In my previous post, I began talking about the differences between neo-shamanism and spiritual work. The blog this week will likely contain a few things that may be more controversial, but are necessary to talk about:
Let’s start with a big one: the “S” word.
In traditional and indigenous cultures, it would be considered disrespectful to announce oneself as a shaman. This is because it is a title that is given not only due to a calling, but because the shaman fulfills a vital role for the community.
To put this into perspective, I will do a crass simplification here. Say you want to be a firefighter. You get the miniature truck and play with it, you watch a few movies or TV shows about what a firefighter does. You even go to the day where you can sit in the truck and meet firefighters and put on their hat. But without the training to become a firefighter, and without actually serving the community by going and putting out some fires and assisting some folks, you really aren’t a firefighter.
To take this even further, someone who has been a firefighter for ten or twenty years will have a depth of experience and knowledge that someone who has just finished training will not have.
There is the unavoidable issue that what most people call shamanism amounts to someone getting a miniature fire truck and saying vroom while playing in their bedroom and calling themselves a firefighter.
There is a saying by Ida Rolf (creator of Rolfing) that she wished that people with less than five years of full time experience (post-training, to be clear) wouldn’t call themselves Rolfers because what they are doing isn’t Rolfing yet. This same thought applies to spiritual work, which takes a considerable degree of experience to get decent at.
Similarly, Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery at something. These thoughts are understandably not popular with the neo-shamanic crowd, as the idea of being “advanced” quickly and without much effort are pretty prevalent. The idea that it may be several lifetimes of continual work to fulfill a shamanic duty or calling would be upsetting, at the very least.
Spiritual work is difficult, dangerous, and the calling often puts one and their family at risk. It is typical for there to be a period of grieving and even anger at having this calling, and the intensive amount of training and initiation that is required to become one.
One of the larger ways that I can tell that someone is called to spiritual work is that there is this anger and grief, along with feelings of not being in control (due to being called and seemingly having no choice in the decision). There are also often struggles with feeling insane due to seeing and experiencing so much beyond what society deems to be normal. In the modern world, there is also a feeling of ridiculousness and disbelief at having a “spiritual calling” due to mainstream society being fairly mechanistic and physically-oriented.
In contrast, neo-shamanism has largely changed the “s” word into a title that anyone, no matter what training, education, or natural inclination, can and should acquire. It is perceived as something that makes someone special or superior, and is utilized as a way to provide meaning for past experiences of illness or feelings of being different than others.
Feeling separate is one of our primary wounds, or something that all people experience (consciously or not). We desire to feel special because we have experienced so much that has told us that we are not special. We look for meaning and significance in our illness, and the neo-shamanic movement provides easy answers or a “calling” for anyone and everyone who has these wounds. But these are human wounds (although they are spiritual), and it is by understanding that everyone has them, and has experienced them, that we can move through them.
Shamans are Mentally Unwell
There is a perception that because spiritual workers think differently and “see through” (more on this later) that they are mentally ill… or that conversely, everyone struggling with psychosis or mental illness is secretly a shaman.
The capacity of spiritual workers to see beyond, to see incisively and differently than most of the population may be seen as “insane” by those who are only capable of seeing and sensing material existence, but there is differentiation here that is necessary.
If someone is not functional in their daily lives, dealing with delusions or wounding patterns, it is a result of trauma, mental shattering, and soul loss… and is not in and of itself a calling to be a spiritual worker. Even if someone is “called” or has some shamanic capacity, dealing with personal trauma to be able to clearly see (and not see through the filter of a fractured mind) is essential.
Even in societies in which there is a natural understanding towards disability or “otherness” meaning an inclination towards spiritual capacity or “sight”, there still is a training and evaluation period to see if the person does in fact have this capacity.
Spiritual workers for the most part tend to actually be saner than most of the population. They have to be to be able to be immersed in other realms/worlds/realities and to interact in a balanced way spiritually. It takes a great deal of sanity and remarkable embodiment as well as grounding to be an effective spiritual worker. Most spiritual workers tend to be pretty embodied and have an “earthy” quality to them that comes from deep grounding and relationship with the Earth.
This is a far cry from some of the ideas of spiritual workers being wounded, fractured, and disassociated. The idea that someone who doesn’t want to deal with their body or life can simply travel elsewhere is immensely appealing, and this tendency or belief in neo-shamanism can mean that people who are struggling with trauma and forms of psychosis (as well as mental fracturing) do not receive the help that they need, and perpetuates a new-age mythology surrounding “ascension”.
The reason that discernment and sight are so important for the spiritual worker (especially the modern day one) is because when you are working with clients (or even doing your own self-help work) that there is a huge difference between someone dealing with a dark spirit that is internal (part of the self that has been neglected or fractured), archetypal, thoughts projected, and an actual dark spirit that is external. This is why having a spiritual calling, the training period that is required, and the sight that is required for the job is so important.
Mental Fracturing and Present Day Spiritual Practice
There is an unfortunate belief that there “is no such thing as mental illness”. There is also a thought of “shaman being the first psychologists” (Krippner, I believe). There is no denying that this work is powerful at working through emotions, beliefs, and traumas.
This is also born out of the understanding that in traditional cultures that there are varying thoughts of mental illness, or that all mental illness is spiritual in origin. While I certainly agree that all things are spiritual in origin technically, in our modern world we are divorced from the earth to the extent that we are either completely disassociated from our bodies, or are just in our heads (our mental “body”), and we lack the connections to our fellow humans that allow us to heal in community.
