When asked about my connection with shamanism I have to start by explaining it wasn’t a conscious choice. Growing up, I learned about the existence of shamans and medicine men through movies and books.
However, I really didn’t concern myself with them until I was fourteen and discovered a book called The Way of the White Clouds at the public library. It was about Tibetan lamas and this very esoteric world that operated at the roof of the world.
Well, this bizarre world portrayed something I had always felt, or intuited might be possible. Fascinating as it all was, there was nothing I could do about this discovery so I proceeded on with growing up.
Later in my adult life, certain events unfolded where I found myself juggling some very uncomfortable questions, things that challenged my rational worldview. In attempting to gain some semblance of understanding I took on a campaign to educate myself about just what might be going on in the Universe that didn’t fit the conventional schematic. This ultimately led to a very embarrassing realization: that I had always unwittingly perceived the world through what might be called a shamanic filter yet refused to recognize it, to accept it. Well, what to do about this?
Setting my gauges for the heart of the sun, I continued my quest to learn with no idea of where it might lead or its ultimate merit, all the while questioning my grip on sanity. Along with the academic work I was doing in grad school, which focused on consciousness and cosmology, there were numerous sessions with various plant medicine entheogens.
Through this, my spiritual path began connecting those dots that had so long haunted my psyche. However, now the problem was discovering that there were vastly more dots than I had imagined. Indeed the dots appear to be infinite.
Given its recent popularity and growth, shamanism is reestablishing its place in the world. Naturally there’s much more to say when it comes to this subject. And if you want to start a good argument among shamans, or shamanic practitioners, just try asking them to define what it is — which of course puts me in some treacherous territory given I’m attempting to write about the subject, but I’ve already crossed that boundary.
First, let me say that while shamanism is experiencing a global revival there is nothing new about it. Contrary to popular belief, prostitution isn’t the world’s oldest profession. No, it’s being a shaman. Every tribal culture had someone whose job it was to walk between the worlds, connecting with unseen deities so as to provide two basic services for their community: healing and protection. These two core needs have remained essential among all human societies right up through today. It’s just that today society turns to more “civilized” means to deliver these needs.
Yet shamanism has functioned within all pre-history tribal groups through the millennia. These tribes or clans typically numbered no more than a hundred and fifty individuals, often smaller. The shaman was an essential member of these societal groups, a key person necessary for their survival. While healing and protection are imbedded in all shamanic practice, there are many more aspects and purposes addressed within shamanism, ranging from death passage rites to helping to find a lost sheep. Much of today’s focus in shamanism is directed by the individual as a form of spirit-infused psychology, and on the collective level to address global concerns such as climate change, world peace, and social justice.
It is speculated that part of today’s interest in shamanism comes from the paucity of meaning or connection to something greater in our increasingly materialist world. While organized religions have attempted to address such matters, numerous people have turned to shamanism to find solace and support for these concerns. The appeal is not just that it is different or trendy, but shamanic practitioners sense they gain a more meaningful and authentic connection to Spirit and divine forces of the Universe.
Here is where institutionalized religions come up short in addressing these needs, which is rooted in belief, underwritten by a requirement of faith. Shamanism, on the other hand, requires little effort of faith. Instead it can offer a direct experience with the Divine, and often delivers an intense engagement with these unseen forces. And yes, there are many other methodologies to access the Divine, such as meditation, dance, dreams, etc.
Part of the reason such an experience is so powerful is that it supersedes our modern rational minds. As a species we all carry millennia of imbedded instincts that respond to these forms of experience. Simply put, shamanism is primal. Humans have practiced shamanism far longer than any form of belief system that arose through empires, organized religions, and the institutionalization of civilization.
That legacy has legs — the lineage of our ancestor’s psyches still churns in our subconscious as instinct, intuition, and a longing to connect.
There are lots of interesting contradictions within shamanism, largely (I suspect) because human beings practice it. By its very nature it’s anti-authoritarian, even rather subversive at the core. This is one of the reasons civilized societies have always sought to stamp it out, replacing shamans with institutional priesthoods who would work in collusion with the agenda of kings and empires. Shamanism fosters questioning and radical free thinking, and is always challenging the established societal order — all inconvenient qualities for a society that requires its populace to think and believe in the same manner: “long live the king,” et al.
We live in interesting times today. We are empowered with extraordinary technical capabilities that carry both good and harmful potentials. There’s great uncertainty in the world. Shamanism provides access to non-ordinary states of consciousness. The guidance one gains in these realms often comes from power animals, plant spirits, spirit guides, etc., and gives the practitioner a sense of empowerment and autonomy to address some of these conditions. There’s no end game here, it’s simply a continuous shamanic process of chop wood and carry water.
So this is where I work, exploring the questions, navigating the ominous, still connecting dots, still striving to learn. The more I do, the more I learn how much I don’t know. I’m okay with that. This is simply my spiritual path, one that I’ve found fosters connection and meaning, and hopefully some healing as well.
This article was first published in Bellésprit Magazine.
To read more of Robert’s work, be sure to purchase his book Call of the Forbidden Way.