By S. Alexander Alich, Director, FoxFire Institute of Shamanic Studies
When I was invited to Berlin in 1993 the field of shamanism was close to unknown. Very few books explored the subject and the people I met were more interested in experience than in discussion. For many it was an exciting time of learning and awaking. A lot has happened since then. Sadly, the “image” of what shamanism is supposed to be has grown and created its’ own stereotypes leaving many people stuck and confused. Since the Spirit of this work stays alive through exploration and problem solving, it requires us to stay open minded and flexible. I would like to share some of my experiences with you in the hope of all of us finding our way back to the heart and beauty of this path.
What is Experiential Shamanism?
Experiential shamanism is an evolving work because it cannot be removed from whom and what it serves. Since our environment and we as people are ever changing, the field of shamanism is as well. While shamanism itself is difficult to directly define we might first look at what helps make it unique from other fields of work.
Shamans, or their contemporaries, Shamanic Practitioners specialize in matters of the Spirit. Spirit, is the life force, which connects us with everything around us and most of all with something what is greater than ourselves. It lives within each person and place on this planet. Though the spirit is normally strong and resilient it can become injured through illness, neglect or trauma. Care and healing of this special force is the specialty of the practitioner. Since they are looking at the bigger picture to find out where the imbalance originated they must not only look at the individual but also at the community.
It is then their job to communicate with their helper spirits and the spirits of the land to learn about the imbalance and find ways to restore peace and stability. While this might sound abstract at first it can be applied to situations where an undiagnosable illness has entered a person or to a place where those who visit become sick or unsettled.
In order to reach this level of communication with Spirit the practitioner is required to enter a state of trance or ecstasy. Historically the art of leaving our daily thinking and returning took years to learn and decades to master. Part of the reason for this was not only the intensive personal work and healing that must be done but also it required the ability to be strong enough to stay conscious during the process. Ecstasy or states of trance must not be entered into lightly and there must always be a way to return. Most importantly, there must be a clear reason to go in the first place.
The Importance of Community and your Gift
Traditionally Practitioners served a group or community – there was simply no need to for them otherwise. When a student first wants to work with me I might ask, who is your community? How do you plan to serve them? We all have communities that we are part of. The challenge is to know our gift and to make the conscious choice to work with it.
Everyone is born with a gift or purpose for his or her life. Your gift is not necessarily what you do but instead what you bring to share that is unique to your spirit or being. Finding a way to manifest or bring your gift into a form is a challenge we all must face.
Traps to be aware of in Shamanic work today:
Drugs: Shamanism today is quickly being associated with drug taking. Personally I am very saddened by this phenomenon. While some tribal cultures use “teacher plants” to reach states of ecstasy, the base and balance for this has long been gone from Western culture. The good news is that there are many ways to work in trance that are not illegal or destructive to our bodies. Drumming, dance and chanting are good examples of this.
Shamanism just for you: While we must all continue our personal work and growth, it is important to remember that shamanic practitioners serve a community – not themselves.
Leaving your own land in order to be spiritual: For many the idea of staying in Germany to learn and work doesn’t hold much appeal. Other countries and traditions call to us to visit and learn. The plus in this is seeing what is missing in our own culture. The challenge is when you come home, how will you apply what you have learned? How will this benefit this land and the people and spirits who live here? Remember, the daily work of spirituality is challenging wherever you live.
Ultimately experiential shamanism requires us to learn through making our own experience of something greater than ourselves. Ideally you want to find a teacher that will create learning environments and situations that challenge you to grow, heal and stretch yourself. This is rarely a comfortable situation and can at times take you to your limits. It is also learning how to apply what you have learned to benefit the earth and those who live on it. Lastly, it is important to remember that it is not a means unto itself but a path to live on
S.A. Alich has been working in the field of experiential shamanism since 1979. Each year he works with a small group of students to help them build a foundation for their shamanic practices and to find their working gift.