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...
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.
When you forgive, you forgive for yourself.
It is an act that frees you from the burden you carry by holding onto what someone else has done. You liberate the weight, the energy, the negativity, the blame, everything. When you don't forgive because you think the other person doesn't deserve it, it ultimately becomes something that you have to endure and experience within yourself.
Forgiveness is an act of empowerment, where you empower yourself to be free of the very thing you need to forgive in the first place.
Image "Holy Spirit and Worship"
Happiness is a spirit.
It is raw, untamed, and unconditional -- meaning that it manifests without any preconditions or under no circumstances. It simply emerges, from the same creative space that all things emerge, whole and without any external reason. It just is.
Often we think that happiness is the result of other things, things that we do or certain ways of being. And so we try to live by replicating those actions or patterns in order to then be happy. But at its core, happiness is an experience that exists on its own independent of anything else. You don't have to be a certain way or do certain things in order to be happy. All that you need is to express this spirit, to experience happiness.
It is endless joy, an ocean of bliss...
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!
In the midst of winter, during the darkest of days and longest of nights, on the brink of a new year -- there is no better time for this.
As part of this year's resolution for change, and commitment to transformation, I am offering free shamanic sessions as a community giveaway.
That's right. No red tape. No fine print. A clear and simple gesture. A gift to anyone and everyone who wants to experience change and transformation through shamanism.
I have been training in and studying shamanism for several years, and I am at a very important part in the process. And so I am compelled to open this door and see what comes my way.
These sessions can be arranged however you wish, addressing whatever it is in your life that you want to change or see movement in. Spiritual, psychological, emotional, physical. Whatever it may be, the shamanic journey starts in the same place. All you need is the willingness to participate and begin the process.
There is no better time for this.
Experiences that push the boundaries become a dream oft forgotten. What do we do with this vision, with the dream once awakened? Is it well kept and hidden, safeguarded from the pangs of another dream called reality? Do we shout it out for all to hear? Are these words empty if not felled on deaf ears? Do we wait in poise like a wild cat stalking its prey, so patient and determined, lulled by yet another dream, a dream of a dream come true...
Last week I attended a vision fast guide training at the School of Lost Borders in Northern California, near Death Valley. The program included a 4-day and night fast in a chosen spot amidst the sun and rock -- no food, no shelter, no people. Just you, your pack, a few gallons of water, the landscape... and your intent.
People come to this ceremony for many reasons. To mark a significant change in their life. To release or let go of something. To heal and grow. To face fear. To receive vision. To transcend and transform. Yet in paring down the essence of why, every reason or purpose for coming to this ceremony is revealed as born of a common spirit, a common impulse that moves you in your depths.
Something is out there, and I am going to find it.
This impulse is in response to a growing need unfulfilled by the rhythm of a mundane modernity. It just isn't enough. There is something else, something more. A question unanswered. A sense of need, even desperation clawing at the deepest recesses of your longing. And it's not in vain or in passing; no, it grows and grows until it turns into a roaring that comes to define your life.
For some people, they just want to know. To know what it is. To know what it is they really want, and what they are willing to give to find out.
And so they come. The people come. It may not be a deluge but it is a flow. The rivers run, the rains come. Even in the midst of crag and dry and drought, the rains come.
For some it's their whole lives in question, and this is what they take to the fast: What am I doing? Who am I? Or it's simple, more refined: Do I take this new job? Do I need to relocate? It's often a transition from one phase to the next, a marking of passage: Adolescent to adulthood. Adulthood into elderhood. A quest marking marriage or parenthood. A quest for physical or emotional healing. It's in response to a spiritual desire or crisis. Asking the "big" ones: What is the meaning of life? What is the point of all this? And what is my place in this world?
Regardless of what it is, the common element binding each purpose together is the initial desire to perform the vision quest ceremony in order to mark or change something -- to become whole with something and fulfill that task, whatever it may be. Beyond this, it is only the courage and strength required to go forward, to undertake the journey.
Last month I attended the Pasadena Body Mind Spirit Expo to present and talk about shamanism. This was the first event of this type for me, and overall it was definitely a successful learning experience. I met several really interesting people and both days were filled with engaging conversation. While presenting, I was asked to interview with Dr. Carol Francis--a cutting edge psychologist who is on a mission to share with others opportunities to improve consciousness and live successful lives. The interview is a series of 10 practitioners in attendance at the expo, each sharing what they do. My segment begins around 71:00. Have a listen and 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.