Joseph Anderson

What is Shamanism?

The word “shaman” is the term for a traditional healer in the indigenous Siberian Tungus tribe. In the last couple of centuries it has come to refer to traditional healers in many tribal societies around the world.

These healers fit into and represent the cultures of these indigenous societies in complex ways (nothing about human culture is simple!). Shamanism as a practice in the modern West comes largely from the work of Michael Harner, an American anthropologist who discovered that there common practices used by shamanic healers in many different cultures. Harner distilled these practices into a “core shamanism” that he and his students, since the early 1970s, have taught to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world (primarily in Europe and North America) through the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. I highly recommend their programs!

In recent years that has been a large upwelling of all sorts of variations and manifestations of shamanism in contemporary life. Since the purpose of this article is to show you what shamanism is to me, I’m not going to go into all that here. There’s a sensible and grounded article on “Shamanism: What Is It?” by Craig R. Smith. He describes the piece at the outset as an “annotated resource list” but there’s a lot of wisdom and experience in the context he provides. I want to talk instead about what I have learned from being trained in Harner’s core shamanism.

Core shamanism is not specific to any indigenous culture, and only draws on those cultures in general terms, focusing on elements that are commonly found all over the globe. Here’s an analogy that has helped me make sense of it: when I was studying Tibetan Buddhism the teacher said that the different flavors of Buddhism (Tibetan, Zen, Theravada, Pure Land, etc.) were different styles of cup, all of which hold the same pure water–the essential wisdom of the Buddha’s teaching. I think of shamanic practice very much the same way: there is an incredible diversity of cultural expressions of shamanic practice: what is common is something that seems to have emerged from the depths of human consciousness many millennia ago.

So what is the “pure water” of core shamanism?

It starts with a simple technique. Until I experienced it myself I wouldn’t have believed it: if you listen to the beat of a drum at a rate of between 200 and 240 beats per minute, with your eyes closed, your mind has the capacity to experience extraordinary visions. If you set an intention to travel out of your body, go to worlds beyond the present ordinary reality and encounter supernatural beings of incredible beauty and power, you can do so quite easily. To my mind, trained for many years in intricate practices like Tibetan Buddhist meditation and liturgical Christianity, this seemed so astonishingly simplistic: “Isn’t there more to it than that?” And the answer is “yes” and “no”. “No, there’s nothing more to it” because this technique, all by itself, can initiate for practitioners (certainly for me) an astoundingly deep and rich series of life-changing experiences. It opens up a whole interior psychic, symbolic and archetypal world that just keeps unfolding and deepening without any apparent end. And “yes, there is more to it” because there’s another critical piece – and this is actually the hard part.

The other thing beside the ability to enter into trance states is the ethical framework with which you approach these states. I mentioned “intention” above, and that is a very important part of the framework. It is crucial that you be very clear about why are you doing this out-of-body travelling. And secondly, it is crucial that you absolutely and totally trust that the beings you encounter in non-ordinary reality are benevolent, wise, and skillful at providing the human explorer with insight and information that will bring the intention to meaningful fruition, back here in the everyday world.

I came to shamanic practice after quite some time having studied and practiced the more mystical flavors of “civilized” religions, Buddhism and Christianity in particular. I found myself able to apply what I had learned of ethics in those two traditions to my shamanic work. I’m referring in particular to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and the bodhisattva teachings of Mahayana Buddhism.

While I understood and was moved by those teachings, during those Christian and Buddhist years my faith was flickering and characterized by struggle, and my intentions were murky. But even so, faith and intention were there in a sort of latent state, waiting to be activated by the right inspiration. When during my very first shamanic journey experience I encountered a mouse, I found myself saying: “you are a loving being that is totally dedicated to helping me grow in wisdom, health, and spiritual understanding” – and discovered that I truly believed it. And I have kept on believing that with the many beings I encounter regularly in my practice. They all give me valuable, funny, brilliant, and ultimately perfect gifts of insight. They have also provided me with an apparently endless series of remarkably apt and effective homework assignments. I approach these with an open-hearted trust and am led to the right places over and over again.

In the same way, I learned at the outset (thanks to my wonderful instructor Lora Jansson) that intention was key to making effective use of the wisdom of these beings, and here the ethics of wisdom, blessing and healing, conferred on me from my youth by Jesus and later by the Buddha and brought to beautiful fruition by the many animal spirits and wise teachers I have met in a drum-induced trance state, have guided my steps.