Working With The Animal Totems
Extract from "The Shaman’s Spirit: An Introduction to Shamanism"
In the first of a series of edited and expanded extracts from my new book, The Shaman’s Spirit: Discovering the Wisdom of Nature, Power Animals, Sacred Places and Rituals, I introduce shamanism and set out my rationale for writing the book.
There is no such thing as shamanism. This may seem like a strange thing to say at the beginning of a book about shamanism, but many researchers believe it to be true. The word “shaman” comes from the Tungus word saman and relates to an Evenki spiritual practitioner from Siberia who makes soul journeys to the realm of the spirits on behalf of his or her community. Nicholas Witsen, writing in the late 17th century, first adopted the word in a generalized sense, but the term is not widely used even within Siberia, as different groups there have (and had) different words. Nonetheless, “shaman” (an anglicized form ofsaman) stuck, and has become the term people use today to describe virtually all spiritual practitioners outside mainstream religions. This has resulted in furious academic debate and even a denial that shamanism – applied to anything other than Evenki spiritual practice – even exists.
When you observe the enormous variation in traditional spiritual beliefs around the world, it is easy to agree with those academics that play down or deny the existence of shamanism. There is a huge, almost endless, variety of beliefs, and it is sometimes hard to find a link between them. And yet there is one. Modern research on the human mind shows that when people enter a state of trance – which is a usual, although not exclusive, practice of shamans – what they experience is broadly similar. Cultural experience and expectation colour the event but the basic format and structure is the same. The person in trance will feel as if a part of his or her body leaves to journey to an otherworldly realm inhabited by disembodied spirits, or else will feel that his or her body is possessed by another entity, which suppresses the person’s ability to function. In both cases, people interpret the experience as an interaction with the spirits – an almost universal aspect of shamanism. Since shamans generally live in small communities, they use the gifts such interaction brings for the benefit of others, becoming spiritual leaders and advisors, therapists and healers. The many strands of shamanism around the world thus have three main areas in common: a propensity for trance, an interaction with otherworldly spirits, and a dedication to serving the community. This is what unites traditional spiritual practitioners under the broad heading of “shamanism”, wherever they may be. Furthermore, you can be part of this.
If all human beings are capable of trance – which they are – then it follows that all human beings can have a shamanic experience. This is a revolutionary thought. You do not have to live in a traditional community, have a long lineage of spiritual elders or even have any prior religious inclination, in order to follow a shamanic path; all you need is the desire to listen to the soft voice of the spirits as they call to you.
This book provides you with everything you need to start and establish your own shamanic practice. It explains the traditions and practices of shamanic people around the world, grouping them under key themes to inspire you to travel your own path. Within shamanism, personal experience is paramount, so do not blindly copy everything you read; instead, you should appraise, extract and integrate only those parts you feel will be genuinely helpful to you. There is a great deal of debate about whether following traditions that are not your own is a form of cultural theft. While this may be the case, there is another important factor to consider. Following the spiritual path of a different culture is never going to speak to you as profoundly as meeting the spirits of the place where you live (or, if you prefer, from where you originate). Shamanism is about listening to the voice of nature, feeling the gentle caress of her breath, and living in tune with her constant ebb and flow; you cannot learn this from a book, but only by sitting quietly and letting yourself fall into her arms. There are no rules and no dogma in shamanism; each practitioner decides for him or herself what is acceptable and what is not. Accordingly, this book does not shy away from the unsavoury aspects of shamanism since these are parts of the mix that you are free to accept or reject.
Shamanism will provide you with a source of incredible power. Meeting your animal guide may be a pivotal point in your life, and learning to heal allows you to give something back to the community that sustains you. It is an incredible path and there are no entry requirements, no rules that you have to obey, and no gurus to tell you what you can and cannot do. Shamanism allows you to fly with your own wings.
Does shamanism exist? On one level it does, and yet on another it does not. People who practise what we might regard as shamanism may not recognize the term and, even if they do, they might even be hostile toward it, seeing the word as another assault on their individuality. Accordingly, in this book, where there is an alternative term within a community, it is used in preference to the word “shaman”. This imbues a small flavour of the differences inherent in shamanism around the world, as well as reminding us that, although we can learn from these different traditions, we should never copy them wholesale. Similarly, for ease of reading, practices that are historic, and may no longer exist in the same form, are described in the present tense. In many places around the world shamanism is disappearing, replaced by the homogenized lifestyles that are typical in the Western world. A guide to further reading follows the main text, which incorporates both academic studies and practical guides to help you explore further.
Will you be able to practise shamanism yourself, walking the path of the spirits? Certainly you will. There is no bar to who can and who cannot do this. If you are prepared for your soul to journey to the realm of the spirits, and to bring back some of the help and wisdom they offer to benefit you and your community, then you are practising shamanism. The colour of your skin, your background, and the culture in which you live are irrelevant. There is no preparation for shamanism, there are no exams and no qualifications; all you need to do is start. The ideal time for that is now, and the ideal place is here. Shall we begin?
To read the actual introduction to the book in a fully illustrated .pdf file, click here.