Mongolia has a rich shamanic history. Under Russian influence throughout the 20th century, shamanism became illegal and was forced underground. Despite the external pressure to eradicate the practice, shamans continued their craft until Mongolia gained its independence in 1990. Since then, there has been a revival of shamanic activity throughout the country. People are finding that these ancient rituals and practices, still intact from the ancestral past, are effective tools for navigating the multidimensional landscape of their contemporary world. They navigate politics, economic disparity and hardship. They investigate and uncover forgotten histories, reawakening their ancestral connections. This allows them to find meaning -- to literally re-member themselves, their people, the spirits of the land. This speaks to a key component of shamanic practice: the ability to create a world filled with meaning, depth and connection. This helps to fill gaps that remain in a scattered cultural, spiritual and social arena, one that actively sought the dissolution of shamanism and by extension, a way of life.
For Mongolian anthropologist Manduhai Buyandelger, this was not only a story close to home but a story to tell. In her account Tragic Spirits, she traces the evolution and implications of this newfound growth and interest in Mongolian shamanism.
I've always, always had a vision of integrative, comprehensive healthcare that includes not only lots of options, but options that address all dimensions of experience. Bringing shamans and other kinds of folk healers into the hospital setting is, at least to me, a no-brainer. There is room for all perspectives. Seemingly contradictory philosophies about health and healing can coincide. If it's truly about health and healing, then the opposition between modalities and perspectives shouldn't really matter; it's not about being right and castigating everything else. Health and healing should be about effective, safe and comprehensive care.
And in a Merced, CA hospital, this is exactly their way of approaching healthcare. The hospital has acknowledged the importance of cultural medicine and practices, and they now have a hospital-wide program that incorporates shamanic healing rituals alongside Western medicine. Largely initiated by the Hmong population in the region, patients, practitioners and hospital staff are all in accordance with the positive beneftis the program delivers. In the Ecuadorean mountain town of Riobamba, a similar program has been implemented, with similar successes. This kind of cultural incorporation, as well as working to bridge the philosophical gap between Western physical medicine and shamanic spiritual medicine, is an approach that could well enhance the overall efficacy of medical care everywhere. Read both articles here:
Have you ever wondered why in modern Christmas tradition we do the things we do? What is the origin of the Christmas tree, with the star on top, decorations about, and all the brightly wrapped presents beneath? Or the idea behind Santa Claus who jets around the globe in a magic sleigh with flying reindeer – defying both time and space – to deliver the world’s children a bounty of Christmas gifts? And since when did Santa and the birth of Jesus have anything to do with each other? Where do these stories come from – and better yet: what are we actually celebrating on Christmas morning?
There are answers to these questions. And the history is not so farfetched or even that hidden. You just have to know where to look. And the first place we look is the North Pole; seriously – in ancient Siberia, near the top of the world. The story of Santa and his likely origins begins where he supposedly lives: the frigid North.
In this wintry-wonderland, if you go searching for Santa, you may not find him or his Elvin factory – but you will find groups of indigenous people native to what we know as Siberia. Among these cultures are the northern Tungusic people, known as the Evenki. The Evenki were predominantly hunter-gatherers as well as reindeer herders. Their survival depended largely upon the health and vitality of their domesticated reindeer. The reindeer provided the Evenki and other northern tribes with everything from clothing, housing material, wares and tools from the bones and antlers, transportation (yes, they ride reindeer!), milk, as well as cultural and religious inspiration.
The Evenki were also a shamanic culture. The word “shaman” actually has its roots in the Tungus word saman which means “one who knows or knows the spirits.” Many of the classic shamanic characteristics that would later be reflected in cultures all over the world were originally documented by Russian and European explorers while observing the Tungus and related people’s religious life. This includes the three-world system, the shamanic journey or soul flight, the use of altered states of consciousness, animistic belief in spirit, and so forth.
A significant aspect of the shamanism practiced in this part of the world during that time was linked to Amanita muscaria, also known as the Fly Agaric mushroom. This mushroom is more widely accepted in the modern world as the Alice in Wonderland mushroom. It was held very sacred by these ancient people, and was used by the shaman and others for ceremonial and spiritual purposes. Amanitas – as you can tell by the pictures – range from brightly red and white to golden orange and yellow. They only grow beneath certain types of evergreen trees. They form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree, the exchange of which allows them to grow. One of the reported ancient beliefs was that the mushroom was actually the fruit of the tree. Due to the lack of seed, it is also commonly held that Fly Agaric was divine – a kind of virginally birthed sacred plant.
Although intensely psychoactive, Amanitas are also toxic. One way to reduce the toxicity and increase the psychoactive potency was to simply dry them. When out collecting the mushrooms, people would pick a bunch of them under the evergreen trees and lay them out along the branches while continuing to pick the mushrooms beneath other trees. The result was something that looked very reminiscent of a modern Christmas tree: evergreen trees whose branches are dotted with bright red, roundish “decorations” – in this case the sacred mushrooms. At the end of the session, the shaman or harvester would go around to each of their mushroom stashes and put them all in one large sack… a large sack?!! Remind you of anything?! Not only this, as the story of the tradition goes, the shaman would then, carrying this large sack, visit the homes of his or her people and deliver the mushrooms to them. They would then continue the drying process by hanging them in a sock, near the fire!
