Could you tell me a little about yourself?

Practicing shamanism for another or teaching it is a profound honor, and is a very intimate experience for both practitioner/client and teacher/student. I offer as much information about my background and training as my clients and student want. 

Again, trust your instincts and ask any question you like. Caring practitioners want you to feel safe and nurtured.

7.  Who does the cures during a shamanic session?

The ethical shamanic practitioner knows that the cures come from the Helping Spirits with whom she works. This is not a field where pride is an asset; in fact, if a shamanic practitioner or counselor boasts about her own abilities, find someone else with whom you can work.

8.  What support can you offer me after you have finished the shamanic work?

Shamanic work is powerful, and you should have access to the practitioner/teacher after your session(s)/workshop to do follow-up work. If you have a question or two, I will be happy to e-mail with you or talk on the phone. If we launch 

Sometimes, cures come in one piece, and, at other times, a series of curative sessions will be needed. There is no right or wrong here, only the way that the spirits prescribe the work. Keep in mind that new levels of cures can be initiated at any point in the process.

In my experience, sometimes clients like to move very quickly and intensely in shamanic work, and others like to move very deliberately and slowly; of course, the spirits set the protocol for treatment, but the client has the right to determine how slowly or quickly she’ll work through the necessary treatments. Never abdicate the responsibility for your own decisions to the “spirits.” Work at a pace that is right for you.

9.  Do you see a shamanic counselor/practitioner yourself?

Does the practitioner/teacher walk her talk? Only work with shamanic practitioners who have their own shamans.

10.  What are your rates?

Some shamanic practitioners charge by the hour, and some by the session.

Sometimes,  part-time practitioners (those who work for only a few hours a week, a month or even less regularly) will offer their services for a donation. Full-time practitioners and teachers set rates that are typically in-line with other complimentary professionals – acupuncturists, chiropractors, naturopaths, herbalists, etc.

Specific rates vary widely from practitioner to practitioner. Many practitioners will never turn away a client because of an inability to pay; however, note that you should be prepared to pay your shamanic practitioner just as you would any other health professional.

Some practitioners may be open to creating a payment plan for you. I offer the convenience of PayPal. This is standard.

_________________________________________________________

My goal in offering this article has been to empower you to investigate the world of shamanism to help change your life.

Whether you are ill and seeking healing or seeking greater passion and joy in your life, shamanism may offer you some substantive solutions. Certainly, if no other curing modality has touched you or helped you, try shamanism.

Don’t make shamanism the last possible course of treatment or the last modality you study. Work it into your self-care regimen on a routine and regular basis. It is, simply put, good medicine.

 Lora J. Jansson, 2004 

Please feel free to share this article, but as its views are those of the author, do not edit with express permission. This article holds a 2004 copywrite.

[1] The currently popularity of core shamanism in our culture can be credited to one organization: the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. The work of Drs. Michael and Sandra Harner have literally changed the world in which we live. Michael not only pioneered the core shamanic movement, but also created the core shamanic methodology. If it were not for his work, many of the fine shamanic teachers and organizations that thrive today would not be doing shamanic work.

[2] Helping Spirits are spiritual teachers who appear in human form, as helping animals and as other spirits, and who live in a different reality than that in which we consciously live our lives, a reality outside of time and space as we perceive it. They choose to work with the shamanic practitioner who affects cures through the spirits’ grace.  Many practitioners, me included, have received teachings from the Helping Spirits, which seem identical to the counsel received by indigenous shamans through the ages – the spirits are all-knowing and all-loving, all-compassionate and powerful. They are the keepers of ancient wisdom and curative knowledge/power which is entirely and gloriously mysterious.

[3] Even using this term is uncomfortable to an extent because it suggests that are you claiming a particular power or skill in curing, while, in fact, it is ALWAYS the compassionate Helping Spirits who help the client. Still, as a way of trying to describe our work this term will suffice.

[4] A term penned by Dr. Michael Harner of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.

[5] Although I was not intentionally tracking the empirical results of shamanic journeying at the time, I had had my yearly blood tests two weeks prior to this journey. Because I felt so different after the journey, I went back to my doctor to have my blood tests repeated; I was lucky to be working with a doctor who was open to investigating the results of the shamanic work. When my new blood tests returned, all of the markers had returned to normal. Because this was such a huge cure, my doctor ran the blood tests more than once to be certain that they were correct. 

[6] You are, presumably, in ordinary reality right now as you read this article. The shaman is practiced at altering her consciousness to leave ordinary reality to enter nonordinary reality to affect healing for her client or to answer seminal questions.

[7] Michael Harner, Way of the Shaman

[8] Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy

[9] This is one of the seminal differences between shamanism and other modalities where people work with what they often refer to as guides. Shamanic Helping Spirits do much more than "guide," and so the term is not a shamanic one. Every person alive has Helping Spirits; almost everyone can learn how to journey as a personal spiritual practice so that they can communicate directly their unique compassionate spirits. Also, while it is true that much of the curative work happens in nonordinary reality, at times the practitioner is actually called to work in both nonordinary reality and in ordinary reality simultaneously. This is advanced work, which a practitioner can only effectively perform after much experience and training.

[10] Certain shamanic work can be done for oneself, and in other cases, it is important to have a practitioner do the work for you. It has been said that journeying takes only a few days to learn, but a lifetime to master. Rather than turning to books to self-diagnose or to learn how to journey, I strongly recommend that you seek help from an experienced practitioner or teacher. I have treated many people who have become ill when they have tried a DIY approach.

11 Not all shamanic practitioners are devoted to these principles. Those that are interested in acquiring power for personal gain are called sorcerers.

[12] Power Animals are significant allies, and share their distinctive power with the client who has received the retrieval. All animal spirits are powerful, but hold different kinds of power. For example, both Bear and Mouse are magnificent allies; they have unique attributes, and so one ally might be more useful than the other at various points in your life. While your shamanic practitioner can help you to understand why a particular animal spirit has been returned to you, it is wonderful to learn how to journey to visit your power animal in his or her home. By routinely journeying to your Power Animal you can begin to truly understand why that animal has come back to help you at this point in your life.

[13] You can visit their website at www.shamanism.org for more information.

[14] As with all things shamanic, there is an inherent paradox here. If I were to go to see an indigenous shaman, I might not be able to communicate with him or her at all. That would not get in the way of the treatment at all because, again, what is really important is that the shaman can work with his or her own compassionate Helping Spirits. However, in our western culture which is so foreign to the indigenous paradigm, it is most valuable to work with someone who is articulate.