Just as key elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Zen have come in successive waves to renew a weary, post-modern West, so Shamanism has touched a chord in the Western soul. At the grass-roots cultural level in the West, it is impossible to ignore the rising tide of interest and apparent value gained in shamanic explorations.
Across the Internet, our new Silk Road, blogs and websites featuring Shamanism have sprung up like flowers after desert rain. Here, I consider that a core, or pure Shamanism, underlies ancient forms found in the East, and suggest that this great tradition has begun at last its journey to the West.
What do we mean by Shamanism? This is a question which often divides western practitioners of Shamanism from each other, and sets them at odds with traditional or indigenous shamanic cultures. In my view, taken from the words of indigenous shamans, there is a core Shamanism which is rooted in Mind and its ability to manipulate reality through manipulating Symbol.
Shamanism, quantum physics and the emerging medical field of neuroplasticity blend together as we find not only our Universe, but its Source, and connect to it in the subatomic lives of our DNA, of our very cells. In what has been called the Divine Matrix, in The DreamTime, and in quantum physics ancient and modern, East and West cosmologies now meet. In its journey to the West, it may be that traditional Shamanism is finding a way to articulate its ancient, magical truths to a world that is finally ready to understand them in universal terms.
In its journey to the West Shamanism has encountered depth psychology and quantum physics. This encounter opens the way for western minds to understand Shamanism as a powerful paradigm forming a bridge between mind and body, between psychology and spirituality, and above all, linking humanity and the cosmos.
Carl G. Jung serves as a living example of the Shaman’s role – all cultures – as a bridge between worlds, for it is his work, embracing insights from psychiatry, alchemy, modern physics, astrology, and Eastern thought, which placed Shamanism in a context which can be understood by the western mind. Remarkably, his closest friends referred to Jung “the Shaman.”
Shamansim, at its core, has powerful, universal, transformative features which seem to be natural functions of the human psyche/higher Mind. Yet it remains doubtful if all human beings can be Shamans. In Indigenous traditions, only a small number appear and these are usually called (often against their will), unlike the many eager participants showing up for western courses in shamanism. Most indigenous shamans embrace their role after a struggle, because of serious mental and/or physical illnesses which seem to be overcome only by accepting the demanding work of “shamanizing.”
Usually those called come from a genetic line of shamans, supporting the idea that shamanism is grounded in Body/Mind attributes which cannot simply be acquired in the kinds of courses in Shamanism currently offered in the West. As in the East, western shamans may find they are called by a series of life circumstances and health conditions to find their destiny in a kind of work for which there is no real counterpart as yet in western medical or scientific understanding.
It may even be that shamanizing, for most, is too demanding as a personal or community practice without leaning heavily on costume, ritual, drumming, and community belief in order to survive the severe challenges of Mind in such a unique and lonely role. For some, however, Shamanism beckons as a personal way of life which, as Carl Jung found, is not entirely voluntary, even when discovered and accepted as a private solitary path.
Why Shamanism At All, For the West?
In my writing about spiritual and psychological life, I often refer to shamanism and to acts, events, or moments that I call shamanic. Why do I do this? Why do westerners like myself want to import the exotic concepts of Shamanism into mental health and spiritual practices?
The answer lies in the fact that so many western practices – both in psychology and in spiritual life – have proved only partially successful in helping us live our daily lives and help others to do the same. We have turned increasingly to other cultures for inspiration, and in the encounter with Shamanism, quickly realized that Shamanism not only has unique practices but actually names phenomena which have found no conceptual expression in Western thought.
A great deal of our psychological and spiritual experience has slipped through the nets of western theories, and as a result, remained out of therapeutic reach.
As a professional psychic, dreamwork leader, astrologer, lay student of psychology, and practitioner of Carl Jung’s “Active Imagination” for over 40 years, I came to see that Shamanism was the only named tradition which both described and to some extent explained the dynamic transformations of energy at play in the interior life.
