"That's why I love shamanism," my beloved Autumn mentioned while we were laying down for the night. She does that sometimes, just pulls a statement out of thin air as if we were in the middle of conversation.
"Why's that?" I asked, immediately trying to find the answer to my own question.
"Because it grounds you. No matter what, it always pulls you back here, in this world, what's happening right in front of you."
She's right, of course (like always). She was referencing higher states of being, altered states of consciousness, meditation, and all that stuff which connects one to the big ol' Pie in the Sky, the Great Unknown, God, or what have you.
I am sanctioned a teacher in the Pachakuti Mesa Tradition, a lineage of Peruvian shamanism brought to the U.S. by maestro curandero don Oscar Miro-Quesada. I teach apprenticeships in this tradition regularly, in weekend-long intensives designed to initiate participants to a relationship with the unseen world, as well as enact a vehicle of transformation for themselves and the world around them. Therefore, I have a lot of touch-points with a wide variety of spiritual seekers and practitioners.
One of my favorite definitions of shamanism comes from anthropologist and psychiatrist, Dr. Roger Walsh from the University of California. Dr. Walsh defines shamanism as:
". . . a family of traditions whose practitioners focus on voluntarily entering altered states of consciousness in which they experience themselves or their spirit(s) interacting with other entities, often by traveling to other realms, in order to serve their community."1
This definition is comprehensive, and it acknowledges shamanism as a method of practice—or interaction—rather than a specific religion or spiritual path.
In fact, almost any religion on the planet stems from, and comprises a branch of, shamanic practice. Some examples being:
Shaktism, a shamanic subset of Hinduism
The Bon of Tibetan Buddhism
A Rebbe is often considered a shamanic Rabbi in Judaism
The Muttaqan of Islam
Curanderismo of Latin America, a synthesis of indigenous shamanism and Catholicism
The list goes on and on. Essentially, when going back to the origins of any religious/spiritual path around the world, you will find shamanic roots tied to it. It is humankind’s first spiritual tradition, spanning back to the Paleolithic age, and is what Dr. Walsh calls “the world’s oldest profession.”2 It has definitely evolved over the centuries, becoming an all-inclusive, cross-cultural method for interacting with the spirit world, the Heavens, or whatever realm of “Other” applies to your spiritual worldview.
However, shamanism is not as “otherworldly” as this definition may imply.
One of the things I encounter most in spiritual communities is a strong drive for escapism. I can't tell you how many people I watch on an almost-daily basis get sucked in to workshop after workshop, self-help process after self-help process, looking for a way to relieve them of the burden of everyday life. They yearn for a meditation, a shamanic cleansing, anything to send them out and away from their 9-to-5 jobs, from the burden of their relationships, from war, from poverty . . . from the desolation of the world around them. Seekers are always looking for something other, something beyond what they currently are.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler points out: “The shaman in the Judaic tradition does not rush into a spiritual experience like a famished desert traveler arriving at an oasis. Moses is not desperate for a vision because he knows that looking for one often gets in the way of seeing one. When we put all of our energies into seeking we risk not finding, we risk rushing past it.”3
The problem is, the audacious thirst for spiritual experience is a mode of self-deception, and shamanism does not condone this sort of delusion.
“By taking the pulse of the metaphysical, the paqo learns to reveal the condition of the physical,” explains Joan Parisi Wilcox, a shamanic initiate of the paqokuna lineage.4 Paqo is the term for the shamanic priests/healers of the Quechua peoples of Peru. The goal of a shamanic practitioner is to have touchpoints with the otherworld, but to bring back the information for healing and renewal in this world, the here and now. Any information gained in the metaphysical that is inapplicable to this world is moot and counter-productive.
