Clarity and Expansion on the Definition of Shamanism

Peru 2012 with Don Francisco

Jon Rasmussen, a life-long student and practitioner of various forms of classic shamanism, neo-shamanism, healing, spiritual, philosophical, religious, and wisdom teachings brings clarity to what he considers the broadest definition of his current use of the word Shamanism that is being increasingly accepted and understood around the world.

Shamanism is still one of the least understood systems of healing, consciousness expansion, and enlightenment, and at the same time the oldest depending on how you define it.  The reason shamanism seems to baffle the mind, is that it is not a construct of the mind, but rather something that arose and evolved from and along with consciousness itself within and around the physics, biology, and spirit of nature and the universe well before and beyond the advent of homo-sapiens.  And it remains as open, evolving, wild, and untamable as nature herself.  It has not, and cannot be institutionalized, closed between the pages of scriptural text, or dogmatic practices, and yet contains all of them.  If the philosophies, religions, belief systems, and spiritual practices are paths through the forest to enlightenment, then shamanism is the whole forest, and what is before and after enlightenment.

More than Words Can Adequately Describe – Experience Helps

Shamanism is more than anthropologists, or any single group have traditionally described.  It helps to have a full experience of shamanism as deeply and widely as possible in order to begin to grasp its true and expansive nature beyond even what these words can convey. This is why I have attempted to expand the definition of the characteristics, practices, way of life, and worldview that the word “shamanism” is being increasingly accepted to describe in more and more languages around the world.

As far as can be known and conveyed here, what we try to define as Shamanism today originated in the primary cultures, and has grown in complexity along with the complexity of cultures and society.  It is defined as “Earth-based” because in shamanism there is no separation of Spirit (non-physical part of Nature) and Matter (Latin – Mater = Mother) in the first place.  Spirit, consciousness, and Source are the anima that expresses through matter in all forms, formless, and quantum, as well as that which is unknown and unknowable. So to the mind of homo-sapiens, and perhaps the mind of all creatures down to single-cell organisms and stones, “Earth-based” includes the world of Spirit, and all dimensions as well.

So what that means to the practitioner of Shamanism is the ability to engage with the various physical and non-physical dimensions and beings ideally to some practical and pragmatic usefulness regarding quality of life for those playing here in the theater of planet Earth and our real experiences that come from our perceptions of that theater.  The Shaman is the one person in the village or the neighborhood who is born with, and/or awakened to through a big physical illness or event, the raw abilities and desire to dance between the worlds with the entirety of their being in order to improve, expand, and evolve the quality of life of their fellow villagers, neighbors, and all beings dwelling upon and around the Earth and perhaps beyond.  The life of a shaman is not easy, and it is often with reluctance that one chooses to fulfill such a calling.  They are often feared and misunderstood because of their abilities, gifts, sensitivities and strange behavior.  They are in the world, but not of it, and must consciously choose to participate in the normal drama of the village if at all.  It is usually easier for them to remain on the outskirts. For the shaman to be able to walk between the worlds and maintain a somewhat normal and healthy relationship with the rest of humanity has much to do with their own very extensive healing and training.

Multiple Types of Shamans and Titles in the Languages of Every Primary Culture

There are as many names for Shaman and Shamanism as there are languages on the planet, because every culture, race, and village has always had at least one person out of perhaps a hundred or so born and/or chosen to play that role.  It is only for the sake of simplicity of discussion that for the most part our more modern non-primary cultures along with some of the primary ones have adopted the word, “Shaman”, from the Tungusic languages of North Asia.  No matter what word or set of words are used in any particular, usually primary, culture and language, the fundamental roles and characteristics are Universal. And, there are in many cases a variety of “types” of shamans within a given culture.  For example, within the Q’ero Laika (women) and Paqo (men) shamans, there are four types: Hands-on healers known as the Hampe, Plant-Medicine healers known as the Pampamesoyoq, Wisdom keepers and Teachers known as the Altomesayoq, and Visionaries known as the Quraq Acuyeq. Note that I have greatly simplified those roles and descriptions, and an individual can contain a number of those types, but it gives one example in one tribe and the specific language of Quechua.  What is less important to the anthropological classifications and descriptions that would take volumes of books to record, is the fact that the underlying and core work, and engagements are essentially the same.  Very much like no matter what part of the world that a heart surgeon is trained in, and the shape and color of their instruments, there are only so many ways to do open heart surgery without killing the patient.

So, although the languages, customs, dress, and methods of accessing the altered states of consciousness varies significantly among the various primary and modern cultures, the roles, techniques, and purposes of the shaman are universal because the physical body, the mind, the subconscious mythic, the soul, and Spirit are universal.  And because of the increasing complexity of societies, the roles, techniques, and purposes of the shaman has grown in complexity.  For example, the first shaman might have simply figured-out or received instruction from the Spirit or Physical world of Nature how to keep the fire burning in the cave to keep her children warm – then perhaps the animal migrations for the hunt, or the cycles of the seasons when we became agrarian, then became the herbologists, the bones setters, the story tellers and myth makers, the teachers and psychologists, the hands on healers, ceremonialists, energy medicine doctors, healers, artists, musicians, actors, inventors, philosophers, wisdom keepers and visionaries of all sorts. The shaman, in whatever form of vocation, helps with any or all aspects of a person’s or people’s lives.