We are involved in dramatic action, not mere contemplation, when we make connections with our unconscious in waking or hypnagogic states. We travel back to important moments of critical emotional events, arising from one or more kinds of real-life events, and these are still amenable – from the platform of the Present – to the healing and transformational properties of the Mind.The subpersonalities which Carl Jung described can be detected in psychic readings and dream work, and they do appear to siphon off and deploy our energy, and even subvert our life plans, without our knowledge…I came to believe that in working with these parts of the Psyche we engage in dynamic integrative processes which only the Shamanic concept of soul retrieval truly names – and thus identifies – so that we can set out on a more or less coherent path of growth through self-knowledge and judicious adjustments within the Psyche.
And, as a former academic, with an M.A. and 2 years in a Ph.D. program in Political Science, matching theories to reality seems vital to me. If Western traditions do not provide theories or therapies to detect and heal or even celebrate our inner lives, isn’t it time we adopted the one notable tradition – Shamanism – that seems to do this quite well?
Stripped to an essence which I believe revolves around all levels of Mind, (conscious, unconscious, and Higher Mind or Soul) the great undisputed strength of Shamanism is its observed, natural origin within the human Psyche and, as it turns out, the language of the Psyche is Symbol. Dreams, visions, music, art, and above all synchronicity, all communicate vital messages to us via symbolic, not spoken, language…
The Nature of Indigenous Shamanism * The Training
Traditional Shamanism, such as found in some (but not all) Australian, Siberian, South American, Eskimo, and North American indigenous cultures, features heavily ritualized elements and practice. These include masks, dancing, sacred tools, mind-altering substances, drumming, trance, animal and human spirit “allies”, and magical yet real journeys undertaken to heal and to effect desired outcomes far from the Shaman’s home base.
Traditional Shamanism has a strong focus on travels to dark and frightening realms to rescue lost souls or to aid them in their passage through death. The Shaman’s world in most cultures is one of Good and Evil, of the Dark and the Light.
Most Shamans learn their craft in long (10 years or more) apprenticeships under the intimate guidance of another Shaman, culminating in a critical rite of passage and initiation. All apprentice training, like shamanic practice itself, carries inherent physical, mental and spiritual risk. Great physical and psychological courage is required to endure the privations of ritual and journey, as well as assaults from dark, or evil forces.
Some western Shamans have made long and arduous personal journeys to serve their time apprenticed to a traditional Shaman. They strongly resist the idea that a Shaman can be born in any other way. They – and Elders of traditional societies – look at books and workshops in the West about “urban Shamanism” or “core Shamanism” and are offended at what seems to be a shallow rip-off of a sacred, and hard-won identity.
They say it is impossible to uproot Shamanism from its traditional rich matrix, that no one can become a Shaman unless born, or immersed for decades, within a shamanic culture to which they are then called in ways they dare not refuse.
Often, the head of a western Shamanism institute is someone who has personally been initiated by a traditional Shaman – or at least, with all due respect, he or she says this training took place. However, the training of apprentices is done in western settings using techniques which may mimic but can never more than approximate the actual apprenticeship of many years to a Shaman in Peru, or Siberia.
The Extraordinary, Even Unbalanced, Personality
A western Shaman, even if trained in the traditional way, cannot replicate the rough-hewn persona of the traditional Shaman who is often a feared, mysterious and lone figure.
The haughty aloofness and disinterest in training others informs the mystique of the traditional Shaman. This is a posture or psychological disposition quite alien to western psychiatry or ideals of spiritual mentorship.
Yet it is a fact that Masters in many traditions, for example Zen Buddhism, and Hinduism, do cultivate an aloof, enigmatic persona as part of the training of disciples. Stern treatment, even outright rejection, seem part of traditional Teacher-Student bonding and initiatory practice.
