What's really important about shamanism, in my opinion, is that the shaman knows that we are not alone. By that I mean, when one human being compassionately works to relieve the suffering of another, the helping spirits are interested and become involved.
SHAMANIC HEALING: WE ARE NOT ALONE
The word "shaman" in the original Tungus language refers to a person who makes journeys to nonordinary reality in an altered state of consciousness. Adopting the term in the West was useful because people didn't know what it meant. Terms like "wizard," "witch," "sorcerer," and "witch doctor" have their own connotations, ambiguities, and preconceptions associated with them. Although the term is from Siberia, the practice of shamanism existed on all inhabited continents.
After years of extensive research, Mircea Eliade, in his book, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, concluded that shamanism underlays all the other spiritual traditions on the planet, and that the most distinctive feature of shamanism—but by no means the only one—was the journey to other worlds in an altered state of consciousness.
Shamans are often called "see-ers" (seers), or "people who know" in their tribal languages, because they are involved in a system of knowledge based on firsthand experience. Shamanism is not a belief system. It's based on personal experiments conducted to heal, to get information, or do other things. In fact, if shamans don't get results, they will no longer be used by people in their tribe. People ask me, "How do you know if somebody's a shaman?" I say, "It's simple. Do they journey to other worlds? And do they perform miracles?"
The practice of shamanism is a method, not a religion. It coexists with established religions in many cultures. In Siberia, you'll find shamanism coexisting with Buddhism and Lamaism, and in Japan with Buddhism. It's true that shamans are often in animistic cultures. Animism means that people believe there are spirits. So in shamanic cultures, where shamans interact with spirits to get results such as healing, it's no surprise that people believe there are spirits. But the shamans don't believe in spirits. Shamans talk with them, interact with them. They no more "believe" there are spirits than they "believe" they have a house to live in, or have a family. This is a very important issue because shamanism is not a system of faith.
Shamanism is also not exclusionary. They don't say, "We have the only healing system." In a holistic approach to healing, the shaman uses the spiritual means at his or her disposal in cooperation with people in the community who have other techniques such as plant healing, massage, and bone setting. The shaman's purpose is to help the patient get well, not to prove that his or her system is the only one that works.
In many cultures, shamans are often given gifts for their work, but they will return all the gifts if the patient dies, which I think is a commendable innovation that might help us with the costs of health services today.
Shamans talk with plants and animals, with all of nature. This is not just a metaphor. They do it in an altered state of consciousness. Our own students rapidly discover that by talking with plants, they can discover how to prepare those plants for remedies. Shamans have been doing this since ancient times. They typically know a great deal about plants, but it's not essential. For example, Eskimo shamans don't have access to a lot of plants, so they work with other things. But in the Amazon shamans know the various plants and the songs that go with the plants, which they commonly learn from the plants themselves.
One former student of mine in the United States developed a practice of discovering and using healing plants based on his learning directly from the plants. He found that the pharmacopoeia he developed was very close to the ancient, classic Chinese pharmacopoeia knowledge of how to prepare and use these plants for different ailments. Another former student in Germany worked with minerals and found how they could be used in healing. It turned out that her discoveries were very close to what has been known in India from ancient times.
Which brings us to a very important issue: everything that's ever been known, everything that can be known, is available to the shaman in the Dreamtime. That's why shamans can be prophets; that's why they can also go back and look at the past. With discipline, training, and the help of the spirits, this total source of knowledge is accessible.
MICHAEL HARNER (born 1929) is the founder of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and the formulator of "core shamanism." Harner is known for bringing shamanism and shamanic healing to the contemporary Western world. Walsh and Grob note in their book, Higher Wisdom, "Michael Harner is widely acknowledged as the world's foremost authority on shamanism and has had an enormous influence on both the academic and lay worlds…. What Yogananda did for Hinduism and D. T. Suzuki did for Zen, Michael Harner has done for shamanism, namely bring the tradition and its richness to Western awareness."
Harner received a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1963. He taught there and at Columbia University, Yale University, and the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research, where he chaired the anthropology department. He also co-chaired the Anthropology Section of the New York Academy of Sciences. In 1987 Harner left academic anthropology to devote himself full-time to the preservation, study, and teaching of shamanism as president of the non-profit Foundation for Shamanic Studies. In 2003 he received an honorary doctorate for his work from the California Institute of Integral Studies. In 2009 two sessions on shamanism were given in his honor at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. He received the 2009 Pioneer in Integrative Medicine Award, Institute of Health and Healing.
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