The shamans were the first healers and holy peoples on Earth. Many writers speculate that shamanism is at the root of all the world religions and at the root of all healing practices. Shamanism also is cross cultural. It has wide spread use across the time encompassing human history. The shaman frequently ventures into the furthest regions of consciousness at will. Their experiences are the foundation of much of our civilization. The shaman is an important piece of the community in non-industrialized world and held it together with their ability to heal and to utilize extrasensory powers. The shaman is ancient, its beginnings can only be guessed because its past extends deep into prehistory. Shamanism could in fact be the first healing art and the shamans could be the first mystics, saints, doctors, yogis, magicians and healers in human history.
The shaman is the first “technician of the sacred” according to Micea Eliade. The shaman is a specific kind of healer found primarily in non-industrialized communities; however, a growing number of industrialized peoples are developing the abilities of shamanic healing despite the lack of lineage transmission. Michael Harner a western anthropologists describes shamanism in the introduction to his classic book, The Way of the Shaman. “Shamans – whom we in the “civilized” world have called “medicine men” and “witch doctors” – are the keepers of a remarkable body of ancient techniques that they use to achieve and maintain well-being and healing for themselves and members of their communities. These shamanic methods are strikingly similar the world over, even for peoples whose cultures are quite different in other respects, and who have been separated by oceans and continents for tens of thousands of years.”(Harner Pg. xvii).
Stanislav Grof the foremost research of non-ordinary states of consciousness, comments on shamanism saying: ”shamanism, the oldest spiritual system and healing art of humanity…. Accomplished and experienced shamans are able to enter into a trance state at will and in a controlled way. They use it for diagnosing diseases, healing, extrasensory perception, exploration of alternate dimensions old reality, and other purposes. They often induce holotropic states in other members of their tribe and play the role of “psychopomps” – provide the necessary support and guidance for those traversing the complex territories of the beyond.” (Grof 2000 Pg.7-8).
Grof also notes how ancient and universal shamanism is he writes: “Shamanism is extremely ancient, probably at least thirty to forty thousand years old; its roots can be traced far back into the paleolithic era… Shamanism in not only ancient, it is also universal; it can be found in North and South America, in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. The fact that so many different cultures throughout human history have found shamanic techniques useful and relevant suggests that the holotropic states engage what the anthropologists call the “primal mind,” a basic and primordial aspect of the human psyche that transcends race, sex, culture and historical time. In cultures that have escaped the disruptive influence of the Western industrialized civilization, shamanic techniques and procedures have survived to this day.” (Grof f2000 Pg. 9).
The shaman is not just one who can enter non ordinary states of consciousness but enters specific non-ordinary states in order to heal, diagnose, contact spirits and receive information. Mircea Eliade used the term “ecstacy” to describe these non-ordinary states of mind achieved at will by the shaman but notes: “…any ecstatic cannot be considered a shaman; the shaman specializes in a trace during which his soul is believed to leave his body and ascend to the sky or descend to the underworld.” (Harner pg. 21).
It is important for the shaman to be able to function in society and to work with the consensus reality of the average person. The shaman also has the ability to voluntarily alter his consciousness and enter into another reality. Micheal Harner calls this other reality a “Shamanic State of Consciousness”. Carlos Castaneda called it, “non-ordinary reality”, Stanislav Grof calls these states holotropic (moving toward wholeness) states of consciousness and others have suggested “extraordinary states of consciousness”. Many of the shaman themselves call it “the spirit world”, “the other world”, “the ultimate reality” or “god”. In the west we recognize this reality to be that of the mystic and often confuse the mystical reality with madness.
The career of many shamans begins with a spontaneous psychospiritual crisis (“shamanic illness”). This is a powerful visionary state during which the future shaman experiences a journey into the underworld, the realm of the dead, where he or she is attacked by evil spirits, subjected to various ordeals, killed and dismembered. This is followed by an experience of rebirth and ascent into the celestial realms. “The shaman is transformed from a profane into a sacred state of being. Not only has he effected his own cure through this mystical transmutation, he is now invested with the power of the sacred, and hence can cure others as well. It is of the first order of importance to remember this, that the shaman is more then merely a sick man, or a madman; He is a sick man who has healed himself, who is cured, and who must shamanize in order to remain cured.” (Mckenna pg. 5).
Shamans work with spirits which exist in another dimension of being which is not always visible to the ordinary person. This other world has many realms like the underworlds, celestial realms and more. These various realms are filled with spirits with whom the shaman communicates. The shaman is chosen by the spirits and can develop their skill without training in some cases. Other times an elder shaman will guide the young shaman to learn from the helping spirits. The elders select particular people for the shaman training and can recognize the signs of a future shaman from a very early age.
Graham Hancock notes, “Shamans acquire supernatural helper or guides – spirits who teach them how to become great healers. These spirit guides almost always appear… and frequently begin to play a role in the future shaman’s life while he is still a child long before his initiation.”(Hancock Pg. 138).
Shaman’s Last Journey by Andrew Rosinski
Shamanism may be an example of a collective archetype or myth which manifests physically in cultures around the world. It is the story of the healer, magician and hero. The shaman appears around the globe and their story and life seem like myth to those unfamiliar with the subject. Joseph Campbell is the foremost authority on myth and comments, “It will always be the one, shape shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find…It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation. Religion, Philosophies, arts the social form of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth… The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently, suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source” (Campbell Pg. 1). This is a great description of this mysterious shaman and shamanism in general.
There is much more to be said about the world of the shaman and this brief article simply outlines general terms and qualities of shamanism. In reality all shaman are different and each one has their own way of healing and communicating with the spirit world. In different cultures the shaman will be very different from another distant culture, yet there are similarities. In India the shaman and the yogi may be one and the same. In Japan the Buddhist meditation master can play the role of shaman. In the United States the Native American medicine man is shaman.
To get a better picture of shaman’s around the world one needs to study each individual shaman and compare their way with that of others. In future articles I will give examples of shamans from other cultures so one can see the differences and similarities play out. To see some examples of yogis from India who often take on a similar role as that of the indigenous shaman as healer and psychopomp please read my saints of India article series.
By: Transpersonal Spirit
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