It is also true that in every indigenous culture, the one called to be a Shaman appears to be someone who, in the beginning at least, is suffering from serious, even severe personality and mental strain. Some leave their communities and live alone in deserted areas, while the community waits to see if the “exile” will receive a calling and return as a more balanced, still unusually powerful, charismatic, personality. Carl G. Jung’s reported experiences would suggest schizophrenia to many western psychiatrists; his near-death experiences, his Red Book mandalas and musings therein might be seen as the work of a desperate, troubled mind.
Many researchers have noted that it seems that the “cure” for these various disorders lies only in accepting their integration in, and thus transformation through, what the culture understands to be the identity and role of the Shaman. And indeed, Carl Jung seems to be the perfect example of one who struggled in silent anguish with his emerging gifts of mind and personality, recognizing he had only one road to health and that was to find a way to integrate all that he was in the process of becoming.
Seldom is this journey to Shamanism reported in the West, even by those who label themselves shamans after undertaking training in an indigenous setting. By way of contrast, western cultures fear personality derangement the way indigenous cultures fear demons.
In the West, we demonize “the loner” – we don’t see him or her as a potential Shaman with a possible mission as doctor to the community. In fact, it has become the usual practice of the media to pin most public crimes, where possible, on these “loners”.
We do not look to people suffering mental illness, much less social isolation, as even potential healers, even when we refrain from wanting to lock them up. We want our counselors and healers to demonstrate – through long academic and institution-based training – how “together” and well-balanced they are, before we entrust ourselves to their care.
It is interesting, in that context, to note how high the suicide rate is among psychiatrists in the West, suggesting that the risk for the would-be healer of the Psyche is high in any culture. It seems clear that the tradition of healing in the West is failing the healers and that likely has a great deal to do with why we are failing the sick.
It would therefore be tempting to say that westerners simply cannot and should not try to become Shamans, much less try to teach Shamanism to others. We simply do not have the cultural or personal tolerance for the extreme, even bizarre personality types who seem best suited to channel “the gifts of the Shaman”.
Yet there are two reasons why this would be wrong, and why it would be healthier for the West to cast off its prejudices and embrace Shamanism in westernized forms which make room for culture-challenging indigenous features;
Sending Forth A Call
First, Shamanism seems to have come to the West as if it were “sent” as a gift to our civilization. It is the latest gift to travel a still-living Silk Road to the heart of the West.
Just as key elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Zen have come in successive waves to renew a weary, post-modern West, so Shamanism has touched a chord in the Western soul. At the grass-roots cultural level in the West, it is impossible to ignore the rising tide of interest and apparent value gained in shamanic explorations. Across the Internet, blogs and websites featuring Shamanism have sprung up like flowers after desert rain.
In fact, Shamanism actually appears to come looking for those who are open to spiritual growth . Is it not possible that, in its spiritual poverty, the West has been calling at an unconscious level, for the Spirit of Shamanism? And what might Shamanism have to gain, in its encounter with the West?
There is a precedent here, in the arrival of the I Ching – in its first full-dress, academic appearance – in the West. On the first major translation of the Chinese I Ching or Book of Changes for publication in the West, Carl Jung was asked to write the forward. He did so, and in the forward, he posed the question in the formal manner to the I Ching as to how it felt about its journey to the West:
Thus it occurred to me that it might interest the uninitiated reader to see the I Ching at work. For this purpose I made an experiment strictly in accordance with the Chinese conception: I personified the book in a sense, asking its judgment about its present situation, i.e., my intention to present it to the Western mind. (Carl Jung, Forward to the I Ching)
It strikes me that we need Jung here now, to consult in an equally ceremonial manner with the Spirit of Shamanism. Yet perhaps it is enough, for the moment, that it feels as if Shamanism has come to the West in the same spirit as have the monks of Tibetan Buddhism and the Yogis of India – in love, and with offerings of Light.
Certainly it is not uncommon for people (like myself) to go from having no interest at all in Shamanism for most of their life, to finding themselves interacting in meditation, dreams, synchronicities with animal allies and other phenomena associated exclusively with shamanic traditions. Shamanism itself seems above the controversy about its arrival in the West, sending out its own warm sun and soft rains to those who have upturned faces.
