What is Shamansim?

By Carl Golden

Shamanism is the healing practice within the animistic worldview that recognizes everything as inherently spiritual and, therefore, sacred. It refers to a wide range of practices regarding communication and collaboration with -- as well as a profound respect for -- the natural and spiritual worlds. These various practices aim to maintain the balance (health) amongst all members of a community -- human and nonhuman alike.

Shamans are said to treat illness by mending the soul. Alleviating traumas affecting the soul restores the physical body of the individual to balance and wholeness. This restoration of balance results in the elimination of illness.

The shaman is called to be an intermediary or messenger between the human world and the spirit worlds of Nature. Shamans do their healing work by entering an altered state of consciousness at will to make a conscious journey to a liminal/spiritual realm that is none other than Nature's dream world. This other reality is typically comprised of three worlds: the lower world, the middle world and the upper world, and each world is inhabited by helping spirits. The shaman is able to establish relationships with these spirits and to bring back information and healing for a community or an individual.

Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits which affect the lives of the living. The tree has a spirit, the rock has a spirit, my drum has a spirit, and yes, even this computer has a spirit. So, all things are afforded respect. But what is meant by "spirit"? Does my computer have a ghost-like entity or deity inhabiting it? Does a tree or a rock? The ancient animistic cultures believed that there were deities inhabiting things. However, the animistic practioners of shamanism today don't tend to think in terms of deities; rather, we think in terms of consciousness.

If we think of "spirit" as "consciousness", then what is meant by the "spirit of a thing" is the configuration of awareness that informs a thing--its consciousness. Trees are living, conscious things. A tree's consciousness is the result of the collective awareness of countless cells, molecules and atoms acting and interacting according to dynamic, inherent patterns of being, knowing and behavior that gives rise to the phenomenon we recognize as "tree." Once we begin to understand that spirit is consciousness, then we can say that a tree has spirit and, perhaps, even a deity (a tree's unique character and power) without collapsing into superstitious mistakes.

It is one thing to allow for the possibility that a tree has consciousness because it is a living thing, but why would anyone think that a computer, a rock, a drum or any inanimate thing has consciousness? The consciousness or spirit of inanimate objects is inherent to a thing's subatomic, atomic and molecular structures as well as to its aggregate form/design because spirit/consciousness is energy fundamentally, and energy flows through all things, animate and inanimate. Indeed, within this view, everything is spirit.

Consequentially, all things are linked through spirit. This view of the vast interconnectedness of everything in the universe is an essential principle in the Shamanic worldview. (It, also, is a view that is supported by contemporary physics, which has discovered the phenomenon of entanglement.)

Spirit is power, too, which should be respected. Shamans know this. So, if I am going to effectively interact with the spirit of a thing, then I need to have at least a basic understanding and appreciation of a thing's nature--its power. By respecting the nature of a medicinal plant, one can benefit from its healing power. Understanding this fundamental reciprocity in all things is the doorway into understanding the shamanic worldview.

Given that everything is spirit, we humans find ourselves in a position of equality rather than dominance. All animals and plants are our cousins in the great family of life. Recognizing this fact, the shaman walks a radical path of "at-one-ment" with all life. This is the way of the shaman.

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