Distinguishing Shamans Versus Sorcerers – A Matter of Ethics, Intent, and Training

There are important distinctions that need to be made as well.  Typically, at some point after being recognized as a shaman, they began significant training and initiations that connected them to a lineage, or physical and spiritual team. This was to make sure that their work was safe, ethical, and effective for their clients and themselves. One may be a gifted surgeon for example, but without training and a good team, the patient and the surgeon could easily suffer irreparable damage or death.  It is no different for the Shaman, including the fundamental ethics of choosing to use their gifts to help and empower others.  In fact, the same tools and techniques that the shaman uses to heal and empower an individual or group of Beings, can be used to dis-empower and destroy them.  This is what is most often referred to as Sorcery in the English language, particularly if it is the intent of the practitioner to do such harm. And though Sorcery and Shamanism are too often and easily confused, the Shaman would prefer to make that distinction very clear, as the intent is clearly as opposite as love versus fear.  So intensive training, self- healing, ethics, and soul-level initiation for connection to a strong and capable spiritual team or lineage based in unconditional loving kindness are considered an essential part of being accepted as a shaman capable of serving in the most safe and effective way.

And like Nature herself, which gave birth to all including Shamanism, it is not black and white or closed-off from evolution or expansion, but rather a messy and ever changing and expanding spectrum of knowledge, wisdom, symbols, rituals, and techniques.  Otherwise, Shamanism would simply become another closed and dogmatic religion or philosophy.  And what then would we call the ever expanding knowledge, art, gifts, and wisdom that comes through the one in a hundred visionary and evolutionary beings born each and every new day?  Perhaps there can be a new and better word to use than shaman, but at this point it may be difficult to change given the speed and momentum of its acceptance.  Imagine at this point trying to change the word “coach”, as it is used to describe the director of a sports team for example.

Persistent Concerns, Criticism, and Unanswered Questions

There are always going to be legitimate concerns and unanswered questions about the use of the word Shaman and Shamanism and exactly who should or shouldn’t be identified as such.  For example, the primary cultures of the Tungusic languages from what is now mostly Mongolia and Siberia might complain of appropriation.  And it is true, we have appropriated their word, but hopefully nobody is claiming to be a Mongolian Shaman who has not been born or adopted, trained, and accepted into that lineage.  Ideally, to claim to be a practicing shaman or a practitioner of shamanism, one has the inherent credentials, gifts, calling, understanding, initiations, and training to some acceptable degree.  Just like someone claiming to be a Harvard Medical School trained Neurosurgeon who has not even been to medical school let alone Harvard may not be a good thing regardless of their inherent skill with a scalpel and steady hands.

When I received my training and initiation rites from the Q’ero Shamans of Peru through The Four Winds Society in 2001, I struggled along with my colleagues and teachers as to what we should call ourselves.  We contemplated using something like Life Coach – who also does some deep psychology, physical healing, ritual and ceremony, and energy medicine.  To me, that was all too tedious and long-winded, and fell short anyway. It just made sense to me to stick my neck out and go ahead and use the world Shaman, even though I would face certain criticism from any number of groups; and boy have I. Some Native Americans accused me of being a “plastic” shaman because I’m white – a charlatan appropriating their ways to make a buck. Some Christians accused me of being of the Devil.  Some Pagans accused me of being too Christian.  Some scientists accused me of being too New Age and at best placebo. Some New Agers accused me of being too scientific, and not spiritual enough. Not to mention, most others immediately thinking I was a sorcerer, witch, LSD raver, or just into Ayahuasca and the like. Thankfully an important part of good shamanic training is to become free from having to defend your ego.  All I could say is that I was born to this calling, received deep and extensive training, accepted into a lineage, and it produces results and experiences beyond placebo, and perhaps more related to quantum physics and beyond, and most definitely bridges what we know of science and spirit.  So I don’t mind what I’m called, but the word Shaman to me is the most efficient and accurate word that I have, and Medicine Man would be a close second.

I still have plenty of my own unanswered and perhaps unanswerable questions still after decades of study, practice, and real results as a Shaman.  For example, does a soul choose to be a shaman before this lifetime, and/or have they been a shaman for many lifetimes and perhaps since the very advent of their soul?  Is the role of the shaman passed down in part or only through DNA? And there are more.   It is another of the great challenges of this unique calling to be able to work within the unknown and unknowable sometimes with knees trembling and hopefully just enough courage to continue to move forward and keep offering our gifts in the spirit of service.  What I do know pretty well having met many on this path, is that if this is your calling I encourage you to explore it fully, get trained, and give your gifts in whatever form you are best at, and that serves well.

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