In modern-day society, there is a lot of purely mental work that goes into the practice (and is why spiritual workers tend to now work “with” people, as unless the person mentally works through the process, they tend to reject the spiritual changes that have happened to some degree)
It is hard to convince people who have not worked in psych hospitals and similar situations that some people are so divorced from any form of communal reality or are fractured to the extent that what they need is mental help, not spiritual. It is also an understandable hope for people who are struggling, or who have a family member or friend who is struggling, with significant mental illness that they are secretly a “shaman”: it can bring hope to a situation that is incredibly difficult to traverse.
The muddling of the spiritual with the psychological has delineated the boundaries a bit too far– it would be an ideal society in which people would refer to the appropriate professionals. To recognize spiritual awakening or shamanic sickness and refer to a spiritual worker… to differentiate that from someone who may need mental health support and “light” spiritual work from perhaps a therapist trained in neo-shamanism and its visualizations… to the people who are struggling with psychosis and delusions that threated their safety and make them non-functional in their lives and get them the help that they need.
Focus on Spiritual Relationships
Moving to something slightly less abstract, I will say that spiritual relationships are quite different in spiritual practice vs. neo-shamanic traditions. I went over some of this in part one (the idea of dominion or indentured servitude, the understanding that spirits are not these one-dimensional beings with no personality only interested in working how and where you want), but I am going to be a bit more simplistic here.
Neo-shamanic practices largely focus on “power animals”. This is in no doubt due to Michael Harner being the sort of godfather of the neo-shamanic movement (which is odd, as he would state some of the same things I do, and I know this because I have asked him a few questions before).
In contrast, most spiritual workers that I know focus on ancestral relationships. This is often first and foremost.
Our ancestors form the basis of spiritual work, and hold the power of our lineage. They care for us and have considerable power and spiritual capabilities.
I do believe that the focus on power animals is a way to take the “spirit” out of spiritual practice– as it is easy to put traits and ideas, as well as to feel compassion, for an animal (popular fuzzy cat videos, for example), while if we introduce the idea of working with spirits the thoughts of control and ideas about dominion and safety start to go out the window.
The funny aspect of this is that in my own experience of “power animals” is that they are not safe– they connect us to our “inner wild” and our power. Meeting and finding, or having a “power animal” stalk you for a period of time, can be something of a frightening experience, especially if it involves a dismemberment.
What is Shamanism?
While talking about this word I will say that there are different camps. There are those who believe that shamans are only Siberian (Tungus/where the word originated from), there are those who believe that shamanism and the term “shaman” can be represented by a specific set of spiritual practices, and then those who believe that any form of spiritual contact, or anyone who is in the role of being intermediary between the spirit realms and the physical realms, is doing shamanic work (or that all spiritual work emerged from a shamanic past).
The spiritual practices that are considered “shamanic” have to do with being an intermediary between the physical and spiritual realms… but it also has to do with “spirit flight”. Basically this means that the shaman travels (or journeys) to the “other” (the spiritual realms) in order to interact with and heal spiritual difficulties or imbalances. There also is the concept of the “hollow bone” and of trance states (allowing energy and spirit(s) to “ride” or work through the shaman) that are also utilized. This is of course a simplistic, one-paragraph explanation.
By contrast, practices that are more mediumistic (for example, Spiritism) typically work with the understanding that the spiritual is all around us, and that it can be worked with in this reality (basically, not going anywhere). So this would make a lot of folk practices, Native American practices, and Peruvian practices (I mention these both as they have been taken up as “shamanism” by the neo-shamanic movements) technically not shamanic.
Animism and Shamanism
We have been so separated from the natural world that the idea that there are entire cultures that are animistic, or who do not separate the spiritual from the physical, is often missed. To be simple, all spiritual workers are animists… but not all animists are spiritual workers.
Animism is the belief that this world is vitally alive, that everything has spirit, and a sort of flow through it. Anyone can tap into this understanding (if they are ready to, as it requires moving past a materialistic and mechanistic version of “reality” to do so), and can work with spirit.
In cultures that have not separated their folk practices, every day magic, and animistic practices from their physical reality, it is quite common for people to be animists and to work with a variety of household and personal spirits. However, the depth of what can be achieved, and the basic power for working with larger forces, or providing clarity to spiritual situations through developed sight, as well as the trance states, spirit flight/visit to “other” and hollow bone-type qualifications would largely be the realm of the spiritual worker.
The good news about this is that while not everyone is called to the daily practices, training, and rigor that is required to become a spiritual worker, that many people can interact with the spiritual realms as an animistic universe in profound and life-affirming ways.
If more people realized that we are not separate from the Earth, from one another, and that the world and everything in it is vitally alive and filled with spirit, we would stop our unconscious “taking” of things, and learn to live a more harmonious, peaceful life. I do think that neo-shamanism is a good introduction to practices like this. My basic point in all of this series of blogs is that there is a lot more under the surface, and if you are looking for more than surface practices, or are actually called to be of service to your community spiritually, that different training and experiences are necessary. My other point would be for some of you, who are willing, to reconsider your relationship to the spiritual realms and open or expand your beliefs a bit, but I understand that that often only happens with personal readiness.
Next week I will talk about the “Wounded Healer” concept, shamanic illness, and what spiritual workers do in their work. I will end this series (yes, it turned into a four-part series) talking about the “inner wild”, which is one of the most (if not the most) important concept to understand that differentiates neo-shamanism from spiritual work.