Another way to reduce the toxicity of the sacred mushrooms is through human filtration. Once passed through the body, the toxic elements are apparently filtered by the liver and the resultant urine that comes out contains the still intact psychoactive elements. So they drank the filtered urine. But that’s only half the story. Somewhere in the mythic origins of this practice is the reindeer. Because the reindeer also love these mushrooms. They dig through the snow to eat them, and they also drink their own urine afterwards. So perhaps, long ago, one of the first shamans witnessed the reindeer’s love affair with this peculiar mushroom – as well as its propensity for eating its own freshly yellowed-snow – and saw how peculiarly it behaved as the romance heated up. The curiosity (indeed a hallmark characteristic of a shaman) couldn’t be contained, and the shaman did what he had to do: he first ate some of the yellow snow himself… and without a doubt realized the profound wisdom and magic not only in the mushroom, but in the reindeer. And so this romance, too, began…
However it may have happened in antiquity, the connection between the reindeer, the mushroom and the shamanism is apparent. A very common vision that one has while under the influence of Fly Agaric is precisely that: flying. Massive distortions of time and space occur, affecting scale in dramatic ways. Not only do you observe yourself flying, but also other things… like reindeer. It is not that difficult to connect the dots here. Shamanic people are deeply invested in their environment. They learn the magical and mystical properties of the natural world, and often assign a great deal of importance and sacredness to the bearers of that magic. For some of these ancient Siberian people, this power was charioted by the reindeer and the sacred mushroom. That the reindeer should have the ability to fly is evident not only in the vision, or their clearly altered state once intoxicated, but also in the wisdom they offered to the shamans by eating the mushroom in the first place, and for guiding them to do so just the same.
It wasn’t only the reindeer who could fly, but the shamans also took flight. As mentioned, the shamanic journey or soul flight is a keystone in shamanic practice and especially so in ancient Siberian culture. In order to interact with the spirits, the shaman had to be able to leave this world and enter theirs. This was accomplished by projecting his or her spirit from the physical and into the immaterial. They either needed the power to do this on their own, or use a spirit helper to take them. It is very common for shamans to develop relationships with birds, naturally, as they have the power to fly. But here, in the North Pole, what better animal to use than the magical, flying reindeer?
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...
Shamanic healing is a multi-dimensional experience. It engages practitioner and participant on every level: emotional, psychological, personal, spiritual, physical, ideological, etc. The essence of healing itself is derived from an understanding of wholeness, and so the implication is that to be healed is to be made whole again. In order to be made whole, one must go on the journey of retrieving or reclaiming something that is missing, something vital that causes an imbalance, affliction or suffering.
For instance, a very common shamanic healing practice is soul retrieval. A traditional view of soul retrieval goes something like this: a person suffers from an intense, traumatic experience that results in soul loss, where a piece or part of their soul is somehow trapped by the experience; this missing piece needs to be restored to the person, and in doing so they are brought back to health and made whole again.
From this view of healing, the foundational assumption is that suffering and affliction takes something away from us, something that is vital and belongs to us. A state of wholeness is a state of health, where every aspect of our being -- mind, body, spirit -- is fully intact. When we need healing, or when we need something to be fixed, we are saying that we need our wholeness restored so we can claim once again what is ours.
This holds as sound and legitimate. But let's look at this a different way. Let’s say that a person in need of healing is already whole. Let's say that their experience of suffering is not the result of missing pieces, lost spirits, or trapped energy, nor is there something to be fixed or something wrong. Instead, let's say that the need for healing and the experience of suffering is the result of a specific arrangement or pattern of spirits and energy, and how someone relates to that pattern. This pattern of spirits, or energetic signature, is very specific to each person and to each experience. No two patterns will ever be exactly the same, just as no two people are the same. But the answers to the questions and the path that leads to healing is always inherent in the pattern itself and in how that pattern is related to. Knowing what this pattern is makes the process of changing the experience of the pattern a whole lot easier -- and very effective.
This perspective shift is very simple. It simply says that you are already and always whole, and that you have within you the entirety of your universe. And so by nature of this entirety, you have everything you need to heal. When someone comes to me for a shamanic healing session, I see their wholeness. I see a spiritual being, an expression of energy that it is absolute, and absolutely perfect in their expression. Even if that expression manifests as suffering. Every piece of the puzzle is still intact.
What changes is not an addition to or retrieval of something that's gone missing, but rather the unique way the pieces and aspects of ourselves are arranged. The shamanic healing process is one that simultaneously provides an experience that shifts the patterns of energy -- the spirits -- while offering the person who is being healed an opportunity to change their perspective regarding their experience of suffering. This perspective shift is a change in relationship to the very nature of the thing that causes the suffering in the first place. Once this happens, the process can be very fluid, with seamless effort, and ultimately it works.
So instead of looking at healing as a journey to becoming whole again, we can understand shamanic healing as a process of aligning with one's wholeness through a shift in the way you relate to and perceive whatever is causing you suffering. The change in relationship and perception is the invitation to healing. It opens the door within yourself and invites you to walk through it. Once you make the commitment and move through the doorway, you've already agreed that healing will take place. Indeed, it's already begun. The shamanic journey that ensues is a co-participatory event that you experience as the psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual structures within you align to correspond with the new way you are relating to the experience and yourself as a whole.
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.