The Re-emergence of the Shaman in Our Time
I often mention that in the Western world, when we hear the word "shaman," most of us tend to conjure up an image of a masked and costumed indigenous tribal person, dancing around a fire in the dark, involved in some sort of mysterious ritual, accompanied by singing and drum beats. But inside that cultural shell of mask, costume and ritual, there is a woman or a man with a set of very real skills. The shaman is the master of the trance experience.
First of all, trance, in this sense is not an unconscious state. To the contrary, all true shamans are able to achieve expanded states of awareness in which they can direct the focus of their consciousness away from our everyday physical reality and re-geography it into the inner worlds of the dreamtime while very much awake.
Secondly, the first thing shamanic initiates discover is that these inner worlds are inhabited, for there they encounter spirits—the spirits of nature, the spirits of the elementals, the spirits of the ancestors, the spirits of the dead, and the higher, compassionate transpersonal forces, many of whom serve humanity as spirit helpers and guardians, teachers and guides. This is why these inner dimensional experiences are universally called the Spirit Worlds.
It is this extraordinary visionary ability that sets shamans apart from all other religious practitioners. And it is through their relationship with these archetypal beings that shamans are able to do various things, initially on behalf of themselves and then increasingly on behalf of others. These abilities are of great interest to modern mystics in our own time, and especially those who are detaching themselves from our organized religious traditions in order to explore the inner worlds of spirit.
In creating our visionary training workshops more than 20 years ago, my wife Jill and I were always aware that the first goal of the indigenous shamanic initiate is to make contact with a guardian spirit complex—to gain a glimpse of it—to establish contact with it—and this is the initial goal in our Visionseeker workshops as well. When we begin to walk the spiritual path, the inception is always about getting in touch with our personal spirit helpers, those entities who will provide us with teaching, those who are guiding us, caring for us, protecting us and supporting us whether we are in full awareness of their presence in our lives or not. This is why our Visionseeker workshops represent a kind of vision quest—a new form of this ancient tradition that has arisen in response to our need for it.
Sometimes people ask us ‘how do you know if a person is an authentic shaman?’
The Three Features of an Authentic Shamanic Practitioner
Three main abilities distinguish the shamanic practitioner. First: they learn how to achieve expanded states of awareness in which they journey to other worlds—into the worlds of ‘things hidden.’
Second: All true shamans establish relationships with one or more transpersonal forces that traditional people call spirits. And what are these spirits? Indigenous shamans often call them power animals because they are often perceived as animals or as combinations of animal-human form. Yet others perceive them as spirit teachers or guides—light beings who reside among the higher organizing intelligences.
Third: All true shamans are able to perform miracles through their relationship with these transpersonal forces. Healing miracles are the most well-known. These are the verifiable, yet still poorly documented in which the practitioner, working in tandem with their helping spirits, is able to restore harmony and balance to the body-mind-spirit complex of a sufferer, in the process restoring the fabric of their soul to an undistorted state and enhancing their personal power. These healing rituals often result in serious, life-threatening illness simply ‘going away’ or easing into death with a harmonious soul.
This reveals that the ability to experience visions through imbibing hallucinogens does not necessarily make the experiencer a shaman. Anyone can do that. The authentic shaman is a trained and self-disciplined public servant with well-defined and well-developed visionary abilities who is in service both to their communities as well to the world soul that supports and dreams us into existence.
In fact it has been our direct experience, based on more than 30 years of private practice as well as participating in shamanic training workshops, that those higher organizing intelligences that some anthropomorphize as winged super humans called angels, are more kindly disposed to come into relationship with humans who are in service… in service to groups—to their families and friends and community members… and especially those who are in service to the world soul—the same transpersonal planetary force that the Greeks called Gaia and the Gnostics knew as The Sophia (pronounced so-fai-yah.)
The powers or spirits or imaginal guides who come into relationship with us are in fact ancient human experiences who have appeared to help us for tens of thousands of years before the rise of our organized religions. We know this from the rich legacy of the rock art and mobilary (portable) objects revealed through archeology—those made by our ancestors that date back to more than 77,000 years before the present providing us with a record of the transpersonal experiences of shamans that are the legacy of all human beings in every society known to us.
For tens of millennia, humankind has consulted with these extramundane entities for expanded knowledge, for empowerment, for wisdom, and for healing. And it is through our relationships with these spirit guardians that each of us can tap into the great net of power, often called “The Force,” through which everything everywhere is connected to everything else.
It is also through connection with The Force that we may connect with the collective and enduring repository of the wisdom of our species Homo sapiens.
Some are inclined to call these spirits ‘imaginary,’ yet in our opinion this is not an accurate description because the word ‘imaginary’ implies that these beings are not real, that they are mental constructs or fantasies or ‘make believe.’
A more accurate description would be to call them ‘imaginal’—a word that implies that they exist in a realm of experience and awareness in which they inhabit a reality of their own—an ‘imaginal world’ or mundus imaginalis which is co-existant with the mundane experiential world of ordinary reality that we all take so much for granted. This is the world of ‘things hidden’ interwoven with our world of ‘things seen.’
For us, on the heels of three decades of direct experience with these worlds, with the spirits, as well as with this ancient spiritual tradition, it is well known that you don’t have to be a master shaman to have such imaginal experiences with imaginal beings, although it is helpful to have some guidance as we begin…
The first goal is simply to make contact with our spirit guardians…