This is a tricky question, to be certain. And while there are many facets and nuances that will not be addressed here, the following article provides a basic framework for understanding what exactly shamanism is.
It is important to mention that there are many, many definitions and understandings of shamanism in the world. Many traditions are active today with longstanding roots that claim to reach back thousands of years, perhaps even longer. There are also hybrids of traditions, new traditions, modern shamanic practices, disciplines that incorporate shamanic elements, and all kinds of spiritual practitioners that are sometimes labeled with the term shamanism. And within all of this complexity, there are also many, many different kinds of beliefs and philosophies about what constitutes true or authentic shamanism. So at the same time there is a multiplicity of shamanic practices, there is also a multiplicity of beliefs that surround those practices.
Because shamanism is based in experience and results, a clear definition of shamanism will hold true in and through experience, regardless of beliefs. This leaves room for multiple ways of understanding shamanism without any particular way being held as right or wrong. Shamanism is understood and experienced differently by different people and under different circumstances. The common element is not the content of what is understood, but the experience of the shamanism itself -- this is what makes it "real" or "authentic".
From one perspective, then, it can be considered irrelevant to attempt a single definition of something that resists it. Fair enough. But there is value in bringing integrity and coherence to an understanding of shamanism, if only to operate from within and by this clarity in definition.
So let's start with a common, classical definition: Shamanism is a system or practice led by a practitioner, the shaman, who willfully changes their state of consciousness from a normal state to an altered state in order to enact something, to perform a specific duty on the behalf of another person, community, group, etc. Often, this altered state of consciousness is framed as a movement from this world to the spirit world. It is in the spirit world where the shaman does his/her work, and it is here that the resolution or remedy to the situation is received and brought back to the normal world.
There are 3 main points implicit in this definition:
A wonderful interview with The Merry Medium -- we talk about the shamanic path, experience and practice in the modern world, and a little about my story. Includes a guided shamanic journey.
Airs live Monday January 14, 2013 at 7pm -- and will be available for download on The Merry Medium's internet radio show. Enjoy!
Matt Toussaint has immersed himself in shamanic practice and exploration for the past 10 years. He currently resides in Peru where he serves as an apprentice shaman and facilitator at a plant medicine retreat center. Read more.