Shamanism can sound arcane, exotic, distant, "other" -- and in the minds of many Western people, this is precisely how and where shamanism exists: somewhere "out there". It is liminal, on the edge of normalcy. The shaman is someone who dances and chants strange sounds to a rhythm only they can hear, a dancer in their own dimension; a crazy, eccentric person out of touch with "reality", moving to the beat of a long lost superstition.
For many people in modern society, who are so used to the comfort and security offered by technological advancement and amenity, the idea of practicing shamanism simply doesn't fit into the typical modern lifestyle. So what relevance does a so-called ancient, primitive practice have in the urban, modern world?
To really understand the relevance of shamanism in today's world, we have to first understand what exactly shamanism is. One of the first things to understand is that the pop culture portrayal of shamanism is not accurate. It is based largely in fantasy and gross generalizations that are passed along through various means -- texts, media, hearsay, beliefs, academia, etc. The propagation of this kind of thinking reinforces and creates common misconceptions and mysteries that continue to characterize what people know about shamanism. Yet, fundamental to knowing what shamanism is, is understanding that the only way to accomplish this is through your own participation and experience; the nature of shamanism is entirely experiential.
Shamanism is defined herein as an exploration of consciousness. Consciousness is defined as a state of being. Every thing that is manifest, including yourself, everything in your world, your thoughts, the universe, the past and the future -- all of these things are understood as states of being, or expressions of consciousness. The physical space is an expression of consciousness. The computer or device that you are reading this on is another example of consciousness -- which is simply something that is. This is what is meant by a state of being -- it exists, it is experienced. This ultimately leads to the understanding that consciousness is an expressed state of life, which is understood as synonymous with experience.
Thus, shamanism is a means of exploring the entirety of life and experience.
Let's take an example of a classical shamanic scenario and apply these definitions. A fundamental role that shamans hold in traditional societies is healer. Let's say a young man comes to the village shaman seeking help with a chronic digestive problem. No matter what he does, he cannot relieve the pain and discomfort in his stomach. He tries changing his diet, taking healing herbs, fasting, praying -- but nothing works. The shaman sees the man and asks him to lie down. She places her hands on his stomach and closes her eyes. A few moments go by and she tells the man to come back in the morning on an empty stomach. He does. She asks him to lie down again, and if he would grant her permission to take a shamanic journey into his body. He says yes. Again she closes her eyes and touches his stomach. She enters into a deep state of relaxation and concentration. After some time passes, the young man falls asleep and the shaman comes back from her journey. She rubs some ointment onto the man's stomach and lets him rest. He finally wakes up that evening, feeling very hungry and talking about his dreams. He eats soup prepared for him by the shaman, and that marks the end of his treatment. He returns to his family and the stomach issue is resolved.
In this scenario we can frame the entire process as played out in and through different states of consciousness. The man's sickness is an expression of a specific kind of consciousness that manifests physically. The shaman enters an altered state of consciousness that allows her to explore the ailment and learn how to heal it. The knowledge is made accessible through this trance state. Each state of consciousness the young man experiences during the process (pain, deep sleep, dream state, hunger, healing) is tied to the ultimate resolution of the problem. This whole episode is guided by the shaman who leads herself and the man through these states and ultimately to a satisfactory conclusion.
Shamanic literature is filled with stories about healing such as this, divination, magical feats and miracles. The validity or "truth" of these stories is not what's solely important. What is also important is that the nature of shamanism is not limited to particular kinds of stories or manifestations found within certain kinds of cultures or systems. In other words, shamanism is not relegated to or only functional in ancient or primitive cultures. The essence of a shamanic practice is birthed out of the wholeness of the experience; this includes the cultural context as one piece but it also includes the practitioner and all their life experience, beliefs, knowledge, etc; the participants, the space or "theater" of engagement, and so on. Thus, the expression of shamanism is a perfect reflection of the state of consciousness or state of being of that moment. The shaman "reads" this state like a map and uses shamanic tools, knowledge, and skills to navigate the space much like a traveler uses a guidebook, map, compass, sun and stars, lay of the land, their inner sense, and whatever else is necessary to continue the exploration and achieve a desired state.
This map, this expression of consciousness, of life, can be and is anything and everything. Sometimes the map is your own body, and the shamanism is applied to explore your body and bring it to a new state of being. Sometimes it is someone else's body, or their mind or spirit. The landscape can be your family dynamics. It can be the past or the future. The map manifests as your career, and your workplace. Relationships. You find yourself exploring parenthood. You explore and navigate your dreams, your thoughts and inner world. Emotions. Reactions. Beliefs. Ideologies. Fears and phobias. What you love and are passionate about. Animal consciousness. Plant consciousness. Consciousness itself.
Everybody's life is made of these elements. Old culture, new society, alternative or mainstream -- it doesn't matter. The matter is the exploration and navigation of life supported and guided by the shamanism you bring to it. These skills and capacities are relevant in today's world, tomorrow's world, your world, and any world. See for yourself...
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.