As a contemporary shaman born and raised and doing my shamanic work in the urban setting of Chicago, people often ask me, “What is shamanism?” “What tradition of shamanism do you practice?” “How is shamanism different from other forms of meditation and energy work such as Reiki, chi gung, prayer or creative visualization?” What follows is how I define shamanism.
I came to this spiritual healing practice spontaneously, through doing dance, singing and performance art, which I have done since I was a child. As I developed my work as a professional performer, teacher and director, people would have powerful reactions. They would run screaming from the room and have breakdowns and breakthroughs after attending my performances or classes. I understood that I was having a cathartic effect on people, and began to study all kinds of psychological and spiritual practices to understand the power that was coming through me. I did this for ten years, from 1985 – 1995, at which point I felt the best thing you could call me was a shaman. I asked my spirit guides if that was a good name, since I didn’t want to offend any indigenous people by claiming I was something I’m not. My guides said, “Don’t worry about what you’re called just do the work, we’re handing it to you on a silver platter.” (They have a sense of humor, my guides!) But it was one of my students who actually began calling me shaman; a sign from the community that I was indeed “doing the work.”
Shamanism is an ancient form of spiritual healing that has been practiced by virtually every culture in the world throughout all of human history. A simple explanation I give is that a shaman works with energy and spirit guides. Some people think of it as the origin of all other forms of spiritual expression and energy work. Your image of shamanism may be of indigenous peoples drumming, singing and dancing in rituals to create healing. There are cave paintings in Europe created 40,000 years ago which depict shamanic-style healing rituals, and it’s likely that shamanic practices are even older than that.
Many people think shamanism is exclusively a Native American tradition, but it is actually found all over the world. In fact, the word shaman comes from the Tungus tribe of Siberia. In the 1940’s, Mircea Eliade, a professor of religion, was studying the spiritual practices of the Tungus people, and observed that indigenous people all over the world had similar practices. He started calling these practices “shamanism”, and from academic circles that term spread to the general Western culture as a name for this work.
Shamanic practices are well known in India, Korea, Africa, Britain, North and South America and Australia, among many other places. Both men and women throughout the ages have been shamans. Each culture has a different name for people who do this type of spiritual practice. Here is a list of a few:
- Korea – Mu-dang
- Zulu – Sangoma
- Central America – Curandero/a
- Welsh – Anwenydd
- Hindu – Bhopa
- Wiradjuri Tribe, Australia – Wulla-mullung
- Bedouin – Fugara
Shamanic healing works on the principle of restoring the vital energy, or soul. The classic example is when an individual has lost parts of his or her soul due to traumatic events in life such as accidents, major illness, physical, sexual or emotional abuse or the loss of a loved one. To remedy this, the shamanic practitioner performs a soul retrieval healing, by doing a shamanic “journey” meditation to find and return lost parts of the client’s energy (“soul parts”).
However, shamanic healing is not limited to soul retrieval, or only to the healing of the individual person. It also includes mending the broken ties of community on every level: within human society, with nature and with the spirit realm. This may mean restoring the connection an individual has to her body; encouraging a dialogue among the various soul parts within an individual; introducing a person to his spirit guides; connecting a client to the more-than-human matrix of Nature; or helping a person find her expressive “voice” through singing and dancing.
Shamanism shares many traits with other forms of prayer and energy work, but we can identify ten characteristic ways of working in shamanism. Not every shaman works with all of them, but the more of the ten you see in a practitioner’s work, the more that practitioner is shamanic in his or her approach.
- Working with energy, spirit realm and spirit guides – Shamanism deals with going into altered states of consciousness to find healing and wisdom. In this altered state, we perceive all existence as being a big energetic field. The world is filled with spiritual beings and energies: angels, ancestors, totem, animals, gods, goddesses, nature spirits. These helpful spirits guide us to healing and wisdom.
- Heals through shifting energy and consciousness – shamanic practice is done in an altered state of consciousness, which allow us to see the spirit or energetic plane. Healing is accomplished through returning energy that has been lost or unblocking the flow of energy, which may happen through direct energetic healing or through gaining information. Shifting our perceptions of life, our experience and the world also allows us to heal.
- Purpose of shamanic work is to solve problems in daily life – shamanic work is not about simply having visions of the spirit realm, but to help self and others gain healing and wisdom in our daily lives. We work in concert with the spirits to improve the whole Web of Life.
- Travel out of body to the 3 Worlds – shamanic work involves “journeying” out of body into the spirit realm to work with the spirit guides for healing and guidance. Journeying is done to three different Worlds or planes of existence: the Upperworld, Middleworld and Lowerworld. The typical vision is to go through a tunnel, come into a place of nature (Journey Center) where you meet your team of spirit guides to ask for healing or information.
- Work with empowering the soul – shamanism heals and empowers the soul, which is the vital essence or unique individual Self. Through healing and restoring this spiritual power, many physical, mental and emotional issues are resolved. Soul is in between False Self and spirit. False Self is the surface and limited sense of self, while spirit is the Great Cosmic “Soup” of all energy that encompasses all that is. Soul is what you came to this lifetime to accomplish: all the talents and the mission you were born with to contribute to the world.
- Healing the Four Communities – shamanic healing is not only about healing the individual, but equally includes healing human society, the spirit realm and nature: the whole Cosmic Web of Life. Some shamans work almost exclusively healing nature, or the spirit realm.
- Grounded in nature – the shamanic practitioner gratefully utilizes the powers of nature for healing, transformation and restoration of energy and to stay grounded in the physical plane
- Grounded in the body – shamanic work is not just about having mental visions nor does it try to transcend the body. It addresses feelings and intuitions from within the body and heals what psychologists would call psychosomatic issues
- Grounded in expressive arts – shamans throughout the ages have used singing, dancing, drumming, storytelling and visual art as ways of shifting energy, expressing their visions and creating healing. The healing that shamans perform encompasses the work done in such modern healing modalities as movement therapy, sound healing, psychodrama and color therapy.
- Face shadow side – shamanic healing often confronts the “shadow side”, drawing out the full range of energies and emotions including anger, sadness and fear to create cathartic healing
Joan Forest Mage is proud to serve as a shamanic artist, teacher and healer in her hometown of Chicago, where she has offered individual healing sessions since 1995. She is the founder and director of Life Force Arts Shamanic Training and Life Force Arts Ensemble.