Shamanic ceremonies are designed to heal conditions of this world, to bring the soul in contact with the Earth and your physical senses. From soul retrieval to pagos (offerings or payment to spirits), from animal allies to trance drumming, shamanic rituals are designed to cement the person in their bodies, in the acceptance of the physical life in which they are living now. “The wisdom traditions practiced by our ancestors,” as stated by curandero don Oscar Miro-Quesada, “provide for a very sensual and earthly experience.”5
This earthly experience, induced by shamanic ritual practices, reminds the body of its place in space and time. We spend so much of our waking day distracting ourselves from life (via television, internet, jobs, phones, traffic, alcohol, etc.) that when it comes to having a spiritual experience, we often clutch to practices that end up doing the exact same thing these other distractions do: take us away from the present moment. The shamanic experience, though, thrives on the present moment. It supports the fact that right now—with your aching back, your hungry stomach, your kids banging on the walls, your glasses cracked in the left lens, your neighbors barking dog, your dirt-covered floor—that is your spiritual experience, that is your experience of God, of spiritual union with the Source of All Being.
“The physical world is the world which should be throroughly grasped by the soul,” says Gareth Knight, a mystic in the Western Mystery Tradtion. “The physical world, in that one has to return to it time and time again, must hold the key for spiritual development. And this development is surely not to be gained in regarding all physical nature as a trap and temptation which must be strenuously denied and put away form one.”6
In this way, shamanism is much like Zen practice. Both are based upon the philosophy that the pursuit of the “good” without the recognition and acceptance of the “bad” is an illusion. To become more than what you are now is folly; for you are already whole just as you are. Even when you are sick, even when you are depressed, even when you are poor, you are already exactly what you need to be in order to have a vital spiritual experience of union in this life.
Zen philosopher Alan Watts explains: “For all ideas of self-improvement and of becoming or getting something in the future relate solely to our abstract image of ourselves. To follow them is to give ever more reality to that image. On the other hand, our true, nonconceptual self is already the Buddha, and needs no improvement.”7 It seems ironic, or oxymoronic maybe, that the goal of all of these rituals, practices, and philosophies would be to realize that we don’t need all of these rituals, practices, and philosophies . . . but that is exactly how it is. Shamanic ritual pulls you out of the distraction, out of the pipe dream, and opens your eyes to what is truly around you. “Through participation in earth-honoring ceremonies,” says don Oscar. “We are able to shift from fear to love, from desire to grateful acceptance of ‘what is,’ and from separation to wholeness.”8
When we seek for answers from some great unknown, we separate ourselves from our own inherent wisdom. Shamanic ritual connects us to our own intrinsic wholeness which allows us to see the beauty in everything, to see God in everything, so that one does not have to stick to flights of fancy in order to feel union.
Shamans do not travel to other worlds for kicks. They do it “to serve their community.”
So, the practice of trance and altered states of consciousness shouldn’t become a staple of the everyday experience, but a rarity to remind the everyman that true divinity and harmony resides in the material world: the world of matter, the world of relationship, the world of incarnation. This is the world we must all participate in. We have a lot of problems here on Earth: racism, sexism, terrorism, mass-consumerism, environmental destruction. We can’t solve them in the clouds. We can only solve them here.
This is why I, and my beloved, love shamanism. Because shamanism has no room for delusions; it is about reality. For all the people we see around us continually floating on air, never knowing what is real and what is illusion, shamanism roots our feet to the ground and provides the understanding that practicality—most often just plain ordinary things—are the means to having a full, rich life.
Give me that over fantasy any day.
Previously published in The Tattooed Buddha US online magazine.
Walsh, Roger. The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition (Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2007), 16.
Walsh, Roger. The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition (Woodbury, Minnesota: Llewellyn Publications, 2007), 17.
Winkler, Gershon. Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2003), 22-23.
Wilcox, Joan Parisi. Masters of the Living Energy: The Mystical World of the Q’ero of Peru (Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2004), 100.
Glass-Coffin, Bonnie and don Oscar Miro-Quesada. Lessons in Courage: Peruvian Shamanic Wisdom for Everyday Life (Faber, Virginia: Rainbow Bridge Books, 2013), 104.
Knight, Gareth. A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism (Boston: Weiser Books, 2001), Vol. I, 190.
Watts, Alan. The Way of Zen (New York: Vintage Books, 1985), 125.
Glass-Coffin, Bonnie and don Oscar Miro-Quesada. Lessons in Courage: Peruvian Shamanic Wisdom for Everyday Life (Faber, Virginia: Rainbow Bridge Books, 2013), 62.