by S. Alexander Alich

Shamanism is a spiritual way toward a mystery we cannot understand. Its roots date back to the Upper Paleolithic period and perhaps to Neanderthal times, when humans sought to understand death and find ways to survive in a physically demanding environment. We can find it in every part of the world. It is not a cure, technique, or method. You cannot read about it, though you may read about others’ experiences of it. Shamanism is not a religion; by its nature it is based in individual expression of an unknowable mystery. Some people have found their healing on this way, and others have found a way to live.

Shamanic practitioner work is based in cultivating the human spirit. Today’s shamanic practitioners, much like their predecessors, develop their own relationship to the earth, elements, plants, and animals, as well as to their gifts and spirit helpers. Their biggest challenge is finding a way to bring their gifts into our modern world.

Much like their ancestors, today’s practitioners have felt called, usually from an early age, to serve something greater than themselves. They have also had a form of crisis or spiritual experience that has opened them to a larger perspective of the world and an initiation to working with spirit helpers and guides. Ideally, potential practitioners might use their experience and greater viewpoint to help their clients and communities facilitate healing and growth.

Myths and Misconceptions

The three most common myths and misconceptions I face as I educate people about this work are the following:

Shamanic practitioners take drugs, fall into a trance, and spirits take over their bodies. Although it is true historically that some practitioners have used chemical means to go into trance and thus come into contact with the spirit realms, there are a variety of ways to reach trance states. Dancing, chanting, drumming, and creating artwork are a few ways that a practitioner can enter a trance state. In my own work, and the work that I teach, I require that each practitioner remain awake and aware at all times while facilitating clients. If practitioners lose their memory while working, it would be a clear danger sign that something has gone wrong.

The second myth I encounter is that shamanism is a form of religion or cult; it is not. Shamanism by its nature is spirituality and our unique experience of spirit or divinity. Through its history it has not been institutionalized and cannot be practiced the same way by any two people.

The third is what I refer to as feathers and beads. There is a stereotype that practitioners must always appear in a tribal or earth setting. I think the most important thing to know here is that each practitioner must serve a community and be a member of that community. The people I have worked with and trained serve in a variety of settings, including hospitals, schools, clinics, churches, and corporate business.

Our Work Today

Today’s Shamanic Practitioner follows four principles:

1. The first and probably most important is to listen to the client’s spirit to guide them through the healing process. We must always ask, what is the unique journey of this person, place, or animal? What are they here to learn and teach? This looks different for each situation and will guide us to help them in the way that they need to learn. For some it may look like a cure for their illness and for others it may mean guiding them through the process of dying. There must be no judgment in this, only allowing and respecting each being’s journey.

2. Find the origin point of the imbalance causing disease. We want to find the place in the person’s spirit and life where the imbalance began and correct it at its source.

In shamanism we see five bodies or aspects of a person–physical body, mind, heart, spirit, and soul. We view these aspects in a circle, with the soul sitting in the middle and the other four around it. The wheel is in constant movement and change. Seen in this way, there is not one aspect we consider superior. What we call illness begins subtly in the spirit. If the imbalance is not corrected there, it will move to the mind, heart, and eventually the body, where is becomes more challenging to treat.

3. Apply tools to restore balance. All practitioners come with their own tool bag and medicine. Our medicine is the special gift or talent that is unique to each practitioner. We must apply our own tools to help our clients move toward balance. The practitioners must rely on the relationships they have developed in their years of training to do this. They must be open to other possibilities, even if those possibilities mean that they have to leave what they are comfortable with. They must also be willing to think outside the established system and create new paths for others to follow. Being invited into this role by a community is a serious commitment and not one to enter lightly. Practitioners dedicate their lives to serving something greater than themselves and must regularly empty and purify themselves so the information or healing that a community needs can come through them.

4. The last step is offering education so the client can obtain a better quality of life. After my first year in practice, I learned that the healing session or table work was only the initial step in the healing process. The rest of the work is what the clients can live with, develop, and ultimately integrate into their daily lives. That is where the real healing happens.