A second reason for the West to open its arms to Shamanism is that even in its westernized forms shamanism works. Many people find that dramatic events in their spiritual life, often tied to remarkable psychological changes, are not explained or even recognized by traditional religions, psychiatry or psychology. They are, however, described quite clearly in books and articles about Shamanism.
On welcoming these shamanic ideas and techniques into their lives, people feel an awakening not achieved in their traditional religion, New Age beliefs, yoga or Buddhist meditation. For the first time, something comes alive within, truly healing, truly life-giving. There is a thrill, a quickening, a sense of connection at a level almost too deep for words, with our origins, the place where Creation begins.
Shamanism is a growing subculture at all levels of society in the West. It appears to be infiltrating paradigm after paradigm as a way of seeing, and as a way of transforming. From conflict resolution to education, psychotherapy and physical healing, professionals in many fields find that Shamanism – even removed from its traditional cultural matrix – triggers dynamic psychic action which actually transforms.
This begs the question then – how “adulterated” can westernized Shamanism be if it works at least as well for westerners as it does in its pure forms in traditional societies?
A New Paradigm
A new paradigm of shamanism for the West would recognize that traditional Shamanism emerged as a natural and spontaneous expression of the human psyche and its relationship to the cosmos in which it is embedded. However, rather than mimic indigenous forms, a new western shamanism would do what the West does best – come to grips with the essential scientific and metaphysical nature of Shamanism and what this tells us about humanity and its relationship to the universe.
Indeed, it may be time to risk the boldness of questioning ancient forms of Shamanism – might it be less than it could be? Has it in many times and places congealed around form, at the risk of substance? Does it need to be in tension with science, or is it time for Shamanism to move on? If Shamanism has made its journey to the West, it may be seeking – as revealed in Jung’s answer from the I Ching – its own rejuventation.
For the spiritual power of Shamanism, I think, does not lie in forms but in what the forms concealed and transmitted.
In recognizing the Psyche as a bridge to the Soul, Shamanism opens portals within the Psyche through which the Soul, in the form of the Higher Self, enters worlds not bound by Space or Time. These worlds have been called by many names in all cultures: The DreamTime, the Fourth Dimension, the Source Dimension, the Divine Matrix, and so on.
It was described by the sages of India long ago, and is reached in the “Quantum Healing” described by Deepak Chopra; it is the “place” (really a state) which is where advanced Yogis speak of cleansing the samskara, or karmic traces, from one’s very cells. In Islam, long before Carl Jung made Active Imagination a common term in depth psychology, Avicenna described the imaginal realm beyond space and time where Reality itself can be created.
Here, where all is connected, and indeed where Mind and Matter are One, the Soul moves freely in Symbol, its natural language. Here the Soul locates the master Templates in which alchemical changes can be made. In these great Flights, the Soul is transported – when it is ready – on wings of its own, though all traditions speak of the presence of Allies who seem to be natural beings, though in their Archetypal energy forms, such as Buffalo, Wolf, Eagle, Bear, and so on.
I suggested earlier that if Carl Jung were here now, he might have asked Shamanism directly, as he did with the I Ching, how it felt about coming to the West. It occurs to me that Shamanism might have answered thus: “I come to the West to find Myself anew.”
© Carol Leigh Rice 2016, Revised 2021
Further Thoughts: In Animal Allies and Helping Spirits * When Shamanism Enters Your Life, I explore the experience of Shamanism actually coming into one’s life without seeking it. This is the way it usually happens in indigenous cultures, so seems to be a very valid path. This may happen as a result of encountering “Power Animals” or Animal Allies, along with “helping spirits”, elements which traditional, indigenous shamanism is noted for but which may seem alien to those immersed in western culture, with its religious aversion to such “pagan” beliefs.