Photo "Medicine Woman" from Our Infinitely Evolving Universe blog
Traditionally, shamanic practices are rooted in small communities and tribal societies that lived a primarily pre-modern life. While all shamanic cultures are most likely not expressions of the idyllic state of oneness with nature that is commonly portrayed, it is at least safe to say that shamanic cultures were certainly much more in tune with and nature-based than typical modern society. Shamanistic elements also can be traced back to virtually every religious and spiritual tradition, including the more widely-practiced monotheistic traditions of today. This is not to say that every religion or spiritual tradition is shamanic, but that there are common elements and practices inherent to these traditions that have roots in these older ways of relating to and understanding the world.
As small, earth-oriented societies began to condense, diversify, and eventually move towards more stationary, technologically-focused and complex systems, shamanism went through a similar transformation. The traditional role of the community's shaman was multifaceted: healer, sage, priest, ceremonialist; and sometimes political chief and war leader. These roles were not always held in concert by a single person or practitioner, but often the scope of the shaman's duties was to fulfill several of these various functions. The movement away from small communities to larger societies began to unravel these once unified roles into separate, specialized positions. Today we see these same needs being satisfied through a number of more refined roles: doctors, therapists, religious or spiritual leaders, and so on.
Shamanism has never truly been replaced or lost, however. It is a nicely packaged misapprehension that shamanistic practices and traditions are relics of the past. As already mentioned, there are traces of shamanism in the most widely recognized religions of today. In many places around the world there are active, historically rooted traditions that continue to serve communities and individuals. Moreover, and especially over the last several decades, shamanism has also seen a rise in popularity among traditionally non-shamanic, Western people. There are many avenues and expressions of shamanism still operating beyond the thin veneer of materialism upheld by modern Western culture. Some of them do exist in the far reaches of the world, and some are right smack in the backyard of this urban madness.
It would be more accurate to say that Western culture has gone through a process of losing its shamanic roots. The evidence that people are scrambling to get them back is apparent. There is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and spiritual longing that seems to come hand-in-hand with the growth of modern society. Essentially, this is a crisis of meaning that points towards a deepening loss of identity, authenticity, and genuine spiritual connection. This meaninglessness could be acknowledged as both symptom and sickness -- a self-perpetuating, illusive and illusory spiritual emergency that leads its sufferers towards any number of possible outlets that promise answers and resolutions to the crisis.
One of these outlets is, or has become, shamanism. People come to shamanic practices looking for something that's missing. They are looking to solve the riddle of their life, to have the emptiness inside finally filled with something that makes sense, with something that makes them feel like they are alive again. They want purpose. Meaning. Or they come just as people have for millennia: to heal any and all illnesses sourced in any and all dimensions -- physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual.
People often look to shamanism as a way to help them live more fulfilled lives. But these needs and perceived deficiencies are not uniquely answered or sought after through shamanic means. Indeed, these questions are at the root of spiritual seeking itself. A devout Christian or Buddhist would undoubtedly find answers in their respective traditions. But for people who have no religious pedigree; or for those whose spiritual inheritance has proved to be arid, what choices do they have?
I know this path because I walked it. I still do. And the more people I see treading the shamanic current, the more I see how pervasive this longing for authenticity really is. How deeply people suffer for lack of meaning and purpose in life. How the fantasies of modernity have betrayed people. Sure, there are those that fit snugly into their seat, with seatback pockets nicely tucked, seatbelts on and tray tables secured. But there are many who just can’t sit still. They stir. They writhe. They want to know. Is this real? Is there something more? Does magic exist? Where is Spirit?
Invocation is the process of calling on a spirit or spirits. It establishes connection and opens communication to the spirit you are calling, and there is meaning and/or intention inherent in the invocation. In other words, it does something - it activates a spirit and makes something happen.
Invocation resembles the use of language itself. When using language, there are often many ways to get a message across and deliver an intended meaning, and some of those ways are more effective in certain situations and with certain people, and other ways work best in other circumstances. It is also a matter of personal style and choice that determines how and what is said, to whom, etc.
Regardless of the particular language that is used, the end result is communication. Language choice is contingent upon the words chosen only as long as the words convey the meaning intended.
You are driving to an unfamiliar part of town with a friend, who knows the directions and is guiding you to your destination. Suddenly she says, "Okay, go left!"
You are startled and not sure what to do. You see a street 100 feet ahead, a driveway 20 feet ahead, and a small dirt road leading into a field between the two. Based on her intonation and excitement, you assume she meant the closest option. You start to slow down and head for the driveway, but she directs you to turn on the next street instead.
The confusion is based in a lack of specificity. Here are some other ways she could have communicated the same meaning:
"Turn left at the next street up ahead."
"Take the left after we pass by this field."
"In about 100 feet, turn left."
"Take your next left on Maple St."
"After passing by a red barn in a field on your left, you will see a row of large Maple trees; turn left at the end of the row."
"Once you pass the dirt road on the left, make your next left."
In all of these examples, what she says is important insofar as the meaning of what she says enables you to understand her. Simply, communication and guidance.
Your friend giving you directions is like the shaman, and you are the spirit that she is guiding. She knows where she wants to go and how to get there, but she needs your help. Her directions are invocations. The words and phrases found within each invocation are spirits - guiding spirits that provide specific tasks to accomplish. The spirits in each invocation are different - some use Maple trees, street names, distance or scale, landmarks and symbols - but they all suffice to get the job the done.
This is what invocations are, and what they do. They keep things moving. They bring one story to its completion and help facilitate the next. They help you move out of a space filled with doubt and into one of clarity. They help you get what you need because you know how to ask for it.
Invocation resembles language because language is invocation. The way you use invocation in shamanism and with spirit guides is a process of learning and communicating in a new language. When you communicate with guides, clarity and specificity in meaning will ensure that your guides understand you and perform as the invocation intends.
Invocations guide the spirits, so that the spirits can guide you...
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.