What Is Shamanism?
Shamanism is essentially an ecstatic means of altering consciousness and thereby extending and enlarging the ordinary world.
The word Shamanism has been mercilessly bandied about in the popular press and media to the extent that we have an image of a new age hippy beating a drum and mumbling strange incantations. The influence of popular culture has been to reduce the idea of Shamanism to a fad and rather boring image. Shamanism, in its true sense, is something very different from this image and in fact offers new ideas that are, I believe, essential in the modern stress infested and unhealthy environment in the post-industrial world.
What is Shamanism? The word Shaman comes to English from the Tungus language via Russian. Among the Tungus of Siberia it is both a noun and a verb. While the Tungus have no word for Shamanism, it has come into usage by anthropologists, historians of religion and others in contemporary society to designate the experience and the practices of the Shaman. It is difficult to extract in a few hundred words the essence of Shamanism but a few general points might help to suggest what it is.
Shamanism is essentially an ecstatic means of altering consciousness and thereby extending and enlarging the ordinary world. Like all definitions about Shamanism this one is not adequate, but it is a beginning.
Shamanism is about total transformation and of the very rebirth of the human psyche and in this sense it is more akin to what most people understand as a religion than anything else. In fact, there is strong evidence to suggest that Shamanism in its different forms was a sort of ur-religion, an original religious state form that all other mystical religions derived. But that is another discussion. What concerns us here is the relevance of Shamanism for the modern person struggling in a world of demands and secular needs.
There are a number of levels at which Shamanism can be discussed. Possibly the most well known is that idea of the Shaman as the healer, or the traditional healer. Many Shamanic techniques can be used to establish a better state of modern health, for example by stressing the interconnection of all things that have become so divided in our world.
Social scientists like Wallace conceive of the process of becoming a Shaman as an instance of mazeway resynthesis. This term refers to the sudden re-organization of one's mode of structuring the world in an attempt to make sense of a highly anxiety-provoking environment. It thereby serves a therapeutic function.
The contemporary world is one that is characterized to a large extent by stress, pressure and a narrowing focus on the immediate needs of the self. It is no wonder that the executive and the businessperson is becoming jaded, looking for other experiences that surely must be more meaningful than the modern. This has been a constant theme throughout our century and as we enter in the new millennium this question seems to shout louder and the lack of an adequate response becomes even more deafening.
Simply put, Shamanism and Shamanic vision suggest a far richer and more complex universe than the model that we presently have. There are many of us who feel, at least, the truthfulness of this statement, even if we are not convinced about the Shamanic world itself. This alone suggests that we investigate what Shamanism has to offer.
Modern business, especially in the Internet age, is beginning to understand one the essential elements of Shamanism and this is the complexity of intercommunication. As the term networking becomes more important to our world so an ancient truth is revealed in modern guise; and that is that the world is not a simple process of cause and effect but a complexity of interaction and reaction.
Shamanic thought is thought which understands this fact at a very deep level. And it is particularly in the healing process that Shamanism realizes the relatedness of the physical body with the mental and spiritual, a knowledge that modern medicine is only now coming to terms with. The difficulty and depth of Shamanism cannot be approached by these few words, but the modern man and woman will possibly identify a few aspects that may intrigue them in the above.
If we take a further step in an encounter with the Shamanic world we find that the most difficult idea for the modern person to deal with, particularly from a Western perspective, is the radical way in which Shamanism contradicts our ordinary conceptions of logic.
For centuries we have been conditioned into a certain mode of thought which is, simplistically, a linear, logical one-thing–after-another kind of thinking. We find it very hard to get used to Shamanic ideas that suggest a view of the world that is seemingly illogical. How do we cope with the idea of Shamanic initiation that suggests a death of the human psyche and body and a rebirth of the human in another form? One version of this myth is the Australian aboriginal depiction of an initiate being reduced to a skeleton and the having all his flesh and blood replaced.
Or are these only metaphors comparable to the Christian myths of drinking the blood of Christ? How do we deal with a worldview where things happen simultaneously and where time has a flexible meaning? (One immediately thinks of developments in modern quantum physics that approach this vision.) The point is that understanding Shamanism, if this understanding is to be more than the most superficial, requires a change and adjustment our worldview and cultural perspective.