Shamanism is not a religion per se. There is no formal structure, no authoritative head, no book of laws, or even rules. It is a worldview – a way of perceiving and living in the world. Following a path of shamanic practice means that the most important part of your being in the world is a matter of what you do, not what you accomplish.
Shamanism shares many traits with other forms of prayer and energy work, but not all forms of such practices are “shamanic.” However, we can identify eight characteristic ways of working in shamanic practice that most can agree make practice shamanic. Not every shaman or practitioner works with all of them, yet the more of the “eight” you see in a practitioner’s work, the more that practitioner is shamanic in his or her approach.
Working with spirit realm and spirit guides
In shamanic cosmology, the world is filled with spiritual beings and energies: angels, ancestors, totem, animals, gods, goddesses, and nature spirits. These helpful spirits guide us to healing and wisdom.
Shamanism is intrinsically animistic, meaning all things are considered to be alive. Everything is seen to have its own spirit, even those things that we do not scientifically consider to be living. The elements – earth, stones, wind, fire, air, lightning, rain – are known to be as alive as we are, or as animals, plants, and insects are.
The shamanic practitioner develops ongoing communication with all the beings on Earth and works with them over time to deepen those relationships in both the ordinary realm and the non-ordinary realm of spirit, or the Spirit World. It is through these relationships that the practitioner gains knowledge and heals.
The purpose of shamanic work is to solve problems in daily life
Shamanic work is not about simply having visions of the spirit realm, but to help self and others gain healing and wisdom in their daily lives. Indeed, one cannot be an effective practitioner of shamanism if one has no social context. Shamans and shamanic practitioners serve others and have done so for as long as anthropologists can determine.
There have always been “medicine people” in indigenous populations across the planet. It was the role of that person to maintain balance in the tribe – balance within the family, in the community, and the community in balance with nature and the environment. The shamans are the healers, the “menders of nets” of physical and social interaction. They are the ceremonialists and the holders of tribal rituals.
From this cultural context, a shaman without a tribe is meaningless.
Work with soul
Shamanism heals the soul or vital essence of individuals, human society, and nature. Through healing and restoring this spiritual power, many physical, mental, and emotional issues are resolved.
Shamanic practice is, at the core, a spiritual practice connected to ordinary, physical life. The interface and interaction of the soul and the body is the structure upon which shamanic practice is fundamentally built. How the two are related, how they work together harmoniously or not, is the heart of healing in the shamanic perspective.
Shamanic healing involved “all the realms,” that is body, mind, emotions, and soul. One cannot effectively heal by addressing only one or two aspects of living, but all of them. For example, this is among the reasons that talk therapy alone is not effective in trauma work. Trauma is a wounding of the soul, a soul wound. And while talking and addressing the physical aspects (body-centered therapies) are important, healing of the soul is required. This is true for many other issues, as well.
Travel out of body
Shamanic work involves “journeying” out of body into the spirit realm to work with the spirit guides for healing and guidance. Shamanic practice involves participating with spirits in their world. In every form of shamanic practice, the practitioner must find a way to go beyond ordinary reality in order to access the spirit world.
There are many ways to do so from the use of psychoactive plants or their derivatives to prayer and fasting and meditation. The meditative practice of “shamanic journeying,” meditation to rhythm, is among the most safe and accessible. The internal technology of rhythm helps to alter brain wave patterns and induces a safe, light trance state within which the practitioner can bridge to the spirit world.
Such soul travel is a core feature of shamanic practice and is the direct link to working with spirit in their realm. In fact, one of the definitions of shaman is “walker between the worlds.”
Grounded in nature
The shamanic practitioner gratefully utilizes the powers of nature for healing, transformation, and restoration of energy, and to stay grounded in the physical plane. As previously mentioned, shamanic work is ultimately practical and addresses issues related to ordinary physical reality. The practitioner being grounded in the natural world greatly facilitates this effort.
Take a walk in a park. Very shortly, you will notice how your awareness shifts as your energy immerses in the environment. Being deeply connected with nature is a blessing that is not lost on the shamanic practitioner. In fact, that connection is a central means of keeping oneself settled, energized, and clear.
The environment is there to assist. All we are called to do is to participate in what it has to offer and to be grateful for what is given freely.
Grounded in body (cathartic work)
Shamanic work is not just about having visions, but also addresses feelings within the body, what psychologists would call psychosomatic issues. The body remembers everything. It is like a hard drive that stores experiences, both joyous and painful. Shamanic healing, since it aims to work with all of the realms, also comes through the body. In fact, in terms of trauma, the body will generally lead the way.
The intersection of soul and body is not only important in shamanic healing work, it is also critical in everyday shamanic practice. Your body is your only interface to this physical reality system. It is your instrument of connection. It needs to be taken care of and consistently tuned to the physical. Remaining only in the spirit realm or “higher vibrational realm” is not helpful in a shamanic practice.
Shamanic practice calls us to be present, here and now, in order to be useful to the world.
Utilize expressive arts
Shamans throughout the ages have used singing, dancing, drumming and visual art as ways of expressing their visions and creating healing. These activities can be personal, such as writing or art, or communal. The Eagle Dancer dancing within a community circle offers an expression of the social and ancestral context of the tribe.
The expression of shamanic experience can be seen in cave paintings across the globe. Petroglyphs and pictographs are artistic expressions of the relationships between humans and spirits for tens of thousands of years.
In fact, the soul speaks more fluently in art than in words. Symbols are the richest form of communication between Spirit and your soul.
Face shadow side
Shamanic work is not afraid to confront the shadow side, drawing out anger, sadness, fear, and more to create cathartic healing. Not to be willing to do so, or to think shadow work is not needed or has already been done, leads to what is known as “spiritual bypass.” Remaining always in the “higher realms” is not helpful to shamanic practice, the practitioner, or those that one seeks to heal.
It is often said that “the way to the light is through the dark.” That means that healing and knowledge must accept the dark journey of the shadow side, as well as the light journey to become whole. Wholeness includes both light and dark, or the knowledge or healing is unbalanced.
This list of eight characteristics is not intended to be exhaustive or to impose rules that do not exist. Nor is it intended to pass judgment on any other spiritual practices. They are provided to offer an experienced view of shamanic practice as might be compared to those practices. In the end, no practice is better than any other. We are all going in the same direction, though along different roads.
Article by Gerry Starnes, M.Ed.
Gerry C. Starnes, M.Ed. is a shamanic practitioner, teacher, mentor, and author in Austin, Texas. He started the first shamanic journey circle in Austin in 2003 and continues to facilitate journey circles weekly. For more than a decade, he has been committed to assisting people to discover and express their essential and authentic selves. To this end, he offers regular personal and group experiences, and a variety of workshops based on the shamanic worldview.
Learn more about Gerry’s work through his videos here.