There is a whole culture around shamanism, which means above all “being in unity with nature”. Shamanism is, first of all, a way of life, a way to commune with nature, with our mission in life; it is something which is open to all of us.
Shamanism gives us the keys to understanding things which are not really addressed in western civilization. The magic of life, communication with animals, plants and the elements, journeys in subtle dimensions that have a real effect on us and sometimes on the physical world, spontaneous healing of spirit, soul, mind and body, rituals that give a direction to our lives, ceremonies that indicate the best moments for sowing and harvesting are some elements amongst many others that are passed on by shamanic culture. The extraordinary capacities which are one of the characteristics of evolved Man, find their place in a vision of the world where shamanism exists.
Shamanic culture is universal, because all native peoples of the earth share it. When numerous shamans of various countries and continents meet one of the first things we notice it is that we all understand each other. We all use the drum, speak with the spirits, are healers in our own way, we all have tremendous respect and devotion towards nature, our elders and our communities.
In all traditions, becoming a shaman was reserved for a very special type of person, ready to undergo extreme rituals or thrown by life into life-threatening circumstances that could provoke an out of body experience. This often one-time event will allow an experienced shaman to recognize the possibility of training a person who will because of this experience be able to transition out of body more readily than others. Thus, the most effective ways to obtain these out of body experiences are often suffering and/or symbolic or actual death.
Thus, death could sometimes be used as a method of initiating a new shaman as was documented in the early days of contact by an anthropologist visiting a nomadic Inuit tribe. As he described the event, an Inuit shaman had taken his pupil onto the ice floe, had sliced a hole into the ice to the water below, had tied the initiate to a long pole, had submerged him under water, had fastened the pole to the ice floe and had left him there three whole days under water! Upon his return three days later, the shaman built a temporary igloo, pulled his initiate up from beneath the water, had called his soul back into the body, effectively waking him and demanded he describes his journey to the other world! It is indeed one of the special gifts many shamanic cultures describe, this ability to call souls or even parts of souls back into a person’s body. The body of the initiate immersed in ice-cold water was perfectly preserved. The initiate travels to the world of spirits and his visions in this and other similar rituals will determine the ceremonies and powers which he subsequently displays in helping his community.
Other nations will use hallucinogenic substances which are sometimes extremely dangerous, that plunge the candidate into a trance close to death. Others will undergo long retreats in dark places sometimes completely dark with no light. We always see the same symbolism. The shaman is one who was twice born: such is the original definition of this word which comes from an autochthonous tribe of Siberia. He who has come back from death is thus twice born. So, traditionally, the training of a shaman involves a symbolic or even real death. These experiences must be conducted by an experienced shaman who has received these initiations himself and who will guide the budding shaman in his discovery of the role he must assume in the community, the ceremonies, rituals, healing and other techniques that the shamans of his tradition practice. Sometimes life itself will initiate the coming of a new shaman: a near-death experience through accidents or disease will be an indication for the shaman that a new candidate to shamanism has emerged.
Another way in shamanism, less frequent, is initiatory shamanism. In some rare nations, those who are called temple builders as the Hopis, the Maya and Cherokee, exist a more organized and structured spirituality. Children in who is recognized “the gift” are trained from a very young age in different spiritual clan societies to cultivate the specific spiritual gifts of their clan. They will practise under the supervision of their elders for years. These rigorous daily exercises prepare the student for initiation. Cherokee initiates train for 12 years before the first level is reached. They then have to demonstrate their mastery during different trials usually led in front of the whole community. The first test in the Anigadoah clan teachings where I trained, consists of producing light with one’s body. Thus the test is done at night an evening with no moon or in a temple without lighting so that this light is visible by all. It’s the first of a series of 16 initiations which would all be considered impossible by current science. This test will demonstrate to the whole community that the shaman is a being who possesses the capabilities required for the role which he has to play within his community.
