The Eight Characteristics of Shamanism

I’m often asked “what is shamanism?” and it’s companion question, “what do you do?” I recently re-discovered this article by Joan Forest Mage. I don’t know her or even where this article was originally published, but I do believe it addresses those questions pretty well!

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As a contemporary shaman living in the urban setting of Chicago, people often ask me, “What is shamanism?” and “How is shamanism different from other forms of meditation and energy work such as Reiki, chi gung, prayer or creative visualization?”

Shamanism is an ancient form of spiritual healing that has been practiced by virtually every culture in the world throughout all of human history. Some people think of it as the origin of all other forms of spiritual expression and energy work. Your image of shamanism may be of indigenous peoples drumming, singing and dancing in rituals to create healing. There are cave paintings in Europe created 40,000 years ago which depict shamanic-style healing rituals, and it’s likely that shamanic practices are even older than that.

Many people think shamanism is exclusively a Native American tradition, but it is actually found all over the world. In fact, the word shaman comes from the Tungus tribe of Siberia. Shamanic practices are well known in India, Korea, Africa, Britain, and Australia, among many other places. Both men and women throughout the ages have been shamans.

Shamanic healing works on the principle of restoring the vital energy, or soul. The classic example is when an individual has lost parts of his or her soul due to traumatic events in life such as accidents, major illness, physical, sexual or emotional abuse or the loss of a loved one. To remedy this, the shamanic practitioner performs a soul retrieval healing, by doing a shamanic “journey” meditation to find and return lost parts of the client’s energy (“soul parts”).

However, shamanic healing is not limited to soul retrieval, or only to the healing of the individual person. It also includes mending the broken ties of community on every level: within human society, with nature and with the spirit realm. This may mean restoring the connection an individual has to her body; encouraging a dialogue among the various soul parts within an individual; introducing a person to his spirit guides; connecting a client to the “more-than-human” matrix of Nature; or helping a person find her expressive “voice” through singing and dancing.

Shamanism shares many traits with other forms of prayer and energy work, but we can identify eight characteristic ways of working in shamanic work. Not every shaman works with all of them, but the more of the “eight” you see in a practitioner’s work, the more that practitioner is shamanic in his or her approach.

The Eight Characteristics of Shamanism

  1. Working with spirit realm and spirit guides – in shamanic cosmology, the world is filled with spiritual beings and energies: angels, ancestors, totem, animals, gods, goddesses, and nature spirits. These helpful spirits guide us to healing and wisdom.
  2. Purpose of shamanic work is to solve problems in daily life – shamanic work is not about simply having visions of the spirit realm, but to help self and others gain healing and wisdom in our daily lives.
  3. Work with soul – shamanism heals the soul or vital essence of individuals, human society and nature. Through healing and restoring this spiritual power, many physical, mental and emotional issues are resolved.
  4. Travel out of body – shamanic work involves “journeying” out of body into the spirit realm to work with the spirit guides for healing and guidance.
  5. Grounded in nature – the shamanic practitioner gratefully utilizes the powers of nature for healing, transformation and restoration energy and to stay grounded in the physical plane.
  6. Grounded in body (cathartic work) – shamanic work is not just about having visions, but also addresses feelings within the body” what psychologists would call psychosomatic issues.
  7. Utilize expressive arts – shamans throughout the ages have used singing, dancing, drumming and visual art as ways of expressing their visions and creating healing.
  8. Face shadow side – shamanic work is not afraid to confront the shadow side, drawing out anger, sadness, fear, etc. to create cathartic healing.

Shamanism originated in a time when people lived close to nature. They allowed energies of nature and of emotions to flow through the body, creating transformation. Thus shamanism tends to deal with the energy “in the moment,” often in a physically expressive way such as the arts. The ultimate goal of shamanic work is helping the individual, human society, nature and the spirit realm to come back into a state of balance and increased wholeness.

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