It is also necessary to state the difference between a shaman and a Medicine Man and Medicine Woman. Those called medicine people receive a complete training from their relatives, parents and grandparents’, training that begins at an even younger age than the temple builder initiates. What’s different here is this formal training by members of the same family. Amongst the healers of Native American nations these Medicine people are the most powerful and the most effective. They know how to do the same things the shamans do but have other capabilities also, which makes them more complete and more holistic healers. Shamans are often specialized in specific areas of healing whereas the Medicine Man or Medicine Woman medicines are more versatile.
Modern civilization has voluntarily relegated to the donjon of forgetfulness this ancient knowledge and we find ourselves today in a predicament where the future of our planet is threatened.
Thus, true shamans are very rare today; I’ve met a lot of self-proclaimed “shamans” in western society, but I’ve only very rarely met true shamans in the years I’ve spent meeting many different Native Americans nations. Modern day shamanism, what is sometimes called neoshamanism, is very far from what First Nations call shamanism (or rather the word in their language they use to designate these spiritual people). To understand the difference please read our article on THE IMPORTANCE OF TRADITION IN SHAMANISM. True shamans are really exceptional, quite a different kind of person. All possess specific, absolutely unique gifts, which come to them from their experiences of journeying in the subtle dimensions where they dialogue with the Spirits. True shamans are so different from other people that it’s misleading to compare them with people we know. We must leave particular latitude to these beings, as sacred madness and incomprehensible behaviour are often recurring characteristics amongst them.
Often shamans have the capacity to help people go into the World of Spirit, and bring them back safely. I often accompany participants in my workshops to meeting their animal totems. It is said that as long as people have no knowledge of their animal totem, that they have no conscious contact with them, that they cannot work with them. When they know their animal totem, they can use their energy in their daily life.
We have all different allies in each of the kingdoms of nature, the plant kingdom, the mineral reign, the animal kingdom, and the world of human beings. We have what we call our “ancestors”, who are always with us, even if we do not know them; if we have no means to communicate with them, then the possibility that they can influence our decisions are diminished. But if we know them, it can add a lot of power and wisdom to our lives.
Knowing our totems can help us understand ourselves and have more impact on the world that surrounds us. These are not imaginary energies, they are of this world. This is very difficult to understand for modern men who have lost all contact with spirit. Native Americans often consider modern atheist men and women as the most handicapped beings alive! Here we have the highest potential in living beings and yet they are disconnected with the supreme intelligence that has created this world! A lot more than half of what exists does so in spirit, that is in a luminous, non-material state of existence. Thus, discovering our totems with the help of an experienced shaman can truly be an enriching experience that will help one throughout his or her life. This is an example amongst many others of what shamanism and shamans can bring to the communities they serve.
Indeed shamanism can bring us an understanding of the unity of the world, a better understanding of nature and the place of Man in Nature and the Universe.
In this respect shamanism can show us unity whereas science is incapable of showing us unity. History of the last decades has shown us that corporations and governments can use scientific data to serve their objectives and hidden agendas. An example among thousands is the assertion which was repeated for years that there was no proof of climate change! They admit it only now as the facts can no longer be denied and when the damage is irreversible. Yet shamanic cultures throughout the world have been trying to be heard, to warn of this problem, ever since 1969!
Shamanic cultures have an innate and instinctive understanding of the role of all beings on earth, knowledge which science cannot acquire as the mental-intellectual method is slow, labour intensive and incomplete. The proof of this extraordinary understanding the shamans have is the inexplicable “powers” which they demonstrate in their relationship with nature and their community: spontaneous healing, influence on the weather, communication with animals and plants, modifying the laws of the physics such as the science understands them for short periods of time, travelling in time and space, etc. The complete list could fill a whole volume as every shaman has different abilities. But all have the same objective: the health and well-being of their community, of nature and the earth. The truth is one; the truth is the same for all men and women of the world. Thus, shamanism is a current a discipline as any, and shamanic culture a way of life that should be preserved. The wisdom of the people who live in harmony with nature is grand and important and will always be, as it receives its inspiration and knowledge from the earth that creates and maintains all life, for all men and women of this world!
Wendake, QC, Canada, December 2015